Some 2,000 veterans, including a convoy scheduled to leave Friday from Seattle, vow to be human shields between police and “water protectors” fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
As winter bears down on the Great Plains, a showdown also looms as thousands of veterans from around the country head to North Dakota vowing to be human shields between police and opponents trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Their deployment as a nonviolent, unarmed citizens’ militia, as Veterans Stand for Standing Rock calls it, comes as the governor of the state of North Dakota has ordered mandatory evacuation of a protesters’ camp near the pipeline construction site in Cannon Ball, N.D., south of Bismarck.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which leases the lands for grazing, has also ordered the camp closed to all public access as of Dec. 5. Both explained that the threat of winter to public safety required their action.
The Corps has stated it won’t forcibly roust the camp — grown to an estimated 10,000 people. However, if campers stay, it is at their own risk, officials say. Winter temperatures can plunge into single digits during the day and below zero at night. Snow and cutting wind also arrived this week.
- Background stories: Here's a primer on the pipeline project, including the key players on all sides, a brief history of broken treaty promises and a closer look at the courtroom battle. And here's what we're reading related to the controversy.
- March 28: What the completed Dakota Access pipeline means for key players.
- Feb. 23: Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp closed; 46 holdouts arrested.
- Feb. 22: Preparing to leave, Standing Rock protesters ceremonially burn camp.
- Feb. 13: Judge rejects tribes’ bid to halt Dakota Access Pipeline; feds plan to shut down protest camp.
- Feb. 1: Hundreds rally as the Seattle City Council considers divesting from Wells Fargo because of its role as a Dakota Access Pipeline lender.
- Jan. 24, 2017: Donald Trump signs executive orders advancing the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says it will push back.
- Dec. 4, 2016: Tribes celebrate as Corps rejects Dakota Access pipeline easement
- Nov. 21: Washington tribes urge that Obama stop, reroute Dakota Access Pipeline
- Nov. 12: Hundreds rally in Tacoma against Dakota Access Pipeline
- Live updates from from Seattle Times journalists on the scene Oct. 26, 27 and 28.
- Oct. 25: Tribes in Washington state call on President Obama to improve federal consultations over infrastructure projects
- Oct. 24: Citing treaty claim, protesters occupy land a rancher recently sold to pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners.
- See photos from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Emergency services to the camp will not be guaranteed per the evacuation order from Gov. Jack Dalrymple, unless approved on a case-by-case basis by the state Highway Patrol or the Morton County sheriff.
Protesters vow to stay, and some 2,000 veterans are expected to arrive Sunday to join the fight by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its allies against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The $3.8 billion oil pipeline through four states is almost entirely built except for the last portion, where it would cross under the Missouri River, less than a mile from the border of the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux. Developer Energy Transfer Partners of Houston has yet to obtain the easement it needs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cross under the river and finish the project.
A fight over the easement is tied up in federal court, and the company has stated in federal court documents that it can’t finish the project on schedule by Jan. 1 as it promised in long-term contracts to shippers. The company says it is losing about $2.7 million a day as the project is delayed, and its shippers may cancel their contracts.
No construction or drilling work is under way on either side of the river, said Gary Sanders, sheriff for Emmons County, across the river from the protest camp. The only people on site now at the drilling pads are security, as Dakota Access waits for the easement to let it get drilling under the river, Sanders said. “It’s a waiting game.”
In their operations order posted on Facebook, the veterans group outlined one possible tactic, to walk in an unbroken line shoulder to shoulder through police to reach the drill pad for the pipeline’s crossing under the river, and encircle it.
Some fear more violence, even death, as confrontations have escalated, most recently on Nov. 20 when police clashed with demonstrators, sending 26 people to the hospital.
“I have always considered the police to be friends, but to be on the front lines that Sunday night was the closest I have ever been to war,” said Victory Lonnquist of Seattle, who has been working as a volunteer medic at Standing Rock since last summer.
Some 300 people were treated for chemical contamination and hypothermia after being tear-gassed, hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets, and sprayed with fire hoses in freezing weather. Lonnquist said she fears worse to come.
