Police Unleash Water Cannons, Concussion Grenades and Rubber Bullets in Standing Rock

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Roughly 400 peaceful Water Protectors gathered on a bridge on Highway 1806 near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota last night. They gathered in below-freezing weather, doing what they have been doing all along: praying, singing and asking for the authorities to open the bridge to enable those opposing the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) to reach the nearby town of Mandan for supplies.

In response, police from three states and National Guard troops — likely emboldened by the results of the presidential election (Trump is heavily invested in Energy Transfer Partners) — responded in full riot gear: The police terrorized the Water Protectors, who were weaponless, as usual, with water cannons, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) — sound cannons that cause severe headaches and loss of balance.

According to Water Protectors at the site, and as documented in videos taken last night, the militia aimed their bullets at people’s heads and legs, and volumes of water were randomly aimed at everyone. The tear gas was so bad it caused one woman to vomit and wet her pants. She was attempting to get blankets to the front line. One person took a 90-minute video of all this. It continually refers to the peacefulness of the Water Protectors in spite of their being literally trapped by the attacks from the police.

Censored News, a website run by activist Brenda Norrell, also has footage of an interview of one of my fellow EMT/medics, Leland Brendholt, along with more details about the 167 Water Protectors injured. Brendholt confirmed that injuries to the head and legs indicated that the militia was targeting these parts of the body. Seven people were hospitalized for severe head injuries, and the Cannon Ball community gymnasium was opened for treating hypothermia and other serious injuries.

Keep in mind that six days ago the Army Corps of Engineers ordered a cessation of construction, since DAPL’s next action involves drilling under Lake Oahe. However, the corporation essentially rejected the order and has filed in court. It submitted a declaration that it has the legal right of way to complete the pipeline without further action from the Army Corps. And as I reported previously, construction work continues unabated regardless of the law. As has been the case throughout history, our tax dollars are paying for police and national militia to stand against the people instead of against corporations that are acting illegally and immorally against the people. Although many people and organizations are standing in solidarity with this particular movement, last night’s actions call for many more to do so.

Distorted Accounts From Mainstream Media

The events of last night are being woefully distorted by the mainstream media. For example, a report from KPLR-TV’s channel 11, which originates in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, states untruthfully:

Protesters were attempting to cross the Backwater Bridge and go north on Highway 1806, according to the Morton County Sheriff, who described Sunday’s events as an “ongoing riot.” … Protesters set fire to two trucks and several parts of the bridge, police said. On Sunday night, police released a statement saying that the protesters “attempted to flank and attack the law enforcement line from the west,” describing their actions as “very aggressive.”

This misleading report might be the first mention that many in range of St. Louis airwaves hear about the mobilization against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in Standing Rock, unfortunately. I drove to St. Louis from Standing Rock several days ago to visit my uncle. Along the way I asked numerous folks if they had heard about what is happening in Standing Rock. Most did not know what I was talking about, even when I added a mention of “pipeline protests.” Now, what they do know will be untrue. Sadly, this misinformation is not just what US-based, Trump-supporting audiences will hear; the same quote from a Morton County spokesperson was used to describe last night’s terrorism by the Daily Mail, a British daily conservative tabloid newspaper.

The truth about what happened in Standing Rock yesterday is that the “two trucks” mentioned in the news report belonged to Dakota Access LLC, the pipeline company owned by Energy Transfer Partners. On October 27, Dakota Access LLC moved the two trucks on the south side of Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806 during a peaceful Indigenous-led water protection action held there. While the police lobbed smoke bombs, the two trucks were torched. No one knows which side set them on fire, but I arrived on the scene several days after the event and many activists agreed that Dakota Access LLC representatives likely lit the fire themselves in order to justify closing off a crucial road that the Water Protectors relied upon to restock their supplies.

The next day company representatives stretched razor-sharp concertina wire down to the river on both sides and put concrete barriers behind the trucks. The Lakota and Dakota were concerned about deer getting caught up in these barriers. The purpose was clear: Shutting down public access to this road forced all the people at Oceti Sakawan (The “Seven Councils” main camp) to drive an extra hour or more to get to the town of Mandan for supplies. It also hampered the ability of emergency services to arrive at the camp without delay in response to any problems. Moreover, it served as anti-Indigenous propaganda because the closing of the road caused people in Mandan and in Bismarck to lose their easier access to the Prairie Knights Casino. Locals have largely blamed the Water Protectors for all of this: I was told by the proprietors of a store in Mandan that the “protesters set fire to the trucks and destroyed the infrastructure of the bridge [and] made it unsafe.”

When I was at the site of the blocked road last week, I spent hours on the bridge and there was no possible structural damage to it. The trucks were not even parked directly on the bridge itself. Just north of the trucks and cement barriers were two military tank-like vehicles and half a dozen policemen. I called out to talk to someone and three men ran toward me with automatic weapons. They were immediately called back. For a while I took photos of them and the trucks, respectfully asking them to explain why they were blocking a public road. They ignored me. I met with other Veterans for Peace members afterward and suggested this would be a legitimate place to organize an action. A group indeed decided to organize an action at that site Sunday, and some attempted to tow one of the trucks out of the way. This is what led to the peaceful mass mobilization last night, and the brutal police repression that followed.

An Urgent Need for Solidarity Actions in All Sectors

We need people in all sectors to organize solidarity within their work places, social communities and political groups. As a university professor I have personally been trying to rally more support within this country’s academic institutions. Several weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece entitled “Standing Rock and Sitting Universities” in which I encouraged university presidents to take a stand in solidarity with the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota effort to stop the pipeline. Today I learned that 110 college presidents and chancellors have signed a letter urging Trump to take a more forceful stand against “harassment, hate and acts of violence” occurring across the country. I applaud such leadership from our universities that, although not specific to Standing Rock, might be applied to what is happening in North Dakota, and specifically to protecting water and climate from the byproducts of the oil industry. Words against generalized acts of violence are a safe ground for university leaders. However, it is time to support specific positions. As Howard Zinn once said, we “can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

I call for at least one leader of our highest institutions of education to take a courageous stand against this specific corporation’s actions, which are going to add significantly to climate change. By doing so, they would be showing solidarity with a group of people whom leaders in the US have dismissed for too long: the First Nations of this country. A proposal at my own university is being sent to our senate leadership committee to request that our president and chair of our board to endorse the following statement. I do not know if the committee will go forward or whether the presidents will agree. I do know our provost just endorsed it. In any case, I ask that all leaders of higher education around the world, as well as leaders of other communities and sectors, consider offering a similar plea to the one my colleagues have drafted:

The Dakota Access pipeline would fuel climate change, cause untold damage to the environment, and significantly disturb sacred lands and the way of life for Native Americans in the upper Midwest. Direct the US Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the permits under “Nationwide Permit 12” and stop the Dakota Access pipeline once and for all.