Attacks on free speech


By Margaret Huang

Tribune News Service

Out on the high plains of North Dakota, a historic gathering is taking place. Thousands have come from hundreds of indigenous tribal nations in opposition to a pipeline they are concerned will endanger the water of the Missouri River – their primary water supply – and ruin ancestral land.

Also gathering are law enforcement officers from the county, state and federal levels, who are patrolling the encampments surrounding the construction site. They have a job, too: to keep the peace.

In a perfect scenario, these two goals would not be at odds with each other. The indigenous community and its allies would assemble and be heard, and the police would protect their right to do so.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing unfolding on the prairie is similar to what we at Amnesty International saw on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. Rather than having their rights protected, peaceful protesters are being confronted and treated as if they are violent criminals.

There is a difference between law enforcement reasonably protecting the public and confronting a group of people, including children, while outfitted in gear that would be more appropriate on a battlefield. Our observers saw lines of heavily armed officers and massive, military-grade vehicles when they traveled to the area. We have sent several letters to authorities expressing concern about the policing practices there, most recently when police sprayed a chemical irritant at close range at people standing in water while attempting to cross a creek near the construction site.

Presidential conventions

Contrast this approach to what our teams saw at the presidential conventions this summer. While both Cleveland and Philadelphia deployed a massive amount of law enforcement, the authorities largely managed to exercise restraint without the kind of firepower we are seeing in North Dakota. Arrests at the conventions, when they did occur, were done in an orderly fashion, sometimes with officers even helping people over a fence before methodically and calmly arresting them. While we noted that there were isolated incidents of force used, the response in North Dakota ... seems disproportionate by contrast.

Some may wish to believe that everyone in the United States enjoys the same right to free speech, regardless of their background. If only that were true. Sadly, the response to the people of the Standing Rock Sioux, like those in Ferguson and Baltimore, shows otherwise.

The tendency to silence the voices of communities of color, including indigenous people, has long and shameful roots. Treating protesters as if they were enemies in combat unnecessarily escalates tensions and has a chilling effect on free expression.

Police should do their best to empower people to peacefully exercise their right to free speech. In any large gathering, there is always the chance that a small minority will seek to escalate a peaceful assembly into a violent confrontation. But it should not be assumed at the outset that a particular group as a whole will resort to violence. Nor should tactics like tear gas and sound cannons – which have been used in North Dakota – be used to impede the rights of peaceful expression. Not only do these tactics endanger more people than they protect, they are discriminatory when used to silence an entire community.

Peaceful dissent is not a criminal act. Everyone in the United States should have the full enjoyment of their rights.

Margaret Huang is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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