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March Mania

Opinion: Gov. Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota is not George Wallace

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., meets Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, with North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the F-M Diversion Authority, in the Fargo City Commission Room. File photo by Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

Many Dakota Access Pipeline protesters have tried to compare their cause with the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But as the protest has evolved, it's the differences, not the similarities, between the two movements that have become clear.

In particular, the pipeline protest lacks:

  • Villains as nefarious as George Wallace and Bull Connor; and,
  • A cause as obviously just as fighting Jim Crow.

Villains. Sorry, protesters. But no matter how you spin it, Gov. Jack Dalrymple is not George Wallace, and Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier is not Bull Connor.

That's a gigantic difference between now and then. And it matters enormously in the pipeline dispute.

The difference shows up most vividly in the officials' animus—or in Dalrymple and Kirchmeier's case, their lack thereof. Remember, Wallace and Connor were hostile to both the protesters and the civil-rights cause. And their contempt showed up not only in their actions, but also on their faces.

More unpleasant expressions, Americans in the 1960s had seldom seen.

The ugliness was especially jarring when contrasted with the dignity of so many protesters—who, after all, just wanted privileges as simple (in many cases) as being served lunch.

Today, Dalrymple, Kirchmeier and North Dakota's other top officials are cut from an entirely different cloth. None has objected to the protesters' exercise of rights. None has expressed even a syllable of dislike for Native people or tribes.

Instead, all have simply insisted that the protesters obey the law. And North Dakotans, along with millions of other Americans, see that as a very reasonable request.

That's why John Hoeven could stand up on Wednesday to support North Dakota and not be laughed off the Senate floor. As his remarks on this page show, Hoeven is calling not for suppressing dissent, but for the protests to stay peaceful and for everyone to accept the decisions of policymakers and the courts.

In this era and on this issue, that's not too much to ask.

A righteous cause. In the 1950s, it would have been too much to ask. Confronted with Montgomery, Ala.'s segregationist rules, Rosa Parks was right to break the law and move to the front of the bus.

But the Dakota Access Pipeline—green-colored and inanimate—is neither a "black snake" nor Jim Crow. It's an infrastructure project. It has no racial component, no discriminatory intent and no undue environmental risk. As Hoeven notes, there are 38,000 oil-pipeline waterbody crossings in the United States, which means tens of millions of people live downstream from potential leaks.

Pipeline protesters very much want the public to think otherwise. That's why they highlight every rumor that makes them out to be victims, and downplay every report that acknowledges regulatory and law-enforcement norms.

But the bottom line is that it's right for the public to expect a lawful and careful process to result in the safe transportation of oil. And no amount of trespassing, vandalism or other direct actions can make it wrong.