More than a hundred Dakota Access pipeline protesters were arrested over the weekend in North Dakota, after allegedly trespassing on private property and clashing with law enforcement, authorities said.
Activists allegedly tried to breach a police line and did not follow officers’ instructions to stop, prompting officers to use pepper spray to “protect themselves,” according to a Morton County Sheriff’s Department press release.
The mass arrests took place Saturday morning after some 300 protesters — who call themselves water protectors — allegedly trespassed three miles onto private property where the $3.8-billion pipeline project is being built, according to the sheriff’s department.
During what authorities described as “riot activities,” one protester allegedly charged at an officer, tried to grab the officer’s canister of pepper spray, and was responsible for the officer getting sprayed in the face, according to the press release. The officer was blinded for minutes.
The protesters were arrested over the course of five hours. Two officers received minor injuries. No information was given as to whether any protesters were injured during the clash.
“Today’s situation clearly illustrates what we have been saying for weeks, that this protest is not peaceful or lawful,” said Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier in a statement.
Protesters disputed the sheriff’s account, saying they were already leaving the area after staging a symbolic procession in honor of destroyed sacred sites. Protesters said police threw people to the ground as they attempted to leave, CNN reported.
“The militarization of local law enforcement and enlistment of multiple law enforcement agencies from neighboring states is needlessly escalating violence and unlawful arrests against peaceful protesters at Standing Rock,” said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in a press release. “We do not condone reports of illegal actions, but believe the majority of peaceful protesters are reacting to strong-arm tactics and abuses by law enforcement.”
Tensions in the area where Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members and others have established a protest camp stretched into Sunday, when protesters and authorities negotiated over a roadblock activists placed on a highway that connects to the camp.
According to a the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, protesters at first complied with an order to remove the blockade, made of hay bales, rocks, and tree stumps, but a new blockade was put up later. The highway was shut down for hours.
Law enforcement also shot and damaged a flying drone on Sunday that authorities said flew at a surveillance helicopter in “a threatening manner.” A sheriff on board the helicopter reported to law enforcement on the ground that the helicopter pilot and passengers were “in fear of their lives,” and that the “drone came after us,” according to the press release. The drone operator, who was reportedly an activist documenting police activity, landed the drone. No arrest was reported in the drone incident.
The weekend’s mass arrest is one of the largest since protesters moved into the area earlier this year. It also comes as some protesters moved onto private land that Dakota Access purchased and is directly on the pipeline route, the Bismarck Tribune reported. A week ago, the tribe approved a plan to allow protesters to use a campsite within the reservation as winter weather approaches. Plunging temperatures are reportedly forcing some to move out.
The Dakota Access pipeline — a 1,172-mile project — would move more than half a million barrels of crude oil per day through the Dakotas and Iowa, to a hub in Illinois. For months, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members have protested construction sites, in part because of the risk of a spill into the Missouri River — the longest river in North America and the tribe’s sole water supply.
Dakota Access and supporters say the project is safe and benefits society though taxes, jobs, and energy independence. Construction on federal land in North Dakota has been halted by the Obama administration, but the company can continue construction on the private and state land the project mostly uses. Most of the project is reportedly finished. In South Dakota, for instance, the project is fully installed.