Officials report 9 vehicles torched, 2 officers injured in pipeline protest as tribal leaders, observers question officers' tactics
MORTON COUNTY, N.D. — A standoff between law enforcement officers and Dakota Access Pipeline protesters continued Friday afternoon, Oct. 28, on a bridge between the protesters’ main camp and the north camp that authorities forced them to leave during a tumultuous and tense confrontation one day earlier.
But unlike Thursday, tribal elders calmed things down and Friday brought only one arrest compared to the chaotic scene the day before that landed 141 people in jail as authorities swept protesters back toward their main camp just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“We are hoping at this point that it remains peaceful from this point out,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said during a late afternoon press conference at Mandan City Hall.
About 35 miles to the south, officers held a line north of the Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806. The bridge was closed because of debris and damage from multiple fires set by protesters, and it must undergo a safety evaluation before it reopens, Kirchmeier said.
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Aaron Johnson, who lives in nearby Cannon Ball and is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, prayed near the burned trucks Friday.
“I was praying for the destruction to stop,” Johnson said, adding a few young people who are not Standing Rock Sioux members instigated the aggressive acts.
“I’m not here for violence. I’m here for peace and prayer,” he said. “It makes me want to cry.”
As Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners resumed pipeline construction along Highway 1806 toward the Missouri River, a woman from Minnesota’s Red Lake Nation picked up litter strewn along the ground near the bridge.
“They’re probably working over there and we’re stuck over here,” said the woman, whose spirit name is Stars On Stone. Her belongings and teepee were at the frontline camp.
Tribal elders intervened Friday when a small contingent of pipeline opponents wanted to hold their ground on the bridge, eventually pushing the group back a safe distance away from the bridge.
“We don’t want anybody arrested anymore. There’s been enough of that,” called out a camp representative from a loudspeaker.
More than 11 weeks of protest activity reached a flashpoint around noon Thursday when hundreds of officers began to clear out roadblocks set up by protesters on Highway 1806 and the recently established frontline camp directly in the path of the $3.8 billion pipeline.
The pipeline company owns the property, but protesters claim it’s still tribal land under the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. Pipeline opponents fear its construction will desecrate sacred sites and threaten the water supply for millions downstream.
On Friday, state Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents combed the frontline camp for threats and processed the scene before turning it over to the sheriff’s department. Kirchmeier said tribal representatives were being allowed to properly remove the teepees.
More than 70 vehicles parked on private property and Highway 1806 had been towed.Tactics questioned
Thursday’s chaotic confrontation spawned claims of unruly tactics by both sides.
The Indigenous Environmental Network said officers “violently cleared” the camp and used percussion grenades and shotguns with non-lethal ammunition. At least one person was Tased and the barbed hook lodged in his face, just below his eye, the group said.
Blake Finley of San Diego said he saw “excessive” law enforcement tactics, including a young man who fell off his horse after being attacked with both rubber bullets and a concussion grenade.
“That felt like a war zone,” he said.
Oscar Gonzalez, part of a group called Houston Stands with Standing Rock, was among those hit with a rubber bullet Thursday, leaving red marks on his leg and stomach. Gonzales has also demonstrated against the Dakota Access Pipeline at a Texas office of Energy Transfer Partners.
“We are doing the same demonstrations in Houston and our law enforcement doesn’t treat us like that,” he said.
Gonzalez, who said he is a medicine keeper and descendant of the Karankawa and the Mexica, said he was praying at the front lines when he was hurt.
“They have no regard for our traditions,” he said.Force ‘necessary to diffuse’
Authorities said they tried to be culturally sensitive, and they defended the use of deterrents including pepper spray, bean bag and sponge rounds and a device that emits a high-pitched tone. They noted the Tased person had thrown pepper in an officer’s face.
“We only used the force necessary to diffuse the situation,” said Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind, who said he had feces thrown on him.
Kirchmeier said he was proud of the officers, saying they “responded with patience and professionalism and showed continuous restraint throughout the entire event.”
In one instance, Niewind said a woman pulled a .38-caliber revolver and fired three shots in the direction of officers and other protesters after being taken to the ground for resisting arrest -- an account disputed by some protesters.
“It’s unbelievable that a law enforcement officer was not shot yesterday,” he said.
Those arrested were processed in Mandan and taken to jails in Bismarck, Mandan, Fargo, Devils Lake and Washburn, Kirchmeier said. A total of 411 people have been arrested in connection with the protests that began Aug. 10.Human rights observers arrive
Watchdog group Amnesty International USA sent a delegation of human rights observers Friday to monitor law enforcement’s response to the protests. The organization said it also will call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
Amnesty International USA previously sent observers to the area in August.
“We’re deeply concerned about what we heard during our previous visit to Standing Rock and what has been reported to us since,” spokesman Eric Ferrero said in a news release.
Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said some of the visuals the water protectors saw Thursday were similar to what their ancestors experienced.
“What happened yesterday was very triggering to a lot of native people,” Goldtooth said. “What happened yesterday caused a lot of trauma.”Labor, governor praise effort
The MAIN Coalition, a labor group, denounced the protests in a statement Friday and thanked law enforcement, with spokesman Craig Stevens saying state residents and workers “have the right to live and work in a safe and harassment-free environment.”
The group also blamed President Obama’s administration for delaying the roughly 1,100-foot easement needed for the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued a permit for the lake crossing but is withholding the easement pending further review.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who sent a joint letter with the governors of South Dakota and Iowa this week pressing the Corps to approve the easement, praised officers from North Dakota and assisting states for doing “an outstanding job” dealing with the prolonged protest.
“We cannot allow state highways and county roadways to be taken over by out-of-state agitators, and we cannot allow them to trespass on private property,” Dalrymple said in a statement. “There is no choice but to enforce the law.”
The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association said two new cases of dead animals were discovered Friday in pastures in Morton and Sioux counties, one involving four butchered bison and the other involving two cows that were killed and then burned. The animals belonged to two different owners.
The reports followed several other cases of killed or injured livestock in recent weeks near the protest camps, though the association has not linked the incidents to protesters.