On Thursday, scores of law enforcement officers from seven different states showed up with riot gear, armored vehicles, and military weaponry to clear away Standing Rock’s newest camp, the “1851 Treaty Camp.” The camp stands directly in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline. Tipis and sweat lodges were destroyed. Vehicles were set ablaze. More than 140 protesters were arrested.
The county sheriff is claiming the water protectors were violent and that police were stopping a riot. But hours of live video feed from people caught in the confrontation showed instead a military-style assault on unarmed people: police beating people with batons, police with assault rifles, chemical mace, guns firing rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, tasers.
Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has maintained that its citizens and supporters are engaging in peaceful, nonviolent expressions of their opposition to the pipeline.
Tara Houska, national campaigns director for the Native environmental group Honor the Earth, and Thane Maxwell, an organizer with Honor the Earth, have been at the camp for months. They describe what is happening:
Law enforcement from at least six other states have been involved in the assaults in North Dakota. And Morton County’s sheriff claims the federal government’s refusal to provide manpower and financial assistance factored into the call for help from other states. Tell me about the law that allows this.
The troops from other states (Wisconsin, Indiana, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Nebraska) are sent here through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which was designed for natural disaster situations. In 20 years of operation, EMAC has only been used twice for protest purposes—in the Baltimore rebellion after Freddie Gray’s murder and here at Standing Rock. Its use here was made possible by Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s declaration of a State of Emergency, which was itself a gross misuse of funding and powers intended for natural disaster relief. DeSmogBlog did an excellent, in-depth piece on this.
If folks in those surrounding states and counties want to complain about their tax dollars going to support this, what should they do?
I (Thane) am from Minneapolis, where Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek has sent 30 Special Operations forces to Standing Rock. We encountered them here on the front lines on Thursday and documented their brutality against us. Tara shot footage of Hennepin County officers violently beating a man with batons that they had pulled out of the crowd. Honor the Earth has a substantial constituent base in Hennepin County, so we and our allies have pushed hard to demand the sheriff withdraw the troops. Thousands have signed petitions and attended rallies at government offices this week, and many elected officials, nonprofit leaders, and faith leaders have issued public statements calling for immediate withdrawal. But so far, we have not won. We encourage people in other jurisdictions sending troops to demand their elected officials put an end to this violence. Don’t take no for an answer.
How many water protectors have been arrested so far?
Over 400 people have been arrested. Some are still in jail from the mass arrests on Thursday, as law enforcement makes it extremely difficult to track people, so an exact count is unknown.
There have been reports of police violence against elders and children, right?
Yes. Elders and children have been bitten by DAPL private security attack dogs, pepper-sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten by police. Often elders are in ceremonial dress and actively praying when arrested—drumming, singing, burning sage. One member of the International Indigenous Youth Council suffered a broken wrist from a strike with a police baton, and just a few days later an officer saw the cast and intentionally twisted her wrist to reinjure her.
What are the incidents of torture that have been reported?
Arrestees have reported numerous experiences of abuse and torture while in police custody. Folks have been strip-searched for misdemeanor charges, and there are reports that women have been left naked in their cells and harassed by male guards. Native arrestees have had their braids undone and pawed through for an alleged “weapons search” in what is a clear effort to demean. Others have had hoods placed over their heads, been incarcerated in dog kennels due to lack of cell space, or marked with numbers on their skin. Amnesty International classifies these practices as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CID),” which is illegal under international and U.S. law. Water protectors who locked themselves to construction equipment have also reported the use of waterboarding and pain compliance techniques such as zip-tying people in contorted positions for hours at a time. These are internationally recognized as methods of torture.
I heard police are targeting medics and journalists. Is this a recognized tactic?
Yes. People know about Amy Goodman’s charges, but many other members of the press have suffered physical violence, arrest, detention, and confiscation of equipment. Journalists are often targeted during confrontations because they possess and disseminate evidence of police brutality and human rights violations. Medics are also targeted because they make it possible for protectors to continue fighting the Dakota Access pipeline on the frontlines.
These are recognized combat tactics, and if it were actually a war, clear violations of Geneva Convention humanitarian rules. Clearly identifiable medics have been shot in the back with less-lethal ammunition while attending to patients. On Thursday, several people saw police use batons to hit two medics who were sitting on the back of a vehicle, slowly retreating from the police line. They also pulled the driver out of the car while it was moving, and it continued into the crowd. Luckily, a bystander jumped in the car and stopped it before it hit anyone.
