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New confrontations at Standing Rock as North Dakota proposes law protecting drivers who hit protesters

Proposed North Dakota law would protect drivers who hit Standing Rock protesters

Several confrontations erupted this week between police and protesters at Standing Rock camps in North Dakota, marking renewed violence over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was stalled when the US Army Corps denied a permit last fall.

Meanwhile, in response to the protests, North Dakota state representatives have introduced a bill that would remove liability from any driver who unintentionally or negligently “causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street or highway.”

“You can protest all you want, but you can’t protest up on a roadway. It’s dangerous for everybody,” state representative Keith Kempenich, who introduced the bill, told the Star Tribune. “People who live out there are feeling terrorized.”

Another proposed bill would allow police to fine anyone wearing masks, hoods and face coverings in a public place or at a protest, except for reasons of religion and other exemptions.

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a key figure at the Standing Rock encampment, told ABC News the proposed driving law was a result “of people not communicating.”

“I have never seen so many people frightened in all my life,” she said, referring to the bill’s backers. “My recommendation for the Legislature would be to pray harder. I think people are living on rumor and gossip more than they do the truth.”

Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and supporters have maintained a camp near Lake Oahe to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they fear will pollute the water if it leaks. The company behind the pipeline needs a key easement from the Army Corps of Engineers to cross under Lake Oahe, but in December the Department of the Army rejected that permit, and the pipeline has been stalled ever since.

Despite that major victory for protesters, between 800 to 1,000 have remained in the camp, anticipating that the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will allow construction of the pipeline to resume.

Police said the violence began Monday afternoon with protest actions in two different locations, resulting in 14 arrests. 

At 3:30 p.m., about 200 protesters walked from the camps to a spot about 700 feet from the Dakota Access Pipeline drill pad, according to a statement from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Police allege they cut out sections of the fence, leading to the arrest of three people.

In a separate demonstration, this time at Backwater Bridge, along highway 1806 to Bismarck, police allege protesters cut a security wire, removed fencing material and dismantled some of the lights illuminating the bridge.

The confrontation appears to have escalated later that night. A video posted by Steven Jeffrey Chris John shows police firing projectiles and tear gas at a large group of protesters on the Backwater Bridge. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to questions about whether police used tear gas and rubber bullets.

“We had some people run over on the sidelines, numerous shots, they just chased us off the bridge and they started shooting us in the back,” John says on the video he posted around midnight Monday night. “It’s pretty cowardly.”

Conor Handley, who attended the protest, told VICE News that three police officers were driving three snowmobiles along the side of the bridge. “[They] kept driving toward us then turning around and driving away,” he said. “Trying to intimidate.”

Between 11 p.m. and midnight, he saw two snowmobiles collide, and an ambulance appeared a few minutes later. One woman wrote on Facebook that a protester was hit by a snowmobile.

Police confirmed an ambulance was dispatched to the bridge, but they gave a different version of events.

“Late last night, approximately 20 protesters rushed at law enforcement who were on snowmobiles,” a Morton County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson told VICE News. “Law enforcement retreated and no one was hit by a snowmobile.” She said one officer got off his snowmobile to help with arrests.

Two arrested protesters were treated for a minor cut, and the effects of pepper spray, she said. 

It was the first reported confrontation between law enforcement and protesters since November, when police arrested hundreds of people and used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators in response to protesters setting fires on the bridge.

The weather has also taken a toll on protesters.

Kalamaoka’aina Niheu, a medic who was in the camps in early January, told VICE News she had seen “several thousand” cases of mild to severe hypothermia and frostbite since the water cannons were deployed in November.

She was outside for 30 minutes teaching a self-defense class and got frostbite. “It happens that quickly,” she said.

The Department of the Army also announced this week it is gathering information for an Environmental Impact Statement relating to the Dakota Access Pipeline’s request for an easement under Lake Oahe. The impact statement is supposed to explore alternate routes.

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