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Would Cops Treat Pipeline Protesters Differently if More Were White?

By Paris, Vice op-Ed

Some people of color see a familiar double standard at work in North Dakota.

A large group of armed Native Americans breaks into a federal building in Oregon to protest land-use rules. They encourage other armed resisters to join in, set up defensive positions, and pledge that "lives could be lost" if law enforcement removes them. Throughout the ordeal, cops show considerable restraint, pleading with the group on several occasions to leave voluntarily. The trespassers refuse, vandalize cultural artifacts, and continue to issue ultimatums. Local and federal authorities, perhaps fearing a Waco-style bloodbath, allow the scenario to play out for weeks before finally arresting the surrendering protesters. And months later, by some strange twist of legal fate, the main instigators of the takeover are acquitted of all federal charges.

Sound like a fairy tale? It is—but only because the occupiers in this fictitious scenario are Native American. In the actual standoff, which occurred this past January and lasted 41 days, the protestors were white. And yes, they actually were acquitted last week of conspiracy to impede federal officers and related firearms charges, which is especially crazy because we have photos of them with guns on federal property. Meanwhile, people of color—especially armed ones—are rarely afforded the same delicate treatment when confronted by American law enforcement, and had the above scenario involved minority occupiers, I'm confident it would have ended in tragedy.

The Oregon fiasco stands in sharp contrast to the protest currently raging in North Dakota over the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion project that would transfer oil nearly 1,200 miles south to Illinois. Native Americans and other protesters there contend the project will desecrate tribal lands, violate an 1851 treaty with the US government, and put their drinking water at risk. They've reportedly been subjected to a litany of abuses, including arrest en masse, assault with pepper spray, attacks with rubber bullets and sound cannon, and detainment in dog kennel–esque barracks. To say the situation has been handled less than justly is an understatement; add to this the inconvenient truth that the rightful owners of all of the land in question—in a broader historical sense—are undoubtedly Native American in the first place, and the unfairness comes into sharp focus.

Some perceptive observers of race relations have argued no such double standard exists, citing the Feds' raid on militiamen in Waco, Texas, in 1993 as a classic example of law enforcement's willingness to use violence against all perpetrators. And it's true that ramped-up aggression against white suspects by cops is not the answer. Instead, decreased use of force by police when dealing with everybody is.

But the fact is we've seen instance upon instance of highly visible police aggression against unarmed black and brown Americans over the last few years. So the cautious approach by police in Oregon (combined with the armed perpetrators' acquittal there) and the more recent aggression visited on almost entirely peaceful Native American protestors in North Dakota should give us pause when presented with the idea that racial bias is nonexistent or somehow overstated when it comes to police violence.

Consider Tamir Rice, the 12-year black old boy gunned down by police in seconds flat for playing with a toy pistol that a 911 caller described as "probably fake." (That message was tragically not relayed to the officers in question.)

Or Philando Castile, who police shot and killed in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota—despite volunteering to an officer that he was licensed to carry a weapon and had one in the car during a routine traffic stop.

Meanwhile, Dylann Roof, the hate-filled racist accused of slaughtering nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church last year, was fed Burger King by police after complaining he was hungry upon arrest. And Julia Shields, a 45-year-old woman in Tennessee, was arrested without incident in 2014 after "firing multiple shots out her window at people and cars" and pointing her firearm at an officer.

As you might suspect, Shields is white.

The fact is there are plenty of instances of white people brandishing firearms and pointing them at police (and others) who have lived to see another day. It is this blatant inequity—and overt injustice—that should concern the whole country. And while a few examples don't prove systemic bias, they help explain why people of color looking at these two protests might see a familiar game being played by American law enforcement.

Now, the point here is not to stir up racial strife but instead to highlight the fact that there is, in fact, a problem with the application of justice in this country. Many times, police claim not to be prejudiced in their assessment of suspects, but rather, to be fearful for their lives. That's often the justification given by cops for killing unarmed minority civilians: that they were afraid. But that irrational fear is, in itself, a form of prejudice. And officers are supposed to be trained to diffuse volatile situations and peacefully engage all nonviolent suspects, even ones that make them uncomfortable.

This brings us back to the situation in North Dakota. Were the majority of the unarmed protestors (police allege some threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and that there was one who fired actual gunshots) a threat? They clearly were not actively courting aggression, which stands in marked contrast to the taunts directed at law enforcement by protestors in Oregon. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a group of defenseless citizens would willingly seek violence with police in riot gear, equipped with firearms, armored vehicles, pepper spray, and a sound cannon. The mess has prompted Amnesty International to monitor the scene for potential human rights abuses by cops.

Where this ends—with the pipeline going ahead as planned or not—we don't know. We can only hope for a peaceful solution that will see true justice served without loss of life and with sacred land and water rights left intact. It is with a heavy heart, however, given American law enforcement's history of violent entanglements with people of color, that I remain deeply pessimistic.

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