Editor's note: As part of the Journal's ongoing coverage of the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protest in North Dakota, staff writer Mike Anderson has been camping in a tent near the protest site. He filed this dispatch from the scene on Saturday.
CANNON BALL, N.D. | A peaceful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline ended in the arrests of 126 people in North Dakota on Saturday morning amid a chaotic scene in which police in riot gear used pepper spray to break up and subdue a group of 200 to 300 protesters.
It is the highest number of people arrested in a single day in North Dakota during the last several months of protest actions against the oil pipeline, bringing the total number of arrests up to 269.
Though the protesters behaved non-violently and cooperated with the police, North Dakota law enforcement officials described Saturday’s events as a riot. Police have offered conflicting reports alleging that one protester either verbally threatened an officer, or tried to physically grab away a can of pepper spray, resulting in the protester and the officer both being pepper sprayed in the face.
Most, if not all, of those arrested after the 5-hour ordeal on Saturday will be charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, according to Morton County Sheriff spokesperson Rob Keller. Other charges included assault on a peace officer, reckless endangerment, engaging in a riot, resisting arrest, and fleeing an officer on foot.
“It’s an unlawful activity,” Keller said during phone interview on Saturday afternoon. “The bottom line is it’s on private property. It’s posted, ‘No Criminal Trespass’. It’s like you’re invading someone’s home. Consequently, there were arrests that were made.”
The arrests occurred as the protesters were marching through wide-open prairie lands along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline west of Highway 1806 outside Cannon Ball, N.D. They hoped to get to four fellow protesters who had locked themselves to a piece of construction equipment in the early morning hours at sites where the pipeline, which is planned to be buried beneath the Missouri River, is now under construction.
A police statement said the four were arrested after they were found, “attached to the vehicle; two attached to the outside of the vehicle, one attached to the steering wheel and another whose body was outside the vehicle with his arm fed through a hole in the door and his hand was in a bucket of hardened concrete.”
The call to action went through the main resistance camp around 5:20 a.m. while it was still dark and freezing cold. A man walked through the camp speaking through a megaphone.
“Wake up relatives,” he said. “Wake up water protectors. Wake up land defenders. Time to wake up. Time to send our boys to the universe. Time to send our boys to the rising sun.”
A convoy of vehicles formed in the camp, a prayer was held, and the assembled were instructed to behave peacefully and respectfully if they encountered police.
“I know it’s hard on the front line,” the prayer leader said in the dark. “But do not cuss, do not holler. If you see someone getting out of hand, tell them to calm down.”
Then the convoy moved out. Parking their vehicles along the highway, the protesters began hiking into the field as the sun rose a little before 8 a.m. Their path took them along a craggy dirt road near the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline on land that tribal members of the Hunkpapa Sioux of Standing Rock said is filled with sacred burial sites.
Some of the protesters remained behind as several hundred others carrying signs and banners began marching into the field, singing, praying, and burning bundles of ceremonial sage as they went.
They walked two to three miles inward when they encountered a line of more than 50 officers from multiple law enforcement agencies. Most of the officers wore riot gear, most held wooden truncheons, and some had shotguns, canisters of pepper spray, and tear gas grenade launchers in their hands. Two armored personnel carriers arrived later while a helicopter circled low overhead.
The protesters and police lines met in the middle of an open field. The protesters remained calm, playing drums and offering prayers in English and Lakota to the officers, who remained stone-faced and uncommunicative.
When the police line began to advance on the protesters, the leaders of the group instructed everyone to fall back and cooperate with the police. They were dispersing when an officer spoke over a loud-speaker from the turret of an armored vehicle.
His only words — and the only words police spoke to the protesters all morning — were, “You’re all under arrest for trespassing.”
The police continued to advance on the fleeing protesters, snatching some of the stragglers, throwing them behind their lines, and pepper-spraying several others in the face as they trod silently forward.
The police eventually surrounded the group, repeating that every one of the 200 to 300 people present would be placed under arrest. The protesters linked arms and tied bandanas to their faces as the officers pressed in, splitting the group and pressing many to the ground. Most, if not all of the men and women taken into custody, did not resist arrest.
A small group managed to retreat over the hill, a few pouring water into the eyes of friends who had been stung by pepper spray and guiding them by hand up the dirt road as they made their way back to camp.
“It was all peaceful. And then the cops showed up," said Harmony Restoule, a young Ojibwe woman from Northern Ontario, Canada. “It was really scary when the police kicked into action.”
Restoule went to the demonstration with her cousin Paige, both of whom participated in mass protests during the Idle No More movement, a grassroots campaign organized in 2012 by the indigenous peoples of Canada against perceived legislative violations of their treaty rights.
“The Canadian police never showed up in riot gear,” Paige Restoule said.
A young man from California who identified himself only as Ahkua said his friend was among the people arrested, and that the police took him after he knelt to the ground to help someone else up.
“There were a few officers who were excessively aggressive and got the others riled up,” he said. “Most cops are pretty chill.”
Saturday’s protest was one of several high profile demonstrations in the Cannon Ball area against the Dakota Access Pipeline in recent months. Police arrested celebrity Shailene Woodley along with more than 20 others on Oct. 10 along the route of the pipeline near St. Anthony, N.D. Police referred to the event as a riot and charged many people with either inciting or engaging in a riot. At the time, it was the highest total number of arrests made in a single day.
The protesters, who now number in the thousands at a main camp near Cannon Ball, want to stop the ongoing construction of the pipeline that will transport oil from the Bakken and Three Forks formations of North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, into southern Illinois. The pipeline would carry 450,000 barrels per day initially and could reach 570,000 barrels a day. The total length of the pipeline across the four states would be 1,172 miles, with 271 miles in South Dakota. The company’s estimated cost for the South Dakota segment is $820 million.
On Sept. 3, police and private security forces used pepper spray and dogs to drive protesters away from construction equipment.
“Today’s situation clearly illustrates what we have been saying for weeks, that this protest is not peaceful or lawful,” Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a press-release about Saturday’s events. “This protest was intentionally coordinated and planned by agitators with the specific intent to engage in illegal activities. I have repeatedly stressed that it is our job to provide safety and security for all involved in the situation at hand. This is not about the pipeline. This is not about the protesters. This is about the rule of law.”
The protesters may have been peacefully dispersing on Saturday morning, Keller said, but that doesn’t change the fact that they broke the law.
“That’s the whole purpose of having a police line, to protect the (pipeline) property and their right to commerce,” Keller said. “We are protecting the protesters too, and the ranchers as well.”
When asked if she felt protected by the police, Harmony Restoule said, “No.”
(Update: The original version of this report stated that 83 people were arrested. New information released by law enforcement show that the number was actually 126.)