In an act of hubris defying logic, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department now claims Sunday night’s vicious offensive against water protectors opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline — during which two tribal elders suffered cardiac arrest, a rubber bullet struck a 13-year-old girl in the face, and a young woman carrying water to others had her arm nearly blown off — is the fault of the activists.
Worse, the sheriff claims officers did not use a low-powered water cannon against the unarmed crowd of around 400 people — despite live footage from the scene so explicitly proving that, even corporate media called the assertion to task.
Worse still, the sheriff balked at the accusation police used concussion grenades, and Sophia Wilansky — the water protector whose horrifically mangled arm might have be amputated — suffered that injury because she must have been incompetently rigging an improvised explosive.
“It wasn’t from our law enforcement, because we didn’t deploy anything that should have caused that type of damage to her arm,” contended Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, Maxine Herr, apparently ignoring the continual volley of various exploding canisters of tear gas and other grenades. “We’re not sure how her injury was sustained.”
The sheer audacity required for this level of blame-dodging would almost be humorous if it weren’t for the appalling reality that people’s lives transformed dramatically and permanently Sunday night.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Herr suggested that the woman may have been injured while protesters were ‘rigging up their own explosives’ — propane bottles to be thrown at police. None of those propane bottles exploded, and ‘the only explosion the officers heard was on the protesters’ side,’ Herr said.”
Obviously, the sound of an explosion in the crowd would be the case — considering police indiscriminately launched countless canisters of tear gas and concussion grenades, which then exploded amongst the group of water protectors trapped on Backwater Bridge.
To wit, Herr told the Times no one was arrested for either making or throwing explosives.
Although no footage has yet emerged, if any exists, of the moment Wilansky’s arm was shredded down to the bone, the chances the sheriff’s explanation have any basis in truth are effectively nil. Witnesses on the scene said the young woman had been seen bringing water to the group under attack by police at the time the projectile struck her squarely in the arm — clearly not the act of someone preparing to throw an explosive device at officers.
In fact, evidence has emerged the sheriff’s department’s claim is an outright lie. Unicorn Riot, which reported from the scene that night and is camping with Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of other water protectors, returned to Backwater Bridge on Monday and, along with detonated tear gas canisters, discovered remnants of at least one Stinger grenade.
From the description on the website for the Safariland Group, which manufactures these grenades — as well as the tear gas canisters and several other spent devices found at the scene — Stingers could easily cause the type of traumatic injury Wilansky endured:
“The Stinger® OC Grenade is a maximum effect device that delivers four stimuli for psychological and physiological effects: rubber pellets, light, sound, and OC. The Stinger® Grenade is most widely used as a crowd management tool by Law Enforcement and Corrections. The Stinger® Grenade has an initial 1.5 second delay that initiates fuze assembly separation, followed by another .5 second delay before the blast which is sufficient to project the rubber balls and chemical agent in a 50 foot radius.”
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) November 22, 2016
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) November 22, 2016
Further, Wilansky’s friend, who was standing next to her when the device exploded and destroyed her arm, described exactly what he witnessed in an interview:
Beyond Stinger grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets, law enforcement deployed a low-intensity water cannon to the bridge on Sunday — though, depending on which Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson you’re supposed to believe, either no such water cannon was deployed, or one was deployed, but only to extinguish several fires set by water protectors.
First, it must be noted, water protectors did, indeed, set several fires as heat sources, with temperatures dipping as low as 23° — but those were controlled flames, not wildfires set as an offensive measure against authorities, as police claim.
Second, video footage from multiple angles indisputably proves not only the presence of a law enforcement water cannon, but that water protectors were the intended target, and were doused immediately while fires burned next to the equipment. While water cannons soaked the activists in temperatures nearly guaranteed to induce hypothermia, the fire department arrived on scene to quench the flames — the sole source of heat for the embattled water protectors.
Nonetheless, “Sheriff’s spokesman Rob Keller told NBC News that no water cannons were deployed and that water was sprayed from a fire truck to control fires as they were being set by activists.”
Herr, the other Morton County Sheriff’s spokesperson, told the Times, “It was used to keep distance between the officers and the criminal agitators and to put out the fire.”
E’sha Hoferer, who has livestreamed multiple incidents in which police have employed violent force against unarmed activists in the ongoing fight against the pipeline, told NBC News he had been hit with tear gas and cold water, and disputes the sheriff’s department claims about the fires.
“They’re saying that we’re causing multiple fires out here, but we’re really only using them to stay warm,” he explained, and, echoing a sentiment shared nearly universally among Native American water protectors, added, “I’m just a father with a phone that loves his water, that wants his water to be clean for his children and grandchildren.”
Even the Sheriff voiced concerns about water protectors suffering hypothermia in the bitter North Dakota winter weather — rather, he did so two days before soaking the group in water.
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) November 21, 2016
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier has repeatedly asserted water protectors encamped in multiple locations have been aggressive against police; and while a few incidents — including the torching of military vehicles blocking the Highway 1806 bridge — have turned destructive, water protectors and independent journalists noted these were likely the work of provocateurs. Well-established rules at the Oceti Sakowin and other camps prohibit weapons and any acts of aggression, including violence against officers and others — violators are swiftly banished.
When Herr cited “aggression from the agitators in the camp [who] continued to raise their level of resistance against law enforcement” as the motivation to deluge 400 people on a bridge with icy water in frigid conditions, the claim seems suspiciously hollow and lacks the burden of evidence.
Police say one officer suffered a minor head injury from an object thrown by the crowd, but if that was the extent of aggression that led to an over six-hour assault with ostensibly less-than-lethal weapons, that response would be severely disproportionate, at best.
