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AITKIN COUNTY, Minn. — Spring is bringing the heat to opponents of the Enbridge Line 3 tar-sands oil pipeline, as levels of arrests and citations for demonstrations against the private Canadian infrastructure project rise faster than at any time since construction began on it in December.
The toll on the self-proclaimed water protectors stands at more than 200, higher than for any oil pipeline opposition in the country since the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance of 2016-2017. As ground and waterways continue to thaw, increased numbers of opponents and arrests are expected.
Not all detentions in the escalating law enforcement suppression response are legal. Take Michele Naar-Obed’s recent arrest for example. She was held in custody three nights for what turned out to be a junk warrant claiming her attendance at a March 3 public action violated the conditions of her release from a previous Line 3-related charge.
Officers issued dozens of citations at the event, a gathering to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Line 3 oil spill in Grand Rapids, Minn. In the disaster, the line now being replaced burst and spilled 1.7 million gallons of crude oil onto the frozen Prairie River. The calamity vies with that of the Enbridge Line 6B rupture, — which flushed another million or so gallons into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 —, for the title of largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
“I’m being accused of breaking the law for participating in First Amendment activities,” Naar-Obed told sympathizers outside the Aitkin County Jail as she went in to contest the warrant and request an audience with a judge.
Noting that she received no hearing, she added, “I haven’t been given the opportunity to defend myself, yet I’m being asked to pay a $500 bond or surrender my freedom.” With no verdict in her case, she also asked, “In this country, aren’t we still presumed innocent until proven guilty?”
After a judge ruled that the warrant for her arrest was unlawful, she walked out of the jailhouse March 22.
Then on March 25, seven water protectors were arrested at a construction site near Floodwood, Minn. – six for locking themselves to construction equipment and an access gate, and one for refusing to leave the work site. Six of the seven traveled from out of state. Warmer temps have brought in more opponents from across the country, including activist and actor Jane Fonda.
“The water protectors are being seriously harassed, jailed and strip-searched by the local police,” said Fonda during her visit. “It’s a terrible thing that’s happening here.”
The growing resistance is led by Indigenous grassroots groups whose adherents see the construction of the pipeline as a violation of treaty rights. They say a spill would devastate wild rice lakes and other waterways in treaty territories where the Anishinaabe have the right to hunt, fish, and gather.
Opponents are also concerned about the impact of the project on climate change. Oil from tar sands is one of the world’s most carbon-intensive fuels.
A water protector from the assembled crowd declared, “This bank feeds all sorts of money into that black snake. We’re going to lop the head off of it; there will be nothing left when we’re done. We fight with a prayer in our hearts.
“Prayer is action. Prayer is gathering together in community like this. It’s taking care of those that need help, realizing that true wealth comes not from money but from kindness and generosity and lifting up our fellow people.”
A recent report identified Wells Fargo as the bank with the third most fossil fuel investments in the world; it is also a lead financier of the tar sands industry.
Fighting Enbridge Energy over Line 3, opponents stress that oil pipeline construction is also highly correlated with increased rates of human trafficking for Indigenous communities in the surrounding areas.
Line 3 is meant to carry tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen – dilbit — from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior Wisconsin.
March 28th, Sunday morning, dozens of people marched through downtown Duluth in protest. The group gathered near the shore of Gitchigami (Lake Superior) before marching through the downtown area, led by Indigenous Water Protectors. They stopped in front of the Duluth branch of Wells Fargo drawing attention to the bank’s investment in fossil fuel infrastructure projects like Line 3. Across the street from Wells Fargo, a banner was dropped from a parking garage that read “Stop Line 3 For Future Generations!”
Meanwhile, in Philip, South Dakota, water protectors celebrated outside the courthouse on March 24 when Haakon County dropped a felony charge against Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Oscar High Elk. The allegation was related to police activities near the Roots Camp he co-founded to defend unceded Lakota treaty territory from Keystone XL Pipeline construction.
High Elk had to pay a $10,000 cash bond for his release Jan. 6 from the county jail on that and another first-offense felony charge, as well as 11 misdemeanors, which could result in a prison sentence of nearly two dozen years and fines up to $48,000.
Charges stem from incidents Dec. 23, when participants in the annual Big Foot Wounded Knee Memorial New Generation horse ride were at the camp on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
In the March court date, Judge Kathleen Trandahl dismissed a felony indictment of aggravated eluding. She set another court date April 28 for an aggravated assault felony and the misdemeanor charges, ranging from disorderly conduct to moving vehicle violations.
Assigned as prosecutor is Marty Jackley, a former State Attorney General, who has announced he is running for the position again. Defense attorneys are Bruce Ellison and Robbie Rohl.
Being processed with High Elk is fellow Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Jasilyn Charger, charged for locking herself to KXL Pipeline pump station infrastructure in a civil disobedience action on Nov. 21.
Following the court date, she is collaborating with the Standing Rock Youth Council’s caravan to Washington, D. C. to lobby the Administration of U.S. President Joe Biden for a shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Enbridge Line 3 construction.
“For too long, Indigenous communities have been forced to bear the burden of society’s addiction to fossil fuels and the devastating impacts on our land, sky, and water,” said well-wisher and youth action advocate Joye Braun, a Cheyenne River Sioux pipeline organizer for Indigenous Environmental Network, which is funding the caravan.
“It’s time to honor our treaties that have been ignored and shut down DAPL and stop Line 3,” she said in a social media post.
Biden fulfilled a 2020 campaign pledge to retract the KXL Presidential Permit in January. However, High Elk vows to maintain the Roots Camp until contractors remove the installations nearby on the route’s Cheyenne River crossing and the court case is resolved.
After his hearing, Rosebud Sioux water protector Cheryl Angel, a great-grandmother who was among supporters attending, showed media a thick sheaf of more than 4,500 signatures collected since Jan. 21 from all over the country and the world on a petition to drop all charges against him.
Speaking alongside the 30-year-old husband and father, together with his mother Vivian High Elk, Angel expressed the feelings of many, when she said, “We stand with the authority given to us by the Creator since our conception to be the caretakers and the maintainers of peace on these lands.”
Referring to the Lakota Nation, she continued, “We were granted and authorized to maintain that peace, not just live in peace. That means keeping out all destructive forces of that peace, which includes pipelines, gold mines, uranium mining and any extractive activities that are going to damage the water that we drink, that the animals drink, and that plant life needs, so it can sustain all life, especially on unceded treaty lands.”