Bismarck Tribune | Nov 02, 2016
Dozens of people were pepper-sprayed and at least two were shot with nonlethal projectiles during a standoff between pipeline protesters and police at a creek north of the main Oceti Sakowin camp on Wednesday afternoon.
The confrontation came after protesters built a wooden bridge across Cantapeta Creek on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land overnight. On Tuesday, the corps had asked the Morton County Sheriff’s Department to assist them in keeping protesters from expanding their camps northward toward the area where they plan to drill the Dakota Access Pipeline under the river.
Protesters contended they wanted to pray and protect sacred sites they believe are being disturbed by construction and law enforcement actions, including atop the hill across the creek where officers were staged.
Law enforcement pulled the walkway apart this morning, saying it violated federal and state laws. Protesters responded by swimming across and forming a line in the water. They took turns standing off against police who were staged across the creek, returning to the camp side by canoe when they got too cold or were sprayed with chemicals.
“Get back on the other side of the river,” police called out to the protesters in the water.
“Shame on you!” they called back. “We are unarmed!”
Standing waist-deep in 50-degree water, people held up tarps and storage bin lids to protect themselves from spray and rubber and bean-bag bullets, which law enforcement said were used to disperse people who came toward officers from the water.
But it did not appear that any of the protesters tried to climb up onto the banks.
“People stayed in the water. A couple people were on the edge, but not going up toward the officers,” said Lisa Brunner, who helped build the bridge and was on scene all day. She coughed intermittently due to pepper spray still in her throat from her stint in the water.
Once people returned to the camp side, medics treated their burning eyes and wrapped cold, and sometimes hypothermic, protesters in silver heat blankets.
“Our people are showing an immense amount of restraint,” said camp organizer Mekasi Camp-Horinek, of Oklahoma. “To stand in the water and freeze, showing heart, that this cause is worthy.”
Law enforcement reported that two people were shot with nonlethal bullets, but medics from the protest camp said there were at least three.
Aidoneus Bishop, a member of camp security, said one person was shot in the face and another had to be transported to the hospital.
“They shot into the water at people,” said Ariel I, a protester from Chicago. “We were just standing there.”
According to the sheriff’s department, the bullets were used on one person throwing bottles at officers and another who charged police and refused to show his hands.
Brunner and one other protester said they had no intent to stop pipeline construction Wednesday, as a sheriff’s department spokeswoman said earlier in the day. She said there are burial sites where the police were staged on the bluffs above the creek.
“All we were trying to do is build a bridge across so we can pray,” Brunner said.
However, a protest organizer said part of the reason for building the bridge was that North Dakota Highway 1806, the northern route from camp, has been closed since Thursday, when several vehicles were burned on the Backwater Bridge following a daylong confrontation.
“We’ve got to make some access to get up and protect those sites,” said Camp-Horinek.
In a Tuesday letter from the corps to the sheriff’s department, Cpl. John Henderson said protesters began on Monday using small boats to travel up the creek and camp on corps land where the pipeline is to be drilled under the Missouri River.
“It appears that isolated groups of people have moved to set up camp in an area north of the current encampment,” Henderson wrote. “It is an area that has not been opened for use by the public for recreational or camping purposes. As such, the Corps of Engineers would consider these individuals to be trespassers.”
The letter specified that the sheriff’s department should not evict people from the current encampments, known as the Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone and Rosebud camps. Morton County Spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said the department was asked to remove the bridge and arrest trespassers across the creek.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a statement that he was glad for the go-ahead from the corps to remove the protesters.
“Eighty-five days into the protests, we look forward to other federal government agencies following the corps’ spirit of providing support and assistance to law enforcement,” Kirchmeier said.
No one was arrested on scene. The standoff, in which pepper spray and tear gas was used, ended around 1:45 p.m., as the last people boated back toward the camp and leaders urged people to clean up the site.
Camp-Horinek said it ended “when warriors decided they had done what they are here to do.” He said the group headed back to camp in order to regroup.
One person was arrested Wednesday for hauling canoes and kayaks down the highway on charges of conspiracy to commit obstruction of a government function, Preskey said.