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Viewpoint: Protest response puts North Dakota on wrong side of history

GRAND FORKS—Recent reporting and policing of Dakota Access Pipeline protests have drawn national attention to our state, most of it negative.

Nationally, U.S. citizens who've learned about the protests are aghast at the militarized zone created outside of the protest camps, and the lack of accurate and timely national media attention. Most of the accurate news coming out of the camps originates by independent media, police observers and social media.

But as a North Dakota resident, I am exposed to a barrage of negative local media reporting about the protests. The Herald and other North Dakota news outlets characterize the protests as violent, draw attention to isolated incidents for dramatization and mischaracterize the legal processes to make it appear the issue is legally resolved.

This reporting does not accurately reflect what is occurring at the camps.

In reality, a historic event is taking place: Indigenous people from all over the country and world have come together to live and rise up for their values. They care deeply about the environment and water, and see themselves as protectors of these resources for all of us.

Supporters have come to protest with them in solidarity. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asks for their treaty rights to be upheld—rights that are affirmed in our Constitution.

If these were people who had settled in the United States from another land, surely we would tell them to go home if they didn't like our way of living. We would tell them that they must adapt to our values because we were here first.

But that argument does not work so well in this case, does it?

We expect the tribal community—who have been fighting for protection of their land here for hundreds of years—to give way to our demands for commerce over environmental and cultural protection, despite their knowledge of damage to their lands at the hands of polluters and our government.

We expect that all should assume that the oil route rightly runs alongside their community because of that community's smaller population, never mind that this path significantly and disproportionately impacts American Indians.

Our papers headline the 100-plus arrests of protesters, almost exclusively for the crimes of trespassing and "engaging in a riot"—which, as far as I can tell by watching actual videos of events, mostly amount to singing, dancing, walking in solidarity or non-violently slowing down commercial work.

Arrests of reporters practicing their trade, first-hand accounts from protesters of strip-searches and overnight jail stays for misdemeanor charges, and biased media and policing make our whole state look foolish.

We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide, around the clock, officers who work in defense of the oil industry and stand in riot gear against peaceful protesters.

When I visited the Red Warrior camp, which is entirely self-policed by the campers, I felt perfectly safe. But after driving out of the camp, I felt like I had suddenly entered a war-torn nation, one where I had to pass through concrete road blocks, flood lights and streets lined by police cars.

The policing was the scary part, and I can see why local residents would feel afraid of the sudden militarization of their town.

Why does it take out-of-state media to actually go to the camps, talk to the campers and present their stories? Why is a government agency—the Morton County Sheriff's Department—allowed to run a Facebook page where it reposts only biased and negative stories that make the protests appear violent and chaotic?

I am very concerned about the negative attention that our handling of this issue brings to our state, the fiscal costs and damaged relationships this creates and the indelible mark that this will leave in history—solidifying our legacy of continued abuse of American Indians.

The Herald can do better. The Morton County Sheriff's Department can do better. We can all do better.

Sage is an assistant professor of social work at UND. The views she expresses here are her own and not necessarily those of the university.

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