Spokespeople for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota have defended its actions against water protectors on the night of Sunday November 20 by alleging acts of violence were made against them. But the injury totals among the protectors, eyewitness accounts and live video feeds from the scene would seem to bely that assessment. The protectors were blasted for seven hours with water in subfreezing temperatures, while being pelted with rubber bullets and concussion grenades, which wreaked havoc and chaos that they are still recovering from.
“There were people getting rushed, being carried by medics, semi-conscious, bleeding, shaking uncontrollably, swollen faces, in shock, shot body parts, bleeding,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal member Wasté Win Young, who makes her home on the reservation and was present that night.
For much of the night, hundreds of water protectors from the resistance camps were bombarded by law enforcement on State Highway 1806, just north of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. As a group of water protectors attempted to remove two burned-out vehicles from blocking the road on Sunday evening (placed there by law enforcement after the October 27 forced removal from the Treaty Camp), law enforcement quickly arrived and sent a barrage of rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades and freezing-cold water at people gathered on Backwater Bridge.
“People were just being brutalized at the front,” said Kevin Gilbertt, a London native and current resident of Minnesota, who has been present at the resistance camps for two weeks. “From where I stood, I saw numerous tear gas canisters fired into the enclosed bridge. [Water protectors] couldn’t go left, or right, or forward, and they were spraying right into them.”
Some injuries were severe, most notably those of Sophia Wilansky, 21, of New York, who may lose her arm. Graphic photographs circulated on social media after Wilansky’s arm was torn apart by what may have been a concussion grenade.
“Police were aiming for people’s heads, shooting rubber bullets,” attorney Angela Bibens told ICTMN.
“Rubber bullets might not kill you,” said Bibens, part of the Water Protector Legal Collective, a nonprofit organization coordinating criminal and civil litigation for water protectors in Standing Rock in partnership with the National Lawyers Guild. “But it’s not that they aren’t lethal, it’s that they might not kill you.”
Bibens was one of many legal observers from the Water Protector Legal Collective who were present throughout the night.
“I’m just absolutely shocked by the lack of regard for the sanctity for human life shown by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department,” Bibens said. “The state doesn’t care. The State of North Dakota does not care about what is going on here.”
According to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, law enforcement reacted with necessary force because police officers armored in riot gear, helmets and face shields felt threatened by stones and logs reportedly being thrown by water protectors.
“The number one thing has still been the safety for everybody,” stated Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier at a press conference on Monday evening, regarding the amount of force used. “The actions that were taken last night were just for that purpose.”
Temperatures were below freezing that night, dipping toward 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the earlier hours of the morning into the teens. The wind-chill factor made it feel at least ten degrees colder. Even so, water protectors were sprayed repeatedly, and for hours on end, with water hoses by law enforcement.
“The water cannon was continuously being used, relentlessly. It was horrifying,” Gilbertt told ICTMN.
Morton County also purported that the use of hoses was prompted by aggressive fires started by the water protectors. Water protectors refute this claim, stating that fires were started after the protectors had been doused.
“There were no fires before the water cannons,” said Bibens. “They did this to punish water protectors. It was twenty-three degrees last night.”
Hundreds of water protectors were treated for hypothermia all throughout the night and the next morning.
“The first fires were started by a device from Morton County,” said Gilbertt. “Fires were [later] set on the side by water protectors, controlled fires to keep people warm. That was not fire to be used in an offensive way.”
Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council reported hundreds of injuries.
“Approximately 300 injuries were identified, triaged, assessed and treated by our physicians, nurses, paramedics and integrative healers working in collaboration with local emergency response,” the council said in a statement released on Monday November 21. “These 300 injuries were the direct result of excessive force by police over the course of ten hours. At least 26 seriously injured people had to be evacuated by ambulance to three area hospitals.”
Besides Wilansky’s arm, among the most serious injuries were an elder who lost consciousness and was revived on scene, a young man with a grand mal seizure, a woman shot in the face by a rubber bullet with subsequent eye injury and compromised vision, a young man with internal bleeding who was vomiting blood after a rubber bullet injury to his abdomen, a man shot in the back near his spine by a rubber bullet, causing blunt force trauma and a severe head laceration, and multiple fractures secondary to projectiles fired by police.
Wilansky’s father, Wayne Wilansky, told The Guardian that the barricade constructed by police may have exacerbated his daughter’s injury by delaying her arrival at a hospital in Bismarck. She was later airlifted to another hospital in Minneapolis.
“The best-case scenario is no pain and ten to twenty percent functionality,” her father told The Guardian of the prognosis for use of her arm. Wilanksy said his daughter underwent eight hours of surgery on Monday after the arteries, medial nerve, muscle and bone in her left arm were “blown away.”
Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II expressed condolences to Wilansky and her family.
“Our deepest gratitude, thoughts and prayers are with water protector Sophia Wilansky and her family right now,” Archambault said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon, November 22. “She sustained severe injuries to her arm when a concussion grenade blew part of her arm away. Doctors are working to save her arm.”
He also chided state authorities for what he said was an excessive use of force.
“Law enforcement is using way too much force, way too much aggression,” he told KFYR-TV News. “Every time something happens, law enforcement takes excessive force. They need to be held accountable.”
The actions were especially egregious given that the protectors are unarmed, he said.
“Look at what the water protectors have been using. It’s been consistent,” said Archambault. “They’ve been unarmed. They’ve been using their voices.”
In the press conference with Morton County Sheriff’s Department on Monday, one reporter posed several direct questions to Kirchmeier and Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler regarding the use of force.
“We can use whatever force necessary to maintain peace,” said Police Chief Ziegler.
The unidentified reporter asked Sheriff Kirchmeier, “Is it a common crowd control tactic to spray people with water?” To which Kirchmeier responded, and stumbling to answer, “Uh, at this… uh, not normally. Uh…but in this circumstance… uh… it was the best option we had at that point.”
The reporter then asked, “Did officers consider the temperature at the time and the effect that the water would have on people?” Kirchmeier responded, “Uh, yes, it’s a consideration. Uh, but it’s the, as the number one thing, as we’re going along here and with the safety of everybody involved and we’re just not gonna let uh… uh… people, and protestors in large groups, uh, come in and threaten officers. Uh, that’s not happening. So uh, as this was going on, the water was used as a tool, uh, to help, uh, quell that situation, and uh, and when it was no longer necessary it wasn’t used any longer.”
The reporter then asked Ziegler, “In your opinion was the use of water hoses safe?”
Ziegler responded, “It was effective, wasn’t it?”
Archambault called on President Barack Obama to stop the pipeline and the violence.
The reckless escalation of violence by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is unconscionable and preventable,” he said. “It must stop now.”
Amnesty International responded to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department use of force in a letter on Monday.
“The continued use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment by MCSD and other agencies to police largely peaceful demonstrations intimidates protesters who are practicing their right to peaceful assembly and can actually lead to an escalation in violence,” wrote Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than possible, escalating tensions between protesters and police.”
And a battlefield it was, Young said.
“Something happens to our spirits out there,” said Young. “Some drop to their knees in anguish and cry, as I have seen many do. The overwhelming majority of us physically out there have the need to stand strong and protect the sanctity of our universe, or the good that’s left in it, for our babies.”