Did they really shoot horses?
Yes. On Thursday, I saw the police shoot many rubber bullets at a horse at point blank range. Police in ATVs also chased horses in full gallop herding buffalo towards the confrontation, and shot them with both rubber bullets and live ammunition. One horse did not survive.
What exactly happens to people who get arrested? What do they go through and how expensive is it for them? Will nonresidents need to return to North Dakota for trial?
Arrestees have had a huge range of experiences, and it keeps getting worse. Some have been bonded out for a reasonable amount of money in just a few hours. Others have stayed in for days and been tortured and abused. Many have been told their personal property was “lost.” Many have faced trumped-up charges and inflated bonds. This is partly an intimidation tactic by Morton County and partly an attempt to seize as many of our financial resources as possible.
Currently, a team called the Red Owl Legal Collective consults with people while in custody and prioritizes bond for those with medical conditions, immigration issues, proximity to structural violence. They bond people out as quickly as possible, and sometimes represent arrestees at bond hearings where a judge may or may not reduce the inflated bond. So far, we have spent nearly $300,000 just to get people out of jail.
Right now, almost all of the estimated 142 people arrested on Thursday are facing felony charges and bonds of $1,500 each. Hopefully none of these charges will stick, but it puts an incredible burden on the movement.
Yes, people are expected to return later for an arraignment hearing where charges are finalized—some have had charges dropped, others have had misdemeanors transformed into felonies. At that point, a plea is entered and the defendant is expected to return again for either a pre-trial conference or a trial. All of this is of course very taxing for people who live far away and, in many cases, in poverty.
Who is providing legal assistance to those arrested?
We are both members of The Freshet Collective, which raises money and manages the Sacred Stone Legal Defense Fund. We work closely with the legal support team on the ground at the encampment, operating with support from the National Lawyers Guild, and we are currently seeking additional attorneys experienced in this line of work. Many other groups on the ground here support this effort, as expressed in this solidarity statement.
What’s the best way for people to support legal defense from afar—both for those arrested and for the other legal battles ahead?
The Sacred Stone Legal Defense Fund is online at www.fundrazr.com/sacredstone. Direct contributions can be made via PayPal to email@example.com to reduce processing fees. This fund is restricted to the direct support of those arrested—bail, fines, court costs, vehicle impoundment, defendant travel, and attorney fees. Any remaining funds will be used in civil cases against Dakota Access, law enforcement, or other parties responsible for human and civil rights violations.
The tribes’ legal interventions in the regulatory process are entirely separate, as are the supplementary legal interventions we are working on at Honor the Earth.
The treaty camp was on Energy Transfer property, but the property closer to the river belongs to Army Corps of Engineers, is that right?
Well, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 clearly affirmed all of this land as sovereign, unceded territory belonging to the Great Sioux Nation. But according to the current laws of the occupying colonial forces, yes, the treaty camp was on Dakota Access land and the main encampment is on Army Corps land.
Is there still time for Obama and Justice, Interior, and Army Corps to step in?
The Obama administration could intervene any time. So far, they have taken measured steps of delay, such as the suspension and review of Army Corps permits related to this project. But no firm answers have been given and construction of the Dakota Access pipeline has sped up.
The U.S. Army Corps has still not sent the final easement to Congress that is required for DAPL to drill under the Missouri River. At a bare minimum, the USACE should deny this permit until a stringent level of environmental review—an Environmental Impact Statement—is conducted for the project, which will require a full survey of sacred sites and other cultural resources, and cumulative impacts to the public health and the environment, all in formal nation-to-nation consultation with the impacted tribal governments. We at Honor the Earth recently teamed up with the Sierra Club and the Indigenous Environmental Network to submit a letter to the Army Corps spelling out the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historical Preservation Act in this situation. Since DAPL intentionally destroyed sacred sites to circumvent their protection, the Army Corps cannot legally issue any more permits. And as the brutal, militarized response by this petro-State continues to escalate, the Obama administration’s lack of intervention is indefensible.
Anything else you can tell us about the treaty camp’s plans now?
All we can tell you is that we will be here until the end, and we will do everything in our power to protect this land, this water, and all the beings who depend on it. We cannot express to you the courage, dedication, and passion in the hearts of the people. You are seeing the videos and images and hearing the stories, but you really have to be here to feel it. This is a war. People are willing to die for this. Five hundred years of oppression is enough.
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Tracy is the editorial director at YES!
Originally published in YES! Magazine