“I am worried someone’s going to die,” Lonnquist said. “I wouldn’t have said that two weeks ago. But being on that bridge and watching them purposely give us hypothermia not once but for six hours, I would grab a patient by the jacket and just crunch through a sheet of ice. … it scares me, what could come.”
Veterans Stand for Standing Rock will take its direction from tribal elders, said Marshal Hunter of Seattle, who coordinated veterans scheduled to leave from Seattle on Friday night in a convoy to North Dakota. “We are there to be peaceful, and there to be nonviolent, and we are there to protect the water protectors,” Hunter said.
A Navy veteran, Hunter, 53, works at Boeing as a computer-systems administrator, and lives in Edmonds. Like other veterans turning out for this volunteer muster — who have raised more than $900,000 in a week online to pay for transportation, equipment, medical supplies and other costs — he said he feels called by the oath he took to protect citizens of the United States from enemies, foreign or domestic.
“I have been out of the military 30 years, but the oath we swore to defend the Constitution and the citizens doesn’t go away,” Hunter said. “What is happening at Standing Rock is a travesty. These are United States citizens who are practicing their First Amendment rights that are guaranteed under the Constitution.”
Police have said demonstrators have been “aggressive,” “militant,” broken the law by trespassing, vandalism, arson and thrown rocks, and damaged a bridge when they burned vehicles.
“I think most people would agree with the ideology of trying to protect the water,” said Sanders, the sheriff. “But trying to enforce your ideology with committing acts of crime, trespassing, arson, vandalism is not acceptable. There is not an issue with peaceful protest. Because someone doesn’t agree with your ideology, it doesn’t give you the right to commit crimes.”
But Hunter said the show of force against demonstrators is way out of line.
“It’s morally wrong and a terrible repetition of things that have happened in the past to Native Americans by people under the color of government,” he said.
The leader of Washington State Veterans for Standing Rock is Jim Petersen, 60, a Navy veteran from Bellingham. He had been thinking about going to Standing Rock for some time, but the Nov. 20 clash, where police used water hoses, pushed him over the edge.
“If not me, then who?” Peterson said. “If not now, then when?”
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So many veterans around the country have volunteered for this trip after the national call went out that another is already being organized for Dec. 10. The effort may become a rolling deployment as long as the Standing Rock Sioux want the help.
“We are there to stand at the front line to protect the water protectors. That is the whole deal, we are willing to take the bullets, take the water, lay down our lives,” Peterson said. “Like we did when we served.”
Veterans participating are instructed to bring no weapons or ammunition and to remain nonviolent no matter what comes.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss its tactics or the equipment it intends to deploy if there is a clash. In the past, it has called in reinforcements from Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming in addition to cities and counties throughout North Dakota to defend the pipeline project.
The state borrowed another $7 million this week from its emergency fund for policing demonstrations against the pipeline, on top of the $10 million it has already spent.
However, the county sheriff will likely not be using any more officers from outside the state, according to Cecily Fong in the Sheriff’s Department, in part because of “political pushback in some of the states that have provided law enforcement,” she wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.
Meanwhile more support from Washington tribes, fighting fossil-fuel projects of their own, continues to pour into the camp.
Tribal members from Lower Elwha arrived Wednesday to plant the tribe’s flag; 10 Colville tribal veterans were blessed in a special ceremony Friday before heading to Standing Rock, and paddlers from the Kalispel and Colville tribes arrived in Standing Rock on Thursday in two dugout canoes all the way from the source of the Cannonball River in Montana — paddling the last 20 miles through 8 inches of slush.
A delegation of tribal leaders, drummers and singers from the Quinault Indian Nation, including tribal president Fawn Sharp, is to arrive Monday. That’s the supposed eviction day from the protest camp.
“ … it also happens to be the birth date of George Armstrong Custer,” Sharp said, referencing the Army colonel killed at Custer’s Last Stand fighting the ancestors of the Dakota-Lakota people.
“No one has the right to evict tribes from their sacred lands,” Sharp said. “Custer didn’t have the right in 1876, and the Army Corps doesn’t have the right today.”