Five years after police brutalized activists opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline, a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump has dismissed a lawsuit accusing North Dakota law enforcement officers of excessive use of force—a decision that critics have characterized as a tacit endorsement of the violent repression of climate justice advocates.
Several peaceful protesters who gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to struggle against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure were assaulted by law enforcement officers on November 20, 2016. Police sprayed demonstrators with water cannons amid sub-freezing temperatures that night, and according to the plaintiffs' lawyers, they also used tear gas and fired rubber bullets and exploding munitions "indiscriminately into the crowd."
Attorneys for law enforcement officers named as defendants, including Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler, "say officers were outnumbered and were concerned for their lives and safety," The Bismark Tribune reported Thursday. "They sought to have the protesters' legal claims dismissed."
"U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor issued the order granting their request Wednesday," the newspaper noted, "writing that 'the Court finds the undisputed and irrefutable evidence in this case could only lead a reasonable juror to conclude the officers' conduct in this case was objectively reasonable.'"
Traynor argued that police violence was justified given the "unprecedented" nature of the situation. He cited the fact that "officers issued two code red requests and a Signal 100, requesting the assistance of every available officer in the state," which "has never been done in North Dakota history."
Morton County Assistant State's Attorney Gabrielle Goter applauded the ruling, saying in a statement that "law enforcement reasonably believed the protestors were trespassing and therefore, law enforcement was permitted to use less lethal force to protect themselves and others, from violent protestors that law enforcement perceived as" threats who intended to "physically injure" them.
Rachel Lederman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, meanwhile, warned that Traynor's ruling "effectively legitimizes launching an hours-long barrage of freezing water, explosives, and highly dangerous munitions into a crowd of demonstrators."
According to the Tribune:
The lead plaintiff in the case is Vanessa Dundon, a member of the Navajo Nation whose eye was injured the night of the incident.
The plaintiffs alleged in court documents filed earlier this year that officers "used a wildly disproportionate amount of force when they deployed water cannons, impact and explosive munitions at the plaintiffs, who were unarmed, peaceful, and not committing any crime or actively resisting law enforcement in any way."
Traynor in January threw out another lawsuit filed by a pipeline protester claiming that law enforcement used excessive force at a 2017 protest site. The order came weeks after a similar ruling in a case brought by another demonstrator.
A lawsuit filed by protester Sophia Wilansky, of New York, is continuing in federal court. Wilanksy claims police targeted her with a concussion grenade during the Nov. 20, 2016 confrontation. She suffered a left arm injury in an explosion and had multiple surgeries to save the limb.
Janine Hoft, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said Traynor's decision this week "is an example of how judges use 'qualified immunity' to let law enforcement off the hook for even the most extreme brutality."
After he infamously led the Morton County Sherriff's office in terrorizing opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Kirchmeier went on to advise other law enforcement agencies on how to put down anti-fossil fuel demonstrations elsewhere, Common Dreams reported in 2017.
Since DAPL, which transports crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale basin to a terminal in Illinois, became operational—and immediately started leaking—in 2017, opponents of the project have been subjected to surveillance and counterterrorism measures carried out by local police forces and private military contractors hired by the company behind the pipeline, corporate-led lawsuits, and arrests that could result in lengthy prison sentences.
Environmental justice and Indigenous rights advocates welcomed a federal judge's ruling in March 2020 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act in 2016 by approving federal permits for DAPL, which allowed construction to happen before expert analysis put forward by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was considered.
Campaigners celebrated a few months later when a U.S. district court ordered DAPL to be shut down and emptied of oil while federal regulators conducted a comprehensive environmental review.
However, despite his campaign pledges to respect tribal sovereignty and transition the U.S. to clean energy, President Joe Biden in April 2021 refused to shut down DAPL, instead allowing the project to continue operating without a federal permit.