Protesters across the United States celebrated today after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would “explore alternate routes” for the Dakota Access Pipeline instead of granting an easement for the pipeline. Over 2,000 U.S. military veterans had joined the thousands of protesters at the site to protect them from the authorities, and federal officials had given them until tomorrow to leave the site.
Native American tribes began last April to block the part of the current 1,172-mile-long pipeline’s $3.8 billion project designed to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota at the confluence of the Missouri and the Cannonball rivers because it threatened the water supply, damaged sacred sites, and violated federal law and tribal treaties with the U.S. “Oahe” means “a place to stand on” in the Dakota language. Pipeline opponents argued in court that the pipeline “crosses areas of great historical and cultural significance” and “crosses waters of utmost cultural, spiritual, ecological, and economic significance.” Sally Jewell, Secretary for the Interior, said that the government will conduct “an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts” and “underscore that tribal rights reserved in treaties and federal law, as well as Nation-to-Nation consultation with tribal leaders, are essential components of the analysis to be undertaken in the environmental impact statement going forward.”
The small protest that started eight months ago developed into a standoff after the Standing Rock Tribe was supported with hundreds of tribes and joined by thousands of celebrities and activists from around the country throughout the sweltering summer into the freezing winter weather. Police departments from 24 counties and 16 cities—as far away as 1,500—have sent law enforcement officers to Standing Rock, using the 1996 Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) as an excuse that it fits the category of “community disorders, insurgency, or enemy attack.” North Dakota taxpayers will be required to pay for all these out-of-state officers, including their wages, overtime costs, meals, lodging, and mileage reimbursement. The state already has a $1 billion revenue shortfall for the current year, and law enforcement costs were up to $10.9 million as of November 22. Morton County had spent another $8 million, and local courts and jails were on the hook for 575 arrests.
Arrested demonstrators, called “water protectors,” report having been strip searched and detained in dog kennels. Police set dogs on the protesters. Last week local law enforcement announced fines of up to $1,000 to vehicles delivering supplies to the Standing Rock encampments.
Police commonly use water cannons, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. By mid-November, their treatment of the protesters so accelerated that the police are now being sued by protesters. Police shot streams of icy water in the freezing temperatures and fired tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators for six hours. Water froze to people’s bodies, and 300 people were treated for injuries. Twenty-six of them were taken to hospitals.
Police took this action after pipeline opponents tried to remove two burned military vehicles from a bridge so that they could get supplies and emergency medical services from Bismarck. Law enforcement denied that they had water cannons, claiming that they used a “fire hose” to spray “more as a mist” but not “directly on them” in order “to help keep everybody safe.” A medic saw the police “hosing people down with their water cannon that continued for the entirety of the four hours I was out there watching.” He added that they flushed the eyes of people sprayed with tear gas with water and milk of magnesia that turned to black ice on the ground. Medics also reported that the demonstrators were unarmed and largely nonviolent.
Rubber bullets fired at demonstrators caused one elder to lose consciousness, another man to experience a seizure, and a woman to have her eye injured. Sophia Wilansky, 21, underwent surgery after her arm was severely injured by a concussion grenade. Her father said that she will need multiple surgeries to regain use of her arm and hand because “all of the muscle and soft tissue between her elbow and wrist were blown away,” he said. “She will be, every day for the foreseeable future, fearful of losing her arm and hand.”
The police denied using grenades and accused the protesters of having explosives. Eyewitnesses including medics, however, “watched police intentionally throw concussion grenades at unarmed people” and said that evidence of these grenades was “the lack of charring of flesh at the wound site, and by the grenade pieces that have been removed from her arm in surgery and will be saved for legal proceedings.” Black Elk—resident of the reservation, an ethnobotanist, and instructor at the local college, said that police reactions to protest became “progressively more militant, more violent.”
Another method of intimidation against protesters has been to arrest them on bogus charges and then refuse them public defenders for “pretty mundane administrative mistakes,” according to a local attorney. For example, one man was rejected a public defender because he wrote “none” instead of “0” to a question regarding how many cars he owned. In October, a judge dismissed riot charges against journalist Amy Goodman, who had filmed a confrontation between protesters and pipeline security officers. At least 130 demonstrators have had charges dropped due to lack of evidence, indicating that prosecutors are more interested in intimidating activists than securing convictions and signaling the “unprecedented” nature of Morton County pursuing baseless cases.
The federal government has claimed ownership of the land where Oceti Sakowin camp (above) sits, but that land is within the area of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, which designated land for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In 1889, Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into six separate, smaller reservations and forced the tribes onto smaller parcels of land. Yet terms of treaties are not removed until officially repealed by Congress, and the Supreme Court has ruled that subsequent treaties do not do away with an earlier treaty unless the new treaty specifically addresses and removes the terms of the older treaty.
Interactions between Native American tribes and police are too often violent throughout the rest of the nation. Although these tribes are sovereign nations, 70 percent of them are under the legal authority of police and sheriff’s departments from nearby non-tribal communities. Indians alternate with blacks to have the highest rates of deaths by law enforcement, and these deaths are undercounted for a variety of reasons.
The continued stoppage for the project is at risk because Donald Trump (DT), planning for his presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017, says he will support pipelines like this one. Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, donated at least $103,000 to DT’s campaign. DT has said that he sold his shares worth $500,000 and $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners, but there has been no proof that he did this. He also owns $100,000 to $250,000 of stock in Phillips 66 that has a 25 percent stake in the Dakota Access project. Bruce Gali, a 67-year-old member of the Pitt River Tribe, said that it wasn’t the end until “all the razor wire comes down, until the helicopters stop flying overhead, the spotlights turn off, the drill pad is dismantled.”
Once again, the media showed its bias when it ignored the protests by the water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Despite it being “the longest-running protest in modern history” with “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn.” Despite the thousands of U.S. veterans who came to protect the water protectors. Despite the accelerating police militancy. From October 26 through November 3, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC combined spent less than an hour describing the demonstrations and violent law enforcement. In this time period, Fox network spent 4.5 minutes. Sunday “news” shows have ignored the events there since September. The few remaining progressive hosts on MSNBC did cover some of the events at Standing Rock, and Joy Reid invited a member of the tribe to be interviewed for her show—the first and only time that the “mainstream” media did this.
For the time being, however, there is victory at Standing Rock. We’ll see how the media treats this event.