Police And Pipeline Protesters Clash In North Dakota

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Police arrested more than a hundred protesters camped out along the Dakota Access pipeline route on October 27, 2016.

Amy Sisk/Inside Energy

Police arrested more than a hundred protesters camped out along the Dakota Access pipeline route on October 27, 2016.

What started months ago as a dispute between a tribe and the federal government has escalated.

Hear Amy Sisk’s story on NPR’s All Things Considered.

More than 140 people were arrested Thursday during a tense standoff between police and Dakota Access pipeline protesters. Officers in riot gear and armored vehicles advanced on protesters camped along the pipeline route in North Dakota in an attempt to push them off land owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline company.

Surveillance helicopters circled overhead as several hundred police officers moved slowly across the prairie toward the tents and teepees, pushing through makeshift roadblocks of burning tires and disabled cars on the state highway next to the camp.

Over loudspeakers, police asked the protesters to move south, to a nearby camp on federal land, warning that those who did not comply would be arrested.

“If we could have come out here today and not made any arrests that would have been great,” said Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “But they forced us into arresting them.”

As the arrests unfolded, police say one protester fired on them, but that officers did not return fire and the individual was taken into custody. Police also say protesters threw Molotov cocktails.

Protesters say police used pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and tasers on them. Law enforcement admits to using pepper spray, though Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said he was unaware of any other weapons used against demonstrators.

Update: In a news release on Friday afternoon, the Morton County Sheriff’s office clarified the use of force by law enforcement:

“There were several incidents of intermediate and less-than lethal weapons used in the field due to non-compliance and acts of aggression by protesters. Officers responded to the escalated violent and illegal actions by using: pepper spray, bean-bag and sponge rounds, a device which transmits a loud bang noise and an LRAD which transmits a high-pitch tone and one instance of a Taser being deployed after a protester threw pepper in an officers’ face. Officers used all these protective measures as a way to minimize the threats and protect themselves.”

In a late-night press conference, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said law enforcement would remain in the area to ensure the roads and property are not reoccupied.

“[We will stay] as long as it takes to make sure this is clear, that the roadway remains clear,” he said.

Protesters are adamant they will not allow the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

“They stop the pipeline, they get their pipes, they get their machines, they get their people and they leave. There’s no negotiation,” said Jeff Chavis of South Carolina’s Pee Dee tribe.

The Dakota Access pipeline is slated to carry Bakken crude oil to Illinois. Pipeline supporters and state officials say it’s safer than transporting crude by the trains that carry it across the Missouri every day. But that argument has done little to sway those who oppose it.

“This is our stand. We’ll stand. And we’ll stop this pipeline,” said Robert Eder, who lives in Cannon Ball, the first town downstream from the pipeline’s proposed river crossing.

Construction on the river crossing has been on hold since the federal government said it would review the permitting process, after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe raised concerns that it was not adequately consulted on the project. The tribe has sued the Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to stop the pipeline.

On Thursday, the Republican governors of Iowa and the Dakotas urged the Corps to issue the easement for construction to continue.