“But I think that no matter how smart, people usually see what they’re already looking for, that’s all.” – Veronica Roth, Allegiant
Fuckin’ hippies need ta get a job,” remarked the pipeline worker in his thick Louisiana accent to a friend sitting with him. The friend, who continued watching the local news anchor talk about the massive clean up effort on the hotel lobby television, replied, “Have you been down there lately? It’s a goddamn mess. Gonna take f’rever ta clean that up!”
Suffice it to say, that’s exactly how many around the nation felt about the aftermath of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota.
I had only been on the ground in North Dakota for a few hours at that point though, returning once again to cover the protest happening just outside of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. My first visit to the main camp, originally known as Oceti Sakowin, was to cover the mobilization of thousands of veterans to assist in the protest by Wesley Clark, Jr. and his cohorts. That trip proved to be the high point of the movement with the camp population swelling to what some estimated to be as high as 20,000 people.
The pressure of so many protesters, who call themselves ‘water protectors’, joining the fight forced the Army Corps of Engineers’ hand on whether to accept or deny an easement allowing Energy Transfer Partners to continue construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River. On December 4th, 2016, while sitting in the traffic on Highway 1806 just above the camp, I heard a roar erupt as news reached the protesters. Despite Clark Jr.’s gross incompetence as a leader of the veteran mobilization, the tactic had worked and an all night celebration started with a ceremony around the sacred fire at the center of the camp.
With victory in the air, the pipeline opponents praised what was surely the end of DAPL construction. They believed months of the bitter stand off with law enforcement and private security resulting in the arrest of hundreds had ended. Surely they would no longer have to endure blasts from water cannons in sub-zero weather, or punishing barrages of less-lethal munitions.
For the law enforcement officers on the north side of the barricade that was blocking Highway 1806, it seemed that they would no longer have to endure everything from rocks to Molotov cocktails being thrown at them. They would no longer have to listen to the accusations and jeers of angry protesters, or watch vehicles burn in front of them. Finally, they thought, the officers who came in from neighboring states would finally be able to return home to their families.
The feeling of victory was gone almost as fast as the good weather though. The next morning, the word had spread that DAPL officials announced their plans to continue construction despite the Corps of Engineers’ decision. Almost simultaneously, the inclement weather that North Dakota is known for rolled in, forcing many protesters to flee the camp for their lives.
One of my last memories from that first trip to Oceti Sakowin was searching Army-issue GP Medium tents that collapsed under the intense wind, while the -30 temperatures burned the small amount of skin I had left exposed on my face. We feared that senior citizens, many of whom were veterans of the Vietnam War who showed up in response to Clark Jr.’s call to action, might have been trapped under the collapsed walls. Fortunately, and no thanks to the veteran movement’s leader, all had escaped.
Now, over two months later, I sat in the hotel lobby planning the next day’s return to the ruthless high plains landscape that the camp was built on. It was now called Oceti Oyate due to the tribal leaders who built it leaving a few weeks prior. I knew that wasn’t the only thing that had changed during my absence though. A President who was a shareholder in Energy Transfer Partners was inaugurated. The easement denial was overturned, and now approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The population of the camp was only a fraction of it’s former self, some estimating it at 600–700 strong. Finally, an eviction notice had been served to those remaining residents of the camp, and evacuation was not negotiable.
I had no idea what I was heading into, but was looking forward to the challenge.
North Dakota is no stranger to dealing with floods. Both the Missouri River and the Red River have drained significant amounts of resources from the state and her citizens. Oceti Sakowin was built on a flood plain of the Missouri River, causing significant concern that the contents of the camp would be washed away in rising waters, resulting in an ecological disaster. Although that fear was very convenient for supporters of the pipeline, it was a fact nonetheless. Evacuation was necessary in order to begin the cleanup ahead of the coming floods.
The fact that a clean up was mandatory does not necessarily reflect that the protesters were negligent in their maintenance of the camp though. Oceti, for the most part, was extremely organized on my trip during the first week of December. The neighborhoods that Native Americans had established were especially impressive considering the conditions. Vehicles were parked in rows, loose trash wasn’t floating around, and signs were hung all over the camp reminding protesters to ‘pack it in, pack it out’. The camp, as a whole, was at least as clean and organized as combat outposts I saw overseas, complete with porta-potties and trash receptacles.
