Activist journalism at Standing Rock

Celebrities step up where the media have stepped aside

by Kammy Vicaire

Since spring 2016, activists have gathered at Standing Rock, North Dakota on Sioux sacred land to demonstrate their opposition against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Construction has already destroyed parts of their sacred lands and risks later poisoning their main water source.

They have been supported by a crowd better known for self promotion than activism. While mainstream media outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, came in late to cover the issue, The Intercept magazine has reported that at least seven journalists in total have been arrested while covering the clashes. Others have been stung by tear gas, pepper spray, or rubber bullets and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now had a warrant issued for her arrest.

Nevertheless, it is the celebrities who have lent face and voice to the protests.

Recently, both Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo visited Standing Rock. Ruffalo, an American actor who spent three days in Standing Rock, later reported to CNN what he saw and heard from community members who had been hurt by the police, including a woman who had her arm broken and others who were thrown into jail cells where they were strip searched.

Some people believe Mark Ruffalo makes a better journalist than CNN’s Jake Tapper. Commented the same week the video was posted.

Ruffalo also described on CNN how armed police officers looked primed to fire, and he warned North Dakota’s governor that he could have “blood on his hands.” With something like three million followers on Twitter, Ruffalo has been using social media to raise public awareness about the troubles at Standing Rock.

On Nov. 3, he wrote an opinion piece in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper: “The protesters threaten nothing except an outdated system of dirty, dangerous energy…. What if, instead of brutalizing these protesters, we took a moment to listen to them? Not only are these men and women putting their bodies on the line to protect precious resources – they are charting the way to a better future for all of us.”

Woodley, a 25-year-old American TV actress, joined more than 300 people who prayed, chanted and sang at Standing Rock, and was one of 27 arrested for criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot which she wrote about in Her recording of the event was aired on a Facebook feed and garnered more than 40,000 views.

Her citizen journalism evolved into an article that Woodley wrote about Standing Rock for The New York Times. She has been interviewed in The Huffington Post, the British Daily News and described to Entertainment Tonight spending Thanksgiving with hundreds of protesters.

Celebrities are realising that, with the power of social media, they can use their status to shed light on pervasive social issues.

Viewers are saying CNN is not doing actual reporting. Commented three weeks after the video was posted.
Viewers are saying CNN is not doing actual reporting. Commented three weeks after the video was posted.

Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, has often Tweeted out in support of Rezpect Our Water, a campaign that opposes the Dakota Access Pipeline. Joining him are Justice League actors Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa, who have also publicly endorsed the Rezpect Our Water campaign.

Pharrell Williams has since demonstrated his support, writing on social media “We have so much we can learn from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native American tribes. The children of Standing Rock ran 2,200 miles on foot to Washington, D.C., to save their sacred land from the oil industry. Let’s help protect them so they can continue to live in peace” #rezpectourwater.”

Susan Sarandon reported to Reuters saying, “Not only is it an environmental, but it’s a problem in terms of social justice. We can do it. We can stop fracking. We can stop the pipeline. But really it’s only because of great numbers of people.”

In New York City, Rasario Dawson attended a protest opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline and was reported in Indian Country saying, “How amazing would it be if we all were to turn our attention to this cause? If we would show the entire planet that if we stand together, that we can stop something that’s already got the ink drying on it.”

Journalism is about bringing news stories to the public, and new technologies have made this easier. When celebrities, adored by many, step up for the causes in which they believe, they can assume a valid place as citizen journalists.