Mass Arrests and Strip Searches of Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters Raise Tensions

militarized police at Dakota Access pipeline protests.

In a chaotic scene Saturday, October 22, law enforcement officers in riot gear used pepper spray and batons to break up a group of hundreds of Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) protesters during a prayer walk near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Authorities from multiple states rounded up and arrested more than 100 people on charges including reckless endangerment, criminal trespass, engaging in a riot, assault on a peace officer and resisting arrest.

The number arrested is still in dispute, with one of the frontline protest camps, Red Warrior Camp claiming 141, while the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is counting 126 on Saturday and one additional arrest on Sunday.

Regardless of the final number, Saturday marks the highest number of arrests made in a single day over the months-long protest against the $3.8 billion pipeline slated to carry Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Saturday’s police actions were a sign, protesters say, that law enforcement has escalated its tactics to intimidate and traumatize them.


Police used batons and pepper spray on protesters. Photo by Rob Wilson.

Temperatures Rising in North Dakota

Hundreds of American Indian Nations and others, who call themselves “water protectors” and are led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, have actively resisted construction of the four-state oil pipeline, claiming that it would cross significant tribal lands and could endanger the water source for 17 million people.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department maintains that protesters Saturday were trespassing on private property and inciting a riot. The department also said that in a separate action, protesters damaged construction equipment vehicles and cut holes in doors and fused their arms to the door with concrete.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said the actions of protesters Saturday were “intentionally coordinated and planned by agitators with the specific intent to engage in illegal activities.”

Though activists have admitted that several locked themselves down to equipment, spokespeople from the Sacred Stone and Red Warrior Camps said Saturday’s police roundup and mass arrest was an unprovoked attack.


Two young water protectors are trailed by law enforcement. Photo by Rob Wilson.

There are multiple videos of protesters being pepper-sprayed, beaten with batons, and thrown to the ground.

Video from Sacred Stone Camp via Facebook

On the night of the arrests, Indigenous Environmental Network director, Dallas Goldtooth, said via Facebook Live that those participating in the prayer walk were complying with law enforcement orders to move but weren’t moving fast enough. He said:

So they started moving back toward the road. But this group had women and children in it. It had pregnant women, and some elders. Again, this was a prayer march, a prayer walk. It was not near people locking down equipment. As they were making their way back to the road, the police started aggravating the situation. The group split into two, and there was a larger group with a lot of journalists, with media and press, and that group was all arrested. They were corralled. The police circled them up started picking them off one by one.”


Police with pepper spray and guns pushed back unarmed protesters. Photo by Rob Wilson.

National Guard On The Scene

Goldtooth added that it was the first time that the National Guard was employed to assist in arresting protesters. Until Saturday, the National Guard was only present at checkpoints leading to the construction areas.

In addition, law enforcement used rubber bullets to shoot at a surveillance drone used by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe but the drone was not downed. The Tribe has used drones to document the actions of DAPL crews and law enforcement.

Saturday's actions showed a “disproportionate response” to protesters, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a prepared statement.

The militarization of local law enforcement and enlistment of multiple law enforcements agencies from neighboring states is needlessly escalating violence and unlawful arrests against peaceful protestors at Standing Rock. We do not condone reports of illegal actions, but believe the majority of peaceful protestors are reacting to strong-arm tactics and abuses by law enforcement.”

Law Enforcement “Out of Control”

As reports of police abuse of pipeline protesters grows, civil liberties groups have put law enforcement and the pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, on notice.

In Standing Rock, the cops are out of control,” Cooper Brinson, staff attorney at Civil Liberties Defense Center, said in a report published last week.

The actions of police against the land and water protectors at Standing Rock are depraved, abusive, and disgraceful. They are exceedingly disrespectful and radically humiliating to the people who have occupied this land since time immemorial,” Brinson wrote.

Brinson added that police had confiscated protesters’ sacred tribal drums.

Also last week the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the ACLU of North Dakota, sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and North Dakota Open Records Act requests to fifteen state and federal agencies in response to reports of mistreatment of protesters.

FOIA and open records requests are expected to elicit more information on various federal and state agencies' involvement and their communications with the pipeline company, according to Rachel Lederman, NLG Executive Board member and drafter of the FOIA request.

We have seen many civil rights violations including but not limited to illegal mass arrests of persons, including journalists, who were attempting to comply with police orders; women strip-searched and forced to remain naked in front of male guards; and blatant surveillance and jamming of cell communications,” Lederman tells DeSmog.

Several journalists face charges for reporting on DAPL protests and police actions, including four members of the Unicorn Riot media collective who have been charged with misdemeanors and three other journalists are facing felony charges. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, was arrested for trespassing on September 8 for filming security guards attacking protesters, and later faced riot charges. A North Dakota judge dismissed the riot charges on October 17, but many journalists fear that the eagerness of law enforcement to jail reporters is intended to create a chilling effect on coverage of DAPL.

Robin Martinez, an NLG member who assisted in drafting the FOIA request, told DeSmog that the NLG anticipates filing lawsuits on several of the “long list of items that are actionable” but would not go into details about upcoming litigation.

Energy Transfer Partners maintains that the entire pipeline will be complete by January 2017 and lawyers for the company have said DAPL backers would lose hundreds of millions of dollars if construction stalls.

A New Frontline Camp

So far there has been no evidence of a demoralized opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline, despite the use of increasingly aggressive security tactics. In fact, activists are preparing for a protracted fight.

Early Sunday morning water protectors responded — peacefully — by establishing a new frontline camp closer to the pipeline easement. In a prepared statement Mekasi Camp-Horinek, coordinator of the new Oceti Sakowin Camp, said protectors were claiming unceded territory affirmed in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie as sovereign land under the control of the Oceti Sakowin.

By noon Sunday several tipis were erected on the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which sits east of state highway 1806, directly on the proposed path of the pipeline and directly across the road from where DAPL security dogs attacked protesters over the Labor Day weekend. 

Camp-Horinek added that water protectors would continue to halt active construction as frequently as possible.  

Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Joye Braun said in a statement that Native Americans had never ceded the land where the Oceti Sakowin Camp is going up.

If DAPL can go through and claim eminent domain on landowners and Native peoples on their own land, then we as sovereign nations can then declare eminent domain on our own aboriginal homeland. We are here to protect the burial sites here. Highway 1806 has become the no surrender line.”

The camp also erected three blockades, but later removed one, on Highway 1806. That highway has been closed indefinitely, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said Monday.


Law enforcement corralled water protectors during their non-violent prayer walk. Photo by Rob Wilson.

Photo credits: Rob Wilson Photography.