Though the ground fight against the Dakota Access pipeline project has ended, the defense of those who stood up against injustice continues. From last April through February of this year, thousands of people traveled to North Dakota to stand with Standing Rock as their people fought to protect the Missouri River.
In September, Dakota Access deployed several private security firms, hired an unlicensed military counterintelligence operation, and colluded closely with both state and federal agencies to end the peaceful demonstrations of water protectors. The addition of these hired guns resulted in a dramatic uptick of arrests, use of force, and numerous human rights violations against those who chose to exercise their constitutional rights. In total, nearly 600 people were arrested, facing a total of 825 charges.
Recently, the company behind Dakota Access, Energy Transfer Partners, filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace, Earth Justice, and several environmental organizations, alleging a “criminal enterprise” of misleading indigenous peoples, lying to the public about the harms of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and even attempting to redefine “unceded treaty territory.”
As water protectors were arrested, a massive legal defense effort began that continues today.
Morton County is slowly progressing through its backlogged docket – in the June accounting, 221 cases had been resolved. Of those 221 cases, 93 were dismissed, three were found ‘not guilty’, three were ruled ‘pre-trial diversions’ (a case in which the defendant does not admit guilt, case is suspended for one year – if the defendant is not arrested again, the case will be dismissed), 114 were plea bargains, and 8 were found ‘guilty’.
According to the Freshet Collective, as of July, a total of 499 cases remain open. Remaining charges include: reckless endangerment, disobedience of safety orders during a riot, disorderly conduct, physical obstruction of a government function, engaging in a riot, criminal trespass, preventing arrest, maintaining a public nuisance, terrorizing, criminal mischief, tampering with a public service, and inciting a riot.
Seven defendants face federal charges, which will most likely be decided in North Dakota, unless a change of venue is granted. All seven defendants have been charged with “participating in a riot,” which carries a maximum five year sentence, and six of the seven were charged with “arson,” which carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. One defendant, Red Fawn Fallis, was charged with “unlawful possession of a weapon” and accused of firing this weapon. Red Fawn was held for several months in Morton County Jail and was finally released to a halfway house earlier this summer.
The Water Protector Legal Collective’s civil litigation team has filed one federal class action suit to date, alleging use of excessive force by law enforcement. That case was filed on November 28, 2016. The suit seeks damages and injunctive relief against further indiscriminate use of dangerous weapons such as impact munitions, explosive teargas grenades and canisters, and water cannons and hoses, for crowd dispersal. WPLC expects oral arguments for this case to begin in December of 2017 or Spring of 2018.
In the meantime, water protectors have started resistance camps all over Turtle Island. Last week, water protectors in Minnesota successfully blocked construction of the Line 3 pipeline for a day. Six people were arrested, and released on bond the following day.
Resistance continues throughout our treaty territories – the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline united so many and lit a spark within new generations. Energy Transfer Partners seeks to silence us and any allies willing to stand with us moving forward, they seek to demonize and further divide, as they did for many months in North Dakota. Big oil paints itself as a victim, but the video footage and photos show otherwise – we are unarmed resistors who were attacked by dogs, private security, treated as “jihadists,” and subjected to militarized, violent tactics for attempting to protect the water from contamination and defend our treaty rights.
Stand strong, relatives.
Tara Houska is a tribal attorney, water protector, and National Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth. She is a co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a former advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and sits on the board of the Freshet Collective. Follow her on Twitter: @zhaabowekwe
The Freshet Collective is a non-profit organization that began as a bail fund and evolved into a dedicated group of on the ground legal organizers who coordinate travel to court for water protectors, outreach to defendants, attorney coordination, hospitality, and cover criminal attorney costs. The Water Protector Legal Collective is a non-profit organization of on the ground attorneys and staff who coordinate the pro hac process of all out of state attorneys, coordinate civil litigation, and cover pro hac fees.