Over the weekend, (11/20/16) the situation at Standing Rock grew more contentious. On Sunday night, Morton County police sprayed the crowd of about 400 people with tear gas and water cannons as temperatures dipped below freezing.
AS POLICE UNLEASHED STREAMS of icy water Sunday night against Dakota Access pipeline demonstrators, Linda Black Elk, a member of the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council, was helping care for injured demonstrators. The council estimated that 300 people were treated for injuries, including 26 who were taken to area hospitals.
“What it was like were people walking through the dark of a winter North Dakota night, some of them so cold, and sprayed with water for so long, that their clothes were frozen to their body and crunching as they walked. So you could hear this crunching sound and this pop-pop-pop, and people yelling [to the police], ‘We’ll pray for you! We love you!’” Black Elk said, describing the scene as police sprayed protesters with water and fired tear gas and rubber bullets during the more than six-hour standoff.
In the midst of the clash, the Medic and Healer Council, which was set up to provide health support to those fighting the pipeline, released a statement pleading with police to halt the use of water cannons. “As medical professionals, we are concerned for the real risk of loss of life due to severe hypothermia under these conditions,” the statement said.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said, “We don’t have water cannons,” explaining, “This is just a fire hose.”
“It was sprayed more as a mist, and we didn’t want to get it directly on them, but we wanted to make sure to use it as a measure to help keep everybody safe,” he said. “We’re just not going to let people and protesters in large groups come in and threaten officers. That’s not happening.”
The department characterized the protesters’ actions as “very aggressive,” saying that projectiles had been thrown at police, injuring one officer. Medics on the ground said the demonstrators they observed were unarmed and largely nonviolent. The department said it had requested additional assistance from law enforcement around the state, and that border patrol would be providing support.
Noah Morris was another medic at the scene. “They were just hosing people down with their water cannon that continued for the entirety of the four hours I was out there watching,” he said. He said that earlier in the week, the rivers and creeks nearby had started to crust over with ice. As he and his team flushed the eyes of people sprayed with tear gas, the water and milk of magnesia they used turned to black ice on the ground.
Morris said he knew of multiple people that had been hit in the head with rubber bullets or bean bag rounds. In a statement, the Medic and Healer Council described injuries including an elder who lost consciousness before being revived on site, a man who experienced a seizure, and a woman whose eye was injured when she was shot in the face by a rubber bullet.
The standoff began after pipeline opponents attempted to use a semi-truck to remove two charred military vehicles from a bridge. The vehicles were serving as a blockade between the large encampment known as Oceti Sakowin, which has served as a base for blocking the pipeline, and construction sites accessible farther down the highway. Beyond the burned-out vehicles stood cement road barriers topped with razor wire, behind which police and other security officials have been standing guard since the end of October. Their presence means a detour for those traveling between the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and the city of Bismarck, including emergency medical services.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested Morton County to prevent protesters from trespassing on land north of the camp.”
Since April, when citizens of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation set up the Sacred Stone Camp, thousands of people have passed through and pledged support. Environmentalists and activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Code Pink have also stepped in as allies. Many people who have visited say that the camp is beyond anything they’ve ever experienced.
In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux have been able to attract support from hundreds of tribes all over the country, not just in places that would be directly affected. The tribes aren’t just leaning on long-held beliefs about the importance of the natural world. They’re also using long-held resistance strategies. Like the encampment itself.
President Obama vetoed Keystone XL. But even at the time, A. Gay Kingman, the executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, warned that the reprieve would be temporary. “Wopila [thank you] to all our relatives who stood strong to oppose the KXL,” Kingman said in a statement after the veto. “But keep the coalitions together, because there are more pipelines proposed, and we must protect our Mother Earth for our future generations.”