Cynthia West quit her job bartending at the District’s Afterwords Cafe, packed up her 1978 Volkswagen van with sleeping bags, a camping stove and some warm clothing, and on Oct. 7 set out for the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to lend her support to those seeking to block an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
“The reason I came out here is I feel very strongly about the direction of our country,” West said in a phone interview. “We’ve got big corporations making tons of money off of exploiting natural resources and endangering natural resources like water.”
What happened when she got there was a lesson in the power and perils of protest with implications far beyond the vast, flat northern plains. Her odyssey became a window on what has turned into a police story, an energy story, an environmental story and another chapter in the conflict-ridden Native American story.
Determined to help block the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline being laid near the Standing Rock Sioux land, West soon joined up with a loose, populist coalition of activists, environmentalists, celebrities and Native Americans at an encampment farther north near the Cannonball River on Oct. 19.
Then on Oct. 27, a week after she arrived, hundreds of police officers from eight states showed up in riot gear and at least half a dozen military-style armored vehicles. Tear gas and some rubber bullets were fired, and piercing noise devices were used as police tried to move protesters blocking the road and pipeline route.
West was arrested along with 140 others, and she spent the first part of a cold, uncomfortable evening with her hands tied behind her back with plastic in a crowded 10-by-14-foot cage in the Morton County jail’s garage with 32 other women, a concrete floor and no place to sit. Donnell Hushka, spokesman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, did not address West’s case directly but said the cages were needed because the correctional center has room for only 42 people.
Later, West and others were loaded onto a bus for a four-hour journey to Fargo, where they were processed and sent to sleep in regular cells. The next day, West says, she was told to strip, squat and don prison clothes before a female police officer. She was ultimately charged with conspiracy to endanger, maintaining a public nuisance and engaging in a riot. Her court date is Dec. 5.
Inspired by the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil from Alberta to the Texas coast, leading environmentalists have been trying to block the transportation of fossil fuels — via coal trains and oil and natural gas pipelines — in a campaign to “keep it in the ground.” Their goal is to spark a greater sense of urgency about saving energy and tapping renewable resources.
The 1,170-mile, $3.8 billion Dakota Access project, which is about three-quarters complete, has become a target because it would carry as much as 570,000 barrels a day of shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken field to the pipeline networks and refineries of Illinois. Much of the Bakken oil travels by train, and the pipeline would lower costs.
The pipeline also became a Native American issue because it passes less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which was established by Congress in 1889. Some Native Americans believe that much more of the region belongs to them.
“I can honestly say this land was taken from us,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Native Americans have two specific objections to the pipeline route. First, it would disturb archaeological and sacred sites. Officials at leading museums across the country noted that the land contains burial grounds, grave markers and artifacts, including ancient cairns and stone prayer rings.
Second, if the 30-inch-diameter steel pipeline leaked, it could pollute the Missouri River water that the Sioux use for drinking. And river bottoms often change — during times of flood, for example — and could look different over the decades most pipelines stay in service.
In addition, Native American leaders say the pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer Partners, considered a different route closer to Bismarck, where largely white, more influential people live, but moved it. That has triggered accusations of environmental injustice and racism.
“This is about our water, our rights and our dignity as human beings,” Archambault said.
Energy Transfer, however, argues that a brand-new pipeline would be safer than alternatives, including rail cars, which have also leaked in accidents.
A person familiar with the thinking of Energy Transfer said the company settled with more than 50 other tribes. Energy Transfer was using a path that had electric transmission lines and a natural-gas pipeline, said this person, who was not authorized to speak publicly for the company and would speak only on the condition of anonymity. To minimize the risk of contamination, the company would also route the pipe 90 to 115 feet below the deepest part of the Missouri River, the person said.
“If it’s so safe because of technology, why don’t they use those same technologies to reroute it above our treaty land?” Archambault asked.
The Standing Rock area is a remote spot for a showdown over a pipeline, but thanks to social media, photos and videos of confrontations with police have been generating large followings. The anti-pipeline protests have attracted visits from actor Mark Ruffalo, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and anti-fracking filmmaker Josh Fox, and they have inspired a Neil Young song and words of support from former vice president Al Gore.
The Morton County sheriff’s office is also making its case online. This week on its Facebook page, the department linked to an editorial in the Bismarck Tribune that said: “Without law there is chaos. Without order there is anarchy. Without constitutional limits on law enforcement, we invite vigilantism and enable a banana republic-style police state.”
The sheriff’s department also posted an item saying that only 8.4 percent of the 416 people arrested for protest activities since Aug. 10 were from North Dakota. The department called those who came from 43 other states, Canada and the District “out of state agitators.”
This is more than Morton County usually deals with, and the sheriff’s department used the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, adopted under President Bill Clinton, which allows law enforcement officers from other states to help in times of emergency. Generally, the law has been employed for hurricanes, though it was also used to bring in help during unrest in Baltimore. As in more urban areas, the police standing fast near Cannonball have looked ready for military-style confrontation.
Archambault issued a statement condemning the “aggressive militarization of law enforcement” and the “inhumane and unconstitutional treatment of individuals after arrest.”
If the police were hoping to scare off protesters, they haven’t had much success.
Protesters recently used small boats to go up a creek and attempt to pitch camp or hold a prayer circle on land belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps asked the police to remove people from its land. Footage on the sheriff’s department Facebook page shows spirited protesters on Nov. 2 banging drums, chanting, and swimming, canoeing or boating close to the shore. There, scores of police waited, armed with rubber bullets and fire-extinguisher-size canisters of mace, which they sprayed at anyone trying to climb onto dry land.
“Return to the south camp,” police said over megaphones.
“Why are you here?” a protester yelled back. Another shouted, “We are not trespassers.”
West, the D.C. woman, was released Oct. 29 after an anonymous donor paid her $1,500 bond. She went to retrieve her impounded VW van in Bismarck, about 25 miles north of the protest site. Hushka, the Morton County sheriff’s spokesman, said it was one of about 60 illegally parked vehicles towed from the campsite. The donor had paid the $800 impoundment fee, too, but West said her steering column was damaged and twisted, and the brake fluid drained. She had the van towed, again at the donor’s expense, to a repair shop, which charged her $118.60, according to the receipt.
Hushka did not comment on West’s car but said the vehicles were not searched.
“I’m in pretty high spirits,” West said by telephone on Nov. 1 as she was leaving the auto repair shop.
West, who decided not to return to the protest site, said she opposes the pipeline not just because of the environmental impact.
“It’s the treatment of the Lakota people and people of Standing Rock reservation. This is their land,” West said. “And in the history of U.S. government, we have not honored the treaties. They have had a lot of pain and suffering and mistreatment. So hopefully we can change the system a little bit.”