That being said, the storm that came in on December 5th, 2016 was bad enough that a lot of people barely made it out. I have no doubt that trash receptacles and porta-potties overflowed when the roads closed. I also know that there were vehicles stranded because they wouldn’t start (it was -30 after all). On top of that, the mass exodus of people left only a small contingent to clean up.
Was there work required once the weather cleared up? Yes. Do I think it was gross negligence on the part of those that came up to protest? I’m not so sure about that. But I was curious to see how bad the current condition of the camp actually was.
I departed the hotel early on the cold, wet morning of February 22nd. According to law enforcement press releases, the eviction would commence at 1400. Emergency services would be made available to anyone who voluntarily left, to include a hotel room and a bus ticket to anywhere in the lower 48. The light rain turned into heavy, wet snow during my drive south from Mandan, ND. Even though I grew up driving in harsh Midwest winters, I still had trouble keeping control of my four-wheel drive truck.
Just outside of Fort Rice, I encountered my first checkpoint. T-barriers, concertina wire, a Humvee, and a police cruiser accompanied by one National Guardsman and one law enforcement officer. As I waited in the short line of vehicles going through, I couldn’t help but think how different it was entering the protest site from this side of the barricade. It was akin to entering a forward operating base in a war zone, complete with soldiers in body armor checking each vehicle’s occupants.
After confirming that I was media, I was directed off to the side of the checkpoint to await a law enforcement escort up to the protest site. My first interaction of the day with uniformed personnel proved to be polite, professional, and friendly. So far, so good.
Despite the smiles at that first checkpoint, I knew that not all was well. A source that was a former private military contractor (PMC) with the DAPL security detail informed me the day prior that “Late December, early January there became a very big divide,” between law enforcement leadership and the private military contractors hired by DAPL. The contractors were almost all prior military combat veterans, many of whom hailed from the special operations community. For DAPL, these PMC’s were literally the best security money could buy.
Multiple agencies and departments from across the country had joined forces with PMC’s from four different companies though, working side by side for months. With so many different “tribes” together in an austere environment, away from home, for so long… I was not surprised to hear about disagreements. Certainly I had witnessed the same thing working in a joint environment on combat deployments overseas. Unfortunately, the issues ran deeper than just agitation from long days and unruly water protectors.
According to the source, who requested anonymity due to the nature of his work, DAPL wanted TigerSwan contractors to become more aggressive in their duties after becoming fed up with their equipment being vandalized. In our phone interview, he said, “They eventually ended up handing out baseball bats and axe handles for an intimidation factor, and they intended for people to use them.”
Both items are commonly considered deadly force, and rightly made law enforcement uncomfortable. The fact that DAPL, a private company, insinuated that they wanted their contractors to perform assault on behalf of them is certainly a violation of common business ethics. It’s not the oil executives that would have to endure the public lashing that would come from that, or the potential criminal charges, it would be the contractors themselves.
The source went on to say that senior leadership from within the PMC was purposefully agitating protesters on Oceti camp radio channels by hurling insults and profanities, in hopes of enticing an altercation. For law enforcement as well as some other PMC’s that were on site, that kind of unprofessional behavior was unsettling and caused a rift where a relationship of trust once existed.
The real issue for TigerSwan was a matter of legality though. Due to an ongoing investigation of Frost Kennels, the company responsible for the unauthorized use of dogs during an altercation with protesters on September 3rd, 2016, legal compliance was a matter of utmost importance for DAPL security. According to the Bismarck Tribune, a spokeswoman for DAPL said the security firms working for the pipeline were all properly licensed.
In direct contradiction to the DAPL spokeswoman, as of February 16th, 2017 TigerSwan was not listed on the State of North Dakota’s Private Investigation and Security Board’s (NDPISB) register of security licenses. According to documents released by Morton County, TigerSwan is in charge of DAPL intelligence and is the overall supervisor of the other security companies. Providing private security services without a license is a Class B misdemeanor in North Dakota.
Shortly after we crossed the Backwater Bridge behind our highway patrol escort, we arrived at another set of t-barriers. There was law enforcement vehicles parked on both sides of the road, with many officers milling about in preparation for the days activities. Looks like a whole lotta ‘hurry up and wait’ is going on, I thought.
