By Marjorie Cohn (NLG President) and Radhika Sainath (NLG Free Gaza Committee)
Attorneys with the Red Owl Legal Collective (ROLC) of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) call on North Dakota law enforcement to respect freedom of press and the First Amendment rights of Water Protectors resisting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). This comes as officers from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department unlawfully confiscated a reporter’s video equipment, and then deployed riot police on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, arresting 29 Water Protectors during a prayer gathering.
On October 8, 2016, Morton County police detained Myron Dewey, a reporter for Digital Smoke Signals, and seized a video-equipped drone owned by the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) he was using to capture footage of the ongoing DAPL construction. Mr. Dewey was not arrested at the time, but officers stated that he would be charged with harassment of DAPL workers. This follows the issuance of an arrest warrant by North Dakota authorities for journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, and the arrest of a reporter with the independent news organization Unicorn Riot covering the DAPL.
“Law enforcement’s confiscation of Mr. Dewey’s video equipment and threat to charge him with harassment are intimidation tactics attempting to chill reporting on Standing Rock,” said NLG attorney Robin Martinez working with the ROLC.
In a letter to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the NLG and ROLC called upon them to return the seized video drone, issue a public apology to Mr. Dewey, make a strong public commitment to protect First Amendment rights of journalists, and refrain from further actions targeting members of the press.
On October 10—Indigenous Peoples’ Day—hundreds assembled at the construction site where they performed religious ceremonies. They were suddenly surrounded by dozens of local and out-of-state police wielding rifles, riot gear, and a police dog. As the crowd attempted to disperse, 29 Water Protectors, including a journalist, were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing and rioting. Those participating in the prayer gathering had acted peacefully, did not endanger anyone’s safety, or interfere with any legitimate police activity.
“The peaceful struggle against this fracked crude oil pipeline is a sacred duty we are bound to uphold as Oceti Sakowin people. We are holding the line against the DAPL and its sordid attempt to put our communities and water at risk of contamination,” said Tom BK Goldtooth, IEN Executive Director and recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award. “With this duty in mind, it is deplorable that not only must we fear physical harm by the excessive use of force and inflated actions of law enforcement, we now face persecution for enacting our First Amendment rights to document the destruction of our sacred sites, record police arrests, and hold oil corporations accountable for their actions. We demand an apology for the clear disregard of those rights.”
A confluence of hundreds of Tribal representatives and allies have descended on Standing Rock, joining in efforts to resist construction of the $3.8 billion, 1,100-mile pipeline. Approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the pipeline is planned to run under the Missouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock reservation and the Tribe’s water supply. An oil spill would threaten Tribe’s culture and way of life, and endanger the 28 million other people who rely on the Missouri River for their water needs.
For democracy to work, the people must be informed by a free press and empowered to assemble. “We continue to monitor police overreach and misconduct in response to water protection activities. We are committed to assisting people who are asserting their treaty rights to determine what kind of development occurs in their territory,” said ROLC attorney Angela Bibens.
The National Lawyers Guild is dedicated to the need for basic and progressive change in the structure of our political and economic system. Through its members–lawyers, law students, jailhouse lawyers and legal workers united in chapters and committees–the Guild works locally, nationally and internationally as an effective political and social force in the service of the people.