Arrests, bonfires mark early stages of conflict between pipeline protesters, law enforcement
MORTON COUNTY, N.D. -- With construction continuing on the Dakota Access Pipeline, in view of protesters and law enforcement, the standoff between the groups escalated into confrontation Thursday, Oct. 27.By 3:30 p.m., officers arrested 16 people...
MORTON COUNTY, N.D. -- With construction continuing on the Dakota Access Pipeline, in view of protesters and law enforcement, the standoff between the groups escalated into confrontation Thursday, Oct. 27.
By 3:30 p.m., officers arrested 16 people at pipeline protest sites in Morton County. About 250 protesters congregated at the north “frontline” camp, and another 80 people, along with a dozen horses, were facing off with law enforcement at a bridge on County Road 134, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
At 4:40 p.m., protesters set fire to logs next to a pickup truck parked on the bridge and began to disperse. The pickup has tires and debris in its bed and protesters were warned not to smoke near it, presumably because it had flammable items onboard.
By late Thursday morning, law enforcement gathered to remove protesters from two roadblocks on North Dakota Highway 1806, prompting protesters to set tires and logs on fire to slow their progress.
A short distance away, protesters blocked the County Road 134 bridge about a mile from Highway 1806. Two cars were parked on the bridge with more logs piled behind it, giving protesters the fuel to start another blaze, before one of the cars was replaced with the pickup.
Just west of the bridge, more than 50 law enforcement officers, along with tactical and military vehicles, sat in waiting. Firefighter crews were called in to extinguish the initial blaze.
Julie Richards of Pine Ridge, S.D., who attached herself to construction equipment at one of the earlier pipeline protests, sat along the creek, smoking a cigarette and watching the fire burn.
“I think this is awesome,” Richards said. “We’ve gotta protect our water any way we can.”
Earlier, there were some scuffles as officers, dressed in riot gear, approached a Highway 1806 roadblock, north of the protesters’ “frontline” camp. Law enforcement encouraged protesters to retreat to another camp to the south, and warned they would use high-pressure hoses to douse burning tires.
By 3:30 p.m., officers entered the “frontline” camp, set up in the direct path of the pipeline, to take down tents and mark teepees with tape. Protesters began erecting a teepee on the roadway.
During the afternoon, as pipeline construction crews worked nearby, protesters broke through a fence and entered the field where construction progressed. Officers formed a line and forced protesters back to the other side of the fence.
On social media, several used Twitter to denounce law enforcement for using aggressive tactics during arrests, while live Facebook streams provided a glimpse of the confrontation, albeit grainy and choppy footage, and narratives of officers using pepper spray and Tasers on protesters.
In a news release, the Sheriff’s Department said it used a long range acoustic device (LRAD) to transmit a high-pitch tone and is used by law enforcement to disperse crowds and deployed pepper spray after protesters threw projectiles at officers and refused to comply with officers’ orders.
The release also said officers clearing the frontline camp found three individuals with sleeping dragon devices, devices protesters use to attach themselves to objects.
“The protesters are not being peaceful or prayerful,” said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, who has been assisting in law enforcement’s efforts to clear protesters from the area. “Law enforcement has been very methodical in moving ahead slowly as to not escalate the situation. However, the protesters are using very dangerous means to slow us down.
“Their aggressive tactics include using horses, fire and trying to flank us with horses and people.”
Just before noon, sirens pierced the air near a camp established as protesters’ last stand against the pipeline.
A short distance from the camp, on a hill to the northwest, six law enforcement vehicles were parked with sirens and lights activated.
Officers, using loudspeakers, told those who retreated would not be arrested.
Camp coordinator Mekasi Camp-Horinek rallied about 200 protesters standing on Highway 1806, forming a line next to the front line camp, with more pipeline opponents chanting and beating drums as they made their way to the camp from both the north and south.
“Highway 1806 is our no surrender line,” Camp-Horinek told protesters with a bullhorn. “We hold our ground right here. Remain in peace, remain in prayer.”
He provided reassurance as he walked along the line.
“We don’t need any violence here from either side,” he said.
Officers began going through tents as they arrived at the camp.
At 11:15 a.m., law enforcement started “taking steps to remove the illegal roadblocks and protesters trespassing on private property near Highway 1806,” according to a news release issued by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.
