As severe winter weather descended upon central and eastern North Dakota, water protectors filed a lawsuit for alleged use of excessive force by police in demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Meanwhile the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers followed up last week's eviction notice with a clarification on Friday November 25 that it would not forcibly remove residents of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Shortly after, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple issued an executive order mandating the camp’s immediate evacuation, ostensibly due to the inclement weather, adding to the complexity of an already contentious situation.
On Monday November 28 the Water Protector Legal Collective (formerly the Red Owl Legal Collective) sued Morton County, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and other law enforcement agencies in U.S. District Court for their alleged use of “excessive force against peaceful water protectors” on Sunday, November 20, when rubber bullets, mace, pepper spray and freezing water were deployed overnight during a standoff at a bridge on Highway 1806. Dozens of people were injured, including 21-year-old New Yorker Sophia Wilansky, who is still waiting to find out whether she’ll lose her arm.
Photo: Adam Alexander Johannson
Ice-cold water being fired from hoses onto demonstrators in sub-freezing temperatures on Sunday November 20.
“The Morton County Sheriff’s office not only violates the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters, but their actions highlight the long history of abuse against Indigenous Peoples,” said legal collective lawyer Brandy Toelupe in a statement from the National Lawyers Guild. “From the beginning, governments have used their latest technologies to take land and resources from Native nations and oppress Indigenous Peoples. Sheriff Kirchmeier’s actions make it clear that nothing has changed.”
The class action suit was filed on behalf of the injured and “seeks an immediate injunction preventing the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement from using impact munitions such as rubber bullets and lead-filled ‘beanbags,’ water cannons and hoses, explosive teargas grenades and other chemical agents against protesters,” the group said in its statement.
The same day, Dalrymple issued an executive order under his authority to “minimize or avert the effects of a disaster or emergency” and used the Army Corps eviction order to support his stance. The governor pointed to the upcoming winter, its “potential to endanger human life” to justify his approach, and described the camps as “large populations” congregated “in tents, vehicles, temporary and semi-permanent structures which have not been inspected and approved by Morton County as proper dwellings suitable for winter habitation."
Photo: Bismarck Tribune video screen shot
Governor Jack Dalrymple called up the North Dakota National Guard in September.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II took issue with the description of the camps as being unfit for habitation and said the executive order was “a menacing action meant to cause fear, and is a blatant attempt by the state and local officials to usurp and circumvent federal authority.”
He noted the Army Corps does not plan to remove people from the federal property and said the blockades and the use of military force were a lot more dangerous to water protectors than allowing them to stay in the camp.
“The Governor cites harsh weather conditions and the threat to human life,” Archambault said. “As I have stated previously, the most dangerous thing we can do is force well-situated campers from their shelters and into the cold. If the true concern is for public safety then the Governor should clear the blockade and the county law enforcement should cease all use of flash grenades, high-pressure water cannons in freezing temperatures, dog kennels for temporary human jails, and any harmful weaponry against human beings. This is a clear stretch of state emergency management authority and a further attempt to abuse and humiliate the water protectors. The State has since clarified that they won't be deploying law enforcement to forcibly remove campers, but we are wary that this executive order will enable further human rights violations."
Dalrymple’s order came even after the Army Corps clarified its stance on the camps and said it would not forcibly remove anyone.
“The Army Corps of Engineers is seeking a peaceful and orderly transition to a safer location, and has no plans for forcible removal,” the Corps said in its November 25 statement. “But those who choose to stay do so at their own risk as emergency, fire, medical, and law enforcement response cannot be adequately provided in these areas. Those who remain will be considered unauthorized and may be subject to citation under federal, state, or local laws.”
Dalrymple said his order overrode the Army Corps' clarification, that his evacuation order “shall remain in effect even if the United States Army Corps of Engineers redefines or removes these prohibited areas,” he stated. “These persons are ordered to leave the evacuation area immediately, and are further ordered not to return to the evacuation area. All persons in the evacuation area shall take all their possessions with them upon their evacuation.”
As the saber-rattling proceeded, nature had the last word, with a winter storm warning remaining in effect for western and central North Dakota through early Wednesday evening November 30.
“Heavy snow and blowing snow will continue over western and central North Dakota through Tuesday night, significantly impacting travel across the area,” the National Weather Service said. “The snow will gradually end, and conditions will improve from west to east on Wednesday.”
Between ten and 18 inches of snow were expected to fall in central North Dakota, with up to 20 inches possible in isolated areas, the weather service said. In addition, blowing snow would reduce visibility to half a mile, and “heavy snow and blowing snow will make travel dangerous,” the prediction said.
“A Winter Storm Warning for heavy snow means severe winter weather conditions are expected or occurring,” the weather advisory recommended. “Significant amounts of snow are forecast that will make travel dangerous. Only travel in an emergency. If you must travel, keep an extra flashlight, food and water in your vehicle in case of an emergency.”