North Dakota: Questions raised as protest policing takes proactive approach
Posted by Zig Zag
by CAROLINE GRUESKIN, Bismarck Tribune, October 15, 2016
As pipeline protests continue, law enforcement has stepped up its message, saying more forcefully that it is going to take a hard line.
This week, officials labeled a 200-plus protest in rural St. Anthony a riot. The week before, they announced a new “proactive” approach to policing the protests with more officers and new roadblocks meant to stop the demonstrations before they happen.
Sheriffs Kyle Kirchmeier and Paul Laney say the new tools are necessary to combat ever-more lawless protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and to protect everyone’s rights and safety.
“They’re trying to come to a legal worksite and prevent any work from occurring. And we, as the law, have to make sure that safety, public safety remains,” said Kirchmeier, Morton County’s sheriff.
But the pipeline opponents, the American Civil Liberties Union and a former police chief who specializes in handling protests say the aggressive approach is not only overkill — it worsens existing tensions and may, in some cases, be illegal.
“Softer is better, closer is better,” said David Couper, a former police chief of Madison, Wis., who oversaw hundreds of protests from the 1970s to the 1990s and now is a criminal justice professor. “To start with that heavy-handed approach is a terrible mistake.”
“Democracy is messy,” he continued. “It just is.”
A ‘proactive’ approach
On Oct. 5, a caravan of 100 cars parked in ditches along Highway 6 near the entrance to St. Anthony.
Police had blocked off the road into the small village, anticipating the group would drive toward active construction sites to the west. That led protesters to demonstrate just outside the town — and then, once the protest appeared to have ended, they made an end run around police and showed up at the construction sites one hour later to ensure work had stopped. Once again, they were confronted with dozens of officers and armored trucks, which prompted them to return to camp.
Kirchmeier called the effort a “win” in a press conference the following day. He announced the approach law enforcement took — blocking the road preemptively — would be the new standard when officers saw caravans of cars headed down the road. On top of that, they would add more officers and continue making arrests.
Kirchmeier and Laney, the Cass County sheriff who’s overseeing operations in Morton County, made their case in an interview this week: People are breaking the law, and that must be addressed. Protesters are not the only ones with rights; landowners, workers and the pipeline company have them, too.
The sheriffs maintain there’s a pattern, and they can expect what’s next: When protests occur, hundreds of people often drive on public roads and park alongside or in the ditches, creating traffic concerns. Then, they tend to walk onto private property and do what they can to stop construction, whether that means pressuring workers to leave, engaging in prayer or vandalizing equipment.
“Your rights don’t make someone else’s go away,” Kirchmeier said.
Balancing rights of all
Asked about balancing private property rights and freedom of speech, Mark Tilsen, a South Dakota protester who acts as a liaison between demonstrators and police, turned the conversation toward the issues.
“One of the things that needs to be considered is that we are out there protecting the drinking water of 17 million people who drink this water downstream,” he said. “Legality does not equate to being moral.”
And Couper, the former police chief who teaches criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin in Platteville, contends the police here are making a choice in their approach.
“The law may be on their side now, but they don’t represent just the landowners and the corporations. They also represent the native peoples who are there,” Couper said. “That’s a decision they can make. They don’t have to make those kinds of arrests. They can slow things down.”
He suggested the police could try harder to negotiate with the protesters and be more tolerant of harsh, threatening words.
Moreover, Jennifer Cook, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in North Dakota, suggested the road block strategy may be illegal. She called it “very concerning” and said she was considering suing over the issue — as they had considered when Highway 1806 was blocked for weeks.
“It’s deterring individuals from protesting lawfully,” she said. “You shouldn’t take preemptive action against a lawful protest.”
‘North Dakota style’ riots
On Monday, more than 200 people gathered at a construction site south of St. Anthony. Law enforcement blocked off miles of Highway 6, though the group had already gathered on the site by that point.
One protester on scene, Alden Towler, said the group started the morning in prayer by a teepee set up near the pipeline. They chanted and carried signs. An elder beat a drum, and “there were constant reminders from the organizers for everyone to control their emotions and to stay in prayer,” he said.
During the latter half of the event, a group of people stood behind a line of police and chanted lines, including “Respect our water.” People were arrested from the teepee, for a total of 27 people taken in that day. Provocative words were spoken, but no real violence was observed. Around noon, the protesters left in a group.
Later that day, Laney called the demonstration a “riot.” In the interview Tuesday, Laney referenced a North Dakota law that defines a riot as a disturbance involving five or more people “which by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons or substantially obstructs law enforcement or other government function.”
Laney said there were more people than usual, who refused to leave the area. Some came with the goal of getting arrested, and there was some aggression toward officers during those arrests. “Unconscionable” words were said to officers, and some people carried knives on their hips, too, he said.
The word choice allowed them to tack on an additional charge of “engaging in a riot” or “inciting a riot” to people arrested on scene, whereas protesters previously had been charged with only criminal trespass.
“Their behavior has escalated, so the charges have escalated,” Laney said.
But Towler calls the characterization as a riot “ridiculous.”
“A riot implies that there was violence happening and some sort of destruction of property. There was nothing of that nature happening,” he said.
When confronted with an idea of what it conjures — the recent protests, fires and looting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray — Laney defended his use of the word and referenced instances of vandalism to company equipment.
“This is North Dakota style,” he said.
Armored trucks and riot gear
At the demonstration Monday, police were suited up with riot masks, bulletproof vests and nightsticks. Highway 6 was lined with police cars and armored vehicles.
Police have worn this gear for months — even at the Dakota Access protests law enforcement touts as models, such as the two demonstrations by the Capitol in September.
Laney and Kirchmeier said the garb is necessary because officers could be hit with spit and pepper spray from the protesters. They said they fear violence against their officers, who have been threatened on the line.
But Cook, with the ACLU, reminds that the bounds of free speech are broad. Though there have been reports of violence and threats, no one has been charged with assaulting an officer. One man was charged with terrorizing, after he allegedly rode his horse towards a cop.
“When you have police officers dressed as literal warriors that you see out on the battlefield and they appear in protests where people are unarmed, you’re treating the protest area like a war zone,” Cook said.
‘They could have at least talked to us’
Sherman Alexander, of Eagle Butte, S.D., sat under a teepee by the pipeline at the demonstration Monday before he was arrested for criminal trespass and engaging in a riot.
“We were just sitting there praying,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
“On somebody else’s property,” Laney and Kirchmeier responded nearly in unison when asked about the group under the teepee.
“When they gathered up and they came towards us, they said you guys are going to be arrested, you know that right?” Alexander recalled.
“They could have at least talked to us. There was no talking,” he said. “They stood there and they looked at us like they wanted to hurt us.”
The sheriffs said they always try to have a conversation but have had trouble finding leaders they can trust over time.
“We’ve been trying to find camp leaders, legitimate camp leaders, and have productive conversations with them to make sure everything remains lawful as they continue what they want to do,” Kirchmeier said. “We are more than willing to sit down and discuss it, but criminal activity cannot keep occurring day after day.”