I had been fearful that they wouldn’t allow press passed the bridge, but here we were, departing what felt like the border of a demilitarized zone and passing into no man’s land. The black smoke came into view as we moved beyond the t-barriers, curling into the grey sky as we came to a stop behind our escort. He motioned us toward a spot behind the CNN production truck that was parked on the shoulder, giving us a panoramic view of the post-apocalyptic landscape before us. Having not even stepped foot out of the vehicle yet, I was already shocked at what I saw. How am I looking at this as I sit firmly inside the United States of America?
After staring at flames erupting from a nearby teepee for what was probably too long, I exited the truck and followed the waiting patrolman over to meet another uniformed man. He appeared younger than many of the other law enforcement present, and had a smile made for the cameras. “This is Captain Iverson, he’ll tell you everything you need to know, and answer any questions you have.” The patrolman left to attend to presumably more important duties while I became acquainted with the Captain.
Right off the bat, he was friendly yet professional. “You guys are good to walk around, take pictures, even go down into the camp — if they let you. 1400 time is up though. At that point you have to be out of the camp. No exceptions.” He said in his North Dakota accent, before flashing a smile. “If you need anything, even an interview, just let me know.”
I was shocked to hear that we would be allowed down into the camp, and pleasantly surprised the Captain made himself so available to the media. Maybe I was a little too quick to judge how the press would be treated?
It wasn’t long until I was introduced to Ed, who said he was a former Marine up here with the independent media supporting the protesters. He had been in the camp for months, and offered to take me on a tour of what was left. A young Native American girl near the entrance of the camp had me bow to accept a green braided necklace with leaves sprouting from it; this was essentially my hall pass to walk into the camp sans harassment.
We passed by a group of protesters standing by the guard shack at the entrance, their mood solemn with a touch of disappointment. These were the wind burnt faces of the true believers; their resolve was in the process of shifting from the end of the battle and on to the war ahead. The concern was that the hundred or so water protectors that remained were the most prone to violence. They didn’t look like they were capable of that to me, but in my experience that’s a foolhardy assessment to make based only on ones outward appearance.
As Ed and I moved through the mud, down what was once known as Flag Row, I couldn’t help but think the landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen in North America. Burning shacks and teepees, and snowmobiles whipping through thick mud surrounded us. The trash piles — sometimes on fire — were at seemingly random intervals throughout the camp. Maybe the set of Mad Max wasn’t so otherworldly after all.
I was snapping a few pictures of a burning building on our way to the former location of the sacred fire when I turned and made eye contact with one of the operators of a snowmobile heading our way. Right after I returned to looking through the lens of my camera, he flipped a U-turn and gunned the engine, covering my camera and I in the thick mud. He looked back, briefly making eye contact with me again as if to say ‘you’ve been warned’, before speeding off deeper into the camp.
Wet and covered in mud, my current predicament was less than desirable with the freezing temperatures and driving wind trying to break me.
Standing in the gathering spot that was once claimed by the sacred fire, now with just a handful of protesters milling about, I listened in as Ed talked to a few people about whether they were staying past the two o’clock deadline or not. A group was screaming something off in the distance, and the familiar sound that emanates from the spinning tires of a vehicle stuck in mud was echoing from multiple places around camp. All of a sudden, I heard the distinct pop of some sort of incendiary device.
I quickly turned around just in time to see the shack that had previously been used to dry corn erupting in flames only twenty feet away. I remember taking pictures of the celebration ceremony while standing next to that shack just a few months prior; now it had become one of the many “ceremonious” structural fires happening around camp.
It was explained to me later that these fires were being set to sacred structures so that authorities would not desecrate them during the camp eviction. Standing there in the mud and snow, watching with my own two eyes, I saw no ceremony. No decorum whatsoever. I’m admittedly not an expert on the many varieties of Native American tradition, but what I witnessed was a far cry from the ceremonies that took place during my first visit.
Later that day I would learn from authorities that the estimated twenty fires that were set around camp did more than just bring down buildings. Two kids, a 7-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl, were hospitalized for injuries received from the fires. According to one of officer on site, the 17-year-old girl had burn injuries so grievous that she needed to be airlifted to medical care.
