Last Thursday I highlighted the increasing militarisation of law enforcement in rural North Dakota where thousands of Native Americans and their supporters are protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a huge engineering project passing near Reservation communities in Sioux County. The controversial excavation work has led to several weeks of confrontations between local people and state authorities, tensions heightened by the apparent free hand given to several private security firms employed by the construction companies profiting from the project.
Sunday evening, the 20th of November, saw some of the worse scenes of violence witnessed so far, as hundreds of demonstrators assembled near a barricaded bridge on Highway 1806, which leads to one of the main DAPL engineering camps in the Cannon Ball area. The crossing, known as the Backwater Bridge, has been closed since October 27th following the burning of several military-style vehicles by protesters as riot police, firing rubber bullets and pepper spray, stormed a small activists’ camp in the area. An attempt by locals to remove the burned wrecks on Sunday was met with a volley of tear gas canisters from police officers guarding a temporary wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire sealing off one end of the bridge. As others in the vicinity were drawn to the commotion a water cannon mounted on the roof of an armoured car was used to soak those approaching the crossing, despite the freezing nighttime temperatures. Law enforcement officers soon added concussion grenades and rubber bullets to the water jets, fired directly into the crowds, causing scores of injuries, the resulting mayhem lit up with spotlights.
Given the absence of the mainstream press, footage of the clashes has largely derived from social media platforms, including recordings captured by a video camera mounted on an overhead civilian drone, which police officers later tried to bring down. Representatives of the Standing Rock tribe, who say the pipeline will encroach upon their primary source of drinking water and a community burial ground, stated that up to 167 men and women have been hurt or suffered the effects of hyperthermia as a result of the police action on Sunday night. Several people have been reportedly hospitalised for head traumas. Rubber and plastic bullets, so-called baton rounds, became notorious during the conflict in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland where their use by the British Occupation Forces caused numerous fatalities among the Irish civilian population. The frequent targeting of children and teenagers by soldiers and paramilitary police led to the weapons being dubbed “child-killers”. A resolution by the European Parliament in 1982 demanding a ban on plastic and rubber projectiles was rejected outright by the then UK government of Margaret Thatcher. Similar demands from the United States’ Congress was also ignored by Britain.