“The police are highly militarized.”

This recent text sent by a close relative at Standing Rock confirms the images we’ve been seeing from the #NoDAPL #StandingRock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. On the evening of Nov. 20, local police with armored vehicles fired at water protectors and their allies with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and percussion grenades; hundreds were injured, and several taken to the hospital. Because of the frigid overnight temperatures in the region, medics at the scene were concerned that the use of water cannons would result in severe medical emergencies or even deaths among the members of the encampment.

Once again we are at the crux of legitimate protests (in this case stemming from serious claims about environmental justice and justice to the Standing Rock Sioux – both central elements of Catholic social teaching as Pope Francis affirmed in Laudato Si, #146), private corporate interest, and the use of police and military force to address the situation. The fall of 2011 saw law enforcement dismantling Occupy Wall Street encampments throughout the nation, while various #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations from Ferguson to Baltimore have faced similar confrontation by law enforcement. In all these cases law enforcement clearly prioritized protection of private property – Wall Street buildings, shops in Baltimore and elsewhere. The protection of police officers’ or bystanders’ lives against imminent deadly threats was less clear and more doubtful.

Today the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota is putting its muscle for the protection of access to land by the companies building the Dakota Access Pipeline. And while preliminary permits were issued for the construction of the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is arguing that more thorough studies would reflect a clear threat from the project to their water source. This is in addition to concerns about whether the construction disturbs Native American sacred land. Shouldn’t the lives of people who regard this water as holy or who drink this water be important enough to give them more time? Time may be money in this society, but human persons possess inherent value that ought to trump time, oil, and dollars. Yet, we are now coming up against a Dec. 5 evacuation order from the Army Corps of Engineers to the water protectors and allies (Dec. 5 is also the birthday of General George Custer). The order states that the specific area where the protesters’ camp is located is not safe, mainly because it does not provide easy access to emergency personnel and services. And yet the police are already there, one would hope, to provide first-response care for anyone in need in an emergency. After all, they are sworn officers who are pledged to serve and protect others.

The history of the nation repeatedly reveals the rapid resort to military force for the protection of U.S. government interests. Whether in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror, we can listen to alternative voices on the relationship between Native Americans, the U.S. government, and law enforcement. Frequently, military incursions into Native American territory were done in the name of a corporate interest that had appealed to the U.S. government for weapons against the rightful claim to land. The relationship between the use of force for the establishment of order and corporate interests being represented by the government is a tangled and messy system that is vividly on display today at Standing Rock.

In light of this tangled relationship between government and oil corporate interests with respect to the Dakota Access Pipeline (one that now includes financial interests for President-elect Donald Trump), we must seriously question the use of force as a form of policing a peaceful and legitimate protest. These entanglements are quite damaging to democracy, as well as threatening to the integrity and dignity of those who are protesting. Will we ever be able to disentangle corporate interests from the use of military force?

The ongoing militarization of the government’s responses to protests in the past five years since the Occupy movement raises the question of whether there is a legitimate role for law enforcement – even the National Guard – that does not violate the just war criterion of excessive and disproportionate force and that might even play a peacekeeping or mediating role in situations such as we’re seeing at Standing Rock. A number of law enforcement programs and districts are having success in negotiating these demands through the establishment of de-escalation training and principles in their ranks. By putting in place strategies that de-escalate the need for force either from the protesters or law enforcement space is opened for negotiations and resolution.

And yet de-escalation as peacekeeping and mediation only works when the parties involved agree to entertain conversation about the crisis at hand. In the case of the Standing Rock protests, the non-violent removal of all protesters and renewing the construction of the pipeline would not represent successful de-escalation as peacekeeping. De-escalation as peacekeeping would have to guarantee the integrity of the protesters, law enforcement, construction workers, and other parties, as they struggle together to reach a satisfactory agreement. It would mean opening up safe space to hear grievances, and come up with alternatives.

In a report, Promising Practices in Tribal Community Policing, issued on Nov. 3, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) called for focusing on serving and respecting the community, enhancing trust and participation, and building partnerships to resolve problems — by all police and not only those police agencies within tribal territories. This is in sync with the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Report. Ahead of possible clashes this weekend as a result of the Dec. 5 evacuation deadline, thousands of veterans have committed to traveling to Standing Rock to serve as non-violent human shields so that civilian protesters will not be harmed. The expectation is that we might see a repeat of the violent law enforcement tactics that were unleashed on Nov. 20. As we consider how lawmakers and the White House should address the plight of the Sioux Tribe regarding those particular lands, let’s affirm conclusively that, A) military force should in no way, shape, or form be used for the protection of corporate interests, particularly over the well-being of persons, and, B) the primary goal of law enforcement in these situations ought to be de-escalation as peacekeeping for the sake of avoiding excessive and disproportionate force and for the protection of the dignity and integrity of all persons involved.

As theologians, when we think of water, baptism comes to mind, where water symbolizes life and our pledge of allegiance to God, fellow Christians, and indeed all persons. The possibility of polluting water by oil interests, and the current use of water as a weapon by police, in our view, inverts the very meaning of both water and who we are as a people.

M.T. Dávila, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School.

Tobias Winwright

Tobias Winright is a contributing writer for Sojourners, and he holds the Maeder Chair in Health Care Ethics and teaches theological ethics at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO. 

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