While many of the facts surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline have been shown to be exaggerated or misstated, that hasn’t slowed down protesters from expanding their encampments and forcing altercations with pipeline security. After one such incident on September 3rd, authorities in North Dakota issued an arrest warrant for Amy Goodman, a journalist for Democracy Now!.
After Goodman voluntarily returned to face the charges of riot and trespass at the courthouse in Mandan, S.D. on Monday, the charges were dropped. Goodman and her supporters characterized this as a victory for the First Amendment and press freedoms. However, Goodman and Democracy Now! are far from impartial eyewitnesses. Goodman has a long history of activist journalism which pushes the boundaries between protest and reporting.
Democracy Now!, the daily news program which Goodman co-hosts with Juan Gonzalez, describes itself as providing “access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the U.S. corporate-sponsored media.” The program dismisses “corporate media outlets” who are “responsible to their shareholders to maximize profits” and instead relies on contributions from donors.
Since its inception, the program has been associated with “progressive” and far-left radio stations. It first began broadcasts from a radio studio in New York City owned by Pacifica Radio, a hard-left group of stations known for such stunts as broadcasting Ho Chi Minh’s memorial service in the late 1960s. Only in 2000 did Democracy Now! move out of the facilities.
A former employee of Pacifica, Goodman has blurred the lines between journalism and activism throughout her career.
In 2008, while covering protests at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, she and her two producers were arrested for allegedly crossing a police line formed for the purposes of crowd control. The police claimed that the group crossed the security line against the orders of police officers. Like the charges in North Dakota, these charges were later dropped.
To Goodman and her allies, the dropped charges demonstrate that the the arrest was an attempt by the authorities to help the project to continue by shutting down an opposition voice. To local law enforcement, the issue remains one of private property and trespass.
Local officials expressed frustration with Goodman’s claim of First Amendment protection for actions that looked more like participation in the protests.
“She’s a protester, basically,” said McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson, who had prepared the case for prosecution, told the Bismarck Tribune. “Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”
“Is everybody that’s putting out a YouTube video from down there a journalist down there, too?” he asked.
Erickson noted that Goodman’s September 3 video did not mention that the protesters were knowingly trespassing on pipeline-owned land, nor that some of the protesters allegedly assaulted security guards at the work site.
Since the charges were dropped, Erickson and Goodman’s accusers will not see her in court. Instead, the primary evidence is Goodman’s video itself, which is inconclusive. It shows that, while rowdy, the altercation between the protesters and the security team hired by the pipeline company, was for the most part non-violent. At the start of the video, the protesters are separated from the active construction site by a wire fence. The group chants and yells slogans over the fence at workers who are driving three bulldozers and moving earth.
At some point, the crowd decides to cross the fence and charge on to the construction site. Holding down the wire, they charge on to the active work site and make their way towards the bulldozers, which are forced to stop.
It’s only at this point, when the protesters are clearly standing on pipeline land, that the security team confronts them. While the protesters encountered one man who shoved a protester to the ground, for the most part, they proceed unheeded.
The use of mace and dogs, which Goodman criticized, comes only after the security forces are aggressively approached by the much larger group of protesters. At this point, the video shows guards commanding the dogs to bark and jump so as to discourage protesters from approaching further.
Throughout the entire incident, Goodman is deeply embedded in the protest group. She walks around with a microphone and camera, attempting to snatch impromptu quotes from various participants. Far from impartial coverage, Goodman’s reporting during the incident focuses on the protesters and the wrongs they claim have been done to them. The clip ends triumphantly, with the departure of the security team.
“The protesters are moving in to ensure that the security leaves,” Goodman says in the video. The final shots show the pipeline workers getting into pickup trucks and leaving.
While not necessarily a riot, the clip strongly suggests that Goodman may be trespassing, since she too crossed the wire fence.
This view is supported by local law enforcement, which sees the protests as a threat to public order.
“[The protesters are] trying to come to a legal work site and prevent any work from occurring. And we, as the law, have to make sure that safety, public safety remains,” Kyle Kirchmeier, Morton County’s sheriff told the Bismarck Tribune.
“Your rights don’t make someone else’s go away,” he continued.
The local sheriff’s department’s Facebook page includes short videos from area residents who complain of difficulty reaching fields when protesters blocked the roads. Previously, the department had made use of officers on “loan” from other jurisdictions, however, some of these additional personnel are returning home.
Though charges against Goodman were dropped, protesters have continued to gather in the hundreds outside the construction sites, at times forcing workers to evacuate. Their impact in slowing the project remains to be seen.