A climate activist holds a sign at the firelight resistance camp near La Salle Lake State Park in Solway, Minnesota, on August 7, 2021. KEREM YUCEL / AFP via Getty Images
This summer, the ocean burned, an ashy haze covered much of North America, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report confirming what we already know: Capitalism-induced climate crisis is here. Yet approvals for oil and gas drilling permits on U.S. public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president. The Biden administration declined to withdraw federal permits for oil company Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, a proposed expansion to a 1960s-era line that would bring nearly 1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day from Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.
In the midst of corporate and governmental facilitated environmental destruction, Water Protectors — a term used to describe those who defend the Earth’s water from pollutants — have been forced to take matters into their own hands, and are facing harsh state repression as a result. Trumped-up charges, police violence, excessively high bail and intensive aerial surveillance are becoming the new normal in Minnesota, where Enbridge employees are working 24 hours a day to complete construction of the pipeline.
More than 800 Water Protectors have been arrested or cited in the state since November 2020, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) approved the Line 3 permit
Most arrests stem from demonstrations and from direct actions called lockdowns, in which people chain themselves to equipment at construction sites. As construction nears completion, organizations such as Honor the Earth, an initiative that supports Native grassroots environmental groups, are calling on more people to join action camps on the front lines and asking for legal support donations. Roughly 2,000 people rallied at the capitol on Wednesday, August 26, to oppose the pipeline. Hundreds have been camping out on the premises since the demonstration.
Prosecutors and police have become increasingly repressive over the course of the struggle, according to Mollie Wetherall, a legal support organizer with the collective Pipeline Legal Action Network (PLAN). In late July, police tear-gassed Water Protectors, shot them with rubber bullets and cracked an individual’s head open. During July and August, prosecutors have charged an estimated 80 Water Protectors with felonies, according to PLAN’s data.
“It’s clear that they really are in a moment where they want to intimidate people as the construction of this pipeline winds down,” Wetherall told Truthout. In spring 2019, she participated in a lockdown action at a construction site and was charged with a misdemeanor. “Fast forward two years later,” she said, “and 20-year-olds are being charged with felonies for potentially the same act or something even less than that.”
Some felony charges are highly unusual in a protest environment, Wetherall said. In late July, two defendants in their early 20s were charged with felony assisted suicide, felony obstructing legal process and misdemeanor trespass after allegedly crawling into the pipeline while locked into a “sleeping dragon,” a device typically made with PVC pipe intended to make extraction difficult. According to the complaint, the pipeline was an estimated 130 degrees and lacked oxygen. The complaint alleged that defendants “did intentionally advise, encourage, or assist another who attempted but failed to take the other’s own life.” Felony assisted suicide carries a 7-year prison sentence, $14,000 fine, or both. In total, if convicted, the defendants face 13 years behind bars.
Prosecutors are also charging Water Protectors with felony theft, felony obstruction and felony assault. “All of the counties have started charging felony theft pretty unilaterally and consistently,” Wetherall explained. “So the fact that that charge came up and it was consistent across many counties within a month, to me indicates a level of coordination among prosecutors.” Felony theft carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and/or a $20,000 fine.
The state is also setting increasingly high bail for Water Protectors. Bail for most felony defendants has been set at $5,000 for conditional release, meaning a defendant may be placed on travel or other restrictions, and $10,000 for unconditional release. In early August, a court in Pennington County set bail at $40,000 with conditions and $500,000 without conditions for an individual charged with felony assault.
Sunset, a defendant who asked to be identified with a pseudonym to prevent retaliation, was charged with felony theft and misdemeanor trespassing after locking themself to construction equipment alongside more than a dozen other Water Protectors at two work sites on July 1. Construction at the work sites was halted for the entire day.
They told Truthout that the healing, supportive atmosphere at the action camps inspired them to take action, in addition to their longstanding appreciation for the environment and support for the land back movement. “The pipeline is big business for everyone involved,” they said. “And the people and the land pay the price.”
Water Protectors opposing Line 3 argue that the pipeline will contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions and contaminate waterways when oil inevitably spills in any of the 800 wetlands and 200 bodies of water the pipeline will cross, including the Mississippi River and Red River. In 2010, a pipe operated by Enbridge ruptured and spilled 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, the largest spill in U.S. history. It was one of over 1,000 spills for the company. On August 17, health professionals and Indigenous activists across the U.S declared the climate crisis as a public health emergency and called on the Biden administration to revoke the Line 3 permit at “Our Water Our Health” solidarity events.
