Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday in a videotaped statement that she was dispatching federal mediators to ensure the ongoing standoff between protesters and police over the Dakota Access Pipeline did not erupt into violence.
Lynch, on Friday called Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II, said that she had offered community policing resources to local officials and had sent “conciliators from the Community Relations Service to North Dakota.”
Tensions between law enforcement and activists have escalated at the main protest site, Oceti Sakowin Camp, which Army Corps of Engineers officials have ordered evacuated by Monday. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, R, also ordered those encamped at the site to leave in the wake of a snowstorm earlier this week. Hundreds of veterans have now arrived and vowed to shield the protesters from being forcibly removed.
“Let me stress that violence is never the answer and that all of us have a responsibility to find common ground around a peaceful resolution where all voices are heard,” Lynch said in the video. “Our first concern is the safety of everyone in the area – law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike.”
Given the administration’s general reluctance to insert itself in the ongoing controversy surrounding the $3.7 billion pipeline, Lynch’s decision to send agency representatives to the site was notable. While federal officials have convened meetings with tribal representatives to address their concerns over the route, which they argue could threaten their water supplies as well as sacred sites, President Obama has commented only sparingly on the project.
After White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked Monday whether the president would intervene given the pending federal evacuation order, he replied, “At this point, I’m not aware of any impending presidential actions” regarding the project.
At the Oceti Sakowin Camp, Lynch’s remarks were met with a shrug. Several activists said that they were glad the Obama administration had weighed in on the ongoing standoff with law enforcement, but they expressed skepticism that the federal mediators would contain what they view as an overly militarized police presence.
William Good Bird, a Standing Rock native, read Lynch’s statement on an iPhone while sipping a cup of coffee near a prayer fire at the center of camp.
“They say they’re going to deploy? Well, I’m still going to be here. I live here,” Good Bird, 32, said. “Why don’t they sit down and talk with us?”
On the hilltops about a half-mile from the northern edge of the camp, more than a dozen spotlights erected by police shine down on the snow-covered fields below to deter people from advancing toward the pipeline’s construction sites. Armored police vehicles patrol the hills daily, and helicopters periodically circle the camp. A bridge several hundred feet up the road is barricaded with concrete barriers and razor wire, and police stand guard on the opposite side.
Tribal leaders have urged activists to remain “peaceful and prayerful” and have even kicked out some protesters caught throwing rocks and bottles at police, organizers say.
Despite promises from the Army Corps and the governor’s office that authorities will not forcibly clear the camp once Monday’s evacuation deadline passes, many activists said recent clashes between protesters and law enforcement have left them worried. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has arrested hundreds of protesters so far, and many activists have criticized the police for employing tactics such as water cannons, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
“Last month it felt like a war zone. When you deploy all these militarized police, I have to wonder, will we go through Wounded Knee again?” said Good Bird, referring to the 1890 massacre of more than 150 Lakota by U.S. Army troops in South Dakota.
Camp organizer Dallas Goldtooth tweeted out Lynch’s video, calling it a “good sign that we have the (administration’s) attention.” Her statement, he said, “is frustrating but demonstrates that they are being pushed to respond.”
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