“Protesters’ escalated unlawful behavior this weekend by setting up illegal roadblocks, trespassing onto private property and establishing an encampment, has forced law enforcement to respond at this time,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in the release.
“I can’t stress it enough, this is a public safety issue. We cannot have protesters blocking county roads, blocking state highways, or trespassing on private property.”
Numerous counties, cities, state agencies and out-of-state law enforcement are supporting Morton County in the effort.
Amber Bakken, spokeswoman for the North Dakota National Guard, said Thursday afternoon that roughly 100 Guard members were provided a “strictly” support role for law enforcement, including driving Humvees used in the clearing effort. No other Guard vehicles are being used. Guard members were providing logistical, administrative and military police support, she said.
Earlier Thursday morning, the mood was tense but quiet as the sun rose above the resistance camps.
Above, in restricted airspace, a North Dakota Highway Patrol aircraft circled.
Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Emergency Services, said medical staffing is in place should any injuries occur at the protest sites.
She said law enforcement would issue a warning to protesters congregating at the northern frontline camp, where pipeline opponents set up teepees and staged hay bales, logs and barbed wire to block the road, if necessary.
The northern camp is on private property recently purchased by the pipeline’s developer, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners and protesters were encouraged to return to the southern camp on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.
Protesters had set up an additional “halfway” roadblock on Highway 1806 - between their main barricade and the frontline camp where they’ve promised to hold their ground.
At the halfway roadblock, pipeline opponents staged tires, plywood, sheet metal and logs - all ready to move onto the highway should law enforcement approach. The additional roadblock provides more time for those at the main camp to leave or join the protesters at the frontline camp.
Sam Wounded Knee, from Crow Creek Nation in South Dakota, spent the night at the “halfway” roadblock.
He said a plane flew overhead through the night, and it appeared two people were in the surrounding hills to the west and using flashlights to signal back and forth with the plane.
Asked if he expects violence in a confrontation, “from the police, yeah, definitely,” he said.
“All we’re trying to do is protect our people,” Wounded Knee said, adding that women and children were asked to leave the frontline camp Wednesday night. About 200 people are at the frontline camp.
At the protesters' northernmost roadblock, 30-year-old Niki Okuk of Los Angeles said she was tailgated Wednesday by what she believed to be Dakota Access security as she drove back to the camp from having a tire fixed in Mandan.
Okuk, a native of Papua New Guinea and member of its indigenous Awakane Kamanuku tribe who now runs a tire recycling business, said she was was ready to be arrested again if necessary after spending Saturday through Monday in the Morton County jail and being charged with criminal trespass and rioting for participating in a protest action Saturday.
"I guess all they can do is keep arresting me," said Okuk, who came from L.A. with four friends and previously protested the Keystone XL pipeline. "I don't think they're going to kill me."
With the new roadblock established by protesters, Highway 1806 has numerous staging areas, camps and road blocks stretched out over several miles, starting with an equipment staging area set up by law enforcement about a mile south of Fort Rice.
Traveling south on 1806, in succession, there is a law enforcement barricade, followed by the protesters’ main barricade, halfway roadblock, frontline camp and main camp.
On Wednesday, negotiations between pipeline opponents and law enforcement officials broke down, setting up a possible clash as hundreds of protesters vowed to hold their ground at a the frontline camp directly in the path of the four-state oil pipeline.
A contingent of law enforcement and National Guard officials met with camp representatives on Highway 1806.
Laney made one last plea for protesters to remove their roadblock on 1806 and abandon the roughly 200-person “frontline” camp, where teepees and tents continued to pop up on land where the pipeline is planned
“We’re here telling you this is private property and you have to leave,” Laney told camp coordinator Mekasi Camp-Horinek on Wednesday. “We don’t want a confrontation. Please stand your people down and go back to the main camp.”
Mekasi pointed at the road – “our no surrender line,” he said – and then back at the frontline camp standing in the way of the four-state, $3.8 billion oil pipeline – their “no retreat” line.
“That’s your final word?” Laney asked.
“That’s my final word,” Camp-Horinek said, walking away.
“Good day, gentleman,” Laney said, turning toward the staging area about five miles away near Fort Rice, where a mass of law enforcement and military forces has gathered.
Check back for developments to this story.