Police at Standing Rock said it was too dangerous to move burned-out vehicles from a bridge there on Nov. 20, leaving it to protesters like Vanessa Dundon to get rid of the wrecks so emergency vehicles could get through in the case anyone needed medical treatment.
That’s when police opened fire, according to a lawsuit filed by Dundon on Monday in federal court. The protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline were choked by tear gas and struck by rubber bullets and bean bags, the lawsuit states. In sub-freezing temperatures, police soaked protesters with a water cannon over and over again.
After being struck by the tear gas canister, Dundon was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet before being pulled from the bridge by other protesters. In a triage tent, paramedics stopped the bleeding from her eye before taking her to a Bismarck emergency room where she received stitches. Within a few days, she was told it was likely that her retina was detached, and she may not see out of her right eye again, according to the lawsuit.
Dundon may never regain vision in her right eye after being struck in the face with a tear gas canister that day. (Dundon’s GoFundMe page has so far raised $80,000.) She and other protesters—one shot in the head with a rubber bullet, another struck in the genitals with a tear gas canister—are now suing Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, his department and two other law enforcement agencies for using excessive force.
Now, the clashes of the Nov. 20 standoff may be repeated. Thousands of veterans backed by more than $500,000 in donations are expected to travel to Standing Rock this weekend. Ahead of that, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued an executive order requiring protesters to leave immediately. Morton County pledged on Tuesday to cut off supplies to the encampment of thousands.
“They’re sadly mistaken if they don’t think we already have many supplies there,” said Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth, a Native American land rights group that has been fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Sandpiper Pipeline in Minnesota, among other land disputes in tribal territories.
“We have enough rice already there to last us 10 years,” LaDuke told The Daily Beast.
The emergency treatment Dundon received at the camp on Nov. 20 may now be harder to come by thanks Dalrymple’s order—which also leaves it up to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and the state Highway Patrol to decide on a “case by case basis” whether or not to allow first responders into the protest camp.
The department, along with Sheriff Kirchmeier, the Stutsman County Sheriff’s Department and the Mandan Police Department are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
In his order, Dalrymple contends that blocking paramedics from responding to the camp will “reduce threats to public safety by not guaranteeing” emergency services to protesters.
On Tuesday, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said it will stop the flow of supplies to the main protester camp at Standing Rock.
But it doesn’t appear that police will be short of any supplies, which according to Dundon’s lawsuit include long-range acoustic devices, tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets, bean bags and a water cannon that have been used on her and other protesters. Jade Wool, another plaintiff in the case, was one of several protesters sprayed with the water cannon on Nov. 20, prompting her and others to be treated for hypothermia, the lawsuit alleges.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department and the Mandan Police Department defended their use of water on protesters, with Mandan police chief Eric Ziegler telling reporters the day after the incident that the water cannon “was effective, wasn’t it?”
Calls to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department have gone unanswered for several days. Requests under the state’s Open Records Act asking for information on the use of non-lethal weapons by the Morton and Stutsman counties, Mandan police and the North Dakota Highway Patrol did not receive an immediate response. (To get an idea of the full scope of police resources used in Standing Rock would be much more difficult—police from more than 70 law enforcement agencies in nine states have worked the protests, according to the ACLU.)
For months protesters have been complaining that police have treated protesters harshly, especially on Nov. 20, one of the most contentious days of clashes since protesters set up camp in July.
Dundon’s lawsuit paints perhaps one of the clearest pictures yet of the situation at Standing Rock that day.
David Demo was near a razor wire line filming police with a GoPro camera when he was targeted by the water cannon on Nov. 20. After changing clothes and returning to the front line, Demo was shot in the hand with a rubber bullet. The impact broke several knuckles and required reconstructive surgery, according to the lawsuit.
Guy Dullknife III was shot with bean bags in the leg, chest, and hands while trying to help a woman who was being sprayed with the water cannon as she lay on the ground. Mariah Bruce accuses police of shooting a tear gas canister directly at her on Nov. 20, striking her in the vagina, according to the lawsuit.
Israel Hoagland-Lynn needed 17 staples in his head to close up a wound from a rubber bullet fired by police that day.
Wool, the woman who was struck by the water cannon on the night of Nov. 20, alleges she was also struck in the face by shrapnel from “a grenade,” according to the lawsuit. Protesters and left-leaning media outlets have accused law enforcement of using “concussion grenades,” perhaps most notably in the case of a woman whose arm was partly amputated as a result of an explosion at Standing Rock two weeks ago.
Police have denied using such weaponry and have fought back with their own accusations, including one that protesters have been or were preparing to use propane tanks as explosive devices the Dundon was struck in the face while trying to move vehicles off the bridge.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department posted photos of the alleged homemade bombs on its Facebook page, which has since been taken down without explanation from the department.
LaDuke says Morton County has “gone rogue” at Standing Rock.
“They have acted irrationally and entirely outside of the law as far as I’m concerned over the last four months,” she said.
The veterans expected at Standing Rock this weekend—led by the Wesley Clark Jr., son of General Wesley Clark—have said they will act as “human shields” for protesters. LaDuke says the reinforcements will put the camp’s population past 10,000 people.
“They’re not going to stop people from getting into that encampment,” she said. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to tear gas or shoot rubber bullets at 15,000 people and get them to leave.”