CLDC has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the North Dakota federal court, and is assisting with a second suit, charging numerous law enforcement agencies and their officers with assaulting and violating the civil rights of peaceful Water Protectors at Standing Rock in late 2016 and early 2017. Unfortunately, due to inaction by the courts, the older of the two cases is still “on hold” while the judge considers a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants. We are hopeful that that older case as well as the more recently filed case will move forward this year.
Our clients were supporting the peaceful opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), led by the Oceti Šakowiŋ (the Seven Council Fires, or Great Sioux Nation). The DAPL pipeline, also known as the Black Snake, has now been found to be illegal by the federal courts on multiple occasions. In late 2016 and early 2017, hundreds of Water Protectors were subjected to cruel and illegal excessive police violence, including the use of water cannons in sub-zero temperatures, rubber bullets and other munitions, copious amounts of tear gas, mace and other chemical weapons, body slams, and other brute force.
One of our clients, Sophia Wilansky, had most of her arm torn off by a munition tossed by law enforcement. Another client, Eric Poemoceah, had his pelvis broken by police while peacefully demonstrating and livestreaming as a journalist. Both deserve justice in the form of government accountability.
In April 2020 we filed suit on behalf of Comanche Water Protector and videographer Eric Poemoceah against defendants Morton County, North Dakota; Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier; (then) Sheriff Paul Laney; Tom Iverson (formerly lieutenant, now captain with N.D. Highway Patrol); and Bismarck police officer Benjamin Swenson. Mr. Poemoceah was at Standing Rock in February 2017, peacefully and non-violently expressing his opposition to the pipeline, and livestreaming the indigenous-led movement to thousands of online supporters. He was unarmed, facing a group of about thirty militarized law enforcement officers clad in riot gear, with about fifteen feet between him and the group of officers. Mr. Poemoceah was calmly, firmly, but not in a loud voice, reasoning with the officers, in hopes of negotiating a peaceful process for allowing elders to leave the Water Protector encampment, which had been in place for several months.
His words to the officers were:
“I know you have a job to do and a family to provide for, but why do it with protecting oil? That’s all we’re trying to do, sir, is protect — protect the water. I know – I know you’re looking at me and I know you just shook your head yes because you have a heart. You have a soul. And I know — you look like a very prayerful man. Why don’t… you be honorable and set down your badge right now in front of 6,100 people.”
Mr. Poemoceah’s tone and mannerisms were respectful and deferential to the officers. He made and posed no threat to the officers. He was not armed and he did not behave aggressively or combatively. He did not menace or yell at officers. “I was not trying to fight against the police, I was simply trying to fight for the police and their families and all of our relatives,” Mr. Poemoceah explained.
Under the command of two North Dakota Sheriffs, Kirchmeier and Laney, as “incident commanders” doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry’s DAPL, dozens of militarized police officers charged at Mr. Poemoceah without any warning as he filmed police on ND State Highway 1806. Bismarck police officer Swenson tackled him and threw him to the ground with all his weight on top of Mr. Poemoceah, breaking his pelvis.
Then, instead of having an ambulance come down the road, or bringing a gurney, the officers mocked Mr. Poemoceah’s requests for medical care and after a couple of minutes forced him to walk at least two hundred feet with a broken pelvis to a police van as he moaned in pain and politely, repeatedly begged for help. Throughout the interaction, as with other indigenous Water Protectors in the Standing Rock demonstrations, the police officers belittled, dehumanized, and insulted him.
We expect that the defendants will soon file a motion to dismiss, which we believe to be completely groundless and will vigorously oppose.
Our other Standing Rock civil rights client is Sophia Wilansky, who was just 21 years old when she gathered with other Water Protectors on the Backwater bridge north of the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota in November 2016. She had come to the Oceti Sakowin camp in solidarity with the indigenous-led movement to stop the pipeline from destroying the Missouri River and exacerbating the human caused climate catastrophe affecting the entire planet.
In the early morning hours of November 21, 2016, police launched an exploding munition at Wilansky, which tore off most of her arm and left her gravely injured. Fellow water protectors rushed her to emergency care and she was subsequently evacuated to a Minneapolis hospital in an attempt to save her arm from amputation.
While Wilansky’s family gathered around her hospital bed, they were besieged by FBI agents who demanded Sophia’s clothing, medical records, and cellphones, and even threatened her doctors. The FBI also seized the metal fragment that was removed from her arm during surgery and to date has refused to disclose the composition of the fragment or permit her attorneys to have outside forensic analysis performed on the shrapnel in order to determine its origin. And, rather than trying to determine which of the many armored police caused Ms. Wilansky’s serious injuries, the FBI launched a federal investigation against Wilansky — even issuing a federal grand jury subpoena to the Native American Water Protector who had rushed her to medical care.
Simultaneously, North Dakota law enforcement and private operatives like Tiger Swan initiated a false and defamatory media campaign accusing Ms. Wilansky of blowing herself up, with fake photos and other false information flooding the internet. Ever since this incident Ms. Wilansky has been subjected to additional security screenings every time she flies and has been extensively detained every time she has entered the U.S. at the Canadian border.
After undergoing four surgeries to restore minimal use of her arm, in November 2018 Ms. Wilansky filed suit against Morton County, Laney, Kirchmeier, and Iverson, and the unknown DAPL officer(s) who tossed the munition, with CLDC attorneys assisting Washington DC law firm Williams & Connolly.
Other Standing Rock Civil Rights Cases
In addition to these two cases CLDC is involved with, there are four other federal civil rights cases we are aware of, two of which are class actions, challenging both the use of force and the road closures and other restrictions of people’s rights during the Standing Rock protests.
In Limbo in Federal Court
All of the Standing Rock civil rights cases (except, so far, our newly filed Poemoceah lawsuit) have been on hold for an unreasonably long time while the federal court considers the defendants’ various motions to dismiss. For example, in the Wilansky case, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss in January 2019, and although the final brief was filed that March, there has been no action by the court on the defendants’ motion, and even “discovery” (trading of documents and taking statements under oath) has been put on indefinite hold.
Meanwhile, Laney (ex-Cass County Sheriff and past board member of the National Sheriff’s Association) has been traveling around the country pushing the “Standing Rock model” of police misconduct and unconstitutional repression of lawful dissent to local police departments along pipeline routes and other controversial climate destroying projects likely to garner opposition from local communities.