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Over 140 arrested after armed eviction of pipeline protest site

MORTON COUNTY, N.D. -- Hundreds of officers in riot gear and military vehicles broke through the front lines of the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance Thursday, Oct. 27, using pepper spray, non-lethal bean bag rounds and other deterrents as they c...

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MORTON COUNTY, N.D. - Hundreds of officers in riot gear and military vehicles broke through the front lines of the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance Thursday, Oct. 27, using pepper spray, non-lethal bean bag rounds and other deterrents as they cleared out protesters blocking a state highway and occupying the pipeline company's land.

At least 140 were arrested during a tense day that saw protesters setting fire to roadblocks made of tires, logs and vehicles, authorities removing protesters' tents from private property and officers using pepper spray and batons to push the crowd back.

Authorities reported two instances of shots being fired, including one in which a woman who was being arrested along the front line on Highway 1806 pulled a .38-caliber revolver and fired three shots near officers before being taken into custody.

As of 8:15 p.m., authorities were engaged in a situation where protesters had lit a fire near the "Backwater Bridge" just north of the main protest camp, Morton County spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said. Officials said that protesters at the bridge were throwing molotov cocktails at law officers.

Medics were at the front lines and at the main Oceti Sakowin camp assisting people, but the number of injuries was not immediately clear.

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Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II repeated his call for the U.S. Department of Justice to send observers.

"They must step in and hold the state of North Dakota and Morton County accountable for their acts of violence against innocent, prayerful people," Archambault said in an emailed statement, while also urging the "water protectors" to remain in peace and prayer. "Any act of violence hurts our cause and is not welcome here."

Eleven weeks of protest activity, which had entered a new phase when protesters established a frontline camp Sunday directly in the $3.8 billion pipeline's path, came to a head about noon Thursday as law enforcement with armored trucks arrived at a northern roadblock set up by protesters on Highway 1806.

Authorities issued a final warning and urged everyone to move back to the south camp on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land that the agency is letting protesters use to exercise their free speech rights.

But protesters determined to be the last line of defense between the pipeline and the Missouri River stood their ground on the highway and at the new camp, which sits on Dakota Access-owned land that tribal members say was never ceded after the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.

"They're forcing this, but we're going to end up looking like the bad guys," said Jon Eagle Sr., tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. "When you give people no choices, they have no choice but to resist."

Pipeline work continued

As officers on foot spanning the highway and ditches slowly pushed the crowd back, pipeline crews worked steadily in view of the protest in the same area where protesters clashed with security guards and dogs on Sept. 3.

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The Justice Department recently reiterated its call for Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, to voluntarily pause construction of the four-state, 1,172-mile pipeline within 20 miles of Lake Oahe, but the company has not complied. The area where crews worked Thursday is the same area the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says contains burial grounds and sacred sites, but the state archaeologist surveyed the area and disagreed.

As some protesters broke the fence and moved into the construction area, law enforcement formed a line and moved protesters back near the highway. Construction appeared to stop for the rest of the day in that area.

"I don't understand how they're allowed to protect the industry and hurt us," said Kandi Mossett, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in western North Dakota.

Dissension broke out among people on the front lines, with some calling for prayer instead of more aggressive actions like setting fire to the barricade.

"If we're here to pray, then why do we look like rioters?" one person called out. "We need to get back and pray."

As law enforcement inched forward on the highway, other officers moved south in the field and began to surround the frontline camp occupied by about 200 protesters the night before. Officers began collapsing tents and marking teepees with tape, promising campers they'd get their property back.

More than 200 law enforcement officers were in the area, and Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said the Fort Rice police staging area several miles north of the frontline camp would be staffed throughout the night.

"Yesterday it came down to the point where we were told 'this is our last stand and we're not going to move,' so it forced us to this option because this activity cannot continue," Kirchmeier said, referring to negotiations that broke down Wednesday. "It's affecting a lot of people in Morton County, a lot of farmers and ranchers and what they're doing. This needs to go through the court process... we have to make sure laws are being followed while this takes place."

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While there were several reports of officers using Tasers and rubber bullets on protesters, Kirchmeier confirmed the use of pepper spray but said he was unaware of the use of other deterrents. The sheriff's department said it used a long range acoustic device (LRAD) to transmit a high-pitch tone that's used to disperse crowds, and deployed the pepper spray after protesters threw projectiles at officers and refused to comply with officers' orders.

Suzette Berg, a supervisor for Standing Rock ambulance, said the most serious injuries she knew of were a broken hand and a blast to the knee, adding they were fortunate there weren't more people hurt.

The American Civil Liberties Union was among those who condemned what they characterized as excessive force.

"The use of military equipment and excessive police force against DAPL protesters as a means to intimidate and stifle demonstrations and nonviolent acts of civil disobedience is an unnecessary and costly show of force from the North Dakota government," the ACLU of North Dakota said.

Bridge burns

About 250 protesters congregated at the frontline camp while another 100 or so people with about a dozen horses faced off with law enforcement at a bridge on County Road 134.

Protesters occupied the bridge Sunday to keep authorities from surrounding the frontline camp, and on Thursday a massive fire fueled by logs and tires kept more than 75 officers at bay for hours. Protesters allowed firefighters to extinguish the blaze, but at 4:40 p.m. they set fire to logs and hay around a pickup truck parked on the bridge and began to disperse.

Julie Richards of Pine Ridge, S.D., who attached herself to construction equipment at one of the earlier pipeline protests, sat along the creek, smoking a cigarette and watching the fire burn.

"I think this is awesome," Richards said. "We've gotta protect our water any way we can."

Peaceful or not?

As government forces approached the frontline camp and smoke billowed from the burning tires, Dan Nanamkin of the Colville Nez Perce in Washington banged a drum and sang in his native tongue as he stood with about 100 others along Highway 1806.

"I think it's the same thing as history repeating itself," he said. "We're trying to stand up for the land, just like our ancestors did. And these folks are coming in just like their ancestors did, for greed, for want."

Nanamkin, who gave up his job as a community center director to join the protest, was celebrating his 49th birthday Thursday.

"Hopefully it's not my death day, but if it is, I'm here with my brothers," he said. "Here I feel at peace because I'm at the center of prayer."

However, Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, who has been assisting Morton County, said the "protesters are not being peaceful or prayerful."

"Law enforcement has been very methodical in moving ahead slowly as to not escalate the situation. However, the protesters are using very dangerous means to slow us down," Laney said in a statement. "Their aggressive tactics include using horses, fire and trying to flank us with horses and people."

Numerous counties, cities, state agencies and law enforcement from at least six states were supporting Morton County in the effort. North Dakota National Guard spokeswoman Amber Bakken said roughly 100 Guard members were provided a "strictly" support role for law enforcement, including driving Humvees used in the clearing effort. Unidentified people in plain clothes stood in a field in the pipeline construction area while pipeline workers with yellow and orange vests watched from a distance.

About a dozen tribal historic preservation officers from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Nebraska were present near the front lines to observe and document what happened.

"Right or wrong, good or bad, this is history," Eagle said.

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