CANNON BALL, N.D. (AP) — A months-long protest over the Dakota Access oil pipeline reached its most chaotic pitch yet when hundreds of law enforcement officers moved in to force activists off property owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners.
Thursday's nearly six-hour operation dramatically escalated the dispute over Native American rights and the project's environmental impact, with officers in riot gear firing bean bags and pepper spray.
Donnell Hushka, a spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff's Department, said 141 people were arrested. No serious injuries were reported, though one man was hurt in the leg and received treatment from a medic.
Among those arrested was a woman who pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and fired three times at officers, narrowly missing a sheriff's deputy, according to State Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong. Officers did not return fire, she said.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said that the camp had been cleared by nightfall. Though officials earlier said they planned to turn the site over to private security, Kirchmeier said police would stay.
"We're not leaving the area," he said. "We are just going to make sure that we maintain a presence in the area so the roadway stays open, and to keep individuals from camping on private land."
Robert Eder, a 64-year-old Vietnam War veteran from the Standing Rock Reservation, said protesters would return.
"If they take everybody to jail, there will be twice as many tomorrow, and every day that passes more will come," he said.
Demonstrations at the site have garnered widespread national attention, attracting celebrities and prominent activists to join the cause, including Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo.
Teenagers and children are among those peacefully protesting, Ruffalo told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell.
"They're young people, 15-year-old girls, getting maced in the face today, rubber bullets in the face today," Ruffalo said Thursday evening. "They asked the young people to leave today, they said, 'No, we're going to fight for our lives, we're fighting for our water. This is a second genocide for us.'"
Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners is working to complete the 1,200-mile pipeline to carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois. But the route skirts near reservation land of the Standing Rock Sioux, who say it could endanger water supplies and disturb cultural sites, though state officials say no sensitive sites have been found on the route.
The tribe has gone to court to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision granting permits. A federal judge in September denied its request to block construction, but three federal agencies stepped in to order construction to halt on Corps-owned land around Lake Oahe, a wide spot of the Missouri River, while the Corps reviewed its decision-making.
In the wake of Thursday's escalation, Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe released the following statement:
"Militarized law enforcement agencies moved in on water protectors with tanks and riot gear today. We continue to pray for peace. We call on the state of North Dakota to oversee the actions of local law enforcement to, first and foremost, ensure everyone’s safety. The Department of Justice must send overseers immediately to ensure the protection of First Amendment rights and the safety of thousands here at Standing Rock. DOJ can no longer ignore our requests. If harm comes to any who come here to stand in solidarity with us, it is on their watch. They must step in and hold the state of North Dakota and Morton County accountable for their acts of violence against innocent, prayerful people.
The Obama administration has asked DAPL to voluntarily halt construction until the review process has been completed, but DAPL has ignored these repeated requests. By deploying law enforcement to support DAPL construction, the State of North Dakota is collaborating with Energy Transfer Partners and escalating tensions.
We need our state and federal governments to bring justice and peace to our lands, not the force of armored vehicles.
We have repeatedly seen a disproportionate response from law enforcement to water protectors’ nonviolent exercise of their constitutional rights. Today we have witnessed people praying in peace, yet attacked with pepper spray, rubber bullets, sound and concussion cannons. We urge state and federal government agencies to give this tense situation their immediate and close attention.
We also call on the thousands of water protectors who stand in solidarity with us against DAPL to remain in peace and prayer. Any act of violence hurts our cause and is not welcome here. We invite all supporters to join us in prayer that, ultimately, the right decision—the moral decision—is made to protect our people, our sacred places, our land and our resources. We won't step down from this fight. As peoples of this earth, we all need water. This is about our water, our rights, and our dignity as human beings."
Meanwhile, construction has been allowed to continue on private land owned by the developer, with a goal of completion by the end of the year.
The opposition ratcheted up over the weekend when protesters set up camp on private land owned by Energy Transfer Partners — putting themselves for the first time directly in the project's path.
The operation to push out the protesters began a day after they had refused to leave voluntarily. Law enforcement repeatedly asked protesters to retreat, at one point using a high-pitched whistle they said was intended to "control and disperse" protesters.
"The question I ask is, what lengths in North Dakota willing to go to defend a multi-billion dollar oil corporation?" Dallas Goldtooth, a protester, told TODAY. "This has to stop. We have to stop this pipeline for the protection of all of us."
The camp cleared on Thursday is located just to the north of a more permanent and larger encampment on federally owned land which has been the main staging area for hundreds of protesters, including Native Americans from across North America, environmentalists and some celebrities.
Many protesters openly defied the officers, while others took part in prayer circles and burned sage.
Cody Hall, a spokesman for the protesters, vowed a new camp would be built elsewhere in the pipeline's path, but on federal land.
"It's going to take a lot to move them (protesters) from there," he said.
Authorities said protesters set fire to four large pieces of construction equipment. At least two cars were also burned.
Aaron Johnson, 50, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, said he and other protesters weren't happy with the day's outcome. "I came here for peace and prayer," he said. "When somebody sets something on fire, that's not peace and prayer."