By LEVI LASS
BISMARCK, N.D. (CN) – Protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, calling themselves “water protectors,” sued Morton County and its sheriff, Kyle Kirchmeier, in federal court after claiming the sheriff’s department used teargas and water cannons against them at the Dakota Access pipeline protest sites.
According to the 35-page class-action complaint, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department used “highly dangerous Specialty Impact Munitions (SIM), explosive teargas grenades, teargas canisters and a water cannon spraying high pressure water as a means of dispersing protests and prayer ceremonies.”
Protesters have spent months at the Red Warrior and Sacred Stone encampments 30 miles south of Mandan, North Dakota, to stand against construction of a $3.8 billion pipeline that, when complete, will pump nearly 470,000 barrels of oil under the Missouri River daily.
Standoffs between the protesters and the sheriff’s department have escalated over the past several months, resulting in injuries on both sides from skirmishes between the parties. But the most recent outbreak of violence prompted the federal lawsuit, filed Monday, due to the severity of tactics used by law enforcement.
According to the complaint, the water protectors gathered on Nov. 20 to peacefully protest and pray at the Backwater Bridge along Highway 1806, which has become home to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest camps. A joint force of police officers from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the Stutsman County Sheriff and the Mandan Police met protesters at the site.
The officers allegedly used a variety of devices to disperse the protesters, including teargas and an armored vehicle with a mounted, high-pressure water cannon that drenched protesters and prayer groups despite the subfreezing temperature just days before Thanksgiving.
Sheriff Kirchmeier disagreed with the protesters’ version of events, claiming that an armored vehicle was not used to spray protesters and that the hoses came from fire trucks meant to put out fires before being turned on the protesters.
“I don’t know where the term ‘water cannon’ comes from, this is just a fire hose,” said Kirchmeier in a statement. “Some of the water was used to repel some of the protest activities.”
Kirchmeier later claimed that spraying protesters with water was not a normal tactic for the sheriff’s department, but that it was the best option at the time.
The protesters say they did not receive any warning or order to leave the area before the police began using force to break up the crowd of nearly 400 protesters.
Vanessa Dundon, a member of the Navajo Nation and a named plaintiff in the class action, was one of the first people on the Backwater Bridge to experience the sheriff’s department’s tactics for crowd dispersal, according to the complaint. When she arrived at the site, she observed protesters using towing equipment to remove burned-out vehicles that had been left by law enforcement to barricade the bridge.
When officers fired teargas at the crowd, Dundon was immediately hit in the face, according to the complaint. When she attempted to flee, she says officers shot her multiple times in the back with rubber bullets.
Following the altercation, Dundon claims she couldn’t see out of her right eye and that there was so much blood she was worried her eye had become dislodged from its socket. Dundon later received several stitches in her eye to stop the bleeding.
Dundon says she was one of the over 200 protesters who were injured by police force that night.
The class is asking for an injunction against police using “dangerous implements” as a means of crowd dispersal. It also seeks punitive damages.
The protesters are represented by Rachel Lederman with Rachel Lederman & Alexsis Beach out of San Francisco.