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'It Was Just So Hard to Watch': The Police Brutality at Standing Rock

This week, law enforcement indiscriminately shot anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protesters with rubber bullets, sprayed them with high-pressure hoses in subzero conditions, and deployed concussion grenades. We spoke to a legal observer who was there to...

Gabby Bess

Gabby Bess

Photo via Getty Images/Robyn Beck

Activists have been fighting to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would carry crude oil across four states, since the US Army Corps of Engineers granted permits to Energy Transfer Partners for the project in July.

In North Dakota, the $3.7 billion pipeline's route would fall directly under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and risk poisoning the tribe's primary source of drinking water. In response, the indigenous Water Protectors and their allies have set up encampments there to protest what they see as not only an environmental misstep but yet another violation of the rights of Native Americans by the United States government.

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The police mobilization in response to the protests has been both baffling and horrific. When the police tried to break up an encampment late last month by harassing and arresting 147 protesters on various charges, including "conspiracy to endanger by fire or explosion" and "maintaining a public nuisance," it was one of the first indications that law enforcement was taking a militant approach. "The Water Protectors were held for 48 hours or more, forced to removed outer layers of clothing, crowded into freezing chain link cages, and denied food, water, and bathrooms for long periods," Brandy Toelupe, an attorney with the Water Protector Legal Collective—an initiative of the National Lawyers Guild—said in a press release at the time. "They were strip searched, and taken to jails all over North Dakota," she added.

Hearings started for some of the defendants last week, and a judge found that the prosecutor had no evidence to back up the extreme conspiracy charges. Toelupe, who has been acting as a legal observer at the protest site, told me over the phone that the protests have been largely peaceful.

The police response, however, has continued to be disproportionately violent. Toelupe says that law enforcement from several jurisdictions are currently present at Standing Rock and that on Sunday, November 20 the police escalated their tactics when "peaceful and prayerful" Water Protectors tried to remove the blockade on a bridge north of the main camp that goes to a major highway. The police blockade—which is made up of a barbed wire fence and trucks—has cut off the Standing Rock tribe's access to the public road for almost a month. Only law enforcement and the DAPL contractors are allowed on the other side of the blockade.

It was just so hard to watch.

The police swiftly came down on the protesters who tried to get through it, and the attacks on the protesters lasted until Monday morning. Many reports of what happened Sunday night have characterized the protester's interaction with the police as an equal standoff, but Toelupe says that is just not true. "Water Protector Legal Collective had a lot of legal observers there throughout the night. The legal observers all reported that they did not see any armed protesters or any violent protesters," she said. "For ten hours, law enforcement mercilessly sprayed Water Protectors—who were peaceful and many were also in prayer—with water hoses in below-freezing temperatures. They continuously shot rubber bullets and used concussion grenades and chemical weapons such as mace and pepper spray. It was continuous for hours."

She says the police brutality resulted in over 300 injuries. "There were many individuals with head wounds, eye trauma, and internal bleeding. There was cardiac arrest. There was a seizure that happened," she tallied off. "It was a very serious medical emergency, and the individuals that were protesting will face very serious, lasting health impacts." Making it worse, the blockade that the protesters had attempted to remove obstructed medical help from getting through to the camp to assist injured protesters.

"It was just so hard to watch. "It was so uncalled for," she said of the attack. "From our perspective, there was no reason for it. It was done with no regard for the lives and safety of these individuals who law enforcement has a duty to protect."

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One of the Water Protectors, Sophia Wilansky, reportedly almost had to have her arm amputated due to severe damage from a concussion grenade. Police have denied their role in her injury. Lt. Tom Iverson, with the Morton County Sheriff's department, released a statement via Facebook this morning that said, "The injuries sustained are inconsistent with any resources utilized by law enforcement and are not a direct result of any tools or weapons used by law enforcement." In the statement, the Sheriff's department implied that Wilansky's injury was from a propane tank explosion that was orchestrated by the protesters, and attached a picture of the propane tank that the police allegedly recovered from the site.

"There were legal observers there, and nobody saw anything of that nature from any of the protesters that night," Toelupe said in response to the police statement. When I asked Toelupe to clarify if she thinks that the police statement and evidence were completely false, she said, "We would have to say yes." She added that the legal observers and medics at the protest site didn't see anything like what the police were describing. "None of our third-party observers have been able to back up the claims that the Morton County [police] are making," she said.

The ACLU has called the police brutality "a catastrophe with serious human rights implications." And, egregiously, this latest attack follows the Obama Administration's—through the Army Corp Engineers—call to Energy Transfer Partners to cease any activity of building the pipeline under the Missouri river until they do more consultations with the tribe and conduct another environmental assessment. In other words, Energy Transfer Partners does not currently have the right to continue any work near the Standing Rock Reservation, while protesters absolutely have the right to be there. (Energy Transfer Partners has filed a lawsuit last Tuesday asking to finish the pipeline without the Army Corps' approval.) Despite not being granted an easement, Toelupe says that there's still a "huge presence of DAPL workers and construction crews and construction equipment" on the site, right behind the police blockade.

"We're calling on the Obama Administration to intercede and stop these attacks on Native peoples and their allies," Toelupe said.