How Do We Learn Who is Bad?

Content Warning: Images of bodies injured and killed in state-sponsored violence.

The images and stories out of Standing Rock in the last 48 hours are horrifying. Peaceful protesters trapped by water cannons in below-freezing temperatures, rubber bullets shot at close range. The risk to human life is great. And police and security forces are eager to take it.



Police officers spray water on those peacefully protesting the pipeline at Standing Rock, using water as a weapon in freezing weather. Any of these officers could choose to participating in this violence. 

My assumption has been that most of us, when we learn about the Trail of Tears, we know that the US Army was the bad guy.


Robert Lindeaux’s The Trail of Tears (1942) illustrated my grade school history book. 

When we learn about the slave market, we know that the buyers and sellers were the bad guys.


Taylor’s 1852 An American Slave Market

When we learn about the battle of Little Bighorn, we know that Custer was the bad guy.



Comanche, Captain Myles Keogh’s horse, survived the  Battle of Little Bighorn, though the rest of the detachment, led by Custer, was killed. He was given his name after performing bravely in the US Army’s fight to eradicate the Comanche Indians in Kansas. His body is preserved at the University of Kansas’ Natural History Museum. 

And Colorado Fuel and Iron, aided by the Colorado National Guard, which killed more than two dozen striking workers and their wives and children in Ludlow, Colorado.


And Pinkerton’s detectives at the Homestead Massacre in Pennsylvania.


Barges burn at the scene of the Homestead strike, near Pittsburgh. The massacre resulted in a decimated union. 

And in Little Rock Central High School.


A member of the Little Rock Nine faces white opposition as she enters the formerly-segregated high school. Photo by Will Counts.

And the white patrons at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth sit-ins.


Peaceful demonstrators seeking integration of a lunch counter are met with violence by white patrons. 

And Bull Connor and his thugs.


Birmingham police use high-powered water on black protestors in a photograph that educated the world about the violence that African Americans faced in the United States. 


And the National Guard at Kent State.


Mary Ann Vecchio, just 14, kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller, killed by the Ohio National Guard as he protested the Viet Nam War. Photographer John Film was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the image. 

And American soldiers at My Lai and Abu Grahaib.


Shattering images of American soldiers’ violence in war–the first photos of the My Lai massacre, published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and images of Army Pfc Lynndie England torturing a prison in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. 

We saw those pictures and we know that the bad guys are human, because we see their human faces, and in many cases, we know their names. To the extent that they represent us–white people, Americans–we are ashamed. And, at least for me as a kid, I assumed that they were ashamed, too. And maybe some of them changed. 

But we also know that, as human as they are, they are doing something inhumane, and you need nothing more than the pictures to see it. Whatever the politics are, the violence is asymmetrical. It is violence being committed because it can be committed.

But other children, I guess, looked at those pictures and thought I want to be like that. To wield a weapon against unarmed people. To crush those fighting for their rights. To kill in defense of capitalism and white supremacy. To grow up and defend “law and order,” which is just a code word for racial supremacy.

And they have found their jobs, at Standing Rockc.


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