Ed continued the tour, moving away from the blazing inferno and up to a fairly new set of plywood structures covered with blue tarps. He explained that this was the Oglala House, and it’s where the “last stand” would be made. The structure was on a slightly elevated position compared to the rest of the camp, and had graffiti that said ‘Oglala’s Never Sold Out’. The statement may have been in reference to the tribal leaders who were now cooperating with the state of North Dakota, or Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault II — referred to as ‘DAPL Dave’ within the camp. Or maybe it was a nod to the Oglala Sioux’s refusal to accept reparation money in exchange for the land that was taken from them.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe, properly referred to as the Oglála Lakȟóta Oyáte, were once the fierce titans of the Great Plains. They now hail from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota. To understand their infamous warrior culture, you must first know that they are descendants of Chief Crazy Horse himself, war hero of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Despite Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s death and the devastating defeat of the 7th Cavalry during that battle in 1876, the Oglala Sioux were eventually forced onto reservations in 1877 and mandated to take government rations instead of hunting buffalo as they had for millennia.
In a final blow to their people, a detachment of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry surrounded and massacred over 150 men, women, and children of the Oglala Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, located inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. What started as an attempt to confiscate their rifles, turned into a bloodletting after one deaf tribesman refused to give up his rifle on the grounds that he had paid a considerable amount of money for it. If there is any one tribe that has reason, even motivation, to resist the U.S. Government… it’s the Oglala Sioux.
I first came to know the modern Oglala Sioux in high school when I volunteered to go build homes on Pine Ridge with Habitat for Humanity. It was an incredible experience where I learned about their age-old traditions and the good people who still faithfully practice them to this day. I also saw first hand the lasting impact the U.S.’s westward expansion had on them, to include a visit to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. We had to be in before dark each night, and slept in the basement of a church with steel bars over the windows. Gang violence and vitriol towards the “white man” was a way of life for some segments of the population there, and it was of paramount importance for us to take that threat seriously.
In perhaps the most vibrant modern illustration of their continued warrior culture and resistance to their land being taken, a band of armed Sioux took over the south unit of Badlands National Park in the summer of 2002. Kicking out hikers and refusing entrance from anyone, it was the first armed takeover of federal land of it’s kind in over one hundred years. Now, fifteen years later, it was the Oglala Sioux who once again threatened to make a stand. For them, they were protesting the violation of treaty land, specifically the Treaty of 1851, more so than the pipelines being built.
As Ed and I continued our conversation outside of the Oglala House about the impending eviction that was less than two hours away, he made an offhand comment that was delivered like a punch to my stomach: “Well, we still have a few surprises left for them when they come. But I can’t tell you about that,” he said, staring right at me with a sly grin.
Ed was an interesting guy. Sporting a beanie, green jacket, a press badge and jeans, he wasn’t too far off at first look from many in the media that were out there that day. A Massachusetts native who now lives in Colorado, he held the strong opinions of someone who identified politically just a little further left than Bernie Sanders. Standing outside the Oglala House in the ever-increasing snowfall, he talked a bit about what it was like to protest as a veteran. “As a former uniformed soldier, and as a Marine always, it concerns me, what I’ve seen out here.”
Ed, who made it clear he was just as much an activist as he was a journalist, had actually taken part in the most heated actions up at the blockade. “I was actually on the front lines November 20th, and I wasn’t there to be a hero, I was there to protect the people.”
He took solace in his military training, and used it as motivation in the face of less-lethal munitions. “I stood the closest to the soldiers, and took water cannons to the face, I took the rubber bullets. But I was taking it for the people; I knew I could take it. There were people maybe ninety pounds, on the ground praying. They were getting shot up, and I was hoping to deflect as much damage as I could… I saw an America that I never thought I’d see.”
It was about this time that Ed paused, looking off, before taking the conversation in a different direction. “I understand that we’re in a war in eight countries, committing genocide in these countries for the sake of oil, and power, and for the sake of ego.”
We started to walk up towards “Facebook Hill,” the highest point in the camp where protesters could typically receive the best cell phone reception. It also offered one of the best vantage points of the entire camp.
“So when were you in the Marines?” I said, falling back on the traditional topic of units, dates, and military occupational specialties (MOS’s) that most veterans find themselves exchanging when meeting a fellow vet. “I was in the Marines in ’97,” he replied. “I was a 0311. Bullet catcher. When I got out I was listed as an expert sniper. I got about six to eight months into it, and decided this just wasn’t what I signed up for. We weren’t here to protect people, we were corporate tools.”
As we arrived atop the hill, standing on hay laid down to increase traction in the mud, Ed continued, “I got myself into trouble. Ya know, President of the United States… as a senator does cocaine, and gets to become President. If you’re in the Marines and do the same thing, you get kicked out.”
