NEAR CANNON BALL, North Dakota (CNN) — The frigid North Dakota cold hasn’t stopped thousands of protesters from camping outside, trying to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
And they’re about to get a boost from hundreds of veterans.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple had ordered the protesters to leave immediately, citing the harsh wintry conditions. But those freezing at the campsite lambasted the governor’s claim that he’s trying to protect safety. ll
“If you want to make this safer, then stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Stop the whole thing completely,” said Wicahpi Ksapa, a tribal headsman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “You want to poison our people?”
The tribe started the anti-pipeline campaign months ago to protect sacred sites and their water supply. But the protests have ballooned to include celebrities, a former presidential candidate and now the group of veterans offering to come help.
‘Stand up for the oppressed’
On Wednesday, leaders of “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock” said they’re ready to go to North Dakota — even though it was 29 degrees Fahrenheit there Wednesday afternoon.
“See you all on the ground in Standing Rock,” veteran Wesley Clark Jr. tweeted Wednesday. “We are coming with Truth, Justice & the American Way as it was always meant to be. Peace. #NoDAPL”
Clark — not to be confused with retired Gen. Wesley Clark — created “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock” along with Michael Wood Jr., a retired Baltimore police officer and Marine Corps veteran.
“If we don’t stand up for the oppressed, that’s the snowball that starts that leads to everyone else’s oppression,” Wood said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a libertarian, a conservative, or a progressive, this is everyone’s fight.”
The group’s Facebook page told attendees to “Bring body armor, gas masks, earplugs AND shooting mufflers (we may be facing a sound cannon) but no drugs, alcohol or weapons.”
And it calls for the group to unite on Sunday — one day before protesters must leave or face arrest.
But the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now Coalition, which has supported the pipeline project, said there are veterans on both sides of the debate.
“(T)he notion that some would descend upon Cannon Ball as self-purported ‘human shields’ is both unnerving and unnecessary,” spokesman Craig Stevens said in a statement.
“Protesters have had, and taken, the ongoing opportunity to protest for several months. Only when protesters have broken the law have they been arrested or asked to disperse.”
What’s next ?
The US Army Corps of Engineers warned last week that come Monday, activists who refuse to leave could be arrested.
But since the statement’s release Friday, officials have backtracked, saying they have no plans to forcibly remove those who stay.
More recently, Gov. Dalrymple ordered protesters to clear out immediately, citing a reason other than trespassing: harsh winter conditions.
He said the protesters’ temporary dwellings have yet to be inspected and approved, and failure to do so posed serious public safety concerns.
The governor also said first responders would no longer be responsible for providing emergency services to those who remained.
Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Maxine Herr said authorities will “passively” enforce the governor’s order for protesters to vacate the area.
She also said law enforcement would immediately start blocking people and supplies from entering the protest campsite. She later amended that statement to say that anyone who enters the area does so at their own risk and will be subject to penalties.
In other words, there will not be a road block, but anyone entering the area will be notified that they are trespassing and penalized accordingly.
Native Americans reminded of past treatment
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe member Chase Iron Eyes, the initial threats of arrest have brought back memories of the government’s past treatment of Native Americans.
“You have a government agency trying to declare us trespassers on our own treaty land and threatening to penalize us, criminally charge us and possibly forcibly round us up if we don’t return to the reservation,” he said.
The pipeline was originally slated to lie north of Bismarck, North Dakota, in an area that did not cross Native American reservations. The current proposed route, however, would take it through four states, stretching 1,172 miles to connect areas with oil in North Dakota to southern Illinois.
It would cut through the Sioux Tribe’s reservation, and the tribe says it could potentially destroy sacred lands and prevent access to clean drinking water.
Accusations of violence from both sides
The Morton County Sheriff’s Office said protesters set fires while officers tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets and water sprayed from hoses attached to fire engines.
Archambault said the accusations against the protesters are false, and that it’s police who are being violent.
“They’re the ones who are using weapons,” he said.
Despite the ongoing conflict, Chase Iron Eyes said he has no immediate plans to leave.
“We are in for the long haul,” he said.