They turned Standing Rock into a war zone

November 23, 2016

Late on November 20, at a bridge near the main Oceti Sakowin resistance camp by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, authorities unleashed a brutal assault on the water protectors--Native and other activists who for months have been holding their ground to try to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

The attack began after a group from the camp tried to clear the nearby public bridge, which authorities had blocked with military equipment chained to concrete barriers. Police moved in and--as people around the world watched via live stream--attacked unarmed protesters with rubber bullets and concussion grenades, fired flares that set off grass fires and drenched the protectors with high-pressure streams of water from water cannons and fire hoses.

In all, more than 100 activists were injured, some seriously. Multiple people lost consciousness, and one person reportedly went into cardiac arrest, but was revived by medics. The most seriously injured appears to be 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky from the Bronx, who was struck by a concussion grenade as she tried to bring water to protesters under assault. She may lose her arm as a result. Sophia's father Wayne Wilansky sobbed as he told reporters about his daughter's condition. "In America, she's hit with a grenade," he said. "She's not in Iraq or Afghanistan...And they're trying to kill her."

Another New Yorker, a former humanitarian aid worker in war zones, who was on the scene and endured the police assault talked to about what happened--and what conclusions to draw about the escalation of brutal violence.

WHY DID you decide to go to Standing Rock?

I'M NOT an activist. I'm supportive of Indigenous rights and of protecting the environment, but it's not what I've been working on my whole life.

But I saw the brutality against Indigenous activists back in September when Democracy Now! documented the use of attack dogs against protesters, and I started to want to get involved. I had a desire to stand in solidarity with Native American activists who were fighting the pipeline.

I was mostly just sitting on my couch thinking about what the right thing to do would be for weeks. But then the election happened, and I realized that I should just do whatever I can--right now.

YOU WERE there last Sunday with police attacked a peaceful assembly at Backwater Bridge with water cannons, fire hoses, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. Can you describe what happened?

I HAD been in the protest camp for about five days. Things had been really peaceful and community-driven. It was my last night at Standing Rock, and I decided to go for a walk up to a hill to get a vantage point to see the sunset.

Police at Standing Rock target activists with water cannons in below-freezing temperatures
Police at Standing Rock target activists with water cannons in below-freezing temperatures (Adam Alexander Johannson)

I saw that there was some action on the bridge. A very small group of people was trying to remove one of the vehicles that was part of a barricade across the bridge that blocked the road to Bismarck and separated the protest camp from construction company security.

The police had always been stationed at the bridge, but then a massive number of police began arriving. They started teargasing the people who were removing the vehicle.

This was around 6 p.m. I saw people coming from the camp and assembling on the bridge--a group of a few hundred who were filling the bridge and standing there in support.

I had left to go back to camp to get some warm clothes. When I came back to the bridge, I ran into a huge group of people who were leaving after being teargased. I actually thought that the protest was over because so many people were leaving, and so many had been hurt in that first round of teargasing.

I don't know everybody who was there. It seemed like a mix, just like the camp is a mix. When we were watching the barricade being taken down, I was talking to Native Americans who had come from Minnesota, Kansas and other parts of the country with their families. There were Indigenous activists who have been part of this for months and months.

What you can do

Call on federal and state officials to end the violence against peaceful protesters at Standing Rock and take a stand the Dakota Access Pipeline. Below are some of the officials you can contact:

President Barack Obama: 202-456-1111
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: 202-224-2043
Gov. Jack Dalrymple: 701-328-2200
Morton County Sheriff's Department: 701-328-8118 and 701-667-3330
North Dakota National Guard: 701-333-2000

Help with Sophia Wilansky's medical bills by contributing to a GoFundMe account. You can also contribute to the Medic Donation Fund.

I stayed on the bridge and was there for the next five or six hours. At first, I was with the crowd on the bridge, but they kept teargasing us. Each time, I would get out for help--flush my eyes, get fresh air--then I would go back, and we would be teargased again.

