There reached a point when the Dakota Access protest became less about debating the merits of pipeline routes and more about mixing it up with cops.
That’s when the danger spiked for officers and their families. While protesters were fueling worldwide outrage and fundraising over allegations of police brutality, an aggressive cohort of agitators was terrorizing the families of law-enforcement officers with threats of death, rape and arson.
“There were threats made to us, mostly that they were going to come burn down our houses or rape us while our husbands were gone,” said Allison Engelstad, who’s married to Jon Engelstad, a sheriff’s deputy in Morton County, North Dakota.
She had good reason to fear that protesters knew where they lived. The North Dakota State and Local Intelligence Center compiled a 41-page document of social media posts with threats along with photos, names, addresses and contact information for officers involved with the protest.
“Every one of these cops has familys [sic] … Make there [sic] family pay,” read one Facebook post.
A live video feed taken from a January protest on the Backwater Bridge includes the voice of an activist shouting, “We’re going to gang-rape,” “Watch your family,” and “We’re going to kill your daughters, your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents, even you!”
For Ms. Engelstad, the threats hit home the night before Thanksgiving, when her husband called and urged her to leave, saying protesters had threatened to set fire to the houses of law enforcement locked in a late-night standoff at the bridge near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Ms. Engelstad woke up their three boys and drove across town to her parents’ house. One of the boys brought with him a baseball bat for protection.
“No one was going to hurt his family as long as he had anything to say about it,” she said.
She and other officers’ spouses were careful to avoid drawing attention to themselves during the heat of the protest, but agreed to speak with The Washington Times about the toll on their lives and those of their families as the demonstration that has rocked south-central North Dakota since August winds down.
Most protesters have left the area following the Feb. 23 evacuation of the protest camps located on federal land. Oil could begin flowing through the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline as early as Monday after a series of court rulings against tribes fighting to stop the project.
At least two camps remain, one called Sacred Stone located in part on tribal land and another on a lot recently leased by the Cheyenne River Sioux, but their numbers are far fewer than the thousands who occupied for months the floodplain along the Cannonball River.
Elsewhere, however, the anti-pipeline movement has taken off, with protest camps being erected in seven states: Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas.
“They’re already set up in Iowa,” said Carla Arndt, whose husband, Derek, works for the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “And you don’t want another community to have to be torn apart or for things to go the way they did here.”
She and others living in the Bismarck-Mandan area can point to the day things took a turn for the worse — Sept. 3, when protesters marched to the pipeline construction site and clashed with private security and guard dogs.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier later said that the dog handlers were not properly licensed, but even though his department was not involved in the confrontation, the viral video and national media coverage drew an influx of protesters with an anti-cop agenda.
“Some people were about engaging the police,” said Ms. Arndt. “It was a narrative they kept because it drove a lot of money coming in and it drove a lot of people, but it also brought in people you wouldn’t want as your neighbors. There were reasons for officers to be concerned about their safety.”
Figures released March 1 by law enforcement showed that 661 of the 709 arrests involved out-of-state protesters. Of those arrested, 227 had a total of 1,503 previous citations and charges, including domestic violence, child abuse, robbery, burglary, drug possession and driving under the influence.
“I’d say once the so-called paid protesters showed up, it became way more about anti-law enforcement than it was about the water,” said Ms. Engelstad.
Human rights violations
Protesters stoked an international uproar over what they described as the over-the-top, militarized response of police, who wore riot gear and used tear gas, bean bags, rubber bullets, flash bangs and other non-lethal methods in order to move protest crowds off highways, bridges and private land.
As far as the officers’ spouses were concerned, the gear was necessary for defense, not offense. At various protests, large groups of peaceful activists were accompanied by an aggressive minority setting fires and hurling rocks, frozen water bottles, feces and even Molotov cocktails at police.
“It was for self-protection,” said Shannon Eagon, whose husband, Doug, serves in the North Dakota National Guard. “They were getting things thrown at them. I mean, people were getting hit in the head with socks full of nuts and bolts that a helmet protects them from. I personally think it was for safety purposes rather than intimidation.”
Getting a rise out of law enforcement, and capturing it on camera, was clearly the aim of the more aggressive protesters, said Ms. Engelstad.
“Law enforcement recognized that there were definitely different groups,” said Ms. Engelstad. “There were people on the side who were praying and singing and drumming, and then you had the agitators up front screaming in their faces with the cameras two inches from their faces, trying to get them to react.”
In November, a U.N. human-rights expert accused law enforcement of using excessive force against protesters. Amnesty International USA called Wednesday for North Dakota to investigate “human rights violations against indigenous peoples,” such as instances in which officers were “needlessly outfitted with military equipment.”
“Our letter calls for investigations into specific incidents that we either witnessed ourselves or received credible documentation about,” said Amnesty spokeswoman Robyn Shepherd. “In any protest situation, police have a right to protect themselves and the public, but the violent acts of a few should not be used as a pretext to restrict or impede the exercise of the fundamental rights of a majority.”
The human rights groups aren’t getting the full story, say spouses.
“There were threats of wasp spray being sprayed in their eyes and blinding them permanently,” said Ms. Engelstad. “It’s not that there was no threat, which is what they wanted everybody to believe. That was definitely not the case.”
‘Not everybody wanted this’
Sometimes the activism crossed into downtown Bismarck and Mandan. Ms. Engelstad said she once spent 45 minutes in the Bismarck post office during a lockdown as hundreds of activists blocked streets. Ms. Eagan worried about protests that came within a block of her daughter’s daycare center.
“I called my husband on a couple of occasions an asked him to leave his job site and pick her up, just get her out of the area,” said Ms. Eagon. “Because when it’s that many people and you’re watching 60-plus officers walking out in full riot gear, it’s scary.”
Some family members removed their photos and information from social media or cancelled their accounts. Even when driving or shopping in town, the women worried that activists would target them based on the pro-police bumper stickers or yellow ribbons on their cars.
Ms. Eagon said she even began leaving her diaper bag in her car because it was made of camouflage material.
“I’ve definitely become more diligent about my surroundings,” said Ms. Eagon. “When I see protesters, I try to avoid them. We’ve been out to lunch when a group of them have come in, and we chose to leave.”
At the same time, locals said they tried not to paint protesters with too broad a brush. Even the Standing Rock Sioux, which has tried to stop the $3.8 billion pipeline routed a half-mile from the reservation, was unable to control the activists.
“One thing I can say about law enforcement: They don’t hold grudges against Standing Rock,” said Ms. Arndt. “It drives us crazy to see people want to boycott the reservation and the casinos, because that’s not good for the families and the children. Not everybody wanted this: They might not have wanted the pipeline, but they didn’t want the protest.”
The local officers may have been tarred as rogue cops on social media — Ms. Arndt said her husband’s photo made the rounds with the caption “racist cop”— but they’ve been applauded by state and county officials for keeping their cool under trying circumstances.
Most of the injuries stemming from the protest were relatively minor, such as officers being hit with projectiles and protesters stung with rubber bullets. The most serious was a gruesome arm injury suffered by a 21-year-old protester during a November bridge clash, the cause of which is in dispute.
It could have been much worse. “Honestly, by the end of this,” said Ms. Arndt, “the fact that no one was killed was unbelievable.”