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This Is Bigger Than Freedom of the Press

As a person of faith, I believe the faith community has a responsibility to our Native American brothers and sisters.

Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, was among the first journalists to cover the impact of an 1,110 mile pipeline that would carry barrels of oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The oil route intersects with the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and rightly generates passionate concern. More than 300 tribal groups have formed a peaceful resistance to protect ancestral land and Standing Rock’s sole water source.

While covering the protests, Goodman observed and filmed guards using pepper spray and dogs against Native Americans. One dog was filmed with blood dripping from its nose and mouth, having presumably bitten at least one protester.

Such tactics are eerily similar to those employed in the 1960s, when George Wallace and others who opposed the civil rights movement regularly unleashed dogs on African-Americans and their white allies. There is nothing a protester can do to justify security guards and state officials using dogs as weapons against human beings. Our nation must abandon this terrorizing practice, but doing so requires people in positions of power to see the humanity in all people — regardless of race, class and status.

Sadly, after publishing video of the brutal treatment of people petitioning their government for a redress of grievances, Goodman faced prosecution. The state of North Dakota issued a warrant for her arrest after McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson charged her with trespassing. The warrant was issued just days after Goodman released footage of the attack on largely peaceful protesters.

On October 14, Erickson dropped the trespassing charge and leveled a charge of “participating in a riot.” Erickson claimed Goodman was acting as a protester, not a journalist. Notably, the journalism profession isn’t a subjective one, nor does it vary based on the opinion of prosecutors.

On the surface, this may appear to be about freedom of the press, an important tool to hold government and businesses accountable. Certainly, leveling criminal charges against a journalist for highlighting abuse is unjustifiable and immoral. But Goodman is not the first journalist to face such treatment.

Police arrested journalists who reported on the 2014 shooting death of African-American teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and prosecutors later criminally charged them. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly faced prosecution for reporting on police mistreatment of protesters and communities of color in the aftermath of the shooting.

Goodman’s treatment is just the latest reminder that our criminal legal system is in disrepair due to systemic racism and, in some cases, the overreach of prosecutors.

Historically, some prosecutors have charged people in communities of color more harshly and more severely than they’ve charged their white counterparts. In some cases, they’ve charged people who didn’t commit crimes at all.

Even though charges against Goodman were dropped, will state officials challenge other journalists attempting to shine a light on injustice? Will this case have a chilling effect on reporting about the pipeline? And what do we make of the broader environmental concerns of our native brothers and sisters at Standing Rock?

We can’t merely close the books on this issue and pretend sacred land isn’t being desecrated. As a person of faith, I believe the faith community has a responsibility to our Native American brothers and sisters. We should be standing with them, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the fight to protect sacred Native land. We also have a responsibility to challenge state officials to look at the deeper issues around the pipeline and do right by native communities.

I’m proud that PICO affiliate True North has been on the front lines supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. True North has sent fundraising emails on behalf of the tribe, and recruited faith leaders and other members of PICO to travel to Standing Rock. They’ve also been working to mobilize other Tribal Nations and allies to support in way they can. But it’s important that all people of faith recognize this struggle as our struggle.

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