Dakota pipeline protest crackdown: Was the use of force necessary?

Though protesters were trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, law enforcement officials say they were concerned that 'a faction' might turn violent.

James MacPherson/AP
Protesters against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline block a highway in near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.

Police arrested 141 people for trespassing Thursday in an attempt to break up a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota that eventually turned violent on both sides.

Police officers in SWAT trucks and riot gear arrived early in the day to demand the protesters remove a blockade they had set up on Highway 1806, eventually using pepper spray and rubber bullets against the protesters. Protesters stood their ground on horseback, and it took six hours to push the protesters back to their main encampment. Two protesters fired guns, although no one was injured.

"Protesters attempted to breach the police line and did not follow the officers’ instructions," Donnell Hushka, the public information officer for the Morton County Sheriff's Office, told ABC News. "Officers did utilize pepper spray, to protect police officers. There are no issues if they want to protest peacefully and legally, but on numerous occasions they have engaged in illegal action by trespassing on private property.”

Thousands of native people and environmental activists have been camping out at the Standing Rock reservation since late August in protest of the crude oil pipeline that, if built, will pass through the tribe’s water supply and sacred burial sites.

Another 250 demonstrators were set up on private land along Highway 1806, where Thursday’s arrests took place. Protesters refused to leave the highway, claiming that, according to an 1851 treaty, the land belongs to the Sioux Tribe.

Thursday's arrests came after 120 people were arrested last weekend, bringing the total number of protesters arrested in the past week to 386 people, according to the Morton County Sheriff's Department.

"The protesters are not being peaceful or prayerful," Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said in the press release, citing aggressive tactics such as setting fires and using horses to flank law enforcement. The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services stated the protesters also threw Molotov cocktails, CNN reports

In response, the police used pepper spray gas and deployed a bean bag round on the crowd of protesters, and used concussion cannons to disperse the crowd.

"Militarized law enforcement agencies moved in on water protectors with tanks and riot gear today," tribe chairman Dave Archambault II, told ABC News. "We have repeatedly seen a disproportionate response from law enforcement to water protectors’ nonviolent exercise of their constitutional rights. Today we have witnessed people praying in peace, yet attacked with pepper spray, rubber bullets, sound and concussion cannons."

He has asked the Department of Justice to send representatives immediately, to oversee the situation and ensure protection of First Amendment rights, he said. DOJ deputy director of public affairs, Wyn Hornbuckle, told ABC that the department was "taking the situation in North Dakota seriously."

Meanwhile, both the police and the protesters have vowed not to leave the land.

While the protesters have been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, officials say they are worried about any protesters who could turn violent in defense of the land, like the two people who fired guns at the police officers, one of whom is in custody.

"Most of these people are peaceful, prayerful people," North Dakota Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong, told CNN. "But we know that there is a faction that is willing to do anything to stop this pipeline. That's why our people went down there prepared."

The protest is not over yet, as many remain at the Standing Rock reservation and many more are commuting back and forth between their day jobs and the protests on weekends. 

"This is not a loss. We always knew this camp was at risk," Dallas Goldtooth, one of the protest’s organizers, told the Bismarck Tribune, adding that the demonstrators had been expecting this show of force from police. "We want the world to see how far North Dakota and their police will go to protect an oil company."

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