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Police violence at Standing Rock shows America still addicted to frontier justice

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The woman being brutalized by America's finest in the photograph is an elderly person holding a prayer staff. Local authorities claim that she was brandishing a gun. She is one of a number of "water protectors" who have been protesting the laying of an oil pipeline that threatens the water supply of the Standing Rock Lakota and Dakota reservation. (A brief background to the conflict may be found here.)

It is instructive to compare and contrast the obscene brutality of the cops and security guards at Standing Rock against unarmed protesters with the kid-gloves treatment accorded to heavily-armed white supremacists and sovereign-citizen fanatics who seized federal land by force of arms on two recent occasions.

The first incident took place in Nevada: a rancher named Cliven Bundy, and numerous armed militiamen, held off federal law enforcement to defend his "right" to graze his cattle on federal land without paying a fee. The second was in Oregon, where Ammon Bundy, Cliven's son, led a squad of violent vigilantes to occupy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

For the white folks, it was all patience, negotiations, and now an astounding jury verdict that has the effect of legalizing the armed seizure of federal property. The elder Bundy is incarcerated awaiting trial in the Nevada case (along with his sons Ammon and Ryan and a number of other gunsels), but he continues to graze his livestock illegally on federal land.

The Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, however, have been smashed, with the liberal use of dogs, batons and pepper spray. Media coverage has been all but absent, but possibly with reason: North Dakota has issued arrest warrants for journalists who have dared to cover the protests. (In the case of well-known reporter Amy Goodman, the state prosecutor so absurdly over-reached himself that a judge refused to play along.)

What can we see here but a recapitulation of the American frontier justice of the 1800s, when armed white men were the law, and "hostiles," a.k.a. "Injuns," were their fair game? The difference in the official treatment of gun-toting white insurrectionists (including their recent acquittal by a jury of their peers) with what happens to Indigenous people asserting their own sovereignty, is stark.

In this connection, we might want to remind ourselves that unarmed American Native people are shot by police at an even greater rate than African Americans. The frontier battles continue; the Wild West has not yet been tamed; and, as has always been the case in America, armed might makes right.

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