Having lent support to the North Dakota pipeline protesters, the Obama administration is stiff-arming requests for more federal assistance as the situation on the ground at the massive encampment grows increasingly volatile.
Six states sent law enforcement support to the Dakota Access pipeline site after several law enforcement officers were hurt in last weekend’s clashes that saw 127 arrests, the shooting of a drone that buzzed a helicopter and the use of pepper spray against protesters who charged a police line.
Even so, the Justice Department said it has no plans to provide more resources. So far the agency has provided mediators to “facilitate communication, defuse tensions, support peaceful protests and maintain public safety,” said spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle.
“The department has also offered technical assistance and community policing resources to local law enforcement in support of these goals,” said Mr. Hornbuckle in a statement, adding that the agency is “taking the situation in North Dakota seriously.”
He also reiterated the Obama administration’s request for Energy Transfer Partners to stop work voluntarily on the pipeline project, which the company has declined to do, in order for the Army Corps of Engineers to review issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
For those living and working in Morton County, North Dakota, however, waiting for the administration to research a project already approved by state and federal regulators comes at a cost.
Cody Schulz, chairman of the Morton County Commission, said that the rural community has been roiled by the 10-week-old Dakota Access protest, which has prompted road closures and school lockdowns.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II ‘blasted law enforcement in a Monday statement for actions taken against “peaceful protests at Standing Rock.” But Mr. Schulz pointed out that the demonstrations are occurring in Morton County, not on the reservation.
“I would like to remind everyone here that the situation and illegal activity is actually happening in Morton County,” said Mr. Schulz at a Monday press conference. “It’s happening in the yards, driveways, pastures and fields of Morton County residents. It’s happening on the roads and near the schools where Morton County children are being educated.”
He called on Mr. Archambault to consider the rights of local residents as well as the rights of the protesters, who number between 1,500 and 2,500, camping within a few miles of the construction site.
“It’s disrupting the lives and injuring the economic well-being of everyone that lives in the area,” said Mr. Schulz. “I believe that the chairman’s statement demonstrates that he has little regard for the rights of Morton County citizens that have been routinely trampled on by this illegal activity.”
For example, Sunday the North Dakota Highway Patrol shut down portions of Highway 1806 after protesters set up blockades with vehicles, rocks, barbed wire and tree stumps. The activists later removed the debris at the request of law enforcement, but remained at the site and kept the items in nearby ditches.
“Basically they [protesters] are controlling that area by stopping traffic as it travels through, so it’s not safe for law enforcement to allow people to travel through that area,” said North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind. “There’s people that commute back and forth through that area. It’s just not safe at this point to allow them to go through there.
Militarization of law enforcement
Requests for more Justice Department support have come from the North Dakota House and Senate members, who said in a letter last week that local sheriffs don’t have the budgets to keep up with the flood of out-of-state protesters.
Meanwhile, Mr. Archambault called Monday for the Justice Department to intervene against what he called “strong-arm tactics, abuses and unlawful arrests by law enforcement.”
The chairman blamed the rising tensions on “the militarization of local law enforcement and enlistment of multiple law enforcement agencies from neighboring states.”
“We do not condone reports of illegal actions, but believe the majority of peaceful protesters are reacting to strong-arm tactics and abuses by law enforcement,” Mr. Archambault said.
The tribe and national environmental groups launched the demonstration Aug. 10 in an effort to stop the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline, arguing that the project threatens water quality and sacred cultural and burial sites.
A federal judge rejected in September the tribe’s lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, but the Obama administration announced afterward that it would not authorize construction on corps land bordering Lake Oahe pending the review.
The conflict shows signs of intensifying. Protesters set up tipis and tents Sunday in the path of the pipeline about two miles from the Cannon Ball River, declaring it “unceded territory affirmed in the 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie as sovereign land under the control of the Oceti Sakowin.”
Negotiating with demonstrators has also been difficult because the tribe appears to have lost control of the protest. A group of about 200 to 300 activists is driving the lawbreaking, while the protest’s leadership is split among different camps, according to law enforcement.
“We’ve made numerous attempts and have talked to both different tribal leaders and camp leaders at times,” said Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier. “We’ve got to find someone who is a legitimate leader with the camps. Right now some parts are unorganized, and I think it’s very unorganized as far as who the leaders are.”
About 269 people have been arrested since the protests began, mainly for trespassing and rioting, but Capt. Niewind said law enforcement has actually shown remarkable restraint.
“If you think about all the incidents [that] happened since Aug. 10, we could have made 1,000 or more arrests for all the criminal acts that have occurred,” said Capt. Niewind. “And we haven’t done that because we’ve been patient and we’ve tried to work with the groups that are down there and let the court process work its way through.”
He said one officer was temporarily blinded at last weekend’s melee by pepper spray from a protester, while two other officers sustained minor injuries and another was spit on as he tried to free an activist who had chained himself to a vehicle.
The six states sending law enforcement help are Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Rob Port, a North Dakota conservative radio talk show host who runs the Say Anything blog, warned that more federal involvement could come back to haunt the community.
“If the feds get involved, I hope it is to stand up for property rights and the rule of law, which have been trampled by the protesters,” Mr. Port said. “I’m afraid if they get involved, it will be to take up the cause of the tribe and protesters against state law enforcement, which would only further inflame this situation.”