Tensions remain high after protests on Sunday night against the Dakota Access Pipeline left hundreds injured and led to the arrests of 16 activists. Police dramatically escalated their response to demonstrators who have been in the area for months, shooting them with pepper spray and rubber bullets, throwing concussion grenades, and soaking them with water cannons in below-freezing temperatures.
While activists paint the confrontation as a case of police using violence against peaceful protestors, police say the protest devolved into a riot, with activists behaving violently toward officers and lighting fires.
“Some of the water was used to repel some of the protest activities that were occurring, and it was used at a time where they were aggressive towards the officers,”said Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier.
Police also claim that protesters were throwing rocks and logs at them, and one officer was struck in the head. But medics from the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council working at the site are describing Sunday night as a “mass casualty incident” and say that more than 300 activists were injured, many from rubber bullets and shrapnel from concussion grenades, and that 26 had to be hospitalized with head injuries. Other protesters showed signs of hypothermia, and one even had a heart attack and had to be revived by medical personnel.
Dallas Goldtooth, a spokesman for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said that the sheriff’s department’s use of water cannons was “ripe with irony” as protesters had been told by the same sheriff to leave their camps because the weather in North Dakota can become dangerously cold.
Videos also show that police were behind barbed wire when they sprayed and shot at protestors, and Jen Cook, policy director for the ACLU of North Dakota spoke out against the police tactics, saying, “It’s absolutely a blatant disregard for the safety and humanity of unarmed protesters.”
But the police took more issue with the word choice than the action. Speaking at a press conference, Kirchmeier went to lengths to explain that the police “don’t have a water cannon. I don’t know where the term water cannon comes from,” he said. “This was basically just a fire hose.”
On Monday, Bernie Sanders threw his support behind the protestors, tweeting and posting video to his Facebook of the confrontation.
Reports of injuries continue to come in, including one woman from New York whose arm was injured by a concussion grenade, requiring surgery.
Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has been the motivating force behind the protests, said, “The use of water in freezing temperatures just goes to show that they’re being more aggressive and they’re actually trying to hurt people. This is far more threatening to human life than any other time of confrontation with law enforcement.”