Standing Rock protesters file civil rights suit against law enforcement officials

December 1, 2016

People celebrate in the Oceti Sakowin camp after making a 150 mile canoe trip from Washington St. during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S.Dakota Access Pipeline protesters have filed a civil rights suit alleging law enforcement officials from two North Dakota counties and one city used unreasonable force to get them to leave.

The complaint, filed Nov. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota, says police violated the protesters’ First and Fourth Amendment rights by using “highly dangerous specialty impact munitions, explosive teargas grenades, teargas canisters and a water cannon spraying high pressure water” to disrupt the demonstrations.

The plaintiffs also filed a motion to enjoin the law enforcement officials from Morton County, the city of Mandan and Stutsman County from use of violent tactics against the unarmed protesters.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier has refuted the allegations.

“Law enforcement has shown great restraint in the face of professional protesters who wish to instigate conflict and violence,” he said in a statement provided by the Sheriff’s Department. “For weeks, we have protected the rights of peaceful protesters in communities in and around Mandan.”

Protected lands?

The protesters, who call themselves “water protectors,” began to arrive in April 2016 and now number in the thousands, according to a Reuters report.

The plaintiffs and others are protesting the completion of the DAPL north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation because it will go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. The complaint says the lake is the primary water supply for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes as well as thousands of other residents in the area.

The suit also says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has reported more than 3,300 leaks and ruptures in pipelines since 2010 and the threat of a leak is real, not just hypothetical.

The plaintiffs’ motion also says the pipeline’s planned path goes through sacred land, including at least 27 burial and other ceremonial sites.

The suit contends the pipeline’s completion would violate the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which guaranteed lands west of the Missouri River in the Dakotas as American Indian territory.

Despite the protest, construction on the pipeline has continued, and in August 2016 DAPL security forces confronted the demonstrators with attack dogs and pepper spray, the suit says.

Pipeline manufacturer Dakota Access LLC is owned by Energy Transfer Partners LP, which is scheduled to merge with Sunoco Logistics Partners in a $21 billion all-stock deal.

In September the Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior, asked that all pipeline construction within 20 miles of the lake be stopped, the complaint says.

But Dakota Access LLC ignored the request and local police forces have used excessive force to make the protesters leave, the plaintiffs say.

Pending litigation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleges the Army Corps of Engineers violated several federal statutes when it issued the permits for the pipeline. See Standing Rock Sioux Tribe et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al. No. 16-cv-1534, complaint filed, 2016 WL 4033936 (D.D.C. July 27, 2016).

Civil rights suit

The defendants named in the civil rights complaint are Morton County and Kirchmeier; the city of Mandan and its chief of police, Jason Ziegler; and Stutsman County and its sheriff, Chad Kaiser.

In October law enforcement began to appear at demonstrations in riot gear. The plaintiffs say the defendants have fired rubber bullets and lead-filled beanbags at them and have used sound weapons that can damage ear function.

Law enforcement on Nov. 20 used a water cannon and fire hoses in subfreezing temperatures to drench protesters that were 30 to 50 feet from the officers, the suit says. More than two dozen people were hospitalized as a result of events that night, according to the motion.

One plaintiff was shot in the eye with a tear gas canister and may face permanent vision problems, the suit says. Other plaintiffs suffered broken bones and hypothermia, it says.

The protesters contend they are peaceful and nonviolent and are often praying when law enforcement attacks commence. At its core, the demonstration is a nonviolent environmental and spiritual movement, the suit says.

The plaintiffs also say law enforcement is blocking access to a bridge to deny the flow of supplies and emergency services to the camp. State officials have threatened to issue large fines to those who attempt to deliver supplies, according to media reports.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Nov. 28 ordered the demonstrators to vacate the camp due to approaching winter weather.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it would give the protesters until Dec. 5 to leave the area.

Dundon et al. v. Kirchmeier et al., No. 16-cv-406, complaint filed (D.N.D. Nov. 28, 2016).

Dundon et al. v. Kirchmeier et al., No. 16-cv-406, memo in support of temporary restraining order filed (D.N.D. Nov. 28, 2016).