GRAND FORKS — U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investigating the actions taken by a CBP helicopter deployed from Grand Forks to a Line 3 protest in Park Rapids, Minn., on Monday, June 7, after the low-flying aircraft rotor washed protesters with dust and debris.
Official statements say the helicopter responded to a request for assistance from local law enforcement to address the protest, and that the helicopter team promptly left the area after realizing their low-flying maneuvers were kicking up dust and debris near protesters, but video taken by an MPR News reporter at the incident appears to show the helicopter performing the low-flying maneuver multiple times for extended periods of time, and appears to show one passenger in the helicopter filming the proceedings.
"CBP's headquarters is investigating the facts to determine precisely what occurred and whether the actions taken were justified," CBP spokesperson Kris Grogan said in a prepared emailed statement. "All appropriate actions will be taken based on the facts that are learned, including with respect to the incident itself as well as the agency's applicable policies and procedures."
Grogan added the agency would release no further information at this time, and he declined to identify helicopter staff or say whether any of them are on leave pending the investigation.
More than 200 protesters were arrested or cited on Monday at the Two Inlets pump station just south of Itasca State Park, where activists locked themselves to construction equipment in order to protest the construction of the replacement $4 billion Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
Northern Lights Task Force, a group of northern Minnesota county sheriffs created to address pipeline protests, said in a Facebook statement that the helicopter was brought to the protest to order people to disperse.
"The idea was to provide the order in a manner that everyone would be able to hear," the Northern Lights Task Force statement reads. "Unforeseen to local law enforcement and due to extremely dry conditions, dust kicked up in the area. As soon as helicopter staff saw what was happening, they immediately left the area to ensure no further issues would be caused. This was not an intentional act to cause discomfort or intended as a dispersal mechanism."
But Joye Braun, a frontline community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, claims the events do not match up with official statements regarding the incident.
Statement from the Northern Lights Task Force on helicopter today. I witnessed the helicopter do this specifically 3 times. They the announcement then descended to near 20ft over specific areas before leaving while a passenger filmed on a cell phone. @MPRnews pic.twitter.com/n1JGKRX2NH
Statement from the Northern Lights Task Force on helicopter today. I witnessed the helicopter do this specifically 3 times. They the announcement then descended to near 20ft over specific areas before leaving while a passenger filmed on a cell phone. @MPRnews pic.twitter.com/n1JGKRX2NH— Evan Frost (@efrostee) June 8, 2021
"(CBP) needs to take the dust out of their eyes," Braun said. "Just because they're a federal office or federal department does not make them immune to violating human rights, and that's exactly what they did."
Braun was among a second group of activists who made a treaty camp near the Mississippi River headwaters, where organizers hope to hold a four-day prayer. She wasn't at the pump station where the arrests were made and where the helicopter was filmed, but she said that watching the footage in her hotel room that night brought back memories of DAPL protests where protesters were similarly rotor washed by helicopters.
"(CBP) should be held to a higher standard," she said. "And that was really scary to watch."