NEAR CANNON BALL, N.D. -- Officers in riot gear and military vehicles arrested 46 people Thursday, Feb. 23, in a sweep of the main Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp to make way for cleanup crews.
Law enforcement officials appeared relieved after the camp was officially cleared after 2 p.m., ending a monthslong occupation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.
“I am very happy to say that we finally introduced rule of law in the Oceti camp,” said Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier.
Law enforcement did not use any less-than-lethal munitions and there were no injuries reported to protesters or law enforcement, said the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.
The response included 18 North Dakota National Guard members who operated Humvees and other military vehicles and about 220 officers from various agencies.
Some people left voluntarily throughout the day. A bus was available for people who wanted transportation out of the camp, but none accepted it Thursday, said Levi Bachmeier, an adviser to Gov. Doug Burgum. Nine people accepted help from a travel assistance center arranged by state agencies and other organizations on Tuesday and Wednesday, but the center closed due to lack of interest, Bachmeier said.
Among the final people in the camp Thursday was a man who remained on the roof of a building surrounded by a large contingent of officers and a helicopter circling overhead. The man eventually came down peacefully, Kirchmeier said.
Some of the protesters engaged in passive resistance and refused to walk, requiring officers to carry them, said Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. The arrestees also included one woman who appeared to be a tribal elder. They were placed in plastic handcuffs and transported in vans.
Law enforcement proceeded cautiously before entering the camp, first assessing the situation through surveillance and monitoring social media feeds. An airplane, two helicopters and drones flew overhead at times throughout the day.
"We don't know exactly what's inside some of the remaining structures," Iverson said before officers moved into the camp.
Up until about 2 p.m., some people crossed the frozen Cannonball River to enter and exit the camp. After clearing the camp, officers planned to secure the area and maintain a presence to prevent people from re-entering, Kirchmeier said.
“We’re going to control it until the cleanup is under control,” Kirchmeier said.
Muddy conditions in the camp created hazards, and some law enforcement vehicles got stuck.
As officers cleared a section of camp, backhoes and other heavy equipment began demolishing structures and clearing debris. A line of tow trucks arrived to remove approximately 20 vehicles that remained in the area.
The Corps and Burgum set a deadline of 2 p.m. Wednesday for the camp to close in order to clear the land ahead of potential spring flooding.
“Today is simply another step forward, moving forward to getting that area cleaned up and making sure that we are avoiding any potential ecological disaster of that area flooding with a large amount of debris,” Iverson said.
Law enforcement arranged to have cultural items including tipis removed in a culturally sensitive manner, Iverson said. However, a traditional wigwam was demolished Thursday.
Joye Braun, who began camping to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline last April, monitored the activity through social media feeds and staying in contact with people on the ground.
“It’s been heart-wrenching,” said Braun, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “But no matter what they do to us, this isn’t the end. If anything, it’s furthering our resolve.”
Most people who vacated the main camp are relocating to new camps that people are establishing on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Braun said.
The Corps also had ordered people to leave a camp known as the Rosebud camp and a portion of the Sacred Stone camp, which are Corps-managed lands on the reservation. North Dakota law enforcement does not have jurisdiction in that area, Kirchmeier said.
Eyewitnesses said arrests were made Thursday in the Rosebud camp, but it was unclear what agency made the arrests. A Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson said the BIA did not make arrests but was working to prevent people from re-entering the Rosebud camp.
On Wednesday afternoon, a total of 11 people were arrested near the entrance of the camp, including at least one member of the media, Jack Smith IV of Mic, an online news outlet. Iverson said everyone was warned to leave Highway 1806 or face arrest.
One person arrested Wednesday who reported a hip injury was "medically cleared" from the hospital and taken to jail, Iverson said. None of those who were arrested Wednesday were from North Dakota. Four are from California, while the others are from Canada, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin. They were charged with physical obstruction of a government function, a Class A misdemeanor. Charges for those arrested Thursday had not been filed.
A 17-year-old female hurt on Wednesday was flown to a Minneapolis medical center with severe burns to her hands and face, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said. Her 10-year-old brother suffered minor burns and was expected to be released from a Bismarck hospital, officials said.
The incident is under investigation. An estimated 20 fires were set by people in the camp Wednesday and law enforcement reported at least two explosions.
The Backwater Bridge and the Cannonball River Bridge continue to be closed on Highway 1806. A timeline to open the highway has not been determined, officials said.
“That area needs to be secure first. By law enforcement going into this area and removing protesters from this land does not mean this is over,” Iverson said. “I'm not that naive to think that we can all go home and this is done now.”