“Aside from a couple water protectors throwing water bottles and live tear gas canisters back at the police, almost everything I saw was peaceful,” Rafe Scobey-Thal, an independent filmmaker and photographer who has been documenting the protests, wrote in an email to the Times, repeating similar statements from countless eyewitnesses. “It was freezing and the escalation from the police was completely out of proportion.”
But, as they say, to determine who wants to start a riot, look at who came prepared for one — and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and officers from some 20 supporting departments from at least five states, have repeatedly arrived in full military gear with blast-resistant armored vehicles in their encounters with unarmed, prayerful water protectors.
And each time violence ensues, it has thus far been initiated by police — and indiscriminately so.
Sunday’s confrontation was no exception. Water protectors concerned the blockade of burned vehicles on Highway 1806 — in place since October 27, and reinforced with cement barriers and razor wire by police in the interim — constituted a safety threat and obstruction for first responders to access the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, camps, and local residences. On Sunday, after authorities dangerously refused to dismantle the blockade, water protectors with bulldozers attempted to clear the vehicles themselves — and came under fire by police shooting rubber bullets — sparking the hours-long contentious attack.
“It was to open up the road so in the daylight the world can see the face of militarized law enforcement and state oppression,” Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth wrote in a Facebook post, cited by NBC News, explaining why the choice was made to clear the road. “Police in response are using a water cannon, tear gas and concussion grenades on the crowd!!”
Activists and water protectors weren’t the only critics of the actions taken by police Sunday night, as long-retired L.A. Sheriff’s Department captain Richard Odenthal, who helped develop his department’s crowd control policies and still consults with police on the matter, told the Los Angeles Times the use of water cannons is “a fairly nonstandard application.”
He explained his department briefly flirted with the idea of using water cannons to control crowds; however, he explained — citing notorious images from the South in the 1960s of police attacking black protesters with fire hoses — “We decided that wasn’t an image we wanted to portray.”
Now, some 50 years after such images infuriated the world and fueled the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, there is a confluence of historical contexts playing out in the movement to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Taxpayer-funded State agents are attacking peaceful Native Americans with brute force — on the same lands European settlers committed genocide against them centuries ago — in order to ‘protect’ a Big Bank-funded Big Oil company’s pipeline project which threatens to contaminate the drinking water supplies of both the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and around 18 million others along the Missouri River.
And the tragic irony of using water — considered a living entity to Indigenous Americans — to fight peaceful people whose greatest wish is to stop the pipeline in order to protect the water has not been lost on anyone. Indeed, it would seem police chose to weaponize water as a cruel and twisted joke.
“Here’s why this is so particularly egregious,” Angela Bibens, a coordinator with the Water Protector Legal Collective, explained to the Times. “I am Dakota. Water is my first medicine. We believe it to be our first medicine. They used our medicine as a weapon. The temperature here last night was 23 degrees. They knew what they were doing…. They used it to inflict pain and suffering on the water protectors.”
Sophia Wilanksy, whose arm cannot be saved by a team of medical personnel at the Minnesota hospital where she was airlifted, was transporting water to the water protectors being assaulted with water when she suffered the traumatic and fateful explosion. A GoFundMe campaign to assist with her medical expenses has raised over $157,000 in just 11 hours, but it can never make up for the careless, vindictive police actions.
UPDATE: In a statement for the public conveyed through her father, Wayne Wilansky, Sophia’s condition and the events that led to her traumatic injury were described this way:
“At around 4:30am after the police hit the bridge with water cannons and rubber bullets and pepper spray they lobbed a number of concussion grenades which are not supposed to be thrown at people directly at protesters or protectors as they want to be called. A grenade exploded right as it hit Sophia in the left forearm taking most of the undersurface of her left arm with it. Both her radial and ulnar artery were completely destroyed. Her radius was shattered and a large piece of it is missing. Her medial nerve is missing a large section as well. All of the muscle and soft tissue between her elbow and wrist were blown away. The police did not do this by accident – it was an intentional act of throwing it directly at her. Additionally police were shooting people in face and groin intending to do the most possible damage. Sophia will have surgery again tomorrow as bit by bit they try to rebuild a somewhat functioning arm and hand. The first surgery took a vein from her leg which they have implanted in her arm to take the place of the missing arteries. She will need multiple surgeries to try to gain some functional use of the arm and hand. She will be, every day for the foreseeable future, fearful of losing her arm and hand. There are no words to describe the pain of watching my daughter cry and say she was sorry for the pain she caused me and my wife. I died a thousand deaths today and will continue to do so for quite some time. I am left without the right words to describe the anguish of watching her look at her now alien arm and hand.”
Yet, police from North Dakota and those whom taxpayers funded to import from other states continue their attacks — continue to use tactics fit for an aggressive and belligerent enemy on a battlefield in war — amid a profoundly deafening silence from President Barack Obama, President-elect Donald Trump, nearly all of Congress, and, generally, those with the power to effectively halt the violence.
Until they do speak up, put an authoritative foot down, admonish police barbarism, or affect anything substantive to address the concerns of Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and human rights advocates, the belligerence and lies will continue on a perilous course for disaster.
One young woman might lose an arm because police chose to act with inexcusable force — whether or not the department ever takes rightful responsibility — two tribal elders nearly lost their lives from cardiac arrest, and scores have been mauled, battered, bloodied, and generally brutalized in the effort to preserve the most basic human need: clean water.
Perhaps the politicians, the pipeline company, and, most of all, the police officers, should remember the whole world is watching avidly as centuries of exploitation and brutality repeat in real time.
[Editor’s note: The original version of this article claimed Sophia Wilansky’s arm would have to be amputated. However, in a press release Tuesday morning, her father noted that they are trying multiple surgeries in an attempt to keep some functionality of her arm. In the press release, her father said, “She will be, every day for the foreseeable future, fearful of losing her arm and hand.”]