Rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas canisters, water cannons – all of these weapons were used by law enforcement against protesters of the $3.8 billion oil pipeline project being built near the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota.

This shameful, unwarranted response to largely peaceful protesters who since April have been praying, chanting and singing is a travesty Wyoming people must own. Why? Because the state sent a half-dozen Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers to join law enforcement officers from nine other states in protecting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Another Wyoming law enforcement agency, the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department, also sent officers to Standing Rock. The North Dakota National Guard plus private security hired by developer Energy Transfer Partners were also at the reservation to protect a pipeline that Native Americans charged has the potential to destroy more tribal sacred sites and contaminate the reservation’s drinking water.

I don’t want the state of Wyoming, in my name, to choose to protect a private corporation over the interests of sovereign tribal members located in another state. I also don’t want my state to injure people who have a right to peacefully protest against the United States for breaking treaties signed with the Sioux Nation and causing extreme environmental risks.

The broken treaties include the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which clearly affirmed all of the Standing Rock land as sovereign, unceded territory belonging to the Great Sioux Nation. Current federal laws declare one camp was on land belonging to the Dakota Access pipeline project and today’s main protest encampment is on land belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers land. But why should the U.S. be able to simply rip up a 165-year-old treaty and pretend it never existed? We shouldn’t condone that action in our name, either.

It wouldn’t matter if Wyoming officers didn’t fire a single rubber bullet or launch a concussion grenade at protesters. I also don’t care who ultimately pays for the improper use of these officers at Standing Rock. The troopers volunteered to go, but the point is that they had permission from the state to participate in an action opposed by many Wyoming residents and people throughout the country.

Wyoming vs. Wyoming

The protesters, also called “water protectors,” included people from Wyoming who joined the cause. That means our own law enforcement was being used to stamp out, in another state, a peaceful protest that included Wyoming citizens they normally are paid to serve and protect.

When the Wyoming Highway Patrol dispatched six troopers to Standing Rock in October, Gov. Matt Mead released a statement that claimed the action was not political in nature. “Wyoming has not taken a position on the pipeline itself, but we have responded to North Dakota’s Emergency Management [Assistance] Compact request for help to ensure the safety of the protesters, highway users, residents and the workers,” Mead explained.

As is often in the case in a long-drawn-out protest situation, the facts about what’s been happening are much disputed. Protesters have tried (but so far failed) to get an injunction against law enforcement in North Dakota, saying officers have used rubber bullets, water hoses in sub-freezing temperatures, chemical agents and explosive grenades against them. Officers meanwhile maintain that many protesters are not peaceful and have attacked law enforcement officers with rocks, Molotov cocktails and other objects. The local police chief, at a press conference, certainly admitted at least to using water hoses in freezing temperatures.

But here I sit in Wyoming, watching. And I have to ask, how is spraying water on protesters in sub-freezing temperatures — if not firing rubber bullets and tear gas at them — helping to ensure their safety?

The governor’s assertion that while Wyoming sent officers to protect a private corporation,  the state hasn’t actually taken “a position on the pipeline itself” is laughable. It’s also disingenuous to try to disguise the EMAC as anything but an agreement designed so states can share resources and coordinate emergency personnel in the wake of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Matthew this year.

The EMAC does have a stipulation that allows governors to ask other states for help during such emergencies as “community disorders, insurgency, or enemy attack.” Community disorder was certainly present at Standing Rock, but the party that caused it, by allegedly destroying native artifacts and risking the environment, is the one North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple chose to protect instead of the indigenous tribe.

North Dakota budgeted $10 million to pay other states’ law enforcement for assistance. That amount had already been exceeded before Dec. 4 when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to shut down the construction work at Standing Rock, by not issuing a final permit for construction. The state of Wyoming will be reimbursed for its troopers’ time, but what about the fact that the WHP was down a half-dozen officers for about a month? Do we have such an abundance of troopers patrolling our highways that we can afford to do without their services for that long?

When the Joint Appropriations Committee begins working on the Highway Patrol’s budget later this month, I hope its co-chairmen or other members ask Col. Kebin Haller, head of the WHP, to justify the decision. The project is not dead – particularly given the new administration coming to Washington. The protests are likely to heat up again when the weather improves in spring, and before that time Wyoming officials and the public should have a discussion about whether the state will honor similar requests for emergency assistance.

Others balked at sending cops

In several communities throughout the nation, after vigorous citizen complaints to law enforcement officials, local authorities decided not to send officers into harm’s way in North Dakota. One notable case was in Bozeman, Mont., where Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin initially agreed to send a detail to Standing Rock but courageously ordered his four deputies to return before they even reached the protest camp.

