Locals who lent a hand in the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline this month describe the experience as “life-changing” and the clashes with law enforcement “like being in a war zone.”
Amherst activist Jehann El-Bisi said the juxtaposition of peaceful, prayerful indigenous people with the omnipresent police force made for a lasting impression.
“To have this great beauty contrasted with being assaulted by these agencies — it’s jarring, to say the least, and disturbing,” she said, adding that tear gas burned her throat and she saw rubber bullets hurt fellow organizers.
El-Bisi, 48, has traveled to North Dakota twice since September. And she’s not alone.
“It’s been just horrible,” 83-year-old Rema Loeb, who left from Plainfield about two weeks ago to join the protests, told the Associated Press.
Loeb told the AP he retreated from the front lines on Sunday when law enforcement officials began hosing down protesters in subfreezing temperatures.
Tensions seethed when protesters tried to cross a long-blocked bridge on a state highway but were turned back by authorities using tear gas, rubber bullets and water hoses.
The Backwater Bridge has been shut down for weeks because authorities say it might be unsafe due to earlier fires set by protesters. Activists say the closed bridge near their main camp blocks emergency services, and they accuse authorities of keeping it shut down to block their access to the construction site.
Protesters and officers were injured in the skirmishes. The Boston Globe reported that recent Williams College graduate Sophia Wilansky, who was in North Dakota protesting, is in serious condition after an explosive struck her arm during a confrontation with law enforcement Monday morning.
Construction of the $3.8 billion interstate pipeline has been protested for months by the Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation lies near the pipeline route, and the tribe’s allies, who fear a leak could contaminate their drinking water.
The 1,200-mile, four-state pipeline being built to carry oil from western North Dakota to a shipping point in Illinois is largely complete except for the section under a Missouri River reservoir in southern North Dakota.
El-Bisi said construction is also damaging long-sacred sites.
Pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners has said no sites have been affected, that the pipeline will have protections against leaks, and that it’s a safer method of transport for oil than rail or truck. Chief Executive Officer Kelcy Warren has said the company is unwilling to reroute the project.
El-Bisi said she at times was very afraid of the “constant” police presence — which followed her even across state lines — but she took away with her a deep-seated Sioux belief.
“Mitakuye oyasin,” she said. “We are all related.”
She said she thought she’d cleared the helicopters, cruisers and tanks when she crossed into Illinois, but state troopers pulled her over and spent 30 minutes searching the vehicle. She said troopers allowed a drug-sniffing dog to “jump in my face several times” and searched her phone without probable cause.
“It’s a feeling of great vulnerability,” she said. “It was pretty obvious to us that it was related to having participated.”
El-Bisi said she was taken aback by the way law enforcement treated protesters, as local police have historically been supportive of peaceful demonstration.
“It was a war zone,” she said. “What has happened to our rights, when you’re facing that level brutality for exercising your right to peacefully and peaceably assemble?”
Still, the way the indigenous groups stayed rooted in prayer is something the rest of humanity should take note of, she said. Transition, she said, is hard and it takes patience and compassion.
“There’s something for everyone to learn from at this moment,” she said. “There’s a sharing and a sense of inclusivity in the human family that transcends these lines of separation that we’ve fallen into — these lines that separate us around racial divides, around ethnic divides, around classist divides.”
Paki Wieland, a longtime Northampton activist who returned last week from North Dakota, said she was struck by the way the indigenous groups and allies “worked together to do basic things,” like prepare food and shelter.
“In some respects it was like the kind of world we want to live in,” she said.
Asked about the conflicting information coming from organizers and law enforcement, Wieland said it should be easy to decipher what’s true. She said police went up against unarmed people committed to nonviolent resistance.
“Anyone who’s watching can see the difference,” Wieland said.
She said helping the movement is an opportunity to counteract centuries of atrocities committed against indigenous Americans.
“It’s an opportunity for us to make amends,” she said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.