Two people were shot with rubber bullets while standing in water.
What started nearly 100 days ago as a Native American prayer protest against a massive oil pipeline has turned into near-daily conflicts in North Dakota, as activists move to protect land they called sacred.
Officers in North Dakota pepper-sprayed dozens of people and shot two with rubber bullets on Wednesday, as they stood waist-deep in water trying to reach federal land developers have proposed using to run the pipeline under the Missouri River, the largest river in North America.
The latest escalation surrounding the embattled $3.8-billion project took place after the Army Corps of Engineers asked law enforcement to remove self-proclaimed water protectors who built a wooden bridge the previous night to reach federal property, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said. Dakota Access has
“Receiving permission and precise guidance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was uplifting today. This simple message gave a clear-cut order to execute a plan to remove unlawful actors and prevent further unlawful actions,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, said in a statement.
Authorities said Wednesday that activists, who have for months gathered in mass encampments near the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers, were trying to establish a new camp. Protesters dispute that, saying they wanted to pray and protect sacred sites they claim are being damaged by construction and law enforcement actions, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
After law enforcement with boats pulled the makeshift bridge apart, activists ignored orders to back away and pushed in canoes, kayaks, or swam to reach the shore where officers stood. Authorities and activists then faced each other in opposite lines.
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“People jumped into the water, people swam across the river to the other side, and when they got to the other side they were met with mace and rubber bullets,” said Paulette Moore, an activist and independent filmmaker, via a Facebook live post. “It’s a very dangerous situation because they are in the water.”
Activists took turns standing in water, holding tarps, and storage bin lids to protect themselves from pepper spray, tear gas, and nonlethal bullets that law enforcement said were used to stop people who came toward officers. Authorities also say activists threw bottles at the police line.
Yet video shows — and the Bismarck Tribune reported — that it did not appear that protesters tried to move beyond the shore.
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“We got maced for no reason at all, [for] standing in the water” said another protester, who didn’t identify himself on the Facebook live post distributed by Shiyé Bidzííl.
The stand-off ended around 2 p.m. local time when protesters returned to the main camp area after hours holding in 50-degree weather.
Back in the camp, which is also located on federal land, medics treated some activists for eye injuries and wrapped others with heat blankets to treat hypothermia.
“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.”
The clash came only a day after President Barack Obama said the Corps is evaluating whether the pipeline, which has sparked the largest Native American protest movement in years, could be rerouted to address indigenous concerns of damage to sacred sites. “As a general rule, my view is that there is way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans,” Obama said in an interview with NowThis.
Last week, 141 people were arrested and dozens were injured after armed law enforcement used sirens, pepper spray, and bean bag shots to clear a protest camp on the private land where Dakota Access is putting the 1,172-mile oil pipeline.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe leading the protests opposes the line, saying a spill would poison the river, the tribe’s sole water supply, and construction is poised to destroy sacred sites. The tribe also claims a portion of the land being used for the pipeline is theirs by right of an 1800s treaty.
Just this week it was revealed that Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, failed to immediately notify state regulators about Native artifacts found during recent construction, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
The company counters that the project is safe, properly assessed, and is producing millions in jobs and taxes — all while helping the country gain energy independence.
The pipeline, which is almost finished, has yet to receive the last permits it needs for full build out and to cross a water reservoir adjacent to the Missouri River, which is federal property. The Obama Administration has asked for construction to halt near the requested easement as it reviews federal permits, but the company has continued building on state permitted land.