Police turn water cannons on Dakota Access protesters in below-freezing temperatures

Law enforcement and protesters clash near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline on Nov. 20, 2016. CREDIT: Morton County Sheriff’s Department via AP

A confrontation between law enforcement and Native American tribes protesting the controversial Dakota Access pipeline turned violent once again late Sunday night. As temperatures in Cannon Ball, North Dakota plummeted below freezing, protesters reported being attacked with water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray.

The night began as protesters, who refer to themselves as water protectors, attempted to remove burned military vehicles that were blocking Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806. Protesters say they were clearing the route to improve access for emergency services reaching the camp. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department said protesters’ actions were “very aggressive” and that the water cannons were necessary because protesters were lighting fires.

The police retaliation resulted in significant injuries among the hundreds of protesters, according to a statement from several indigenous groups: “Multiple people were unconscious and bleeding after being shot in the head with rubber bullets. A member of the International Indigenous Youth Council was sent into a seizure by a flash grenade. One elder went into cardiac arrest at the frontlines but medics administered CPR and were able to resuscitate him.”

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with other Native American tribes and protesters from around the country, have remained steadfast in their opposition to the $3.8-billion oil pipeline, set to run from North Dakota to Illinois. The water protectors maintain the proposed route is a threat to their sacred sites and threatens the Standing Rock tribe’s sole water supply.

Their protests have routinely been met with an aggressive, militarized police force. Native American activists have been pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets while standing in water. They were reportedly kept in “dog kennels” after armed law enforcement cleared one of their camps. Water protectors praying by the side of the road were reportedly swarmed by armed police and threatened with arrest.

As a result, Amnesty International USA sent a group of human rights observers to monitor law enforcement’s response to protests last month, saying the group was “deeply concerned about what we heard during our previous visit to Standing Rock and what has been reported to us since.” The United Nations is also investigating reports of human rights abuses against Native American protesters.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama said federal agencies were exploring the possibility of re-routing the pipeline to accommodate sacred tribal sites. But on Friday, the head of the company building the pipeline told the Associated Press the project will go forward as planned. “There’s not another way. We’re building at that location,” Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, said.

The Army Corps of Engineers put the company’s final approval on hold in September, saying more time was needed to evaluate tribal concerns. Last week, the agency said additional discussion and analysis is needed. “While these discussions are ongoing, construction on or under Corps land bordering Lake Oahe cannot occur because the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant an easement,” the agency said in a statement.

President-elect Donald Trump, who has thus far shown no intention of separating his vast personal financial interests from his new responsibilities as president, has a financial stake in seeing the pipeline completed: He has invested between $500,000 and $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners and another $500,000 to $1 million in Phillips 66, which will have a 25 percent stake in the finished pipeline. Energy Transfer’s Warren also gave $103,000 to elect Trump and $66,800 to the Republican National Committee.