By Mike Nowatzki and Amy Dalrymple
MANDAN, N.D. – Gov. Jack Dalrymple took the extraordinary step Thursday of activating the North Dakota National Guard to support civilian authorities dealing with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests as a key court ruling loomed Friday.
The Guard’s adjutant general stressed that soldiers will not patrol the main protest encampment near the Missouri River about 35 miles southeast of Mandan.
“The Guard is not heading south,” Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann said during a news conference. “The Guard’s role here is to promote … public safety and to help out with law enforcement so we can free up officers with patrols cars to go down there and have a visible presence.”
About a dozen armed Guardsmen will relieve law enforcement officers at a traffic checkpoint six miles south of Mandan on State Highway 1806, the shortest route between the camp and city, and an additional 100 Guard members will be on standby alert if needed for response efforts, Dohrmann said.
The checkpoint was put in place Aug. 17 to restrict southbound travel to local traffic only, forcing others to take a detour. Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said that after many conversations with tribal and protest camp leaders, it was converted Thursday to a traffic information checkpoint where southbound motorists will be advised of potential hazards ahead, such as protesters and parked vehicles on the roadway. Civil rights groups had complained that the roadblock violated protesters’ constitutional right to assemble.
Dalrymple said public safety is paramount and the state is committed to protecting the rights of peaceful and lawful protesters.
“At the same time, we must make sure that peace is maintained this weekend,” he said, adding the steps “are being taken out of an abundance of caution. We simply want to make sure we are prepared.”
The move comes in advance of an expected ruling Friday on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for an emergency injunction to halt construction of the pipeline, which will cross the Missouri River less than a mile north of the Standing Rock reservation. The tribe fears the pipeline will leak and contaminate its water supply and sacred sites, and its lawsuit claims the corps failed to consider the historical and cultural significance of that area.
An estimated 1,000 or more opponents of the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline remained encamped near the construction site along Highway 1806 north of Cannon Ball.
Addressing the camp Thursday afternoon, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II urged them to “remain peaceful” and emphasized that that includes not using violence or throwing things and avoiding verbally abusive language.
Archambault said Friday’s court decision in Washington, D.C., is just the start of a prolonged legal battle, with an appeal expected however the judge rules.
“It’s not the end. It’s the beginning,” he said.
Law enforcement issues
Kirchmeier and Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Michael Gerhart said the National Guard’s help will free up patrolmen and deputies being recruited from across the state to create a more visible presence on roadways and better respond to calls for assistance.
County residents have reported being intimidated, harassed and threatened by protesters, Kirchmeier said, citing one report of a vehicle with out-of-state plates playing “chicken” with local residents.
“Law enforcement has done everything we can do not to escalate the situation with the protests, but our hands are being forced at this point by unlawful acts and aggression actions taken by protesters within the protest groups,” he said.
Authorities want more manpower available to respond to instances of protesters trespassing on private land and binding themselves to Dakota Access construction equipment, Kirchmeier said, noting a third such incident was reported Thursday morning.
Dalrymple urged protesters to demonstrate “in a respectful and lawful way” and to “resist any pressure from others to violate the law and tarnish your message.”
Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network who was one of the first to arrive at the Sacred Stone Camp in April, called the National Guard activation “an intimidation tactic.”
“There’s absolutely no need for it,” she said.
Dohrmann said he doesn’t expect National Guard members to be present during a protest from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday on the state Capitol mall.
Dalrymple said the state will ultimately seek reimbursement from those responsible for creating the demand for extra law enforcement services related to the pipeline protests, saying those parties could include the pipeline company. Morton County has estimated its costs at $100,000 per week in overtime and other expenses.
Dog issue addressed
The governor’s announcement came amid heightened tensions that escalated Saturday when private pipeline security personnel armed with pepper spray and guard dogs clashed with angry protesters who stormed a Dakota Access construction site west of Highway 1806, where crews were digging up land the tribe had just identified as containing sacred burial grounds and other culturally significant sites.
Archambault told Forum News Service that what happened was “provoked by the company,” while Dakota Access painted protesters as the aggressors in a court filing. The company says no historically important sites were destroyed.
Dalrymple said Thursday he had seen some video of the incident, noting the security personnel were there to protect construction workers and the people who entered the private property were trespassing.
“They are not in a position to be saying that ‘they are in the wrong’ when they are told that they should leave the area,” he said, adding, “Unfortunately, that kind of confrontation is exactly what we would like to avoid.”
The governor did not directly address a question from Democratic U.S. House candidate Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock member, on whether there would be an investigation into the legality of the private security team and its dogs. The state’s Private Investigation and Security Board, which licenses private security firms, has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Activation a rare step
Activating the North Dakota National Guard to assist local authorities in a situation not related to a flood or other natural disaster is a rare occurrence in modern times.
Dohrmann said it’s the first time since after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Guardsmen were called up to provide extra security at airports and patrol the state’s northern border with Canada. More than three decades before that, Guard members mobilized to break up the May 1969 spring break event “Zip to Zap” after some of the more than 2,000 college students who flooded the Mercer County town started a bonfire on Main Street and caused thousands of dollars in damage, according to archives.
Dohrmann said the Guardsmen from the 191st Military Police Company in Bismarck, Fargo and Mayville were notified of their activation late Wednesday. How long they will remain on duty “depends on how the situation unfolds” he said.
“We will be here as long as we are needed,” he said.