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Protesters shut down road, checkpoint to Mount Rushmore
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Protesters shut down road, checkpoint to Mount Rushmore

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About 150 protesters used vans and their bodies Friday afternoon to shut down the road and a checkpoint to Mount Rushmore to protest the president and monument while calling for the Black Hills to be returned to the Lakota people.  

"The biggest message that we have been trying to send this entire time is that Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy and racial injustice in this country and that the four faces carved on that mountain are the four faces of colonizers who have committed genocide on Indigenous people," said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and one of the protest organizers.

"To have their faces carved on our sacred lands is why it's an extreme injustice," he said, adding that President Donald Trump and his supporters also espouse white supremacy. 

"It's necessary for us to take action like this because white supremacy will not be dismantled if we merely bow down," Tilsen said when asked why the group chose to engage in civil disobedience. "What we're fighting for is something that will improve the lives of all people."

Tilsen, founder of the Rapid City-based NDN Collective, was one of about 15 people who were purposely and peacefully arrested as an act of civil disobedience in order to bring attention to their cause. 

He and others were taken to the Pennington County Jail around 7:15 p.m., more than three hours after the blockade began and 2.5 hours after law enforcement declared the group an unlawful assembly for blocking traffic. 

Law enforcement arrested several protesters and at least two counter-protesters during interactions with officers or fights with other civilians. Several deputies with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office used pepper spray on at least 10 people as riot police with shields moved in on protesters blocking the road. 

Escalating event 

Ticket holders for the Mount Rushmore fireworks could reach the monument via Highway 244 through checkpoints at Horsethief Lake and Iron Mountain Road/Highway 16A. The protest occurred on the main highway, west of downtown Keystone and east of the checkpoint with Iron Mountain Road.

The protest began on the side of the road so ticket holders were able to pass through. Upbeat music blasted from a speaker as protesters — which included young people, families and a few elders —  danced, chanted, and flew the pride, American Indian Movement, and Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe flags. A few demonstrators yelled "go home you immigrant" and similar messages to people on their way to Mount Rushmore, while a few ticket holders shouted at the protesters.  

Demonstrators held signs against Trump and the Keystone XL Pipeline. Others called for the federal government to uphold the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and return the Black Hills to the Lakota people. 

"Great men do the right thing, honor the treaties," one sign read. "The most dangerous immigrants arrived in 1492," "Protect SoDak's First People," and "Land back," other signs read. 

Around 4 p.m., protesters began moving into the highway and blocking off the road with a line of white vans. Protesters took off at least one wheel in order to make it harder to move the vehicle. More than a dozen ticket holders and Trump supporters, some with Trump flags, gathered on the other side of the blockade to watch or counter-protest. 

Deputies declared an unlawful assembly around 4:30 p.m and the National Guard later arrived from the east and west. Many protesters chose to leave at this point and their numbers dwindled through the afternoon. 

Carrying shields, the guardsmen from the east approached the van blockade. Law enforcement made media stand far away but the Journal witnessed two arrests after some pushing between protesters and the guardsmen. The action later focused on the west side as guardsmen put on gas masks and law enforcement repeatedly told the media that we may want to move further away because things were going to start smelling bad — suggesting that the guardsmen planned to use tear gas or some other kind of mass spray. 

The guardsmen aimed a few chemical devices emitting gray smoke to the ground but never fired tear gas or any other chemical directly at protesters. The action later returned to the east side where guardsmen forced the group behind the vans. Three or four deputies standing with the guardsmen used pepper spray on protesters. This reporter was behind law enforcement when this happened but later saw at least 10 protesters struggling as they rinsed the chemicals out of their faces. 

Three protesters who were pepper sprayed told the Journal that they were hit at close range. One woman said she was sprayed while she was trying to move away from the guardsmen. Two men said they got caught in between the vans and that the deputies pulled off protesters' gas masks and face coverings in order to spray them up close. One of the men admitted to grabbing a guardsman's shield. 

Law enforcement coming from the east later made their way onto the west side of the vans and two tow trucks came to take the vehicles away around 6:15 p.m. Police then gave a warning, saying that they will begin arrests in 30 minutes. Many protesters left and officers helped those with cars turn around and leave until there were just about 15 people prepared to be arrested. 

Tilsen told the protesters that everyone played an important role. He said those prepared to be arrested should write down the number of a lawyer to call and know that they'll have access to a bail fund if they need it. 

The protesters prayed before they were arrested just after 7 p.m. All were arrested peacefully and just one person tried to block law enforcement from cuffing her hands with bright orange zip-tie style handcuffs. The group was loaded into a van and car before being taken to the Pennington County Jail. 

The Journal saw several other protesters and counter-protesters being arrested later along the road to Keystone. People lining the streets to watch the fireworks cheered and clapped for law enforcement as they headed home in their vehicles. 

It's unclear how many ticket holders missed the fireworks due to the protest and if they were let in once it was over. The original deadline to pass through the checkpoint was 6 p.m. 

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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