Police wearing riot gear pepper-sprayed and fired rubber bullets at protesters attempting to cross a creek near the planned route of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota Wednesday afternoon.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department said police arrived on the scene to dismantle an “illegal” wooden bridge the protesters — who call themselves land protectors — had constructed across the Cantapeta Creek, and to arrest anyone who crossed the river for criminal trespassing.
The shots fired marked an escalation in the standoff between sheriff’s deputies and hundreds of people protesting the construction of the proposed oil pipeline they say threatens their water and sacred sites around the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
In a letter Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers asked the sheriff’s department for help, saying, “It appears that isolated groups of people have moved to set up camp in areas north of the current encampment” without permission to access that area of federal land.
Conor Handley, a protester who was on the scene, told VICE News the bridge was built across the narrow creek so that elders could cross and access a grave site on the other side.
When protesters at the main camp nearby heard that police were ripping the bridge apart, a group of them arrived on scene. Handley said some of them waded into the cold, shallow water to cross to the other side, but police wouldn’t let them walk onto the bank.
“They responded with brutal force,” he said of the officers.
“No one lifted a finger against police,” Handley said, “but the police are most definitely escalating their use of force.”
“I saw someone splash them with water — that’s probably the most violent thing that happened,” he said.
“Officers ordered protesters to remove themselves from the bridge and notified them that if they crossed the bridge, they would be arrested for trespassing,” the sheriff’s department said in a release. “This order was repeated several times.”
“Numerous protesters continued to ignore officers’ commands and crossed the river by swimming, using boats, canoes, and kayaks. The standoff with officers concluded shortly before 2 p.m. when protesters retreated and returned to the main camp area.”
As pressure to continue construction on the Dakota Access pipeline ramps up, “it’s coming down to crunch time,” Handley said.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for law enforcement,” Handley said. “But after this, I’m frightened of them, to be honest. I’m frightened of the violence they use and the tactics, and it’s not right.”
The latest clashes came a day after President Obama said the Army Corps was studying ways to reroute the pipeline away from Standing Rock.