The Obama administration has come under fire for aligning itself with activists fighting a North Dakota pipeline project even as the protest at the 2-month-old encampment spirals out of control.
An extreme faction within the enclave of 1,500 to 2,500 protesters camping out near the Dakota Access pipeline, or DAPL, is terrorizing the rural community with threats, vandalism and theft, as well as forcing road closures and school lockdowns, according to law enforcement.
“Our deputies talk to the farmers and ranchers, and many of them fear if they talk — and the media really wants to talk to them — but they fear retaliation if they give their name or let their picture be taken,” said Rob Keller, a spokesman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. “Because we’ve had all kinds of reports of people defecating in their driveways, of fences being cut, of being harassed by masked protesters, shooting at signs, pay bills being stolen and being run off the road.”
The heightened lawlessness culminated Monday with the arrests of 27 activists, including actress Shailene Woodley, on charges of criminal trespass and rioting as the hundreds swarmed a private construction site near St. Anthony.
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said the melee was neither “peaceful” nor “prayerful” and that some protesters “say that, but they disguise their criminal behavior behind it.”
“While some would like to say this was a protest, this was not a protest. This was a riot,” Sheriff Laney said at a press conference. “When you have that many people engaged in that kind of behavior, inciting others to break the law, cheering on others as they break the law, refusing to leave when they’re asked to leave, that’s not a protest.”
The tension is escalating as the Obama administration seeks ways to postpone the project in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and national environmental groups, which have sued to stop the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline over concerns about water contamination and disturbance of sacred cultural and burial sites.
So far, opponents are losing: A federal appeals court dissolved Sunday temporary injunction on construction along a contested 20-mile corridor at Lake Oahe, after a federal judge ruled last month that the tribe had failed to prove its case.
In an unprecedented move, however, the administration urged Energy Transfer Partners to pause work “voluntarily” as agencies undertake a “series of consultations” and a “listening session” with tribes in Phoenix.
The administration also said it would not approve an easement on a 1,100-foot stretch underneath the Missouri River, the final authorization needed to finish the $3.7 billion pipeline, which is 87 percent complete.
“We continue to respect the right to peaceful protest and expect people to obey the law,” said the joint statement by the Justice Department, Interior Department and Army Corps of Engineers.
This week, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II called on the Obama administration to intervene to stop the project, almost all of which lies on private land but would run about a half-mile from the reservation at its nearest point.
“The court ruling includes an important acknowledgment that the Obama administration still has the power to deny key permits — a reminder to us all of the important role we each need to play in asking President Obama to use his power to right these wrongs,” Earthjustice, which represents the tribe, said in a Monday post on Facebook.
Rob Port, a conservative radio talk show host for 970 WDAY in Fargo who has tracked the protests, said the administration bears some responsibility for the increasingly unstable situation by refusing to stand by its own permitting process.
“And who set this fire? President Barack Obama with his utterly political obstruction of first the Keystone XL project and now the Dakota Access line,” Mr. Port said on Facebook. “This is beginning to look less like activism and more like organized crime.”
He interviewed on air last week a former protester, D’Shawn Cunningham of Omaha, who issued a critique of the demonstration’s “dark side,” saying his camp was plagued by issues such as misappropriated funds, drug use, a lack of leadership and a failure to deal with a sexual predator.
Another protester, Linda Black Elk, chastised Mr. Cunningham on Facebook, saying, “We have a lot to work on and no one expects things to be perfect, but we are working on it. It is a shame that there are a few who, like you, focus on the negative aspects of camp.”
The Standing Rock tribe has repeatedly called for protesters to remain peaceful. In a statement last month, it said, “Any act of violence hurts our cause and is not welcome here.”
Officials in law enforcement said the uptick in violence appears to stem from a group of 200 to 300 out-of-state arrivals, described by Mr. Keller as “professional agitators,” who have infiltrated the camps near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Arrest records show that about 85 percent of the 123 people arrested during the two-month span live outside North Dakota.
“These are people with an ideology and an agenda that are not from here, and they’re bringing it here,” said Sheriff Laney. “What started out as a North Dakota issue with North Dakota people like the Standing Rock [Sioux] tribe has excelled well past that.”
Indeed, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said Tuesday that Mr. Arhambault has acknowledged as much in private.
“I have spoken with [Mr. Archambault] regularly, and it’s clear that he has reached a point where he wishes it would remain 100 percent peaceful, but he’s told me many, many times that he is no longer in control in the camp or in any way over the protesters, and I think that’s sad,” Mr. Dalrymple told KFYR radio in Bismarck-Mandan.
“It makes it very difficult to deal with when there’s no committee to talk to, there’s no council to talk to. This is just a random group of people that are acting very independently,” Mr. Dalrymple said.
Later, however, Mr. Archambault challenged the report, saying he has stressed nonviolence in his conversations with the governor but “I never did tell the governor I lost control of the camp,” according to Forum News Service.
Those on the ground are bracing for the conflict to get worse before it gets better. Despite the Obama administration’s push for a delay, Energy Transfer Partners said Monday that it would proceed with construction on the 20-mile parcel at the crossing of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River.
“They’re going to push ahead, and it’s going to get hot down there in terms of the protests,” Mr. Port said.
In a statement, the company reiterated its “commitment to protect cultural resources, the environment and public safety.”
“We echo the urgings of the North Dakota governor, its two senators, its congressmen and local enforcement officials that any protests be undertaken in a peaceful and law-abiding manner,” said the statement. “All construction efforts will be undertaken in close coordination with state and local law enforcement officials, and we are hopeful their law enforcement efforts will be supplemented by those of the federal government.”
So far, however, the Obama administration has not provided assistance to law enforcement, although sheriffs in Wisconsin, Wyoming and elsewhere have responded to the emergency request for help by loaning deputies to supplement Morton County’s 34-member force.
The cost of the additional law enforcement runs about $100,000 per week, which is real money in a rural county of roughly 31,000, Mr. Keller said.
“The governor signed the emergency declaration where we can take money from the division of emergency services to fund this, but that was only $6 million,” Mr. Keller said. “The land in question is Army Corps of Engineers, which is federal, but we have not received any federal help at all.”
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said Wednesday that he has set up a hotline on behalf of farmers and ranchers having trouble finding drivers in light of the protests.
Sheriff Laney noted that protesters have previously held peaceful demonstrations, including two at the state capitol, in which leaders worked with law enforcement to ensure public safety. If others continue to trespass and chain themselves to equipment, however, then law enforcement will continue to respond, he said.
“[I]f they go back and make the decision that we’re going to attack another site tomorrow, then we’ll be right back here talking about it again,” he said. “And that decision is theirs, not ours.”