The protesters were here for People vs. Fossil Fuels, five days of demonstrations by a coalition of groups known as Build Back Fossil Free that has included Indigenous leaders from across the country. The coalition’s name is a nod to President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.
People vs. Fossil Fuels said in a statement that 55 people were arrested during the protest, including Indigenous leaders, and said police “acted aggressively” by using Tasers on at least two people and batons to hit others. A spokesperson for the Federal Protective Service, which Schwartz said responded to the protest to “mitigate the situation,” did not immediately respond to a request for comment on police tactics and arrests.
Protesters said they wanted to speak with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the position. Haaland was traveling outside Washington at the time, Schwartz said in a statement.
“Interior Department leadership believes strongly in respecting and upholding the right to free speech and peaceful protest,” Schwartz said in a statement. “It is also our obligation to keep everyone safe. We will continue to do everything we can to de-escalate the situation while honoring first amendment rights.”
Photos and video from inside the building showed dozens of climate demonstrators, including Indigenous leaders, sitting and holding hands. Jennifer Falcon, an Indigenous Environmental Network spokeswoman, tweeted from inside the building that police were arresting people.
Thursday was the fourth day of climate demonstrations as part of the People vs. Fossil Fuels action in the nation’s capital. Activists are demanding that Biden stop approving fossil fuel projects and declare a national climate emergency. Each morning this week, hundreds of protesters have descended upon Lafayette Square to demonstrate in front of the White House.
Climate activists with the group Extinction Rebellion rallied outside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, with some climbing onto a ledge to release smoke flares. Others used retrofitted fire extinguishers to spray fake oil on the building.
Those outside the Interior Department on Thursday chanted “death to the black snake,” a reference to Line 3, a tar-sands oil pipeline expansion project from Canada across northern Minnesota and into Wisconsin. Opponents say this pipeline violated treaty-protected tribal land, but they lost court challenges. Biden did not act to cancel the federal permit that allowed the pipeline and oil began flowing through it on Oct. 1.
The protesters inside the building included Indigenous activists who have been leading the week’s protests. The Indigenous Environmental Network issued a statement Thursday stating that Indigenous leaders had “occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” which is an agency within the Interior Department. The statement also referenced the 1972 occupation of the BIA, where an estimated 500 to 800 Native Americans walked inside the building and refused to leave for six days.
“Politicians do not take care of us. Presidents will break their promises but Mother Earth has always given us what we need to thrive,” the statement said. “We will not back down until our natural balance is restored.”
Roy Duran, 36 of Pittsburgh and Rah Marreel-Alley, 33, of Denver were in the crowd of climate activists attempting to enter the building and said they were injured by police.
Duran said an officer put him in a chokehold while hitting other protesters with his free hand. Police also used Tasers on protesters including Marreel-Alley, they said.
“The escalation was way out of proportion,” Marreel-Alley said. “We don’t have weapons and we have a history of nonviolence. We have asked for these conversations. Indigenous people are not heard, and we have a right to go where our leadership can be heard.”
Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier, a protester outside the Interior Department, said his sister was inside and wanted to speak with Haaland.
Oppegaard-Peltier, who is running to represent Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, also criticized Line 3 and Biden’s actions on climate so far.
“Biden pledged that he would reduce the carbon intake and reduce the fossil fuel extraction in our interior, in which he has yet to do so,” Oppegaard-Peltier said.