Reporter Observes: First Amendment Arrested at Standing Rock


Eric Poemz moved slowly across the hotel lobby using a walker. Eric looks far too young to be piloting a device usually associated with nursing homes. But, two days earlier four sprinting police officers tackled Eric and took him down hard onto Highway 1806 at the Standing Rock camps in North Dakota while he was doing his job as a live stream journalist. The impact smacked Eric's hip so hard on the ground that he believes it is broken. Police arrested nine other people, including journalists, in the same running charge.

Less than an hour prior to Eric's smack-down, an aide to North Dakota Governor told me that any journalist standing on Highway 1806 was safe from arrest and could continue to work. I told him "You don't want to get a phone call from me in jail." He laughed and said, "No, I don't", as if expecting that this could not happen. Two hours earlier, a North Dakota State Trooper told me it was safe for journalists to work from the highway and for our vehicles to remain parked south of the camp entrance. But when a half dozen young indigenous men walked up, carrying flags and stood still, twenty yards from the police line, everything changed. A commander from law enforcement informed everyone present that all people including journalists were immediately subject to arrest. No acts of violence, nor threats of such, occurred, just the presence and cries of young, indigenous people from the Oceti Sakowin Camp. That is all it took to provoke the police reaction.

If police threaten journalists with arrest while covering a story, and give them no place from which they can see and record the story, then that is official censorship. With the growing antagonism of the White House attitude to the press, we are witnessing a threat to all journalists. Journalists covering controversial stories increasingly experience authorities ignoring the rules, norms, and laws of our democracy, replacing them with ad hoc rules of their own creation and constantly moving goal posts. This same treatment that independent and non-white journalists have long experienced may have now been extended to the bastions of mainstream media. CNN now faces the same peril as independent indigenous journalists and people of color

While Eric Poemz lay on the ground in pain, the police accused him of faking it. His phone had skittered off across the ground in the attack, but it was still transmitting a signal. One of the Sheriffs picked it up and put it in his pocket, where it continued to record. Another Sheriff walked up to Eric as he lay on the ground and said that finally they had stopped him from running down Morton County. A radio voice comes on and tells the Sheriffs that they have a live phone recording of their conversation. The Sheriff who had picked up the phone removes it from his pocket and hits the Facebook button "Finish", and the conversation inadvertently went out to the world.

Front line journalism at Standing Rock is a far cry from the carpeted comfort of a White House press briefing. But it wasn't even 36 hours after we had to sprint to avoid a police charge attempting to censor our work that The New York Times, CNN, Politico and The Los Angeles Times were barred from a presidential press briefing. Are they related? Of course they are.

The events unfolding in North Dakota between August and the present have been unprecedented; the largest gathering of tribes in US history, and the arrival of tens of thousands of supporters had slowed, and almost killed a $4 billion dollar oil pipeline. The constantly shifting, frequently aggressive tactics and rules of law enforcement reminded many observers of Alabama in 1960, not the United States of the 21st Century. But what we may have once considered as the behavior of an outlier, may now be the harbinger of a new normal with the arrival and actions of a new administration in the White House.

The day after police threw live-streamer Eric Poemz to the ground and arrested him, law enforcement entered the Oceti Sakowin Camp to arrest the last residents. Sheriffs and National Guard troops crouched behind slow moving Humvees, automatic weapons drawn, looking for unarmed resistors, entering tipis as if it were Iraq in 2003. Only two "pool cameras" were allowed on-site by the police. That afternoon I encountered the CNN broadcast truck, parked on a dirt road leading to a bluff overlooking this scene a mile south of the invaded camp. As in the White House, CNN had been excluded by authorities from covering the story. Talking to the driver out the window of my vehicle I said, "They don't want a free press, they want an obedient press." He laughed and I drove away.

Why do they want obedience? In the case of Standing Rock, the state of North Dakota is backing a private company against a group of its own citizens. They have arrayed the full power of the state on behalf of an oil pipeline company. At no point did North Dakota give the indigenous people the same rights to object to this pipeline as the white residents of Bismarck, ND, who rejected the same pipeline from crossing their water supply. The state then ignored its own laws about corporate ownership of farmland and allowed the pipeline company to purchase the 5,000 plus acre ranch where the pipeline goes under the Missouri River. The state ignored the Treaty of 1851 and 1868 that states clearly that this land actually belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux. So now state and federal authorities have done their best to prevent cameras from recording a massive, tax payer funded military style operation to forcibly remove unarmed Native American grandmothers and their allies from land that they legitimately feel is theirs,

In places where the power of the government has forged alliances with powerful corporations, such as Standing Rock, both journalism and the First Amendment are on the verge of becoming enemies of the state.

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