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Witnesses describe heavily-armed police presence invading Standing Rock protest

One officer is heard asking another to pose for a photograph with a protester who says his hip is broken

Photo by Ruth Hopkins, Indian Country Today

Numerous law enforcement agencies descended on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation Thursday to evict the self-styled water protectors who had camped out for months in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The target of the federal and local agencies is the Oceti Sakowin camp, which is directly next to the reservation but on land that authorities claim belongs to the Army Corps of Engineers. While many protesters have agreed to cross the frozen Cannonball River to the reservation side, others have pledged to passively resist the federal orders and remain at Oceti Sakowin until the end.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which late last year promised to open a new environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline and began that review process this month, has since abandoned those plans, and on February 7 granted Energy Transfer Partners its necessary easement to drill under Lake Oahe. At the same time, the Corps also issued a February 22 deadline for people to leave the Oceti Sakowin camp, citing spring flooding. 

Arrests began Wednesday as promised, but police left before the Oceti Sakowin camp was cleared, reports on the ground indicate. Late Thursday afternoon, heavily armed police entered Oceti Sakowin again and finished their raid. Footage posted by protesters and independent media shows law enforcement pointing guns at a tipi and at a person kneeling in prayer. Witnesses say that veterans, reporters, and water protectors are all being swept up in arrests.

“The people are unarmed, singing and praying in front of police with guns drawn,” writes Ruth Hopkins, who has been covering the #NODAPL environmental and spiritual movement for Indian Country Today. 

Citizen journalist says officers broke his hip

On Wednesday afternoon, one person filming from the front lines of the police raid, from a public Facebook account called Eric Poemz, captured himself getting tackled by law enforcement officers.

Before his arrest, Eric Poemz was filming officers as they blocked the road. Facing the line of officers, Poemz tells them he is unarmed and repeatedly tries convincing them to join his cause. He notes that they do not have identification badges on. "By law, you're supposed to have a badge on, and none of you do."

Later, one officer in particular captures his attention. "You're an honorable man,” Eric Poemz tells the officer. “I know you have a job to do and a family to provide for. But why do it protecting oil? That’s all we're trying to do, sir, is protect the water. I know you're looking at me and you just shook your head, ‘Yes,’ because I know you have a heart you have a soul.”

"Why don’t you be honorable and set down your badge now, in front of 6,100 people,” Poemz adds, referencing the number of people watching his live stream. 

But whatever perceived connection he finds with the officer vanishes as people are suddenly seen running, and the phone appears to land roughly on the ground. Suddenly, the video’s narrator is screaming in pain and telling the officers on top of him that he has a broken hip. 

The officers agree to call an ambulance for him but reprimand Poemz for being there. “You had a deadline and you violated it,” one cop says, referencing the federal eviction deadline. 

"Nice and comfy"

Another cop then sounds as if he is taking a photograph of Poemz, and asks a fellow officer to pose with him. A voice is heard saying: "I’m going to get a picture of you two, you want to lay down nice and comfy next to him or should we get him up? He says he has a broken hip."  

The officers later promise to get him help but not without lecturing him, revealing yet again a deep ideological divide between the protesters and law enforcement. "Listen, if you quit playing games, we're not here to hurt you, just cut your stupid shit,” an officer says. 

"My hip is probably broken, sir, I’m not playing,” Poemz responds. 

"If that’s the case you’ll get medical attention, you’ll be treated with respect, so why don’t you start treating us with some respect? You've been disrespecting this whole area, you've been disrespecting your state and us for six months. Knock it off."

On the telephone, Morton County Sheriff’s spokesman Rob Keller tells ConsumerAffairs he does not know why an officer would pose for a picture next to an injured person being arrested, but he would not comment on the specifics of the video because he says he had not yet viewed it.

In an email, Morton County spokesman Maxine Kerr offers this explanation: “It is very difficult to tell who is being told to lie down and be comfy. It is typical for LE (law enforcement) to try to make injured arrestees comfortable until the ambulance arrives. Sometimes LE does have a picture taken with an arrestee if it is a mass arrest to help document arresting officers. However, photos like this were not done yesterday because there were not that many arrests and LE clearly knew who was doing the arrests.” 

It's not clear whether the officers came from Morton County or a different local agency, as officers from other municipalities and neighboring states were also participating in the raid. 

Limited coverage of casino arrests and raid

Mainstream news presence at the raid itself appeared to be minimal, as any person who remains at the Oceti Sakowin camp risks arrest. A small, nonprofit news site called Unicorn Riot was live-streaming the raid. Mainstream news networks, however, have for the most part remained in a separate staging area that is approved by law enforcement, reporters on the ground say.

“They had little tents set up in their microwave trucks [trucks that broadcast television news],” says Dennis Ward, a reporter with Canada’s Aboriginal News Network, describing the media staging area. “By the time people actually did anything yesterday all of those microwave trucks were gone.”


Ward says his own network also had media credentials which would have allowed him and his coworkers to report from the protected staging area. But they instead opted to report from the camp itself, sleeping in their news truck over the course of eight days.  

The Standing Rock Sioux’s Prairie Knights Casino, where people for months have huddled in the lobby to take a break from the cold, has become another unlikely battle ground between protesters, media, and police. On Wednesday night, after eight days of reporting from the Oceti Sakowin camp, Ward says he and his crew booked a hotel room at the casino. As they enjoyed a warm dinner, Ward says, a group of law enforcement suddenly approached a table of people eating next to them and escorted them all outside to make arrests.

“It looked like the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs],” making the arrests, Ward says, though, with so many agencies swarming, “it’s getting hard to tell who’s who down here.” Why the diners next to him were getting arrested remained unclear, Ward says. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had announced earlier this month that it was sending agents to evict protesters from the encampments, has not yet returned a message from ConsumerAffairs.

In another confrontation in the casino lobby Wednesday, captured and posted on Facebook, a group of officers surrounded two men and accused them of passing something to each other. "We got a call from security and surveillance saying we've seen you guys passing something around,” an officer says. The officers order one of the men, who claims to be a veteran, to turn around so they can arrest him. The vet raises his arms but hasn’t yet turned his back when the officers suddenly shoot him with a Taser gun.

Federal authorities and local police promised to return to the Oceti Sakowin camp Thursday morning to finish their so-called clean-up. By the afternoon, water protectors watching the camp from across the Cannonball River, safely on the reservation side, reported that authorities had entered Oceti Sakowin and were making more arrests of the protesters who remained in passive resistance.

“They have entered camp.. Sound cannon, weapons, helicopters, snipers, heavily armed (LIVE ROUNDS),” says one post.  “Many arrest are happening. I stayed as long as I could & hold it down for the people.” The Seattle Times reported on Thurday that a total of 39 hold-outs had been arrested. 

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