Enbridge has already released 10,000 gallons of “drilling fluid” (a combination of water, clay, minerals and proprietary chemical solutions) into the environment during construction — contaminants that are potentially harmful to aquatic life and can poison drinking water. The spills are considered violations of the law, yet police, who have been reimbursed nearly $2 million by Enbridge, have not arrested or charged any company executives.
While locked down to a tractor on July 1, Julie Richards, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and founder of Mothers Against Meth, told independent media collective Unicorn Riot that the fight against the pipeline is a continuation of ancestral Indigenous battles. By pushing forward with construction, the Minnesota government continues its long, genocidal legacy of breaking treaties on stolen land. After the Minnesota government broke the 1851 treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, a war ensued and the governor put a bounty on the scalps of Dakota men, women and children, according to Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer Ruth Hopkins.
Oil pipelines in northern Minnesota violate 1854, 1855 and 1867 treaty areas by threatening Anishinaabe tribal members’ constitutional rights to “make a modest living from the land.” Oil spills could potentially contaminate 389 acres of wild rice — or manoomin — in 17 wild rice waterways, which have long been sources of sacred and life-sustaining food for the Anishinaabe people. “For Ojibwe, wild rice or manoomin, ‘good berry’ in the Ojibwe language, is like a member of the family, a relative,” Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, writes. “Manoomin is more than food, it is a conveyor of culture, spirituality and tradition.”
Faced with a government that is breaking its own laws in the middle of an urgent crisis, some Water Protectors see direct action as one of the few tactics that produces quick results. Tara Houska, Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation and founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous-women, 2-spirit led frontline resistance to protect Mother Earth, told Democracy Now! that she started her career on Capitol Hill. “I worked in various offices, including the White House, when I was out there,” she said. “And it is so clear to me and to the many young people who are part of not just this movement, but movements across the globe, the Indigenous people who are leading the struggle to protect the last beautiful sacred places, that it is simply not working fast enough.”
As Enbridge continues to construct the pipeline despite pending legal challenges against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, lockdowns could help Water Protectors bide their time for the courts to side with Indigenous people. Continued delays may also dissuade Enbridge from moving forward with the increasingly expensive project.
Line 3 Defendants Go to Trial
Most Line 3 defendants are still waiting for their day in court. Some misdemeanor trials are scheduled throughout the coming months. Most felony trials have yet to be scheduled.
On August 6, Assistant Hubbard County Attorney Anna Emmerling prosecuted the first Line 3 pipeline defendants in front of an all-white jury after striking a Native juror during jury selection with a “peremptory challenge,” which results in the exclusion of a potential juror without need for any reason or explanation. Brock Hefel, who was an activist serving as an intermediate between police and demonstrators at a protest in a ditch near a highway on June 15, was convicted of misdemeanor public nuisance. Judge Eric Schieferdecker, a former prosecutor who is up for reelection in January 2023, ordered Hefel to serve 30 days in the Hubbard County Jail — twice the amount of time Emmerling recommended.
Schieferdecker’s stated justification, according to Hefel’s attorney, Bruce Nestor, was to deter others from defending the land. “The Judge wanted to send a message,” Nestor wrote in a statement, “to the dozens of Water Protectors who showed up to support Brock: Protest Line 3 in Hubbard County — either with signs, chants, or direct action — and [sic] you will go to jail for a far longer time than people convicted of other misdemeanors.”
During a call from Hubbard County jail, Hefel told Truthout his lawyer was “astonished” that they took him straight to jail upon conviction. “Normally, with such small charges,” he said, “they won’t do that. They’ll wait until sentencing.” But Hefel didn’t seem to regret participating in the struggle. “We’re in a climate crisis,” he said, “and people need to take action. And when you have privilege and ability to put your body on the line, it’s something that anybody who has privilege should do, in my opinion. And that’s why I’m up here.” Hefel was released early after performing manual labor for the jail, according to PLAN.
The harsh repression is also an attempt to discourage people from taking their cases to trial, Hefel said, since the court isn’t equipped to handle hundreds of trials.
Accordingly, 123 Water Protectors have pledged to refuse plea deals and take their cases to trial, Wetherall told Truthout. “If the State continues to criminalize and punish people protecting the land and water, yet ignores the harms to our community perpetuated by Enbridge/pipeline company and the State,” a group of defendants wrote in a pledge. “The Water Protectors will stand united in our desire to be tried individually by juries of our peers.”
For Sunset’s part, they plan on asking for a speedy trial and are organizing with their co-defendants to, hopefully, beat the charges.
“It’s all one big machine — it’s all the same machine — and it’s cranking away, and we have to do what we can to get in its way and get ourselves out before we get crushed,” said Sunset.