Decorated veteran New York journalist Amy Goodman appeared in court this afternoon in North Dakota to face a charge of rioting stemming from her coverage of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe-led protests against a planned oil pipeline. On Labor Day weekend, activists came across employees of the Dakota Access pipeline company bulldozing what tribal leaders have described as Sioux burial grounds and sacred cairns (for more on the potential burial grounds, the history of Sioux dispossession by the U.S. government, and the seemingly egregious illegality of the demolition click here). Goodman and her Democracy Now! camera crew followed hundreds of protesters as they crossed a fence and tried to stop the crews. The protesters were met by security personnel who pepper-sprayed activists and sicced attack dogs on them.
Democracy Now!'s footage drew national attention and was picked up by network news outlets at a time that few prominent publications were covering the ongoing protests.
The protest encampment opposing the pipeline, which would carry about 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois, crossing the MIssouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock reservation, has drawn thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people from across the Latin America, the U.S., and Canada since the Standing Rock tribe issued a call to action in August.
Within a week of Goodman's September report, prosecutors for Morton County, just west of Bismarck, issued a warrant charging Goodman with trespassing. Around the same time, after a judge had declined to stop pipeline construction, the Obama administration stepped in to halt construction temporarily.
Speaking to the Bismarck Tribune, McLean County State's Attorney Ladd Erickson, who is prosecuting the case for Morton County, gave this chilling rationale for pursuing a criminal case against Goodman:
"She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions," Erickson said. "Is everybody that’s putting out a YouTube video from down there a journalist down there, too?"
To be clear, Amy Goodman has been a professional journalist for more than a quarter of a century, and her work, which often focuses on grassroots protest movements and social justice issues, has won numerous awards, including the George Polk award for a radio documentary, first aired on Democracy Now!, showing that Chevron had facilitated the killing of two Nigerian activists who were occupying an oil platform to demand compensation for the destruction of their land.
The arrests of Goodman and her Democracy Now! colleagues during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota led to a $100,000 settlement by the St. Paul Police Department and the Secret Service, and an agreement by the police department to train officers on the First Amendment rights of reporters and demonstrators.
Goodman returned to North Dakota last week to face the trespassing charge and learned it had been dropped. On Friday, Erickson replaced it with the rioting charge.
"I came back to North Dakota to fight a trespass charge. They saw that they could never make that charge stick, so now they want to charge me with rioting," Goodman said in a statement. "I wasn’t trespassing, I wasn’t engaging in a riot, I was doing my job as a journalist by covering a violent attack on Native American protesters."
A judge dismissed the charge against this afternoon.
"This is a complete vindication of my right as a journalist to cover the attack on the protesters, and of the public’s right to know what is happening with the Dakota Access pipeline,” Goodman said. "We will continue to report on this epic struggle of Native Americans and their non-native allies taking on the fossil fuel industry and an increasingly militarized police in this time when climate change threatens the planet."
Goodman is not the only New York journalist among the 140 or so people who have been arrested during anti-pipeline protests in North Dakota. Deia Schlosberg, whose Queens media company Pale Blue Dot is producing a forthcoming documentary called How to Let Go of the World and Love All Things Climate Can’t Change, has been charged with three felonies for filming a protest action where activists temporarily disabled TransCanada's tar sands Keystone Pipeline in Walhalla, North Dakota, in solidarity with Standing Rock. The charges against Schlosberg include conspiracy to steal property, conspiracy to steal services, and conspiracy to tamper with a public service. Together the charges carry as many as 45 years in prison, according to The Huffington Post.
Josh Fox, director of the new documentary and of the Academy-Award-nominated Gasland, told the website, "They have in my view violated the First Amendment," referring to the local county sheriffs. "It’s fucking scary, it knocks the wind of your sails, it throws you for a loop. They threw the book at Deia for being a journalist."
Fox and Schlosberg's supporters say that Pembina County has confiscated Schlosberg's equipment and footage. Ryan Bialas, state's attorney for the county, told the site that he was unaware of the arrest of Schlosberg, and claimed that his office had offered to return her footage (these statements do not comport). He was also defiant about the broader concern over law enforcement's heavy-handedness, saying the pipeline shutdown was "not a protest," but rather "a criminal action."
Divergent actor Shailene Woodley was also arrested, along with 27 others, last week, on riot and trespassing charges. Woodley was livestreaming the protest, and said that police told her she was arrested "because I'm well-known [and] because I have 40,000 people watching."
The arrests of Goodman, Schlosberg, and Woodley have sparked widespread condemnation from those who value the First Amendment. Speaking to The Nation, Goodman suggested that her botched prosecution is not the main story. She said that those who wish to support her should pay attention to the campaign to stop the pipeline, which the tribe says was planned and approved without required tribal input or an environmental impact study, and threatens drinking water.
Indigenous activists who have been arrested as part of the protests have described to Goodman being strip-searched and held for days before court hearings on minor charges.
"This is pretty much the Deep North. That's what it is," Honor the Earth director Winona LaDuke told Goodman. "Nobody's been paying attention to what's happening in North Dakota. They've been flying over it, saying, 'Hope it worked out for y'all.' In the meantime, Indian arrests have been consistent, there's no infrastructure, native people are treated like third-class citizens, suicide rates—everything's going on and the governor is acting like this is Mississippi."