Fearing escalation in police tactics, Standing Rock asks Justice Department to step in

“I am concerned about the safety of the people.”

Protestors face off with the Riot Police across the fenceline near a Dakota Access construction site. CREDIT: Facebook/Rob Wilson
Protestors face off with the Riot Police across the fenceline near a Dakota Access construction site. CREDIT: Facebook/Rob Wilson

The North Dakota tribe opposing the controversial Dakota Access pipeline called on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday to investigate law enforcement tactics against activists as protests, blockades, arrests, and violence intensify.

Over the past months, a growing law enforcement presence has clashed repeatedly with self-described water protectors near Dakota Access pipeline construction sites south of Bismarck, with both groups blaming each other for escalations that have resulted in injuries and mass arrests. No shots have been fired against people — however, over the weekend, officers shot at a drone that was supposedly flying too close to a surveillance helicopter. And late last month an officer drew his weapon after a protester on horseback allegedly charged the officer.

“I am seeking a [Department of Justice] investigation because I am concerned about the safety of the people,” Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a statement. “Too often these kinds of investigations take place only after some use of excessive force by the police creates a tragedy.”

Over the weekend at least 127 activists were arrested after some 300 people allegedly tried to cross a law enforcement line placed on private property along the pipeline easement. Officers pepper sprayed protesters for breaching the line, authorities said Monday, but discontinued the use once they saw there were children in the group.

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The activists, who are mostly Native American and come from tribes around the country, say they have only been peaceful. The local Standing Rock tribal leadership has echoed that message. On Tuesday, the tribe said the militarization of law enforcement and “strong-arm tactics” have escalated violence. They raise allegations of abuse, which include strip searches, dog attacks, pepper-spraying youth, and intimidation.

However, authorities say protesters’ tactics — including placing blockades, charging at officers with horses, and flying drones dangerously close to surveillance helicopters — have been endangering personnel and residents. Law enforcement said in a press conference Monday that one protester fired at least two arrows in their direction over the weekend.

The tribe “needs to condemn these escalated unlawful activities and call upon protesters to respect the rights of the citizens of Morton County,” said Cody Schulz, chairman of the Morton County Commission, in a statement. “Chairman Archambault has made numerous statements regarding his hope for peaceful and prayerful protest activities, it is now time for the chairman to take firm action to remove the agitators that are encouraging and engaging in criminal behavior.”

A blockade of a country highway near a protest campsite. CREDIT: Morton County Sheriff’s Deparment
A blockade of a country highway near a protest campsite. CREDIT: Morton County Sheriff’s Deparment

Six states are now sending law enforcement support to Morton, a rural county of less than 30,000 people that is now overseeing the largest Native American protesting force in the United States in years.

The Department of Justice has yet to say whether it will respond to the tribe’s request.

Hundreds of U.S. tribes are supporting the effort and tribe members from as far away as Arizona and California have reportedly moved to the North Dakota camp. The campsite, which is located near where the Missouri and Cannonball rivers meet, has received thousands of people since it started some four months ago, according to Standing Rock tribe officials.

But while cold temperatures are reportedly forcing some to move out, protesters have continued their push. On Sunday, activists set up a new camp on private land, right on the project’s path for the first time, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

The group put up tents and tepees, arguing that the land they are occupying — and that Dakota Access recently purchased — belongs to Native Americans under an ancient treaty.

Morton County officials said Monday they didn’t have enough officers and were not going to remove the more than 100 activists. It’s unclear what will happen once reinforcements from nearby states arrive.

Protesters road blockade. CREDIT: Morton County Sheriff’s Department
Protesters road blockade. CREDIT: Morton County Sheriff’s Department

The $3.8-billion Dakota Access pipeline would move more than half a million barrels of crude oil per day through the Dakotas and Iowa, to a hub in Illinois. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members oppose it in part because of the risk of a spill into the Missouri River, the longest river in North America and the tribe’s sole water supply.

Dakota Access and supporters say the 1,172-mile project is safe and a source of taxes, jobs, and energy independence. The Obama administration has asked the company to halt construction on federal land as it reviews permits allowing the line to cross the Missouri River. The company has kept building on private and state land the project mostly uses, and project is reportedly nearly complete.