Standing Rock Demonstrators File Class-Action Lawsuit Over Police Violence

Opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline described in detail the severe injuries they sustained during a November 20 clash with police.

Police use a water cannon on protesters during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 20, 2016. Photo: Stephanie Keith / REUTERS

Pipeline demonstrators injured by rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and water cannons during a wintry nighttime standoff with police last week filed a class-action lawsuit Monday against the sheriff of the North Dakota county involved. The suit describes in new detail the evening of November 20, when more than 200 people protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline were injured by “less-than-lethal” weapons.

The lawsuit alleges that sheriff’s deputies and police officers used excessive force when they deployed impact munitions, like rubber bullets, as well as explosive tear gas grenades and water cannons against protesters. It argues that the tactics were retaliatory, punishing those involved for exercising free speech rights. It also argues that officers were inadequately trained to handle the situation, naming Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler, and Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Keiser as defendants.

Plaintiffs, represented by the National Lawyers Guild’s Water Protectors Legal Collective, requested a restraining order and preliminary injunction that would bar officers from using such weapons against people protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. The suit awaits a decision from a federal judge on whether to approve class-action status.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been fighting the pipeline in court, arguing that the tribe was not adequately consulted and citing fears that the project will damage sacred sites and contaminate the Missouri river, which provides drinking water to the tribe’s reservation. Thousands of people have flocked to encampments near the project’s river crossing to pray and protest against its completion. Direct actions have been met with increasingly militarized responses from local police and sheriff’s deputies, whose numbers have been padded by National Guard members and officers from departments across the US.

In declarations to the court, pipeline opponents involved in the November 20 clash described in detail the severe injuries they sustained. Most stated that protesters were nonviolent and that they heard no order to disperse.

Vanessa Dundon, a 32-year-old member of the Navajo Nation from Arizona, approached the Backwater bridge as the sun was setting, one of the first people to arrive. She watched as pipeline opponents, who identify as water protectors, removed one of two burned-out trucks that had been blocking the highway since a clash with police at the end of October. Officials had since secured the vehicles to the bridge to act as a barrier preventing people from travelling down the road to reach construction sites. The barrier also required a detour for people trying to get from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to the cities of Bismarck and Mandan. As she watched, tension began to mount between the protectors and police on the other side of a razorwire roadblock.

“I did not have time to move to avoid being hit by the [tear gas] canister,” she said. “I instinctively closed my eyes and was struck in the right eye by the canister.” As she turned to run away she was shot in the back of her left thigh by what felt like a rubber bullet. She fell to the ground, where two people picked her up and carried her to a minivan. “My eye was bleeding so much that I could not see and I was worried my eyeball was hanging out,” she stated.

Dundon was eventually sent to a specialist in Plymouth, Minnesota. “Dr. Baggins told me the trauma to my eye will likely affect my vision for the rest of my life and it is unclear at this time if I will be able to see out of my right eye again,” she said.

Mariah Marie Bruce, a 21-year-old from New Orleans, arrived to the police line at around the same time as Dundon. It wasn’t long before she was doused with water, her jacket and skirt freezing solid. As tear gas burned her eyes and nose, a flash bang grenade exploded against her genitals. Feeling little pain at first, she stayed in place until the tear gas became too much and she moved toward medics to treat her burning eyes. “As my body began to warmup, I started to feel the pain in my vagina and abdomen. The pain suddenly worsened and I began vomiting and the medics became very concerned,” she stated in a declaration to the court. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

David Demo, a 25-year-old living in nearby Cannon Ball, North Dakota, of Penobscott heritage, arrived at the bridge around 9 pm. He moved toward the police line, holding a GoPro camera on a stick. After 30 seconds or so of being sprayed with water, a projectile, possibly a rubber bullet, shot into Demo’s middle finger, which was holding the camera. “I was there to observe what was going on, and continue the protest against the pipeline. I was not threatening the officers,” he declared. In the morning, at the hospital, he was told his knuckles had broken and he would likely need reconstructive surgery.

Israel Hoagland-Lynn, a 42-year-old, from California was shot by a rubber bullet in the top of his head. “I dropped to the ground and lost consciousness,” he said. He came to and was carried by ambulance to a hospital, where he received 17 staples to the head.

Vanessa Bolin Clemens, a paramedic from Virginia and member of the Cherokee Nation, described treating one man for a seizure and administering CPR to another that appeared to be going into cardiac arrest. She described concussions, respiratory injuries, and, in the morning, ringing ears.

The Morton County sheriff’s department noted that one officer was injured by a projectile that night and has maintained that fears of demonstrators overrunning the barricade justified the use of water cannons. None of the three departments named in the suit responded to The Intercept’s requests for comment.

The most serious injury of the evening was sustained by 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, whose arm was hit by what her father, Wayne Wilansky, described as a “grenade type device.” He said in a statement, “Sophia’s arm will never work normally again. Indeed, her use of the arm will be minimal. Amputation may be required to give her a more functional capacity.” The Morton County sheriff’s department declared that the injury is inconsistent with department tactics and suggested it was the result of an explosion caused by protesters.

On Monday, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple ordered an emergency evacuation of pipeline opponents camped on Army Corps land, citing recent snowfall and harsh conditions in the months ahead. He declared that emergency services to the area, which proved essential little more than a week before, would be reduced.

“I direct state agencies, emergency service officials, and nongovernmental organizations to reduce threats to public safety by not guaranteeing the provision of emergency and other governmental and nongovernmental services in the evacuation area, unless otherwise approved on a case by case basis by the Morton County Sheriff or Superintendent of the Highway Patrol,” he stated. “The general public is hereby notified that emergency services probably will not be available under current winter conditions.”

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