As activists fighting the Dakota Access pipeline face increasing threats from law enforcement, a group of protesters has taken their struggle into the courtroom.
This week, lawyers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of eight Standing Rock protesters who claim they were subjected to excessive force during a police action on the night of November 20. The suit, which lists Morton County, ND, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, and the city of Mandan among the defendants, alleges law enforcement "unleashed a violent, unjustified, and unprovoked physical attack on Plaintiffs and others, without warning or opportunity to disperse."
The November 20 crackdown on protests saw law enforcement utilize an array of heavy crowd control methods—including the use of high-pressure water hoses in sub-freezing weather—against activists.
"As a direct result of Defendants’ illegal use of force," the suit alleges, "Plaintiffs suffered severe injuries, including a 21-year-old woman whose arm was nearly torn off by an explosive grenade and is currently undergoing multiple surgeries and facing permanent disability, and another woman who was shot in the eye causing a serious eye injury with ongoing severe pain and possible permanent blindness in that eye."
“The civil rights violations that night were deliberate and punitive,” attorney Rachel Lederman explained in a release put out by the National Lawyers Guild's Water Protector Legal Collective. “The Morton County Sheriff’s Department’s illegal use of force against the Water Protectors has been escalating. It is only a matter of luck that no one has been killed. This must stop.”
Accordingly, the suit asks for an "immediate court order to prohibit the unlawful use of excessive force, including the use of SIM [Specialty Impact Munitions] explosive grenades, chemical agents, directed energy devices, sound cannons, and water cannons or hoses."
The Morton County Sheriff's department called the November 20 action an "ongoing riot," and charged that the activists were "aggressive towards the officers." The MCSD also released a statement alleging that an explosion which severely injured protester Sophia Wilansky's left arm was the result of "criminal activity" on the part of protesters. (Activists have claimed it was due to a grenade set off by police.)
WPLC lawyer Brandy Toelupe said that the alleged police misdeeds are part of a pattern.
"The Morton County Sheriff’s office not only violates the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters, but their actions highlight the long history of abuse against Indigenous peoples,” Toelupe explained in the NLG statement. “From the beginning, governments have used their latest technologies to take land and resources from Native nations and oppress Indigenous peoples. Sheriff Kirchmeier’s actions make it clear that nothing has changed."
A federal judge must now rule on whether to allow the class action suit to proceed.
The lawsuit comes just as North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple ordered an "emergency evacuation" of all Standing Rock protesters—ostensibly, the Governor claimed, to protect them from the harsh North Dakota winter—which would allow law enforcement to block all supplies, including food, from headed into the protesters' encampment. A spokesperson for the Governor said there are no such plans for a blockade.
Despite the evacuation notice, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe remain defiant.
"We have lived for generations in this setting. That is our camp. We will continue to provide for our people there," Tribal spokeswoman Phyllis Young said during a news conference on Monday night. "This is Lakota territory. This is treaty territory, and no one else has jurisdiction there."