The months-long protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, is still going strong, despite the added challenge of dropping temperatures as winter approaches. But the standoff between activists and local law enforcement escalated Sunday, when video of Standing Rock protesters showed police firing water cannons at a group of approximately 400 protesters in an attempt to get the group to disperse, according to The Washington Post. The activists, who have been fighting back against the completion of the $3.8 billion pipeline meant to carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, have argued that the project's proximity to the reservation poses a contamination risk to their drinking water and is also being built on sacred land.
According to The Bismark Tribune, Sunday's standoff occurred as a result of protesters' attempts to remove "burned out vehicles" that had been blocking the Backwater Bridge since late October, when protesters were pushed back by police to the original camps further away. Cars and trucks had been set on fire and left there, essentially barricading the bridge, which activists say is preventing emergency services from accessing the protest sites. As hundreds of protesters gathered in an attempt to clear the bridge — which provides access to the pipeline construction site — they started about a dozen small fires that protest organizers claim were created for warmth. But the Morton County Sheriff's Department told The Tribune that the protesters were "very aggressive," throwing "rocks and logs" at officers, and that the water cannons were deployed to both control the crowds and to put out the fires.
According to CNN, the Morton County Sheriff's Department called the situation an "ongoing riot," and that, in an attempt to gain access to the bridge and Highway 1806, they "set fire to two trucks and several parts of the bridge." Department spokesperson Donnell Hushka, told CNN,
There are multiple fires being set by protesters on the bridge and in the area of the bridge. We have fire trucks on the scene they are using their fire hoses to put out the fires, wet the land around so fires don't spread and they are also using water as crowd control.
But Standing Rock activists are calling the use of the water cannons unnecessarily harsh and "potentially lethal," given that protesters were sprayed with water on a night where the temperature dropped to only 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council called for "the immediate cessation of use of water cannons," citing the risk of hypothermia, and said that the protesters were peaceful. The Morton County Sheriff's Department has not responded to Romper's request for comment regarding why water cannons were used in freezing temperatures.
According to Reuters, police also employed tear gas against the crowd to keep them from gaining access to the bridge, and protesters have claimed that officers have used rubber bullets. Police haven't commented on those claims, but earlier this month, journalist and activist Erin Schrode alleged that she was shot by a rubber bullet while conducting an interview with one of the Standing Rock protesters, according to Fusion. In a Facebook post following the incident, Schrode wrote, "militarized police fired at me from point blank range with a rubber bullet on the front lines of Standing Rock," and shared footage of the incident that she inadvertently captured as a result of filming the interview.
Schrode told Fusion that she “couldn’t fathom" that they'd shot her, and wondered, "why would they target me? Why would they shoot anyone?" She said "there was absolutely nothing violent, aggressive, provocative going on at the protests,” and noted that, even after she realized she had caught the incident on video, there were some who questioned her recounting, and suggested she had made it up, or staged the video.
On Facebook, Schrode wrote,
My body will be okay, but I am hurting, I am incensed, I am weeping, I am scared. Peaceful, prayerful, unarmed, nonviolent people on one side of a river; militarized police with armed vehicles and assault weapons occupying treaty land on the other, where sacred burial grounds have already been destroyed. What is happening here in North Dakota is like nothing I have ever seen in my life, anywhere in the world. This is a fight to protect and defend the water for 17 million people in the watershed downstream to the Gulf, for a livable planet, for Native and human rights, for the lifeforce of us all. We are at the confluence of the movements for civil rights, for the environment, for peace, for justice.
The Morton County Sheriff's Department has not responded to Romper's request for comment regarding the allegation from Schrode.
According to The Guardian, Indigenous Environmental Network spokesperson Jade Begay said more than 150 people were injured as a result of Sunday's standoff, and seven were taken to the hospital. Since the beginning of the Standing Rock protests, it's estimated that more than 400 activists have been arrested, and reports have accused police of using "pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, Tasers, [and] sound weapons," against the protesters. Although construction on the pipeline is almost complete, Energy Transfer Partners — the company overseeing the pipeline project — still does not have permission to move forward with the final stages, pending further investigation into the safety of the pipeline as a result of the protests.
Energy Transfer Partners has argued that the pipeline will be "a safer method of transport for oil than rail or truck," according to The Bismark Tribune, and that safeguards are in place to prevent contamination of the water. According to CBS News, President Barack Obama said earlier this month that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was looking into whether the pipeline could be rerouted to avoid the Standing Rock reservation, but Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren has since said he is not open to rerouting the pipeline, and said he believes President-elect Donald Trump will ultimately be supportive of the project being completed as originally planned, particularly given that Trump is a stockholder in Energy Transfer Partners.