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Lawyer’s View: Recent Days at Standing Rock

Dakota Access pipeline activists need more pro bono legal support to deal with increased law enforcement pushback.

I am a civil rights lawyer, just back from my second stay at the Standing Rock Camp where I am part of the Camp’s legal team — the Red Owl Collective assembled by the National Lawyers Guild. We are pro bono attorneys and legal workers seeking to maintain a regular presence in the camp. Included among us is long-time (Wounded Knee) defender of Native Americans, Bruce Ellison. The Red Owl Collective, with the help of funds raised through the Sacred Stones Camp FundRazr campaign, are providing bond and legal assistance to those arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

There have been more than 80 arrests charging criminal trespass and nonviolent direct actions, including lockdowns on earthmoving equipment to prevent Dakota Access, LLC from building the pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to the Midwest, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. If completed, the leak-certain pipeline would go under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe and will threaten the sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and clean water for the tribe and 20 million others who get their drinking water from the Missouri River. It would also guarantee the production and transportation of more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day to the Midwest and Gulf, with the same carbon footprint as 12 million cars.

Our office, with very limited phone service and internet, is a windowless tent at the top of a windblown hill overlooking the vast entryway to the camp marked by the flags of more than 250 Indigenous nations that have been present. They have come on horseback, some in canoes down the Missouri River and most in buses and caravans from as far away as Alaska. When representatives of the Tribal Nations arrive, they ask permission to enter Standing Rock Sioux territory, and when officially welcomed, they share their traditional dances and songs and words of solidarity and bring gifts.

Our Red Owl Collective has done jail interviews with most of those arrested, bonded them out with funds from the crowdfunding campaign, and are called to monitor the protest sites. We were also successful in getting Dakota Access, LLC’s injunction in federal court in Bismarck against anyone “interfering with the pipeline” dissolved. Currently, we are in the process of connecting with and recruiting North Dakota lawyers to represent those charged. Indigenous attorney Angela Bibens is a regular in our office and National Lawyers Guild lawyers make week-long visits. Even when out-of-state lawyers are admitted to practice, they must work with local counsel. The defendants have asked for court-appointed lawyers, and if the lawyers and arrestees are willing, we will provide legal support and research to the North Dakota lawyers and find lawyers to appear with them.

I was present at several marches and protests at the construction sites, including September 3, where security guards for Dakota Access used mace and sicced dogs on the Water Protectors, resulting in several nasty and bloody wounds to the unarmed victims. Nevertheless, the Water Protectors prevailed and construction was stopped on what had been identified as several sacred sites of historical significance.

Despite the September 9 executive memo temporarily withdrawing the construction permit to study the environmental impact of the pipeline and suggest that further reform with respect to “considering tribes’ views” was needed, the corporations behind DAPL — Energy Transfer Partners and Enbridge, both with terrible records for oil spills and leaks — are determined to continue. On September 22, they paid $18 million to purchase the land and the site of many of the confrontations, bolstering their ability to have protesters arrested for criminal trespass. “No Trespassing” signs appeared immediately, but mysteriously disappeared during their first night. Dakota Access, LLC has already spent most of the $3.8 billion this project will cost and is in debt to major bank lenders, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo. A nationwide campaign is underway to pressure the major banks to call in their loans.

The camp’s defiance has captured the imagination and support nationally and internationally of those fighting for clean water, Indigenous rights and against catastrophic climate change. As the resistance continues, there is an increasing mobilization and presence of law enforcement agencies. On September 25, there was a standoff at three construction sites between several hundred Water Protectors and large numbers of law enforcement in riot gear. This time, despite the standoffs with riot police, there were no arrests. On September 27, caravans of protesters spread out and stopped the excavation. After work stopped, they were confronted by a line of law enforcement in riot gear. The Water Protectors left peaceably, declaring they had stopped work for the day.

Currently, we need more attorneys and legal workers to come to Standing Rock. There were not enough Red Owl Collective members at camp on Sunday or Tuesday to be present at the different actions. Lawyers and legal workers are needed to come to the camp for a week or few days to be part of the Red Owl Collective. We guarantee you will be inspired by the spirit and actions of the camp. “It’s not perfect,” someone at camp said. “We have to get a few kinks out, but we haven’t done this in 140 years.”

I encourage everyone to support this monumental coming together of Tribal Nations and supporters to protect their (our) water, sacred sites and the Earth, and to boycott DAPL’s bank financiers. The Standing Rock Water Protectors want to support other local and national efforts to achieve the same goals. “Water is Life” is true for all of us.

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