MORTON COUNTY, N.D. -- An hours-long standoff between Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and police on the Backwater Bridge ended midday Monday as an elder encouraged people to leave the bridge where hundreds were sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures the night before.
The previous night’s confrontation followed efforts by the protesters to remove burned out vehicles blocking the bridge since late October. The attempt escalated into hours of conflict in which protesters reportedly threw rocks and logs at police, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and cold water.
It was the most tense conflict between law enforcement and opponents of the 1,168-mile crude oil pipeline in weeks, and led to at least 26 serious injuries among protesters, according to a camp medical group, and one officer was reportedly hit in the head with a rock.
The use of water to repel the protesters has come under criticism from people who say it made dozens hypothermic, but law enforcement defended its use Monday as “the best option we had.”
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who said police used fire hoses not water cannons as reported by numerous protesters, said water is not normally used by his department as a method to disperse a crowd. He said field commanders on scene who made the decision to use fire hoses on protesters considered the effect the water would have on people in the cold temperatures.
“We’re just not going to let people, protesters, in large groups, come and threaten officers,” he said.
Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler added, “It was effective. Wasn’t it?” when asked whether the use of force was necessary to keep officers safe. Law enforcement would consider using water again, he said.
Kirchmeier said local law enforcement has begun getting federal aid in the form of Customs and Border Patrol officers.
Protesters have voiced concerns that a leak in the pipeline would contaminate the Missouri River and Angela Bibens, an attorney who works at the camp, did not miss the irony that people protesting about protecting water were being repelled with it.
“It’s using our medicine as a weapon against us to inflict pain and suffering,” she said. “I am appalled by Morton County’s utter lack of regard for the sanctity of human life.”
Bibens said her team was taking statements throughout the day in preparation for a potential lawsuit alleging police brutality. Amnesty International said Monday they would send human rights observes to the pipeline protests, for their fourth visit since August.
Michael Knudsen, a member of the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council, was giving medical treatment at the front line of the protest on Sunday night. He said people were suffering mostly from hypothermia, as well as blunt trauma from the rubber bullets and tear gas contamination.
He said the medics started campfires to warm people, handed out emergency blankets and organized warmer, “winterized” beds in camp for cold people to sleep.
“This was a disaster zone yesterday,” Knudsen said.
Knudsen said ambulances from Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Kidder and Morton counties were present.
According to a release from the medic and healer council, 300 people in total were injured in some form. At least 26 seriously injured people had to be evacuated by ambulance to three area hospitals, according to the release.
CHI St. Alexius spokeswoman Chelsey Kralicek confirmed six people involved in the protest were treated there for "minor injuries." Sanford Health spokesman Jon Berg said nine people were treated at Sanford but he could not release information on their condition. Cecily Fong, public information officer for the Department of Emergency Services said six were treated at the Fort Yates Hospital. One person was in serious condition at the Hennepin County Medical Center, according to the hospital.
Among the most serious injuries were a man who had a seizure, an elder who had to be resuscitated and a woman suffering an eye injury from a rubber bullet to the face, according to the release from the medic and healer council.
Opening the bridge
Authorities have said the bridge may be unsafe for traffic due to fires set Oct. 27 as law enforcement pushed protesters back from a northern “front line” camp directly atop the pipeline easement. Protesters criticize the barricade as blocking emergency services and suggest it is being used to prevent access to construction sites just north.
Archie Fool Bear, a former tribal councilman and member of the Akicita warrior and veterans’ group who has been involved with the protest camps, said he and several tribal leaders approached law enforcement at the bridge two to three weeks ago to ask what it would take to get the bridge reopened. He said they asked for a meeting on "neutral ground" but, to his knowledge, no such meeting has taken place and no agreements have been reached.
Jeff Zent, a spokesman for the governor's office, said it’s not a matter of negotiation.
"That area has to be secure," he said, before state officials can come in to determine the integrity of the bridge and make repairs.
Zent said law enforcement has repeatedly asked protesters to leave the area but demonstrations at the bridge continue daily: "Until that happens we're kind of in a holding pattern."
North Dakota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jamie Olson said the department has not received any update from law enforcement on when they might be able to come do testing. She said testing can still be done despite the cooler temperatures but snow or ice would complicate the process.
'Figured it was time'
Aidoneus Bishop helped pull one burned vehicle off the bridge Sunday night. He said the move was the end of a two-week-long ritual, in which he would pull a semi-truck up to the burned vehicles as if to tow them, then turn back around to camp. He said there was no special reason for going through with the job Sunday night, just that he “figured it was time.”
It took six tries to attach and pull the vehicle, during which time law enforcement told them to stop. Protesters started arriving to check on what was happening.
“The whole plan was to remove the trucks. Everyone showed up and we couldn’t get the other one out … It just escalated” Bishop said.
From there, officers started firing the rubber bullets and more people gathered on the bridge and across the fields to the sides.
This led to the long confrontation with police, in which protesters started fires and allegedly threw rocks and burning logs at officers, according to Kirchmeier. Law enforcement responded by spraying the protesters with water and firing rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd.
They were only able to get one of the trucks, and Bishop said they’ll be back to get the other.
“We’re upholding what we see as our end of the deal, because they’re blaming those vehicles on us. We’re going to clean up our mess,” said Bishop.
Protesters left the bridge late Monday at the request of tribal elders after police warned the crowd that they had found firearms.
Bishop said police were reinforcing the barricade with razor wire as protesters retreated.
Among the crowd on the bridge Sunday night was Elih Lizama, 24, who stayed for four hours despite several hits from rubber bullets, he said.
“We’ve been fighting this for 500 years. Another 24 hours is nothing,” he said. “It’s not in our blood to quit. We can expect to fight to the end.”
Lizama described the rubber bullet hits as “like getting hit with a baseball. He fended off some of them with a plastic container lid, which ultimately broke, and then picked up a piece of sheet metal, which he said worked better. He came back to camp after four hours when his girlfriend said it was time.
“I did my part,” he said.
Bismarck Tribune reporter Jessica Holdman and Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this article.