Dakota Access protesters reject 'unlawful' label
BISMARCK - After a week free of clashes with law enforcement, protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline say removal of a roadblock leading to their camp is long overdue, and the American Civil Liberties Union is considering legal action if it does...
BISMARCK - After a week free of clashes with law enforcement, protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline say removal of a roadblock leading to their camp is long overdue, and the American Civil Liberties Union is considering legal action if it doesn't happen.
For protesters, the roadblock perpetuates what they say is the misconception that their activities are inherently dangerous or violent - a perception many blame on comments made by authorities and state officials and media coverage - as opposed to the peaceful, prayer-heavy demonstrations that take place daily at the camp and construction site.
But a North Dakota Highway Patrol spokesman said that with hundreds of protesters still camping just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and occasionally marching up the road to the pipeline construction site, the checkpoint that's been in place since Aug. 17 is for their own safety to limit southbound traffic through the area.
Authorities and state officials also counter that while the majority of protesters are peaceful, there has been unlawful activity, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the Morton County Sheriff's Department both citing numerous criminal acts including trespassing on private property, blocking the highway, damaging construction equipment and threatening officers and contractors.
'Spinning a false narrative'
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II said Friday that reports of criminal activity by protesters have been "extremely exaggerated," and he attributed the incidents that have occurred to pent-up frustration about 500 years of unjust treatment of Native Americans and sensitivity about the ancestral lands and water supply they fear a pipeline leak would spoil.
Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network who is helping lead the camp, said the camp is committed to nonviolence and he objects to the statements about criminal activity made by state officials.
"What we are seeing is the state and specifically the governor spinning a false narrative that only creates resentment and potential danger for all parties," Goldtooth said.
As an example of criminal activity, officials point to incidents of laser pointers used against aircraft that were observing the protest during early morning hours of Aug. 17 and Aug. 21. Goldtooth said he wasn't aware of any use of lasers, but questioned whether it could have been people using flashlights to see what was flying overhead the camp at night. Goldtooth said he observed aircraft flying over the camp at a low altitude with no lights on after midnight, which he equates to "mental warfare."
"It might not have been a laser, it might have just been curious people looking to see what that noise was," he said. "If you need to conduct surveillance or get an idea of numbers, you can come ask, you can come by the camp, or you can try to do something in the daylight. But not in the middle of the night."
Lt. Tom Iverson, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said the agency's plane has been surveilling the area "to kind of monitor if there's any people coming onto the roadway, if we need to send officers down if the roadway is blocked."
Roadblock staying put
As the Standing Rock tribal council did last week, the ACLU on Friday called on Dalrymple and Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier to remove the concrete barricade about six miles south of Mandan where authorities are allowing only local traffic and emergency responders to continue south on Highway 1806.
Iverson said the checkpoint is meant to ensure the safety of the protesters about 30 miles to the south.
"Although there may not be anybody on the roadway right now at this point, it's completely unpredictable," he said, adding, "By no means is this meant to limit anyone interested in protesting down there. You just have to go around and take a separate route to get there."
Jennifer Cook, policy director for the ACLU of North Dakota, said forcing protesters to drive an extra 15 miles to reach the camp violates their First Amendment rights. Cook noted the state has no similar roadblock south side of the protest area.
"Apparently they're not concerned about people going down the other way," she said.
Tribal officials and protesters say the roadblock hurts the economy by making it more difficult to reach the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort near Fort Yates, inconveniences those who travel to or from the reservation for work and cuts off access to popular recreational spots along the Missouri River, which they worry will boost resentment toward Native Americans.
Morton County spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said the roadblock will remain until Kirchmeier is assured there won't be people on the road or vehicles parked alongside it.
Authorities are prepared if Dakota Access resumes construction and things escalate again, with a main goal of keeping protesters, workers and officers safe, Kirchmeier said earlier this week.
He said windows were broken out of one of the company's bulldozers at the pipeline site, fences were cut on private property and a gate was torn down during the first few days of the protest that began Aug. 10, but there hadn't been any reports of additional damage since the company stopped construction and law enforcement withdrew from the protest site last week.
A federal judge said Wednesday he would rule on or before Sept. 9 on Standing Rock's request for an emergency injunction to halt construction. Dakota Access spokespersons did not return messages seeking comment Friday, and Kirchmeier couldn't be reached for comment.
If Dakota Access decides to resume construction, opponents plan to use nonviolent direct action such as holding hands and forming a chain to block workers and delay construction, Goldtooth said. Organizers are emphasizing training in nonviolent direct action to keep the protest peaceful, he said.
Goldtooth, a member of the Lower Sioux Dakota Nation in Minnesota who has family members from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said arrests that result from civil disobedience shouldn't be considered violent or not peaceful.
The demonstration against Dakota Access has resulted in 29 arrests so far for disorderly conduct or trespassing. In its request for a temporary restraining order to keep protesters from interfering with construction or access to the site, Dakota Access said at least two protesters were armed with knives while others threw bottles and rocks at vehicles or made threats.
A hearing was scheduled Thursday to determine whether a preliminary injunction should be issued against the protesters, but Hovland delayed it until Sept. 8, extending the restraining order he had granted Aug. 16.
Permit under review
Protesters at the main campsite - estimates have fluctuated from 500 to 2,000 or more - don't have permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to occupy its land there, but they have applied for a permit that is now under review, corps spokeswoman Eileen Williamson said Friday.
While Dalrymple has called for federal officials to take some responsibility for the protest, Williamson reiterated that the corps has no law enforcement function.
"It's the activity that occurs while they're there that becomes a law enforcement interest," she said.