The sheriff had been inundated with calls and emails urging him not to send his deputies. He told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that after thinking about the issue overnight he changed his mind. “I serve the people, and the people have spoken,” Gootkin said. “They don’t want their sheriff’s office going over there. They want us here taking care of them.”

Wyoming should come to the same decision whenever North Dakota inevitably renews its EMAC request next year. Gootkin explained that he was concerned about the safety of both law enforcement and law-abiding, peaceful protesters.

Throughout our history, when federal and state governments threw Native Americans off their land, broke treaties and committed atrocities against the settlers of our continent, there weren’t many ways to document these injustices. That’s why I love social media, because now people can shoot their own videos of such events and post them so the American public can judge what’s being done in their name.

There are a slew of videos on Facebook and other sites that prove officials were lying about many aspects of the Standing Rock protest. While law enforcement and company officials denied water cannons were being fired at unarmed protesters, this video showed by the PBS News Hour shows hundreds were indeed soaked. Twenty-four protesters were hospitalized with severe hypothermia and hundreds more suffered injuries in a clash on Nov. 20 at Backwater Bridge, not far from the Standing Rock encampments.

One of the worst injuries was suffered by 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, who was critically injured when she was struck with a concussion grenade thrown by Morton County, North Dakota, sheriff’s deputies while she was handing out water. Family members said physicians told them she may face up to 20 surgeries to fix the heavy damage inflicted on her left forearm. She also had welts all over her body from being shot with rubber bullets.

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On Facebook police blamed the woman’s injury on an exploding propane canister that protesters were handling. But once visual evidence was released showing that the claim was false, law enforcement removed the post.

An independent video posted by Democracy Now showed police using water cannons on a crowd of protesters. One screamed, “Turn off the water! We’re not animals, we’re human beings. We have honor. We have pride!” But the plea fell on deaf ears as the heavy drenching of freezing protesters continued.

In a disturbing interview on the PBS News Hour, Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren defended the company’s project and insisted it will go forward after Donald Trump – a former project investor – becomes president. Warren did not seem concerned about whatever action the Army Corps of Engineers took on the final permit the pipeline needs. Is the fix already in?

“This is not a peaceful protest,” the CEO told PBS. “So, if [protesters] want to stick around and continue to do what they’re doing, great, but we’re building the pipeline.”

When the protests continue I hope the vast majority of Americans decide to support the Standing Rock cause. If enough people howl about the harm the pipeline will do to cultural artifacts and groundwater in the area, and more veterans and others join Native Americans at the site, justice will be done. I hope Wyoming will decide not to send any more law enforcement representatives. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m tired of the state being on the wrong side of history in its shameful treatment of Native Americans.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. “‘Cause when the war comes the cops’ll be on their side.” — Bob Seeger, in “Lookin’ Back”

  2. I wrote to Governor Mead expressing my outrage that Wyoming troopers were involved in those brutal militarized attacks on people exercising their first amendment rights. I received a response from Kari Jo Gray, Chief of Staff. “Law enforcement does not choose sides. The role of law enforcement is to keep the peace for the benefit of the protesters, highway users, private property owners and others.” I have to assume that 1) she failed to watch any videos of the brutal attacks on protesters which law enforcement and corporate security mercenaries carried out together, or 2) she was straight out lying to me. Whichever it was, I am deeply ashamed that law enforcement personnel from our state participated in the horrors that happened in North Dakota. With so many people in the ranks of the protesters, up to 10,000 estimated at some point, it is likely that a few performed acts not approved by the water protectors, especially given the clear efforts to incite reaction. The truly amazing accomplishment is that water protectors were able to maintain the peace and organization that they did. People were fed and housed, were provided legal and medical services, were required to attend meetings on non-violent protest, and were screened to assure that they did not have weapons. And prayer was used to keep everyone as focused as possible on the means and goals that the movement had set. That is a remarkable achievement in the face of injuries to hundreds of people and arrest of over 500, during which many protesters were strip searched and housed in dog kennels on charges of trespass. This was a truly sad return to a mentality of suppression that I thought we had left behind decades ago. And for what? A pipeline designed to carry poor quality crude for which there is no current market and little production because of low prices. And perhaps 40 jobs if it ever becomes operational. One last point, it was a proud day when veterans of American’s military came together to stand with the water protectors.

  3. Thank you Kerry for bringing this issue into focus.

    The actions of paid public servants DOES reflect on those who pay their salaries, whether we adopt an Ostrich like approach or not.

    In the tussle between reality and reaction, I always bet on reality.