On Wednesday, the historic terrorist attack on the Capitol laid bare white privilege for all to see. Climate activists—especially Indigenous water protectors—are rarely afforded the luxury of freedom these insurgents saw. The Frontline explores the terrifying power of white supremacy and its grip on our failed law enforcement system.
“Water is life.”
Three simple words—joined by the sound of prayer and ceremony—were enough to leave a nation divided. Some of us were inspired; others enraged. The Standing Rock mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 put on full display whom this nation affords the right to peaceful protest. Police arrested more than 140 people during this time. They shot Indigenous water protectors with rubber bullets, sprayed them with water cannons, and unleashed dogs on them.
Since then, we’ve seen a dangerous rise from states to criminalize such protesters. Twenty-five states have passed laws that threaten vocal environmentalists—especially oil and gas pipeline opponents—with arrest. The federal government is complicit, too. Since at least 2013, the FBI has been investigating U.S.-based environmentalists as potential terrorists while ignoring the real threat: white supremacists.
This group of domestic terrorists has struck once again. On Wednesday, we saw the power of white privilege. Police escorted insurgents down the steps of the Capitol, hand in hand. Police posed for selfies with them. Almost all forms of excessive force that have become an all-too-common sight during facedowns with law enforcement weren’t in play. At the time of publishing, at least 82 people have been arrested and five dead after the attack. If these Trump supporters had been anything but white, I assure you: The numbers would be higher.
Welcome to The Frontline, reminding you that white supremacy is insidious. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Environmentalists, protesters, and water protectors fight for the protection of their communities, their health, and the Earth. They rarely walk away unscathed when they take this battle to the streets. In fact, they expect, at minimum, arrest. On the other hand, white supremacists? Their violence is given the greenlight from the highest office. It’s heartbreaking. And what are they fighting for? To exterminate people like me. To uphold a man who can’t accept losing. To revive a time when white people were masters and anyone else was enslaved.
As Trump supporters broke windows and looted the Capitol, Chase Iron Eyes was headed into the courtroom. The lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, Iron Eyes was attending a hearing to represent Jasilyn Charger, a 24-year-old water protector who was arrested on Nov. 21, 2020, for locking herself to a pump station being built for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
While Iron Eyes was inside working the magic that attorneys do, about 15 of Charger’s friends gathered outside the courthouse in Haakon County, South Dakota. Among them was Oscar High Elk, a 30-year-old water protector and founder of Roots Camp, a resistance camp created to stop the proposed crude oil pipeline. The state of South Dakota and Haakon County had a warrant out for his arrest—likely related to a nonviolent direct action some weeks before—and the police arrested him. High Elk currently faces felony charges and could see up to 23 years in jail as a result—despite having hurt no one.
“We were completely taken aback and unnerved,” Iron Eyes says, speaking to me the day after the terrorist attack on the Capitol. “The whole day yesterday just doesn’t seem real.”
However, it does sound about white, according to Iron Eyes, when you consider the historic relationship between law enforcement and white people in the U.S.: “If you’re of European descent here and identifiably white, you’re not afraid of law enforcement. Law enforcement are your peers. You feel safe with law enforcement. You don’t ever feel your life is in danger, even if you’re approaching them in an aggressive and violent and disruptive manner.”
“We are not the same… We see our struggle as life or death.”
American police departments date back to the slave patrols of the 18th century. These officers were the ones responsible for ensuring an abundance of Black labor when the 13th Amendment technically abolished slavery in 1865. Fast forward to present day, and evidence shows how white supremacists have infiltrated our nation’s law enforcement agencies at all levels. POLITICO has reported that some of last week’s attackers included off-duty police officers and military members. Imagine that.
Iron Eyes doesn’t wish ill on Trump supporters. He was explicit that while the bloodshed could’ve been worse had these insurgents been anything but white, that’s not what he wanted to see, either. “We just wish that we would get the same treatment that those who are in that privilege and power structure receive,” he says.
In South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem attempted to pass riot-boosting legislation in 2019 in response to Keystone XL opponents. These laws would have landed activists in prison for up to 25 years for protests that the state might deem “riots.” The courts ruled the legislation unconstitutional, but that didn’t stop her from updating the law a few months later to continue targeting Keystone XL opponents.
Laws like these that have passed in the U.S. have caught the attention of international human rights group Global Witness, which tracks the killings of environmental defenders around the world. The organization documented the highest number of killings in 2019 than any year before. In the U.S., however, advocates have faced attacks, arrests, and lawsuits.
“The appalling actions of this week [should not be used] as a pretense for quashing civic freedoms and the space for peaceful protest,” wrote Julieta Biegner, the U.S. communications officer for Global Witness, via email. “At a time when governments around the world are adopting even more restrictive and harsh measures to silence those standing up for their land and environment, we must not allow efforts to address the climate crisis to be suppressed. This is particularly true of those brave defenders that every day face violence and brutality while protecting the planet. They need our solidarity and support more than ever.”
In Washington, D.C., whenever climate activists rally, police often arrest them in droves. White celebrities are not even immune. Remember Fire Drill Fridays and Jane Fonda? The weekly campaigns saw more than 600 arrests—by Capitol Police, no less—over several months with one action seeing as many as 300 people arrested. Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion activists, a global environmental movement known for more dramatic (and sometimes theatrical) actions, experienced some 90 arrests back in 2019 when they took over New York City. In Louisiana, a box full of plastic was enough to land two environmental activists temporarily behind bars.
As inconvenient as any of these demonstrations may be to the public, they don’t actually hurt anyone. Demonstrators don’t carry guns or Molotov cocktails. They don’t spew hate speech or perform the Nazi salute. Instead, they sing, they chant. In extreme instances, they pour fake blood on the street. They want the government to take action on the climate crisis. Many others—such as Black advocates, members of tribal nations, undocumented children in cages at the border—want their freedom.
“We are not the same,” Iron Eyes says. “‘We’ meaning those of us who respect each other’s differences, those of us who are willing to sacrifice to protect our natural rights, our rights to clean water, our rights to health ecosystems, our rights to protect Mother Earth. We see our struggle as life or death—and of immediate nature because of the human-caused climate collapse that we’re living through and the global pandemic. On the other hand, that is juxtaposed with people who have simply not gotten their way and who feel entitled that only their voices and their lives should matter in picking the president.”
Echoes to defund the police, dismantle systemic racism, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate calamity will only grow louder after the collective heartbreak the nation suffered last week. Law enforcement decides which crimes are permissible—and by whom. They decide what issues are worthy of our First Amendment rights. The racist disparity of it all has never been clearer.
Correction: This article previously misstated the year the 13th Amendment passed. The year was 1865, not 1789.