Between Ed and the angry snowmobiler, it was clear that the demographics of the camp had changed since my last visit.
During my first trip to Oceti, I had a pretty clear snapshot of the people who came to stand against DAPL. It was a mix of Native Americans, veterans, hippies, eco-warriors, professional protesters, as well as average citizens who felt called to a cause. There were conservative tribal members who defined a family in very traditional terms sitting side by side with college students from California who held meetings about not assuming gender and proper use of pronouns.
It also seemed that there were a variety of reasons for being in camp; some did not care about oil but rather the violation of sacred ground, or the fight for treaty lands. Others still were against drilling for oil in general, or simply against running an oil pipeline under the Missouri River in particular. Some were there as members of the media, or were concerned professional medical personnel. All, almost without exception, were friendly and decent people. The camp was diverse and extremists and/or societal outliers were in the small minority back then.
The deadline for evacuation was approaching, so I began to say my goodbyes with Ed when another protester joined us. She identified herself as a veteran as well, telling me she was in the Army’s signal corps. She informed Ed that they just had an altercation over at the veteran’s camp because some members wanted to fly an Operation Iraqi Freedom flag. “We can’t fly a flag that represents colonization and genocide here. That’s just not right,” she said.
On February 22nd, it seemed that the majority of the one hundred or so people that remained in the final hour before eviction were hard line indigenous peoples or societal outliers that found a community at Oceti with a spattering of activist media present. None were likely to leave voluntarily unless floodwaters seeped in under their tents.
My time in the camp was up if I wanted to get out before the eviction deadline though, so I once again made my way through the mud and back up to Highway 1806.
Hey, you guys need to start making your way back passed the barricades. Anyone who stays will be arrestable,” Captain Iverson said upon my return to the highway. We would only be able to see a portion of the camp from there, and from a significant distance at that. None of the media present were happy about the move, but with the only other two options being arrest or leaving, we of course complied. Our access had been better than expected up until this point, but now I was slightly disappointed with ‘freedom of the press’ not being quite as free as I would have preferred.
As we began packing up, someone who identified as Oglala Sioux came to the entrance of the camp and yelled at the crowd on the road, “You’re either in, or you’re out! Make a decision!” After a few people scurried in, and a few more back out, protesters strung concertina wire across the entrance and stacked lumber as a barricade. I again heard the familiar pop of an incendiary device in the guard shack. The same structure that greeted thousands of protesters over the past six months was now engulfed in flames.
As I made my final trek away from the camp entrance, a series of fireworks were launched into the sky. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the surprise that Ed was referring to, or was something more sinister afoot?
Back behind the barricade I watched as law enforcement dressed in riot gear put their game faces on and started moving in the direction of the northern camp entrance shortly after two o’clock. Captain Iverson came over to address the press, and informed us that the protesters were in the process of negotiating a “ceremonial arrest.” They were giving them until four in the afternoon, a full two hours after the eviction was to take effect, to work out the details. Captain Iverson added that they would take one camera operator, one photographer, and one staff writer up to the line with them. But, it would be up to us — the press pool — to decide who those three would be.
As the captain concluded his presser, I heard the distinctive buzz of a drone drop from the sky and fly over us. Myron is at it again, I thought to myself.
I first met Myron Dewey outside of the media tent last December. He’s the proprietor of Digital Smoke Signals Media, but within the camp he was more simply the one who always found a way to get a drone in the sky. He’s a friendly guy though, and deeply passionate about causes concerning Native Americans. You could also say he’s not exactly a fan of the FAA’s Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) that was in effect over the protest area.
Despite the TFR, Dewey had continued flying his drones in an attempt to document the protest, pipeline construction, as well as protester interaction with law enforcement and security contractors. By doing so, he risked up to one year of imprisonment and a 100,000-dollar fine. Threat of legal action wasn’t the only thing he had to worry about though.
Reports of drones flying dangerously close to security personnel, sometimes right in their face, resulted in a few being shot out of the sky by security contractors. Some have even alleged that drones were being used as weapons against law enforcement aircraft in the area. Either way, shooting a drone out of the air is a serious felony-level offense. To date, no security contractors have been charged for shooting down drones. No one has been charged for flying drones in violation of the TFR either. At the time of this article Digital Smoke Signals Media had raised nearly 60,000 dollars via GoFundMe, a popular crowd-funding site, to support the continuation of Dewey’s drone operation.
