Lawsuit Seeks to Stop Police Attacks on Pipeline Protesters

Law enforcement officers on November 20 fired on pipeline protesters with dangerous munitions, chemical agents, a water cannon, and hoses in freezing weather.

Hundreds have been arrested in North Dakota since protests against the pipeline gathered momentum this summer. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters seeking to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline filed a class-action lawsuit Monday, a week after authorities attacked the North Dakota camp with rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas.

The Water Protector Legal Collective (WPLC) filed the lawsuit in a U.S. district court on behalf of the more than 200 people injured last week. It seeks an immediate injunction preventing the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement from using impact munitions—like rubber bullets and lead-filled “bean bags”—water cannons and hoses, explosive teargas grenades, and other chemical agents against protesters, according to a news release from WPLC.

Officers from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department on the evening of November 20 approached water protectors at a bridge near the Standing Rock camp. Without warning, officers fired on the water protecters with impact munitions, chemical agents, a water cannon, and hoses, according to WPLC.

“The Morton County Sheriff’s office not only violates the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters, but their actions highlight the long history of abuse against Indigenous peoples,” Brandy Toelupe, a WPLC lawyer, said in the press release. “From the beginning, governments have used their latest technologies to take land and resources from Native nations and oppress Indigenous peoples. Sheriff [Kyle] Kirchmeier’s actions make it clear that nothing has changed.”

The plaintiffs named in the suit include Vanessa Dundon, a member of the Navajo Nation, who was reportedly hit in the eye with a tear gas canister; Jade Kalikolehuaokakalani Wool, who had two grenades blow up near her, knocking her down and sending shrapnel into her face; and David Demo, who was hospitalized with broken bones after being shot with a water cannon and then shot in the hand with a munition while he was filming the scene.

“The Morton County Sheriff’s Department’s illegal use of force against the Water Protectors has been escalating. It is only a matter of luck that no one has been killed. This must stop,” said Rachel Lederman, WPLC lawyer, in a statement.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) on Monday ordered the evacuation of protesters camped on Army Corps land, citing harsh winter conditions. The government will likely be unable to provide emergency services to the area during the winter, Dalrymple said.

In response, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II said the executive order is “a menacing action meant to cause fear, and is a blatant attempt by the state and local officials to usurp and circumvent federal authority.

“The most dangerous thing we can do is force well-situated campers from their shelters and into the cold,” he said in a statement. “If the true concern is for public safety than [sic] the Governor should clear the blockade and the county law enforcement should cease all use of flash grenades, high-pressure water cannons in freezing temperatures, dog kennels for temporary human jails, and any harmful weaponry against human beings. This is a clear stretch of state emergency management authority and a further attempt to abuse and humiliate the water protectors. The State has since clarified that they won’t be deploying law enforcement to forcibly remove campers, but we are wary that this executive order will enable further human rights violations.”

Hundreds have been arrested in North Dakota since protests against the pipeline gathered momentum this summer. The pipeline, which would transport almost 500,000 barrels of oil per day, is set to run within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

Plans for the pipeline call for it to pass under the Missouri River and eight other major waterways, and through Standing Rock Sioux Tribal land. Tribal activists fear it could adversely affect their drinking water and disturb sacred burial sites.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project, began developing the $3.8 billion pipeline this spring to move domestically produced crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation to Illinois through four states. The company expected it would complete the 1,172-mile pipeline by the end of the year, but construction has been halted several times due to the protests.

People across the country have called for banks funding the pipeline to divest from the project.