It was the kind of brutal scene that should have died out in the 1960s around the same time as the hula hoop and the twist -- security guards siccing vicious attack dogs on protesters trying to prevent an environmentally risky oil pipeline across sacred Native American lands in America's central prairie.
Members of North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, joined by hundreds of supporters on the rugged, remote plains, surely knew they weren't out for a picnic when they attempted to obstruct work on the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say will destroy burial rock piles, called cairns, and other sites of spiritual significance.
Last week, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues called on the United States and the pipeline's main backer, a firm called Energy Transfer Partners, to respect the objections of the Standing Rock Sioux to the project, calling for a "fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process to resolve this serious issue and to avoid escalation into violence and further human rights abuses."
Instead, with local law enforcement nowhere in sight, escalating violence and human rights abuses are exactly what was unleashed on the mostly Native American protesters this Saturday.
Video taken by the liberal journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now show pipeline security workers siccing attack dogs -- first on several horses carrying demonstrators and then on the allegedly trespassing but seemingly mostly non-violent protesters. Other marchers were blasted with some type of pepper spray.
A tribal spokesman said six people, including a child, were bitten and 30 people were sprayed with pepper spray or maced. Local authorities who only arrived afterwards called it "a riot" that they blamed solely on the protesters, not even acknowledging the injuries suffered by the Native Americans.
"I got maced twice, I got bit by a dog -- I was frontline," one male protester, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who was bitten on the ankle, told Goodman. "Water is life," the man said of the protests. "Without water, we wouldn't be here."
While some pipeline workers were pushed back in Saturday's protest, work continued elsewhere. "This demolition is devastating," Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archaumbault II said in a statement. "These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground."
The tribal opponents have a powerful moral case against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but the desecration of Native American land is not the only thing driving the opposition. In Iowa, farmers whose land is being taken for the pipeline through eminent domain are up in arms. The risk of a spill that could poison water supplies for thousands in the vast Missouri River watershed looms large. The pipeline would carry as much as 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily through the Dakotas and Iowa; it's unclear whether the fossil fuels are even intended for United States consumers -- or for overseas shipments and big profits.
What's more, the Dakota Access Pipeline is objectionable for the same bigger reasons that the similar Keystone XL project was protested by so many and ultimately iced by the Obama administration: It will increase North America's addiction to fossil fuels at a time when -- as the New York Times noted in an remarkable report this weekend -- climate change is already here and rising sea levels are wreaking havoc.
Yet the native tribes and other citizens fighting to block this environmental abomination were treated with the same brand of violence and intimidation that the notorious sheriff Bull Connor had sicced on civil rights protesters in Birmingham a half century ago. That's more proof that the arc of the moral universe is bending too slowly.
The images out of North Dakota were sickening -- but so is something else about this pipeline endeavor.
A big chunk of money coming out of Pennsylvania is financing the dog siccers and the pepper sprayers -- including your tax dollars and mine.
It turns out that one of the major investors in Energy Transfer Partners is...the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Records show that as of this June, the commonwealth -- through its pension funds -- owned some 5 million shares of ETP -- valued at some $192 million. That's more than any other governmental or quasi-governmental agency. Other records show the bulk, if not all, of the investment is through the Pennsylvania Public Schools Retirement System, or PSERS, which has invested quite heavily in the energy sector (and not always for the greatest financial returns.)
The PSERS link isn't the only local connection. Sunoco Logistics Partners, which is headquartered in Newtown Square, is another key pipeline investor along with ETP, and the Dakota Access Pipeline is slated to feed into a Sunoco Logistics terminal. Sunoco is also slated to operate the pipeline -- if it's ever completed.
What an irony: Pennsylvania science teachers are out on the front lines teaching school kids about the impact of global warming at the same time their retirement dollars are hard at work building this monstrosity of a pipeline. What's more, many large entities -- universities as well as some city and state pension funds -- are currently in the process of divesting in fossil-fuel ventures like this one and looking, instead, to finance alternative energy projects such as solar or wind. How typical that the Keystone State is going in the other direction from the rest of the enlightened world.
It doesn't have to be this way. If you find these Bull Connor-type violent tactics to be unacceptable, if you find the desecration of indigenous shrines to be a moral outrage, or if you don't want your tax dollars pumping more carbon into the earth's atmosphere, then reach out to PSERS (phone number 1-888-773-7748, or contact them online). Tell them it's time to stop investing in firms like ETP that a) condone violence against protesters and b) contribute to the slow destruction of the planet. Also, pressure elected officials like Gov. Wolf to use their influence with PSERS to start divesting. And it would be fantastic to see Pennsylvania school teachers leading the way on this.
Can Pennsylvania and its pension funds save the world? I don't know. But the least they can do is call off the dogs.