There were lines of barbed wire on both sides of the bridge to separate police from the water protectors. There was a group of people standing off the bridge at the barbed wire, with their hands up, singing, dancing, praying and talking to the police. They asked for people on the bridge to come down and stand with them because they were being struck by rubber bullets.

So I went off the bridge and stood by the barbed wire. You could see the police up close at that point. They would come around, take out a mace canister and mace people directly. I saw a bunch of people come away from the barbed wire who had been maced in the face.

Up on the bridge, on the other side of the protesters' barricade, the police had a vehicle with a water cannon on top. A police officer was directing a constant stream of water at the water protectors.

The protesters were protecting themselves with little plastic shields. I couldn't believe that they were getting so wet, because the temperature was in the 20s, as it was every night. And still I saw some people get hit with water for an hour straight and stay a part of the protest.

In addition, the police were firing something that made a loud sound, which I guess was a sound cannon. They were also firing something like a flare that would land on the grass and light fires off the bridge near the protesters, which people would come over and put out. At some point, people started a fire on the banks of the river so that protesters from the front line could come down to dry off and get warm.

Despite everything that was happening, there was a real community spirit. People were coming over and offering gloves, hand warmers, food. There were medics coming by with Mylar heat blankets.

So I headed down to the fire to warm up. That's when I saw the fire department come. You could see them unfurl a big fire hose and bring it down in the direction of the barbed wire where people had built the fires to keep warm.

At this point, people started bringing tarps to set up in front of the fires--it was obvious that the police wanted to put them out. For a long time, we just stood there with the tarps protecting the fires, waiting to see what would happen.

Then they turned on the fire hoses and directed them straight at the tarps that we were holding. The pressure of the water from the hoses was really strong. So other people started to come in to back up the protesters holding up the tarps, so that we wouldn't fall into the fire from the force of the water.

They did two rounds of hosing, and by that point, I was completely drenched and had to hand off my tarp and try to get warm at the other fire. I realized I needed to get out of there, because I was so cold and in danger of hypothermia. They had fired the water hose at us nonstop for about 10 minutes.

Then I saw them come again, hosing and teargasing people. When I finally left the bridge area, it was somewhere between midnight and 1 a.m.

LOOKING BACK, what's your reaction to what you experienced?

WHEN I came on to the bridge, I could hear the firing of rubber bullets and sound cannons, which sound like a bomb going off, and I was immediately taken back to the war zones I've worked in as an aid worker.

So my first inclination was to get off the bridge. But there were so many people there who had already gone through a round of tear gas, and who were being so supportive, just singing and chanting. So I decided to stay. I thought if they could do this, then I can do this.

I think my main reaction was disbelief. I had read about the situation beforehand, but I just didn't understand that the police could be using such a level of force against an unarmed and unthreatening group.

Standing Rock has a strong, really explicit commitment to prayer and nonviolence. The camps themselves can sometimes feel a little bit like communes. I think that if I hadn't seen what happened that night, I wouldn't have fully understood how much strength it takes to keep up nonviolent resistance in the face of such police brutality.

It's really a testament to what the Indigenous activists have created that they've remained so compassionate while still also putting their lives at risk all the time.

Another thing that really struck me is that this is a group of 300, maybe 400 people. The only possible reason I can think of for the police using that level of force against a group that size is sheer intimidation.

It really makes me fearful, because this is a time when we need to be out there, peacefully protesting. But what is the message being sent by the police acting like this.

No one is really reporting on what happened. When I read the news coverage, it didn't align at all with what I experienced. It's like they aren't covering the same event. And it doesn't seem like the government is going to investigate this brutality.

When I've gone abroad as aid worker in other conflicts, I've always known that there's someone who has my back--either my own organization or my government. But when it's the police who are attacking you, who do you call for protection?

On the other hand, one of the things that makes me really emotional about this is that there is such love among those activists. I've never felt so many people caring about me, checking in on me, worrying about if I had hypothermia, trying to get me food and clothing.

This is among Native American groups who have been betrayed by the state for hundreds of years. There was just so much solidarity. It was awe-inspiring.

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