The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over Standing Rock Reservation, essentially shutting down what has been one of the most effective means of sharing the perspective of those inside the protests.

The Dakota Access Pipeline project plans to drill under the Missouri River, a source of water for over 18 million people. Furthermore, the pipeline has been routed to within a half mile of Standing Rock Reservation, and earlier this year sacred ground and cemeteries were bulldozed during the construction process. If completed, the Dakota Access Pipeline will transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day. A leak from the pipeline — which most environmentalists consider to be an eventuality, not a hypothetical — would affect the drinking water for the reservation. (For more background on the protest against the pipeline, watch this short documentary.)

Social Media Use an Evolving Protest Tradition

The social media tactics employed in the #NoDAPL protest are an evolution of strategies seen in other recent protests, from Occupy Wall Street to Ukraine’s Euromaidan to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. According to the International Peace and Security Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a protest has three major stages on social media: “First, social media can help to build a protest movement, and it can do so with remarkable speed. Second, once a movement exists, social media can play an important role in recruiting new members and encouraging participation. Third, once protests are in full swing, social media can spread information about them.”

Like with the Euromaidan protests (which the International Peace and Security Program calls “the first truly successful social media uprising”), the water protectors at Standing Rock have turned to Facebook to organize, coordinate, and centralize information about their message and needs. As each protest grew, Facebook pages focused on helping supporters travel to the protests or send needed supplies were created, and then shared by one centralized page. In the case of the Standing Rock protest, this appears to be the Facebook page for the Sacred Stone Camp.

Social media has also been critical in avoiding the erasure that is often seen in movements such as these. For example, most of the coverage of women’s role in the protest has been in social media posts from people on the ground.

Leaders at Standing Rock requested that they not be referred to as protestors; instead, they ask to be called “water protectors.”

Drones + Live Streaming = A Viral Movement

From the #BlackLivesMatter movement, protectors using social media have learned to harness the power of video, especially live video, which is highly favored by Facebook’s algorithms. The most powerful way that this has been utilized is through drone video footage. Early on in the protests, outside attention was captured by birds-eye views of the camps and the wound cut through the North Dakotan landscape for the pipeline. As the protests continued and police forces ratcheted up tactics to end the protests, including using percussion grenades and fire hoses turned into water cannons in freezing temperatures over the Thanksgiving weekend, the drones caught footage of police violence against peaceful protestors in the same way the #BlackLivesMatter movement captured video of police violence against African American communities.

This drone footage has played a key role in recruiting outside support and generating media interest in the protests, as the live streams on Facebook have documented human rights abuses, caught the police in lies in their public statements, and even caught the police forces committing federal crimes. This makes the FAA’s action to restrict their usage all the more harmful.

Peter Sachs, an attorney specializing in legal issues surrounding drones, wrote of the TFR in Drone Law Journal: “Neither the mainstream media, nor citizen journalists, nor activist hobbyists may fly in that area to document what law enforcement is doing. In essence, a ‘giant tarp’ has been laid over the site, allowing law enforcement to act with impunity and without any witnesses. […] It does not take a degree in rocket science to realize the effect of the TFR is that it blocks any documentation of the protest from the sky. Whether that is also the reason it was requested and granted is a matter of opinion, of course. In this writer’s opinion that is unquestionably the reason. It’s another Ferguson-style TFR, where a TFR was requested and imposed specifically to bar media coverage.”

One of the leaders in producing this drone footage is Shiyé Bidzííl (Dean Dedman, Jr.), who runs the Facebook page Dr0ne2bwild. In an interview with Overpass Light Brigade, he discussed his work with the drones: “The Drone2bwild page went viral and my drone footage has been shared around the world. Messages from people all over the world come in by the day expressing prayers and support for what I am doing. Simple drone technology has given us activists and grassroots people the upper hand in surveillance and has allowed me to show the world this movement from a higher perspective. I was the first drone pilot to follow this movement from the start, providing the first drone footage of the resistance against Dakota Access Pipeline construction workers and the clash between law enforcement and Water Protectors.”

Recently, Shiyé has been hosting regular Facebook Live streams from the camp on the Indigenous Rising Media page, flying over construction sites and blockades, as well as the camp itself, to show movements of police, actions of protectors, and efforts to make progress on the pipeline.

These drones have been pushed to their limits in the harsh North Dakota winter — freezing temperatures affecting mechanics, spotty cell service causing streamed videos to cut out, and the very mission of the drones quickly draining battery life.

And that isn’t the only challenge. In response to the drone footage, police have shot down drones with rubber bullets and water to freeze the drones; at least 9 drones have been shot down to date, a violation of federal law. According to Shiyé, the FAA has been putting restrictions on drone use at Standing Rock since April, while not addressing the violations of FAA guidelines such as shooting at the drones or flying helicopters too low. The TFR applies only to civilians; law enforcement helicopters and aircraft buzz over protesters with impunity.

Another drone pilot was responsible for capturing some of the most striking footage of the protests to date, as he streamed footage of police forces spraying protectors with water in freezing temperatures and firing percussion grenades and tear gas into a crowd of peaceful protestors.


Video by Digital Smoke Signals.

Myron Dewey has been streaming drone footage of the #NoDAPL protests since August on his Facebook page, Digital Smoke Signals, and it was his video of the Thanksgiving weekend violence that was picked up by national media outlets. Since then, significantly more attention has been paid to the #NoDAPL movement by major national media than has been in previous months.

In a Motherboard interview with Dewey, “[he] said numerous water protectors who have been arrested have had their charges dropped based on the footage his drones have taken, and thousands of people have watched as law enforcement have used military-style tactics to suppress the protesters.”

The FAA’s restrictions will not stop the drones from flying or social media pages being used for organizing. The protectors have stated they will continue to use the drones to stream from the air and to film police action against them. Both Shiyé and Myron have started GoFundMe campaigns to cover the cost of repairing or replacing drones that have been shot down or confiscated by police.

In the meantime, the #NoDAPL movement is reaching what may be its most critical moment. President-elect Trump is invested in the companies the own the Dakota Access pipeline project, and has so far been unwilling to fully divest himself of his company as he prepares to take office. Dakota Access itself claimed in court that if there was not progress on the pipeline by January 1, 2017, contracts set to expire on that date could possibly kill the project completely. However, there is little evidence to show whether this is a hard-and-fast deadline, or rather a company projection used to build a sense of urgency in court.

Photo: Dark Sevier (cc).

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