Outside of a few more structures set on fire, nothing of note happened over the course of those two hours that a negotiation was to take place. We would later be informed that no one showed up to do the ceremonial arrest. But with the four o’clock time hack expired, a group of protesters emerged to challenge the law enforcement officers.
The group, some holding flags and others a camera, was not happy to see that law enforcement allowed media from behind the barricade to come up with them. They accused officers of deciding what was newsworthy. Although I was frustrated with where we were positioned, I will admit the authorities were unbiased in who was allowed to come up to the protest line.
An officer announced that anyone who did not start heading south on the highway towards the reservation would be arrested by order of the Governor of North Dakota. A few insults from the crowd later, and the first arrests were made as the rest scattered a bit further back.
Jon Ziegler was among those in the crowd of protesters. He was upset that law enforcement followed through with their promise to make arrests. As he ran away from the advancing officers, he shouted, “Pieces of shit! Every fucking cop is a piece of shit!”
Tensions continued to rise. Protesters would retreat — some hopping into the back of trucks, followed by law enforcement moving forward, making arrests, and then the process would repeat again.
The afternoon was not without controversy though. Screams of agony from Eric Poemz pierced the air as he was taken to the ground during one of the arrests. Poemz is a self-proclaimed journalist, although his Twitter account says he is a Native activist and full time water protector. Standing among the protesters challenging law enforcement on the road, he shouted (while live streaming), “There’s something wrong if you come to work without a name badge on, if you can’t identify yourself.” Although it was true that law enforcement officers were not wearing nametapes, and for the most part wore balaclavas to obscure their faces, many didn’t realize it was a precaution due to some officers and their families being stalked on Facebook and harassed.
Poemz continued his monologue about being honorable and not working for big oil, pausing momentarily to single out a black police officer, saying, “You should be with us, not fighting against us.” Moments later, Poemz was taken to the ground and placed under arrest amid his screams claiming a broken hip.
A law enforcement officer asked if he could walk, to which Poemz responded, “Pick me up and I’ll see!” According to a report by CNN, Poemz was evacuated to a Bismarck hospital and medically cleared. He was then taken to the Morton County Correctional Center.
In total, ten arrests were made that afternoon — Ed being one of them.
Captain Iverson was visibly irritated with yet another drone zooming over his head as he came over once more to update the press pool. With the sun dropping low in the sky, he informed us that they would be wrapping up for the night. No night action was planned, and they weren’t in a hurry to evacuate the camp if it meant avoiding violence. As one officer nearby put it, “we’ve been here for six months, another few days won’t hurt nothin’.”
It was an anticlimactic end to what all expected to be a newsworthy stand off. “You guys are getting ready to take off, right?” Captain Iverson said, giving me the polite yet distinct impression that all media were expected to leave in short order.
That was fine with me; it had been a long day — I was ready for a hot meal and to change into something that wasn’t wet and covered in mud. As I began the walk back to my truck, I overheard a conversation between an ACLU observer and a sheriff from Fargo, North Dakota. Joining the group, I listened intently to the sheriff while he explained a lot of the day’s events with more context. “There’s no hard plan going forward, we’re taking this hour by hour, day by day,” he said. The impression was given, once again, that eviction would be a slow process likely to take days to accomplish the removal of the approximately 75 people left in camp.
The sheriff continued, saying, “That camp is about to be washed away into the Missouri River, that’s a fact. We need to have time to clean it up — at this point we’re the real water protectors here.” The ACLU observer smiled politely, but in a way that let you know she thought the sheriff’s comment about being a water protector was ludicrous at best.
I chimed in, asking how morale was for those in uniform. He replied, “We’re ready for this to be over, it’s been a long couple months. We’re proud of what we accomplished here though. The FBI informed us that we literally rewrote the book on dealing with civil disobedience. The fact no one has been killed is a miracle.”
Breaking away from the conversation, I snapped a few last pictures while the floodlights came on. A Morton County deputy approached, the first I had seen from the home county, so I assumed he must have just arrived for the night shift. Unlike the rest of the officers I talked to that day, he didn’t pull down his balaclava to talk to me. With only his tired eyes to focus on, I saw a man that had been exhausted by this ordeal. He talked in a rushed, agitated way, putting me on the spot regarding how I felt, as a veteran, about a giant American flag draped over some of the GP-medium tents inside the camp.
