Human Rights

Police Injure Hundreds at Dakota Access Pipeline Standoff

Sophia Wilansky’s family said part of her arm was "blown away" by a police concussion grenade.

Medical teams report that Sunday night’s 10-hour police attack on water protectors at Standing Rock with rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades and cold water in sub-freezing temperatures, left roughly 300 people injured, some seriously. One 21-year-old woman was reportedly struck with a concussion grenade that destroyed much of her left arm. She is now undergoing multiple emergency surgeries in an attempt to save the limb.

The Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council at the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance Camps said in a press statement Monday that the wounded include “an elder who lost consciousness and was revived on scene,” a “young man with a grand mal seizure” and “a young man with internal bleeding who was vomiting blood after a rubber bullet injury to his abdomen.” The council reports that “at least 26 seriously injured people had to be evacuated by ambulance to 3 area hospitals.”

Linda Black Elk, who was serving as a medic the night of the attack, told AlterNet, “From my perspective, we are once again a group of people who are doing nothing but trying to protect water, land, treaty rights and people. What I saw was peaceful water protectors attacked in sub-freezing temperatures by water cannons, getting shot in the head by rubber bullets, getting hit with what I think are concussion grenades from which we had some serious injuries. There were people constantly screaming, 'medic!'"

The family of Sophia Wilansky, who is from New York City, provided new details Tuesday about the serious injuries to her arm. “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,” Wayne Wilansky, Sophia's father, said in a press statement. “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.”

"She will need multiple surgeries to try to gain some functional use of the arm and hand," Wilansky added. "She will be, every day for the foreseeable future, fearful of losing her arm and hand."

The Sunday night incident began on a bridge where vehicles formed a blockade to separate water protector encampments and construction areas guarded by police. According to Josué Rivas, an organizer with Indigenous Rising Media, “around 5:30pm a guy with a semi-truck tried to pull a car from the blockade.” At that point, Rivas told AlterNet, police deployed to the bridge, and hundreds of water protectors showed up to “hold space, link arms, pray and sing.” Rivas says the crowd was “being peaceful” when law enforcement attacked.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department appeared unremorseful about the injuries its officers inflicted, including the severe wound Wilansky sustained. “It wasn’t from our law enforcement, because we didn’t deploy anything that should have caused that type of damage to her arm,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Maxine Herr earlier this week in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We’re not sure how her injury was sustained.” Herr went on to state that water protectors were “rigging up their own explosives,” however, she provided no evidence to support this claim.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department and Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

According to the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council, Herr’s statements “are refuted by Sophia’s testimony, by several eyewitnesses who watched police intentionally throw concussion grenades at unarmed people, by the lack of charring of flesh at the wound site and by the grenade pieces that have been removed from her arm in surgery and will be saved for legal proceedings.”

Wayne Wilansky said, “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.”

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier denied using water cannons but acknowledged that the department attacked the water protectors with fire hoses, claiming: “It was sprayed more as a mist, and we didn’t want to get it directly on them, but we wanted to make sure to use it as a measure to help keep everybody safe.” He claimed that the water protectors were "threatening" the police.

But Linda Black Elk said that the department is not telling the truth. “I think it's interesting how the action took place in a very small area, and there were hundreds of pieces of cell phone footage, drone footage and all sorts of film footage that prove that we went there peacefully and in prayer. I’m frustrated with their continued escalation of violence. Each time they come at us, they escalate their militarization and violent tactics.”

There is reason to be skeptical of the sheriff department’s attempts to downplay its violence. Water protectors have already endured dog attacks, military-style checkpoints, invasive strip searches, national guard deployments, and mass arrests and surveillance. Militarized crackdowns have been waged in collaboration with the national guard and police departments from across the country, prompting a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses inflicted by North Dakota law enforcement.

The water protectors are aiming to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would cross beneath the Standing Rock Sioux reservation's main drinking water source and cut through the community's burial grounds. They say they aim to stave off climate change, keep drinking water safe from dangerous spills and defend the health and well-being of future generations.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chair Dave Archambault II said in a press statement released Sunday night, “We are deeply saddened that despite the millions of Americans and allies around the world who are standing with us at Standing Rock, a single corporate bully—backed by U.S. government taxpayer dollars through a militarized law enforcement—continues to be sanctioned by aggressive, unlawful acts. President Obama, this cannot be your legacy.” He added, “Our culture, our children and our homelands have repeatedly been stolen from us.”

Other indigenous organizers told AlterNet that the police attack felt like an act of war. Charon Asetoyer, the executive director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes, South Dakota on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, has repeatedly mobilized to Standing Rock. She told AlterNet, “When you shoot unarmed men, women and children, you are a war criminal,” she said. "They need to be taken to task.”

“The only people who are going to benefit from the pipeline are the one percenters who have investments,” Asetoyer continued. "The state of North Dakota, under the direction of the governor and the sheriff’s department of Morton County, have declared war on the Great Sioux Nation and all the allies that have come to protect the water.”

Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of Indigenous Environmental Network, told AlterNet, “I feel that the law enforcement are cowards. It’s a continuation of the state of North Dakota and the Morton County sheriff’s department and the North Dakota state patrol being in collusion with the Dakota Access Pipeline. I see it as a conspiracy to protect the corporation's illegal activities.”

Josué Rivas told AlterNet that “people are dealing with PTSD and the pain of seeing other people hurt. For the last two days, I have been having nightmares about grenades."

Still, Rivas said the roughly 5,000 people remaining at Standing Rock are determined to stick it out. “If anything, the people are stronger than ever. People are still singing, still dancing and still finding a home in the camp. I expect the camp to only grow bigger, especially in next few weeks. That in itself will inspire a lot of people to stay there. We have people who quit their jobs and came to Standing Rock, and they’re not leaving.”

Meanwhile, those who sustained heavy injuries from Sunday night’s attack face a long healing process. “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,” Wayne Wilansky said. “I died a thousand deaths today and will continue to do so for quite some time.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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