Police used pepper spray and what they called nonlethal ammunition to remove Dakota Access Pipeline protesters from federal land Wednesday. Demonstrators say they were trying to occupy land just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where construction of the controversial pipeline is scheduled.
This was the first significant clash between law enforcement and protesters since demonstrations turned violent last week and more than 100 people were arrested.
According to the Morton County, N.D., Sheriff's Department, a group of people began building a wood pedestrian bridge across a creek north of the main protest camp early Wednesday morning. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the land and had asked law enforcement to remove any protesters who try to reach it.
Officers in boats pulled the makeshift bridge apart and warned protesters they would be arrested if they continued to trespass. After a several-hour standoff with police, protesters dispersed and returned to their main camp.
During the standoff, a few protesters watched from across the nearby Cannonball River. They waded into the water — some chest-deep — to shout support for colleagues closer to officers.
"I decided to get into the river and just be a presence there," says Stephanie Jasper of Tampa Bay, Fla. She watched as law enforcement pushed protesters back toward the main camp, and says she saw officers use pepper spray. She says it was a chaotic sight as a police helicopter hovered overhead.
Several protesters standing in the river held mirrors directed at law enforcement officers lined up on the other side and at police on the river in boats.
"Everybody was just sharing love to these officers and explaining why it is we're here and questioning why they were," says Jasper.
One law enforcement official had a very different view of the protest. "In my 27 years in law enforcement, I have never seen such an absolute disregard for the law or other people's rights because of someone else's ideology," said Cass County, N.D., Sheriff Paul Laney.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says the Dakota Access Pipeline construction route crosses land that is sacred to its members. And the tribe worries a pipeline spill could pollute local water. The tribe wants the federal government to stop work on the pipeline and conduct a full environmental impact study of the pipeline.
The Morton County Sheriff's Department says one person was arrested for "conspiracy to commit obstruction of a government function." In a press release, the agency says the protester was buying canoes and kayaks for others to cross the creek.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Once again, those protesting a pipeline slated to cross traditional Indian lands in North Dakota clashed with police. That was yesterday. They believe that it threatens the water that goes to the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. For more, we're joined by Jeff Brady who's on the line with us from Bismarck, N.D.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And Jeff, we know the overall goal for those protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline is to reroute that pipeline away from the nearby reservation. But what is their immediate goal?
BRADY: Their immediate goal yesterday was to try and get in the way of that construction. You'll remember last week there were protests that turned violent. More than 100 people were arrested and, in that case, protesters had set up camps in the path of the pipeline construction. Police cleared them out. And since then, they've been trying to get back.
Morton County sheriff's office says early Wednesday, a few people built this kind of makeshift wood bridge so that protesters could get across a large creek and occupy that construction site. Police in small boats - they knocked down that bridge and threatened to arrest anyone who went across for trespassing.
Officers used pepper spray and what they called non-lethal ammunition. One protester I talked to lifted his shirt for me, showed me this big, round bruise under his left arm, bright red and purple. And he said he thought he'd been hit by some sort of beanbag that an officer had fired at him. There was a standoff for a few hours, then protesters dispersed and went back to the camps where hundreds of people are still staying even today.
MONTAGNE: So the goal was to occupy this construction site, but it sounds like they did not succeed.
BRADY: No, not yesterday. And I think they realize that they really can't outpower the police. There are officers coming in from other states to help here. And some protesters couldn't even get near where the action was. They were on the opposite side of a river, so a few of them actually waded into the water, and it's very cold this time of year. They started yelling at police.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORIDNG)
STEPHANIE JASPER: Your paychecks come from our tax dollars - out of our paychecks.
BRADY: That voice you hear is Stephanie Jasper from Tampa Bay, Fla. She was standing waist-deep in the water. She tried to get officers to turn in their badges and join the protesters. She did not get any takers, I have to say. After the protest, I sat down with Jasper and she talked about this one protest technique that's pretty unique.
JASPER: There were also people holding mirrors just asking the cops to look at themselves and reflect. And then look at us and see that we are unarmed and to kind of count the weapons that they had on them and count the weapons that we had on us. And the only weapon that we have is prayer.
BRADY: So - very earnest person there, totally opposed to this pipeline and certainly wants to make sure that anyone who will listen, she can tell them that.
BRADY: I'm also...
BRADY: I should also mentioned that there was one arrest yesterday. The Morton County sheriff's office said one person was arrested for buying canoes and kayaks and then trying to get people to move across the creek in those...
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly - President Obama also weighed in on the Dakota Access Pipeline. He - earlier this week, he said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at changing the route of the pipeline. What's the reaction to that in just 15 seconds?
BRADY: Yeah, the court hasn't said much. The company that's building the pipeline was very surprised by this. It was news to them. And now we really just need to wait and see where the corps is going to come down on this - if they're going to choose a new route or not.
MONTAGNE: Jeff, thanks very much.
BRADY: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Jeff Brady in Bismarck, N.D. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.