As government intervention to date has done little to stymie the conflict surrounding the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, a Senator from New Jersey is calling for an investigation into “all credible reports of inappropriate police tactics” that have been used against pipeline protestors in North Dakota. Senator Cory Booker sent a letter to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who heads the US Department of Justice, demanding they conduct a civil rights investigation into allegations of violence against both law enforcement as well as the protestors, who are chiefly composed of Native Americans. He also urged Lynch to send federal monitors to the site “to ensure that protestors can peacefully assemble and exercise their First Amendment rights.”
Booker is not the first Senator to speak out about the increasingly dangerous situation in North Dakota, though he is the first to call for an outright investigation into law enforcement behavior at the site. In October, four Senators – Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Edward Markey (D-MA) – sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to require a full environmental impact statement regarding the pipeline’s crossing of the Missouri River that would consult local native tribes, namely the Sioux. Other Senators have stood behind the pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, such as both of North Dakota’s senators, John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp. Both have questioned the lawfulness of the protests and Hoeven has urged the President to augment the already massive law enforcement presence at the site.
All credible reports indicate, however, that much of the police response to the protestors has been unnecessarily violent and inappropriate. Booker, in his letter, cites several of this instances, including the use of tear gas, concussion grenades, mace, and rubber bullets – often aimed at protestors’ faces and legs – as well as the spraying of protestors with water cannons in temperatures below freezing. He also mentioned the widely shared video that showed private security guards unleashing attack dogs on protestors, leaving six injured including a small child. Booker also touched on the “degrading and inhumane” treatment arrested protestors have suffered at the county jail, such as confinement in kennel cages, being stripped naked, and being physically marked with numbers.
Booker also spoke about his concern for the safety of law enforcement officers at Standing Rock, in what is possibly an attempt to be fair to both parties involved. However, compared to the examples Booker cited of the abuse protestors have allegedly suffered, his mention that “at least one police officer was hit in the head by a rock” as proof that police are in danger is laughable. Yet, Booker is right in his assessment that the US is now at “a critical moment” regarding police and community relations. He writes that “it is vital that we not erode trust between law enforcement and the communities they police.” Unfortunately for Booker and law enforcement officers around the country, that trust for many communities throughout the nation eroded long ago and the oppression of protestors at Standing Rock has only made it worse.
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