Tensions escalating in Dakota Access pipeline standoff, Obama suggests reroute

At least 140 people were arrested while occupying land in the path of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline in the past week. President Obama has urged peaceful protests and restraint from law enforcement. William Brangham speaks with Lynda Mapes of The Seattle Times about the extreme tension and fear of violence on the ground, reaction to the Oregon standoff acquittals and more.

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    In North Dakota, the standoff over the controversial Dakota Access pipeline keeps growing, as riot police cleared protesters blocking the pipeline's construction.

    William Brangham has the latest.


    In the past week, at least 140 people were arrested while occupying land in the pipeline's path, including one woman charged with allegedly shooting at police. No one was injured.

    Native Americans and environmentalists say the pipeline will destroy sacred sites and threaten the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The 1,200-mile-long, nearly $4 billion pipeline would carry 500,000 gallons of crude oil daily across four states.

    Yesterday, President Obama weighed in on the fight in an interview with the Web site Now This News.


    There's an obligation for protesters to be peaceful. And there's an obligation for authorities to show restraint.

    And I want to make sure that, as everybody is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard, that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt.


    For more on this, I'm joined now by Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes, who's just back from North Dakota.

    Lynda, thank you so much for being here.

    Could you just tell us, what has it been like? You were just there recently. What is it like? What did you see?

  • LYNDA MAPES, The Seattle Times:

    Well, it was scary, honestly.

    I was there with a Seattle Times photographer, Ellen Banner, and we truly were wondering minute to minute whether someone was going to get killed. We were in camp the night before with tribal members who were singing their death songs. I mean, they were very worried about the possibility of violence.

    And who wouldn't be? You have seen law enforcement marshaled from six states, armored personnel carriers, hundreds and hundreds of law enforcement officers with concussion grenades, mace, Tasers, batons. And they used all of it. I mean, it was frightening to watch.


    And when you say that they were using this, can you sort of describe the situation in which — we tend to see images of riots or protests, and we think of an equal clash between both sides. What kinds of things did you witness?


    Well, the demonstrators are vastly outnumbered. There's no question about that.

    And, in many cases, they were literally sitting, arms locked, praying when they were arrested. This changed as the standoff went on. It all started on Thursday morning around 10:30. It went on all through the day, all through the night, into the next day. And, by the next day, Friday morning, demonstrators had burned two trucks on a bridge and had erected a makeshift plywood barrier. They had a pile of rocks.

    Meanwhile, the law enforcement officers had advance more than 100 yards with five armored personnel carriers side by side, hundreds of law enforcement officers advancing on them. And it finally took an elder to actually walk by himself in between the two lines, stand there, face his people, and say: "Go home. We're here to fight the pipeline, not these people, and we can only win this with prayer."


    A lot of people have been making the comparison in recent days with what happened with the armed white militiamen who were just acquitted recently of taking over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.

    And they say white protesters with weapons are acquitted, while largely peaceful Indians protesting are not.

    You were there when the jury — that acquittal came down. What did you hear from people there?


    People were stunned. They were shocked. They were hurt. They were confused.

    I heard a lot of, how can this possibly be? And the subtext being, of course, "Well, of course. We're Indians."

    People were very, very hurt by the juxtaposition of these two events.


    As we heard also, President Obama just weighed in on this, asking everybody to cool down, and also suggesting that maybe the pipeline should be rerouted away from the Standing Rock Tribe and the Missouri River, where they get their drinking water.

    If that were to happen, if the pipe was rerouted, do you think that that would settle things down?


    The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said days ago, look, there's a peaceful outcome to this that could make everyone happy. Don't bring it right to our reservation. Don't put it within 10 miles of our drinking water intake. Move it, and, meanwhile, put all these out-of-work people back to work retrofitting the existing pipelines underneath the Missouri River.

    He was very clear that they're not against energy and development. What they're worried about is pollution of their drinking water source and the drinking water of millions of people downstream, as well as desecration of their sacred sites.


    Do you have any sense of where this goes from here? Obviously, President Obama has weighed in on this and made his point known. But we have an election coming up. We don't know — just give me a sense of, what do you believe is going to happen going down the road?


    Boy, I honestly think anything could happen. It's a very scary situation. The police and the demonstrators are going at it as you and I sit here.

    The demonstrators this morning were building a little wooden bridge across a creek to try to get back to the treaty camp to defend that land from the pipeline. I talked to a Yakama Nation tribal member who was coming in from Bismarck, and he saw two Apache helicopters on the ground at the airport and more and more police coming from all over.

    I mean, the president has said he wants this to play out for a couple more weeks. I don't know. I mean, I truly wonder what will happen next. Tensions are very high. For the energy company, they have said that their contracts were inked in 2014, when oil prices were still good. They have since dropped, and if they don't get this thing built by the end of the year, those contracts expire.

    And, in January, they would have to take a whole other look at whether this thing even pencils. It could effectively cancel their project, which is why they're pushing so hard to finish this thing. And the tribe and all of their supporters, tribal and non, are also pushing back just as hard, because, to them, it is literally a battle of life and death.


    All right, Lynda Mapes of The Seattle Times, thank you so much.


    Thank you.

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