Truth be told, I was somewhat impressed that unlike many protests around the country, this one did not tolerate the burning of American flags. I assumed that the intolerance for that activity was rooted in the fact that more Native Americans serve in the military than any other ethnic group per capita.
The deputy had plenty of vitriol for those who had stood opposite him in the protest camp though. He had ample reason to be angry given the actions perpetrated by some protesters that were a far cry from peaceful as they claimed. I have always been a proponent of not trying to dishonestly sugar coat one’s activities: If you’re going to throw tea in the harbor, don’t try to tell me it was anything else but that. I attempted to keep the conversation light and upbeat, but realized that he had more in common with the protestors he had so much disdain for than he probably realized.
With black smoke still lingering in my rearview mirror, I crossed over Backwater Bridge for the last time on my way back up to Bismarck.
I was on a strict deadline to be back home, so the next day I sat in a local Bismarck Starbucks just off of I-94, nursing a coffee while uploading video footage from the day prior. My thought process was that I wouldn’t be missing anything, as it was likely to play out like it did the day prior if what law enforcement had told us were true.
At about 1130 in the morning, I figured the police must be at it again down at the camp by now, probably arresting protesters as the opportunity presented itself. I pulled up one of the live feeds broadcasting from within the camp, and found that a drastically different situation was unfolding.
Dozens of Humvees and Bearcats moved on line with hundreds of heavily armed SWAT officers through the main camp. It was a law enforcement clearing operation that was, by my estimation, unprecedented in scale throughout American history. Officers went teepee to teepee, structure to structure, but all I could focus on was my own fear that someone who thought they were out of options would act out violently. Having raided nomad camps in Afghanistan before, I could remember how exposed you feel when approaching something with no hard walls, leaving you completely vulnerable to spray and pray gun fire.
Despite how jarring the image of the clearing operation may have looked, as someone with a military background I was admittedly impressed. It was a massive undertaking, and the officers on the ground were conducting themselves impeccably. They were still allowing protesters to leave the camp without being arrested, as long as they were in fact leaving the camp. For those who chose to be arrested, officers approached slowly and without their weapons raised. Each protester that was zip-tied appeared to be treated respectfully; I even saw a peace pipe being handed off in a careful manner after the owner was detained.
By 1400 on the 23rd of February, the Oceti Oyate protest camp was cleared and secure. Twenty-three protesters were arrested after refusing to leave; another twenty-three were apprehended after clean up efforts were underway. Miraculously, through eight months of protest that at times became very violent, no one on either side had died. I firmly believe that can be attributed to the overwhelming force that law enforcement entered the camp with on that last day, making anyone with violent intentions think twice.
There was significantly less press there that day though. With an operation that size, it was clear that the media was misled the day prior. You just don’t plan something like that overnight.
The first amendment isn’t something to be mitigated; rather it’s the one aspect of the constitution that should be universally embraced. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In reflection, I’m still deeply conflicted about how I feel about both the pipeline and the protest. One of the men I served with in 1st Ranger Battalion, and deployed to war with, was a Navajo protester and leader in the camp actively participating for months. My dad, a good and honest man now wheelchair bound and dying of ALS, worked until his last able day as a sub-contractor for the Dakota Access Pipeline. I believe there were good people on both sides of this issue.
I don’t know what happened behind closed doors between tribal leaders and DAPL officials before the protest started, and frankly I’m not sure it matters. I can tell you that I met people who felt moved enough to stand up for something they believed in while enduring some of the most austere terrain on planet earth. I also met people who never lost their desire to serve and protect, even in the face of burning vehicles and a barrage of insults to their character.
From what I saw, the vast majority of protesters were non-violent and passionate. The vast majority of law enforcement and PMC’s were comprised of moral and ethical people doing a job while showing restraint and operating within the legal constraints placed on them. I also saw opposing forces that were both negatively impacted by the few in their ranks who stepped over the line. It was those few, on both sides, that fueled the opposition’s anger throughout the duration of the protest.
Will the fight continue, will the movement go on, as Oceti Sakowin becomes a memory? I don’t know. But the sheriff I talked to alongside the young ACLU observer that night had an astute observation: “The conversation among those in the camp has changed to treaty lands. That won’t be decided out here, at this level, but they have a very valid argument there. They might be on to something if they pursue that.”
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