The Standing Rock protesters are caught between Trump, law enforcement, and saving their water

The fight begins anew.

Law officers in North Dakota face off against Standing Rock protesters. CREDIT: Elizabeth Hoover
Law officers in North Dakota face off against Standing Rock protesters. CREDIT: Elizabeth Hoover

Most eyes turned away from Standing Rock in December, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Some went as far as to declare “victory” for the Standing Rock Sioux and the self-described “water protectors” who had been fighting the pipeline project for months.

That changed on Tuesday, when President Donald Trump signed executive memoranda to move forward with the Dakota Access pipeline, as well as the reviled Keystone XL pipeline.

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“Crews are already in hotels waiting to get to work, and all equipment is on site to begin the job,” according to Seattle Times reporter, Lynda V. Mapes.

The fight at Standing Rock begins anew.

The $3.8-billion project has been one of the most contested pipeline projects in recent history. The Standing Rock Sioux say it will damage sacred Native American sites and threaten their sole source of freshwater. In an interview with CBS, Chase Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, recently called the conflict, “the most significant struggle, we feel, since the Civil Rights Era, since the armed Wounded Knee occupation.”

For the thousand or so protesters who remain at Standing Rock, who were never convinced that the December 4 decision would stop Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the pipeline, Trump’s order to move forward came as no surprise.

“I think they feel untouchable now.”

Interest in joining the fight at Standing Rock has surged since Trump’s inauguration, and again after yesterday’s memoranda, said Xicana activist Kaelly Salazar.

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But the protesters are also anticipating increased aggression from law enforcement. “They’re getting bolder, as far as what they’re willing to do and how far they’re willing to take it, because I think they feel untouchable now,” Salazar said. “Now that Trump’s in office, I think they feel that they have a green light to do whatever they want.”

Those remaining at camp are trying to decide on the most effective way to proceed. “The big thing that [the tribe] is trying to do right now is to remove the agitators,” Salazar said. “Because there’s definitely a strong group of people who are steadfast in remaining peaceful and prayerful.”

Salazar said peaceful demonstration is now more important than ever. But as winter presses on, water protectors must contend with harsh weather and a new administration unsympathetic to environmental issues and even less so for political dissent.

The growing tension between the protesters on one side and the administration and law enforcement on the other have complicated the fight at Standing Rock — which has become both a physical and a PR battle.  Last week, during a three-day confrontation between police and protesters, live-streamed videos showed police firing non-lethal bullets, teargas, and mace into the crowds. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department responded with a video of their own, where protesters can be seen throwing objects at the police, including, according to the Sheriff’s Department, rocks, logs, feces, bits of razor-wire fence, and molotov cocktails.

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According to one of the protesters, Christian Espinosa, these aggressive tactics are partially in response to the military vehicles, razor-wire fences, and police barricades that are lending a prison yard atmosphere to the landscape of Standing Rock.

Many residents are concerned about the police blockade on the Backwater Bridge, which Espinosa describes as “an affront to the Native people.” The bridge is the main connection between Standing Rock and Bismarck, and the blockade staunches the flow of traffic to the tribe’s primary business venture, the Prairie Knights Casino.

According to Maxine Herr, the Public Information Officer for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the bridge will remain closed “until there is some law and order introduced into the camp.” Herr cited alleged incidents of protesters “vandalizing property,” “terrorizing farmers and ranchers,” and “blocking the roadway.”

Herr’s last point about blocking roadways has become particularly contentious in the wake of a bill introduced earlier this month that exonerates motorists who “unintentionally” strike and kill protesters on public roads. Many of the water protectors claim the Morton County Sheriff’s office immediately exercised this right by hitting and injuring someone with a snowmobile during a confrontation last week near the Backwater Bridge. Morton County officials say there is “no evidence” that anyone was hit.

“I watched it happen with my own eyes,” said Brandyy-Lee Maxie, a member of the Nakoda tribe, part of the Great Sioux Nation. They can say what they want, but they’ve also denied the water canon, and the damages that they did to Sophia Wilansky’s arm… They have been consistently dishonest about everything going on.”

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Many see these laws as violations of Americans’ First Amendment rights — The Intercept’s Spencer Woodman calls the bills an effort to “criminalize peaceful protest” — and as a result, many have abandoned hope of proceeding peacefully altogether.

“I didn’t enlist in the Marine Corps to tolerate that on my soil.”

“I am aware of what the Dalai Lama said, that peace is the best option, but sometimes you need to use violence,” said Mathew-Steven Robie, a former Marine-turned-water protector who admitted to ThinkProgress that he charged the line of riot cops and verbally taunted the officers. “They shouldn’t be shooting rubber bullets at us, or macing us. We’re Americans, and they’re Americans, and I didn’t enlist in the Marine Corps to tolerate that on my soil,” Robie, who was one of nearly 40 arrested last week, told ThinkProgress.

The increasingly violent actions by some water protectors has sparked internal conflict within the camp. According to Sioux and Lakota tribal elders, violent protests have damaging consequences for the community and the movement to stop the pipeline.

“Those who are going to throw rocks and sticks, we don’t need them on the front line,” said Cheryl Angel, an elder of the Sicangu Lakota tribe and vocal opponent of the pipeline. “The people who feel liberated in their taunting of DAPL security and law enforcement officers need to be aware that their behavior of rude outbursts results in escalating tensions and ultimately leads to the arrest of non-violent prayerful people.”

Angel hopes to broaden opposition against DAPL and new oil-infrastructure, by organizing a “national stop workage day” to convince the Trump administration to focus more on expanding America’s clean energy economy.

“Millions of people have already been thinking and feeling this way. If the people have to become revolutionary in their means to get that message across, then so be it,” Angel told ThinkProgress.