Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Cop violence rises at pipeline protest, and more escalation may lie ahead

Corps of Engineers backpedals on eviction order, as 2,000 veterans head for the Dakota Access Pipeline encampments.

Police use a water cannon on protesters during a protest near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Nov. 20.
REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

When I wrote two months ago that the Dakota Access Pipeline encampments might prove to be a turning point in American environmental politics, I was thinking of a turn for the better.

Now, alas, it seems this protest may well signal a sharp turn for the worse. Certainly it raises the hard question of whether the increasingly violent, militaristic police response is about this battleground’s particulars of time, place, people and topic — or if it marks a larger shift in how the country responds to nonviolent direct action on matters of huge public concern.

In early September this remarkably broad uprising, led by but not limited to Sioux tribes collaborating on a scale not seen since the Battle of the Little Bighorn, had finally moved the White House to call for time out in a massive project that had sailed 60 percent of the way to completion without meaningful environmental review.

This pause also held the possibility of de-escalating police actions against the protesters, whose conduct — generally peaceable, if annoying and often mildly illegal — was being met by riot-suited cops in armored vehicles wielding tear gas, pepper spray and dogs as they forced removals and made arrests by score.

Article continues after advertisement

How long ago, and gentle, all that seems today. Since Nov. 20 we have seen an  intensification of this shameful policing to include assaults with nonlethal but certainly injurious weapons like water cannons (in 28-degree temperatures and darkness), stun grenades, and guns firing rubber slugs and/or beanbags.

That is, we have seen glimpses of the mayhem. Though it far exceeds responses to, say, the Occupy Wall Street encampments around the country a few years back, policing at Standing Rock still commands only fleeting attention in mainstream media.

In a 10-hour confrontation that began around sundown two Sundays ago, and lasted until 4 a.m., at least 300 protesters were hurt to a degree that required treatment, according to tribal medics; 26 were taken to hospitals.

One of them was 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, an environmental activist from New York City, whose left arm was mangled by what witnesses and her father say was a concussion grenade thrown directly at her by cops. She was airlifted to the Hennepin County Medical Center for a series of surgeries  that looked for a time to be headed for amputation.

The police, in what has become an established pattern of denial and blame-shifting, are asserting — without presenting any supporting evidence, and in the absence of any corroborating account I can find anywhere — that she and other protesters were making bombs out of propane canisters, one of which went off in her hands.

Her father, Wayne Wilansky, has posted his understanding of what occurred in this video. An  act of courage to be admired, I think, but watching it may unsettle your stomach as well as your conscience.

Corps closes its land to camping

Given this level of conflict, it is understandable that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should announce last Friday the “closure” of its lands to protest activities that violate federal rules against cookfires, camping and unauthorized structures.

All of these, of course, have been commonplace at the Oceti Sakowin expansion camp that formed on Corps land after the protest outgrew its earlier locations on property that was private and/or covered by permits, some established as far back as last April.

Standing Rock’s tribal chairman, Dave Archambault, responded immediately that the protesters would stay put, thank you, on land they consider theirs by treaty anyway; he declined the Corps’ offer of a substitute “free speech zone” nearby.

Article continues after advertisement

Without challenging the Corps’ stated commitment “to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury” from wintry weather on the way, the tribe pointed out that the Corps could also achieve these goals by reaching a decision “to deny the easement for the Oahe crossing, and deny it now.”

Don’t hold your breath.

As of Nov. 2, according to President Obama, officials were working on what they felt might be a workable solution, but it would be at “several more weeks” before it was ready for rollout. On Nov. 14, the Corps announced that more analysis was needed before a decision could be reached on the easement for the crossing.

The Corps said on Monday that protesters who violate the closure will be subject to arrest and prosecution but would not be forcibly removed en masse, despite an evacuation directive from the governor. Which leaves more than a little doubt about what will happen when it takes effect Dec. 5.

That happens to be one day after as many as 2,000 U.S. military veterans sympathetic to the Standing Rock viewpoint are due to arrive at the protest sites to lend their support. (Weirdly, it happens also to be the birthday of George Armstrong Custer who, as a press release from the American Indian Movement points out, served in the same Army of which the Corps is a part.) And the vets are, um, prepared.

A week ago, speaking to — “a news and culture site geared toward the next great generation of American veterans” — an organizer spoke of how the veterans were approaching their pending involvement as essentially a military operation, in the uniforms of their national service.

Vets Standing For Standing Rock was announced via an official sounding letter formatted like a five-paragraph military operation order, breaking down the “opposing forces” — “Morton County Sheriff’s office combined with multiple state police agencies and private security contractors” — “Mission,” “Execution” and “Logistics,” among other things.

A packing list virtually mirrors the ones issued to soldiers preparing to deploy to the field (minus the weapons). But there are also parts of the document that read like a revolutionary manifesto. Under the section titled “Friendly Forces,” for example, the op order states, “we are there to put our bodies on the line, no matter the physical cost, in complete nonviolence to provide a clear representation to all Americans of where evil resides.”

Gosh. If I were a Morton County deputy in riot gear, I might be wondering: What could possibly go awry?

Article continues after advertisement

Climate worsens on two fronts

Meanwhile, serious winter weather lies ahead for the protesters, and there is no sign of accommodation from either the cops or the company.

A day after the Corps’ Nov. 14 announcement, as protesters around the country engaged in a “national day of action” against DAPL, ETF announced it would seek a court order forcing the Corps to let the project proceed without further delay.

The company says it has now essentially completed the pipeline except for the contested segment at Lake Oahe, and stands to lose big money for every week’s delay beyond its target opening date of Jan. 1.  That risk wasn’t large enough, however, to dissuade Sunoco Logistics from its ETF merger/takeover a week ago.

The pipeline seems assured of strong support from incoming President Trump, unlikely to share his predecessor’s views that the conflict involves “important issues [of consultation] raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally” (emphasis added).

Donald Trump is widely described as a significant investor in ETF, therefore the pipeline project, although I see in the Washington Post that “Trump dumped his stock in the Dakota Access pipeline owner over the summer”:

President-elect Donald Trump sold off his shares of Energy Transfer Partners, the owner of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline that has become the focus of protests by Native American and environmental groups, according to his spokeswoman Hope Hicks. Trump’s share, which in a May 2015 disclosure was listed at between $500,000 and $1 million, had fallen to less than $50,000 by the time he sold it in the summer of 2016, according to a disclosure earlier this year. …

Although he has sold his stake, Trump has been the recipient of generous political contributions from Energy Transfer chief executive Kelcy Warren.

Warren this year has made $1.53 million in campaign contributions to super PACs and $252,300 to individual campaigns and the GOP, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In June 2015, he gave $5 million to Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which supported Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. The Trump Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that includes Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and some state parties, received a $100,000 contribution from Warren on June 29.

Given his repeated calls to “unleash” U.S. oil production, I think we can guess how President Trump will approach whatever administrative decisions about the pipeline remain on his desk when he sits down in the Oval Office.

Article continues after advertisement

But the protests at Lake Oahe are likely to continue anyway, so maybe the more pertinent (and wrenching) question would be:

How will he use federal powers to rein in the local police and prevent further enlargement of the violence we’ve just been witnessing?