Escalating Pipeline Protest Leads To Injuries


Amy Sisk/Inside Energy

A protest against the Dakota Access pipeline in Bismarck, North Dakota, in November.

A young woman who joined hundreds in North Dakota protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline may lose her arm after being injured during a demonstration.

Listen to Amy’s story on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Sophia Wilansky spent three weeks camped in North Dakota opposing construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline. But after a confrontation between protesters and police earlier this week, 21-year-old Wilansky is now in a Minneapolis hospital.

Her injury is the most gruesome to date among protesters fighting the project.

Wilansky had joined hundreds of other climate activists who have flocked to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in their fight against the pipeline.  The tribe fears a section of the pipeline slated to go under the Missouri River near their reservation could leak, threatening their water source.

Sophia Wilansky’s father, Wayne, spoke outside Hennepin County Medical Center on Tuesday.

“The doctor just said she may need as many as 20 surgeries over very many months to have any hope of saving her arm and her hand,” he said.

Wilansky was hurt early Monday morning during an overnight clash between 400 protesters and police on a highway bridge that authorities had closed, blocking access to the pipeline construction site.

Since the bridge closure, there have been more and more of these so-called “direct actions” at the bridge and at the state Capitol in Bismarck.

Hundreds of protesters gather in November at the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Protests have become more frequent in recent weeks.

Hundreds of protesters gather in November at the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Protests have become more frequent in recent weeks.

Tribes, protesters and pipeline supporters are all awaiting a decision from the federal government about whether to grant the final permit needed for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River in North Dakota.

Sunday night as protesters took to the bridge, police deployed tear gas and sponge bullets. They also sprayed water on demonstrators while the temperature was below freezing, sparking concerns about hypothermia. Protest leaders report numerous injuries requiring hospitalization.

Linda Black Elk, a medic at the protesters’ camp, said she couldn’t believe this kind of violence was happening in North Dakota.

“It seems like with every action, with every conflict that takes place, they escalate their violent tactics by using some new type of weaponry,” she said.

Both sides agree that the overnight protest got tense, but that’s where any agreement ends.

Rob Keller with the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said protesters refused to obey police orders, and some pelted officers with rocks. One injured an officer when it hit his head, according to local law enforcement.

Keller defended police crowd control methods.

“Had they not been utilized,” he said, “that line would probably have been overrun and we’d have a worse situation than we have now.”

Reports circulating on social media allege that Sophia Wilansky was hit by a concussion grenade thrown by police.

“This is not Afghanistan. It’s not Iraq,” Wayne Wilansky said. “We don’t throw grenades at people.”

But police deny using any such weapon.

“None of our equipment would cause an injury like that,” Keller said.

Police say an explosion did occur the night Sophia Wilansky was injured. They recovered propane canisters they say protesters rolled to the site where the blast took place. But police cannot confirm that Wilansky was involved.

This wasn’t Wilansky’s first protest. She was arrested this past summer protesting a pipeline in Massachusetts and has been active in other anti-pipeline protests in New York.

The demonstrations are likely to continue. Protesters here vow to stay until they stop this final leg of pipeline construction.