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Local View: On anniversary of Line 3 protests, rallying rolls on for rivers, rights

From the column: "Extraction projects like Line 3 are a threat to our environment and community health, to Indigenous rights, and to the fate of our democracy."

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News Tribune file photo / Activists opposed to Line 3 block an entrance to a worksite near Sawyer in January 2021.
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Two years ago, on Jan. 9, hundreds gathered in rural Aitkin County, where Enbridge was constructing its Line 3 tar sands pipeline.

On that snowy Saturday, I joined Indigenous and allied water protectors for a jingle dress dance and ceremony on Great River Road, where Enbridge was preparing to drill one of two Mississippi River crossings.

People rallied throughout the year because oil pipelines are dangerous to water and climate and because Line 3 was unnecessary. Rampant extraction continues to degrade Indigenous lands and clean water, posing an ongoing threat to climate justice.

Two years later, it’s clear the concerns of Line 3 protestors were valid.

During Line 3 construction, Enbridge admitted to dozens of frac-outs in wetlands and river crossings, including in Aitkin County, where 10,000 gallons of drilling fluid were spilled in a wetland near the Mississippi River.

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An Enbridge frac-out also occurred in the Willow River area, next to the farm where my grandmother grew up. I was among the first people to notice and report this violation. In this case, as in many others, law enforcement focused on the “boogeymen” of pipeline protestors while aiding and abetting the real criminals.

Law enforcement was informed (and commented on video) that this spill happened days before Enbridge notified the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources. This frac-out was first reported by water protectors on social media . Instead of sending water-quality monitors, the DNR sent officers to assist in harassing and arresting people, some of whom were trying to gather water samples from the spill site.

Water protectors and citizen scientists, often the only ones visibly monitoring pipeline construction, are now taking the lead to document and seek accountability for damages.

Members of the group Waadookawad Amiikwag use thermal imaging and field work to document Enbridge’s impacts to surface and groundwater. Its findings, reported in a recent webinar , question if our state agencies were thorough enough in their permitting and monitoring, including post-construction. Breached aquifers near Clearbrook and LaSalle are still bleeding millions of gallons of precious groundwater, while other suspected upwellings remain undisclosed by Enbridge and unreported to the public.

As thousands rallied throughout 2021 to prevent these predicted damages, we learned that exercising our rights and responsibilities can come with consequences to our safety and freedom. Costly environmental damages, when not remedied by perpetrators, are paid for by Minnesota taxpayers, who are responsible for generations of cleanup to come.

Yet the Minnesota DNR received $2.2 million from Enbridge to police Line 3 construction sites, according to documents posted by Healing Minnesota Stories. Aitkin County Sheriff’s officers received $355,394, including for hours spent watching the pipeline and responding to what they apparently were told was the biggest threat: protesters opposing Enbridge.

Canada’s Enbridge corporation paid law enforcement to surveil citizens, in some cases mining our personal social-media pages to harass us and bring bogus criminal charges.

Civil-liberty groups like the Brennan Center for Justice report that surveillance of movement organizers is increasingly common across the country . These practices remain largely unchecked and lead to the suppression of free speech and legal organizing. This poses a threat to our democratic principles — not to mention our personal safety.

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I was surveilled and targeted by law enforcement. They threatened me with a criminal charge, a gross misdemeanor carrying a sentence of a year in jail, for speaking about treaty partnership and mutual aid at that Jan. 9 rally.

Several other women were also charged that day, including prominent Indigenous leaders like Winona LaDuke, based on videos law enforcement watched on Facebook .

The fact I was acquitted mid-trial , when the judge concluded there wasn’t evidence to support a conviction, wasn’t an example of a healthy justice system, but the opposite. In my case and many others, law-enforcement officers seemed to abuse their power by profiling Indigenous women , following anyone they deemed suspicious, and falsely accusing and abusing people who were themselves acting within their rights as journalists . Lawyers were even detained and charged who were serving subpoenas on behalf of their clients .

Though my charges were dropped, I remain a target of right-wing stalking websites. Still recovering from the financial and personal stresses of an unwarranted jury trial, I watch my children struggle with nightmares about cops taking their mom away, about a pipeline that spills into the river where they swim, and about a climate crisis stealing their futures.

Nearly 100 Line 3 cases remain, most in Aitkin County. On the second anniversary of the Rally for Our Rivers, we are still calling on officials to recognize that extraction projects like Line 3 are a threat to our environment and community health, to Indigenous rights, and to the fate of our democracy. Remaining charges against Line 3 protestors should be dropped in the interest of justice.

Many applauded Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison charging Enbridge for an aquifer breach during Line 3 construction. Ellison could also launch an investigation into misconduct by law enforcement.

Our rivers and aquifers need protection from corporate greed. So do our rights to free speech and protest.

Shanai Matteson of Palisade, Minnesota, in rural Aitkin County, is a writer and cultural organizer in support of treaty rights and environmental justice.

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Shanai Matteson

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