- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Oregon standoff and Dakota Access pipeline protest have different activists, different locations and different agendas, but the biggest difference may lie in their treatment at the hands of the Obama administration.

Both protests began with illegal takeovers of federal property. Both had leaders who described their actions as peaceful despite indications to the contrary. What happened next has led to accusations of political favoritism at the hands of an administration more sympathetic to the environmental movement than the public lands cause.

The FBI and other federal agents were on the ground immediately after several dozen activists took over a vacant headquarters building Jan. 2 at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.

Fast forward to North Dakota, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has for nearly three months allowed protesters to camp out on federal property near Cannon Ball, citing First Amendment concerns, even as they use the parcel as a launching pad for sieges on the privately owned pipeline construction site.

Still, criticism of President Obama is flying in both directions. Green protesters in North Dakota charge him with dragging his heels instead of moving to block the pipeline project, while critics have accused him of playing political favorites.

Not lost on either side is that Mr. Obama nixed the Keystone XL pipeline a year ago.

“If that camp was full of people advocating for fossil fuels, they would have been removed by now,” Rep. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican, told The Associated Press. “There is some discretionary enforcement going on.”

The Obama administration announced in September that it would review the tribe’s complaints about consultation in the permitting process, and asked Energy Transfer Partners to halt work voluntarily on the project, which it has declined to do.

Even so, protesters have grown weary of the wait, calling on Mr. Obama to take up their cause against what they describe as the aggressive tactics of rural local sheriffs and the North Dakota National Guard.

“This man came to our territory and was welcomed here, now he sits silent while the Morton County Sheriff’s Department brutalizes women and children,” the Sacred Stone Camp wrote about Mr. Obama in a Saturday post on Facebook. “He sits silent while the North Dakota National Guard has deployed again in the middle of America.”

The contrast between the two occupations emerged in sharp relief last week as both made headlines. In North Dakota, 142 protesters were arrested Thursday after refusing to exit a makeshift camp built on private property to block the pipeline’s route.

The protest, led by the Standing Rock Sioux and national environmental groups, is aimed at stopping the construction of the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline that comes within a half-mile of the reservation over concerns about water quality and sacred sites.

Several hundred protesters burned nine vehicles, set fires on Highway 1806 and a nearby bridge and threw rocks and homemade bottle explosives at officers, while camp organizers decried police for driving military-style Humvees and using pepper spray and beanbags against the rioters.

The same day, a jury in Portland found seven defendants not guilty in the Oregon standoff, including ringleaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, on federal conspiracy charges and firearms charges in U.S. District Court.

It was pipeline opponents’ turn to cry foul: They accused the all-white jury of racism in letting off the white defendants, arguing that black protesters have been treated unfairly in comparison by law enforcement.

Certainly the North Dakota occupation has prompted more arrests. One reason lies in the numbers: The camps hold at any given time from 1,500 to 2,500 activists, while the Oregon standoff drew several dozen protesters objecting to tougher regulations on federal land.

Another difference is that most of the North Dakota arrests have been for misdemeanor trespassing and rioting, prompting a scenario in which activists are charged, make bail and return to the camps. Injuries to protesters and deputies have been minor.

For example, actress Shailene Woodley was charged with trespassing on Oct. 11 and released the same day after a protest at the private construction site that shut down a state highway for hours.

There was no catch-and-release in the Oregon standoff: After 24 days, the FBI set up a roadblock at which one armed occupier was killed, then charged the ringleaders with federal conspiracy and firearms charges.

Nonetheless, Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole said the FBI showed restraint in Oregon.

“I think the attitude in Oregon was, ‘Let’s keep our hands off until they leave, because we don’t want to have a big firefight.’ To me, that was a strategic maneuver,” Mr. O’Toole said. “It wasn’t a decision to treat them more or less harshly, it was just a strategic decision.”

Another distinction between the two protests: firearms. The Oregon protest was populated by ranchers who openly carried rifles, even though leader Ammon Bundy repeatedly insisted that their intentions were peaceful.

Activists have not displayed guns during their protest, which Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II has described as peaceful, but there are still concerns. An Oct. 22 review by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department found 43 of those arrested to date had criminal records.

One protester at Thursday’s face-off fired three shots at a police line but missed. In an Oct. 3 letter, Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen told Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch that some protesters are “armed” and “brandishing weapons.”

Conservative columnist Rachel Alexander said the difference in the Obama administration’s response to the two protests represents unequal treatment under the law.

She pointed out that a federal judge ruled last month that construction on the pipeline may proceed, noting that the Corps spent two years gaining tribal input on the pipeline and that the Standing Rock Sioux were often missing in action.

“The Obama administration has one standard for favored protesters vs. a harsher standard for protesters with whom it disagrees,” said Ms. Alexander in an Oct. 6 column in The Stream.

For Labor Secretary Robert Reich, however, the issue is simple: As a matter of policy, the Dakota Access protesters are right, and the Oregon standoff occupiers are wrong.

“In other words, it’s fine to mount an armed insurrection so your cattle can graze for free on federal land,” said Mr. Reich on Facebook, “but not if you want to protect your sacred burial ground or your only source of water from a private for-profit company.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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