Sheriff’s office said police were in a ‘standoff with protesters’ while activists say protesters were peaceful, raising concerns about more arrests and clashes
by Sam Levin and Nicky Woolf, The Guardian, November 2, 2016
The US army corps of engineers has ordered North Dakota police to arrest Native American protesters and destroy a bridge that activists built over a creek at the center of the increasingly tense Dakota Access pipeline demonstrations.
The Morton County sheriff’s office announced on Wednesday that police were in a “standoff with protesters on the banks of the Cantapeta Creek” while activists said they were engaged in a peaceful water ceremony.
The situation raised concerns that there could be more mass arrests and violent clashes with police.
Police claimed that the protesters – who have for months been attempting to block construction of the $3.8bn oil pipeline that they say threatens sacred lands and their water supply – were trying to gain access to private property known as the Cannonball ranch. The group had built a “handmade wooden pedestrian bridge” across the creek, the sheriff said in a statement.
“Officers responded and ordered protesters to remove themselves from the bridge and notified them that if they cross the bridge they would be arrested.”
Police said the activists were “violating numerous federal and state laws”, but a spokeswoman said she could not immediately identify the specific alleged offenses.
An army corps spokesman said the agency had given police permission to enter the federal property “to prevent further campsites from developing and threatening public safety”.
The standoff comes hours after Barack Obama said in an interview that the army corps was exploring ways to reroute the controversial pipeline project around sacred Native American lands.
Some activists said the announcement was too little too late, noting that construction of the pipeline had come very close to the Missouri river, which the Standing Rock Sioux tribe said could be contaminated by the project.
Dana Yellowfat, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council, told the Guardian that he had been at the front of the standoff but had since moved back.
He said police were firing concussion grenades, what looked to him like teargas and rubber bullets into the crowd. Two aircraft and a helicopter were circling the camp, he said.
“There’s five [police] boats on the river, probably 200 water protectors on the front line,” he said. “They’re shooting teargas into the crowd on the other side, they’re lobbing them off the boat.”
He said that protesters had been on a “prayerful march” this morning and had encountered police on two fronts: on the main road and down by the river, but that the river had developed into a standoff.
“Everyone is pretty stressed out at this point,” he said. “You might want to call it a surprise attack.”
“It’s getting bad out there,” he added.
He said that the police had parked military-style vehicles on a sacred burial site.
Arlana Curley, a Cheyenne River Sioux tribe member who has been at the protest camps since August, said that the plan was to have a peaceful action on Wednesday on army corps-controlled land where people have a right to demonstrate.
“They’re violating our civil rights to be protesting there,” said Curley, 37, who was driving to the demonstration. “We are trying to go up against this corporation, and they’re ready to hurt us and kill us.”
She added: “It is always peaceful. We’re always in prayer. That’s why the elders and the majority of us are out there – to do ceremonies.”
Police have made more than 400 arrests in the past two weeks, accusing Native Americans, journalists and film-makers of rioting, criminal trespass, resisting arrest and a range of other serious felonies.
Law enforcement has faced widespread backlash across the country after it was revealed that police had kept Native Americans in “cages” that resembled “dog kennels” and had written numbers on people’s bodies to track them.
The sheriff’s office said law enforcement officials “continue to notify protesters that anyone who crosses the river and enters corps or private property will be arrested”.
The most recent violent clashes occurred last Thursday when Native Americans set up camps on property where the latest round of pipeline construction is planned. Police with tanks and riot gear surrounded the activists and ultimately used pepper spray, bean bags and Tasers against them.