Army Corps Commander Ordering Evacuation of Standing Rock Protesters Has Conflicting Heroes in Ayn Rand, Martin Luther King

Left, Ayn Rand. Right, Martin Luther King, Jr. mug shot

By Branko Marcetic

Colonel John W. Henderson has some peculiar heroes.

Little is known about the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District, whose name has been in the news following his original Friday decision to evict Standing Rock protesters from the Oceti Sakowin camp set up on the Corps’ property north of the Cannonball River. On Sunday, he appeared to reverse any plans for the forced removal of protesters, but reinforced that the camp would still be closed.

Yet in an interview conducted last year, Henderson revealed an incongruous pair of personal idols: radical pro-free market author Ayn Rand and civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Supporting Civil Disobedience in the Past Over the Present

For the September 2015 issue cover story of Omaha Outlook—the official quarterly publication of the Corps’ Omaha District—Henderson cited King as the chief personal inspiration in his life. 

Here was a leader worthy of emulation,” Henderson said of King. “He was committed to a cause higher than himself, even at great personal risk. He selflessly dedicated his life to the accomplishment of an honorable mission.”

His accomplishments have had an enduring positive impact on the collective character of our Nation, and his legacy continues to inspire us all to be better people,” Henderson added. 

Henderson’s admiration of King stands at sharp odds with the litany of alleged abuses which peaceful Standing Rock protesters have been subjected to over the past few months under his watch. 

While it was North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple who originally declared a state of emergency in response to the protests — bringing in law enforcement from around the country to deal with activists engaged in peaceful civil disobedience — Henderson appeared to affirm this approach in a November 1 letter, labeling the Oceti Sakowin protesters “trespassers” and “requesting law enforcement assistance” from the local sheriff. 

On November 25, citing public safety concerns and the fact that the land was used for private grazing, Henderson issued an eviction notice to the protesters, warning that anyone who stayed past December 5 “does so at their own risk, and assumes any and all corresponding liabilities for their unlawful presence and occupation of such lands.” 

After public outcry, the Corps clarified on November 27 that it “has no plans for forcible removal.”

Parallels With 1960s Civil Rights Protests

Over the past few months, law enforcement has engaged in often brutal repression of Standing Rock protesters for taking part in the very type of civil disobedience Henderson admires King for engaging in.

Journalists, filmmakers, and others have been slapped with absurdly harsh charges for seeking to exercise their First Amendment rights, some of which could mean decades in prison. Protesters have been set upon by attack dogs, put into dog kennels, and blasted with water cannons in freezing temperatures. Last Sunday alone, around 300 demonstrators were injured and 26 hospitalized, with some requiring treatment for hypothermia. 

King and other civil rights activists were routinely subjected to at times identical treatment by law enforcement in the 1960s for taking part in peaceful protests.

Civil rights activists were famously blasted with high-pressure water cannons and attacked by police dogs, while police drummed up overly harsh, even false, sentences against others. King himself was sentenced to six months hard labor for supposedly violating probation over a traffic violation, after he was arrested at a sit-in in Atlanta. 

The law enforcement response to the Dakota Access protesters has at times been even more brutal, with police resorting to using armored vehicles, rubber bullets, tear gas, and a host of other military gear to put down the demonstrations.

A little over a week ago, although the source cannot be verified, what was suspected to be a concussion grenade was thrown at a group of protesters, mutilating a 21-year old woman’s arm. 

Alleged law enforcement abuses have not taken place on Corps-controlled land itself, but rather just north of it.

Nevertheless, the Corps and Henderson in particular have been silent on the heavy-handed police response to protests, with Corps press releases repeatedly creating a false equivalence by referring to “confrontations” between protesters and law enforcement. 

In his most recent statement, Henderson appeared to blame the demonstrators for the violence. 

Unfortunately, it is apparent that more dangerous groups have joined this protest and are provoking conflict in spite of the public pleas from Tribal leaders,” he said. 

A number of commentators have noted the parallels between the current Standing Rock protests and the civil rights movement. 

Indeed, during the 1960s, there was plenty of overlap between the struggles of African Americans and indigenous populations: A significant number of Native Americans took part in the 1963 March on Washington, and tribal leaders sought King’s help with their own desegregation battles. 

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race,” wrote King in 1964. “Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.”

Henderson is hardly the first to cite King as an inspiration while appearing to ignore the lessons of his life. There is a long tradition of political figures, particularly on the Right, co-opting King’s message while sanitizing the more radical aspects of his beliefs, particularly his opposition to economic exploitation and war

Ayn Rand: Prioritized Profit, Called Native Americans “Savages”

In the same 2015 interview in which Henderson professed his admiration for King, Henderson also cited a very different inspiration: “Objectivist” writer Ayn Rand, who Anderson said is his favorite author. 

Rand shot to fame in the 1950s when she helped spur the revival of the popularity of free market thinking with searing pro-business tomes like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, which exalted the superiority and genius of business leaders. 

Workers and intellectuals, whom she viewed as “parasites,” were common targets of her derision, as was the concept of the “common good.” Rand believed in the moral supremacy of human selfishness and the unrestricted pursuit of profit, and was fond of claiming that businessmen were a persecuted minority. 

Rand was less empathetic towards actual minorities. In a 1974 Q&A session at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, she briefly discussed the “alleged complaints” of Native Americans in comments that stand in stark contrast to those of Martin Luther King. 

Calling Native Americans “savages,” she complained that they wanted to keep white colonists out and “keep part of the earth untouched” so that they could “live practically like an animal.” 

Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it is great that some people did,” she told the audience. 

The Man Who Signed Off on the Dakota Access Pipeline

Henderson originally authorized the $3.78 billion Dakota Access pipeline over the objections of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who believe its construction will disrupt a sacred burial ground and fear that an oil spill would irreversibly contaminate the Missouri River, the tribe’s main water source.

Despite noting these concerns—and despite the thousands of pipeline leaks and ruptures over the last few years, as well as high-profile spills like that in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010—Henderson allowed the project to go ahead in July this year.

The tribe ultimately sued the Corps, charging that they not been properly consulted over the project.

Construction was only halted after the Departments of Justice, the Interior, and the Army—which oversees the Corps—issued a joint statement in September calling for a pause. Henderson has since criticized Dakota Access Pipeline, LLC for ignoring this request, and the future of the final portion of the pipeline remains uncertain, pending further Army Corps review and tribal consultation

The Army Corps’ Omaha District did not respond to a request for comment. 

Main images: Left, writer Ayn Rand. Credit: USSR passport, no copyright Right, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mugshot Credit: Birmingham Police Department, no copyright