The United States’ nationalistic culture continually emphasizes and protects the specific freedoms and rights its citizens were granted in the Constitution. Freedom of speech, for example, is so celebrated and ingrained in our daily lives that it reaches the point where we would be troubled—and in trouble—if it were taken away. I argue that while the freedom of assembly is one of the most important rights U.S. citizens have exercised in recent years, it is gradually being threatened by a wave of public impatience and intolerance. Protests have been used as methods of resistance within social movements and organizations for centuries and are the perfect example of behaviors the freedom of assembly protects. Recent national protests—such as those conducted by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality—are often met with aggressive police contact and suppression of assembly rights. It is this violence and aggression that draws my attention to the current treatment of Native American protestors in North Dakota.
According to National Public Radio, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other allied indigenous tribes are protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a crude oil pipeline which could disturb sacred Sioux lands and contaminate reservation drinking water. Men, women and children were attacked with pepper spray and some were bitten by guard dogs on Saturday Sept. 3 in response to growing tensions between demonstrators and private property owners.
There seems to be a trending opinion among average citizens that protests must be quiet and peaceful. If demonstrators show any signs of aggression––such as yelling at authorities or trespassing––they deserve to be suppressed and physically punished. Because the pipeline demonstrators grew to a big crowd and refused to leave the private construction site, authority challenged them. Disturbing photographs from the protest show dogs’ bared teeth, red with blood from attacking demonstrators.
The idea that private property is more important than the safety of human lives is one I struggle to comprehend. When hundreds of impassioned people organize together for a certain cause, it must be treated seriously and with respect. In this situation, simple trespassing laws allowed suppression methods to be introduced. This not only endangered the lives of the demonstrators, but it tarnished the reputation of their cause by suggesting they were delinquent and dangerous.
This protest, however, did succeed where other demonstrations often fail—it achieved its first goal and temporarily halted the construction of the pipeline. This victory reflects the necessity to push the boundaries of authority in order to gain attention; it is unlikely that a protest will make a difference if there is no explicit action or disturbance taking place.
The growing problem with this, though, is the shrinking threshold of what authorities will tolerate during demonstrations. When trespassing and chanting—common and manageable protest methods—provoke dangerous police interference, the freedom to assemble gets more and more difficult to achieve. If demonstrators are unable to make their statement through a nonthreatening, meaningful disruption without the fear of serious injury, we must rethink how our freedom to assemble is being policed.
This is not a suggestion that protesters are always peaceful and morally right in their demonstrations or that they never threaten harm to others. But the current trend of unnecessarily violent backlash against social and political demonstrations eerily echoes an oppressive, militaristic state.