It was a bitter cold night on the Backwater Bridge when Efrain Montalvo got the desperate call from the front line.
“The medics were screaming for help, because they were overwhelmed,” remembered Montalvo, 25, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council at Standing Rock. He looked up through white mists of teargas, cut by screams and shouts on the bridge. Native elders stood motionless in front of barricades of razor wire, clutching feathers, burning prayer bundles of sage, holding their ground.
They were unarmed, eyes shut tight against the clouds of pepper spray. Others held up plywood shields or the tops of plastic bins against the spray. “Disperse!” shouted police, who then unleashed a fire hose, soaking protestors in the sub-freezing temperatures. Icicles formed on their hair. Their winter jackets crunched.
Montalvo moved swiftly toward the front line, carrying bottles of water and Milk of Magnesia (to relieve the teargas sting) toward the medics. Riot-clad police, ensconced behind concrete barriers and the looping wire, began firing rubber bullets. Montalvo watched an elder fall at his feet, his staff clattering to the pavement of the shut-down state highway. Then police launched a barrage of smoking teargas canisters from grenade launchers.
“That’s when people started panicking,” Montalvo recalled.
A tear gas canister hit Montalvo squarely in the chest. He inhaled its smoke deeply, then wandered aimlessly, hands over his eyes. Two minutes later he could see again. Another canister exploded at his feet. He saw a brilliant white light. Then everything went black and silent.
Montalvo began shaking uncontrollably. For 10 minutes, “I couldn’t remember who I was, where I was.” Medics whisked him off the bridge. Days later, he could still taste the tear gas in his mouth.
Montalvo was one of hundreds of unarmed “water protectors” facing down North Dakota police at the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on that evening of Nov. 20. The clashes had begun after protestors attempted to clear the bridge of two burned-out pickup trucks blocking highway passage since a day of mass arrests three weeks earlier.
Throughout the fall and early winter, the 10-month showdown over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been bitter and violent. At least 1,000 Standing Rock protestors, according to camp medics, have been treated for chemical poisoning, hypothermia, rubber bullet and “nonlethal” beanbag wounds, and many more serious injuries, all as a direct result of violence from militarized police, who sometimes arrive by the hundreds.
On Nov. 20 at the Backwater Bridge, 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky nearly had hear arm blown off. Vanessa Dundon, a 32-year-old Navajo, was shot in the eye by a tear gas canister. In all, some 700 people have been arrested in dozens of confrontations with police. Many have been held in dog kennel-like metal cages, numbers scrawled on their arms.
“We are using public and military employees to do the private work of a pipeline company,” said North Dakota Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern. Mathern said the state has borrowed tens of millions of dollars from the Bank of North Dakota to fuel the police presence. Hundreds of state police, county sheriff’s deputies from seven states, and the North Dakota National Guard have essentially served as a private security force for the Fortune 500 company, Energy Transfer Partners—thus helping its crews lay pipe across North Dakota and to the edge of the Missouri River.
On Feb. 7 the Army Corps of Engineers, on the orders of President Trump, announced its final approval of the project. Construction crews resumed work almost immediately, despite vows by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes to stop the pipeline in court. Native opponents and their supporters have pledged to block the pipeline to prevent contamination of the Missouri River, a source of water for the Sioux people and at least 10 million others downstream.
But in recent weeks the camp population has dipped well below 1,000, not nearly enough to disrupt construction crews and the police lines protecting them. Up to 200 water protectors, including a contingent of military veterans, have been pouring back into Standing Rock, but mostly to help with a massive cleanup of the main protest camp. Authorities set a Feb. 22 deadline to evacuate the camp. Police, military and private security vehicles are poised on the ridges nearby. Federal law enforcement officers are “swarming” in the nearby tribal casino, an apparent staging area for an eviction force. The Trump administration appears eager to crack down. Expect more police violence.