PARK RAPIDS, Minnesota—The trickle of activists began on Thursday but it quickly grew into a stream that filled northern Minnesota campgrounds surrounding the Mississippi River headwaters over the weekend.
By Monday night, some 200 protesters had been arrested as they attempted to stop the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project. Many had chained themselves to pipeline construction equipment hoping to delay a project that they say would lock Minnesota—and the nation—into decades of continued burning of some of the world’s dirtiest oil and threatens the pristine waterways that many Indigenous people depend on for their livelihoods.
“This is just the beginning,” said Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe woman and longtime Indigenous activist who has been fighting the project since it was first proposed in 2014, according to the Star Tribune.
The Treaty People Gathering was organized by a coalition of Native rights groups and environmental organizations that intended “to put our bodies on the line, to stop construction and tell the world that the days of tar sands pipelines are over.”
In a written statement Monday, the company said that it was “disheartened” by the protest’s disruption and “destruction” at its worksite. But as the four-day event wound down on Tuesday and skirmishes between police and activists quieted, Indigenous leaders vowed to continue their protests.
Enbridge is now moving to revive construction after being delayed by a muddy spring. And as protesters redouble their efforts to stop Line 3, they are being met with equally intensifying resistance from police who are carrying out the will of state policymakers who have long resisted calls to transition the U.S. economy to clean energy.
Over the last four years, 15 states have adopted new laws that increase the penalty for trespassing on critical infrastructure like oil pipelines. Five other states, including Minnesota, are considering similar measures, which have become growing points of political tension between progressives and conservatives in the country’s cultural wars.
Those tensions played out Monday as encounters between police and protesters became increasingly hostile. Federal officials are reportedly investigating the use of a low flying helicopter that activists said was meant to intimidate them, according to media reports. The New York Times reported that authorities also appeared to use a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, to drive protesters away with noise.
The hostilities were reminiscent of the 2016 Standing Rock protests, where police were filmed using attack dogs, spraying water cannons and firing rubber bullets on Indigenous and environmental activists who attempted to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
But for some of the protesters in northern Minnesota this week, the aggressive police tactics only compounded the sting of failing to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“People forget that we lost that fight,” Tara Houska, a member of Couchiching First Nation and founder of the Indigenous advocacy group Giniw Collective, said last November.
Many worry without intervention from the Biden administration, Line 3 may see a similar fate.
They see Line 3 as part of a tightrope that Biden is cautiously walking regarding fossil fuel projects as he attempts to gain bipartisan support for his $2 trillion climate infrastructure plan.
President Biden stopped the Keystone XL pipeline from moving forward when he took office in January, but he has yet to weigh in on the Minnesota pipeline and his administration has taken a hands off approach when it comes to Dakota Access. In May, the administration opted against halting that pipeline’s operations after a court ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to redo the project’s environmental review.
An Old Battle Over a New Pipeline
The new pipeline, which the company hopes to have completed by year’s end, would replace the original Line 3 pipeline built in the 1960s and would cross 337 miles of some of Minnesota’s most pristine streams and wetlands. Enbridge says “replacing” the old Line 3 is the best way to prevent future spills while continuing to meet U.S. energy needs, insisting the new pipe is necessary to “restore the historical operating capabilities of Line 3.” The ageing pipeline is operating at roughly half of its original capacity after a series of serious accidents, including a huge oil spill and an explosion that killed two people.
Opponents say that, despite the old pipeline’s safety record, the new Line 3’s additional capacity would be an even greater threat to the area along its route and also to the global climate. Once up and running, the new pipeline would generate 193 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Enbridge’s environmental impact statement.
Pipeline opponents are determined to continue their actions against the pipeline to get President Biden to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw the project’s water permits and begin a federal environmental impact assessment, which the corps has not yet conducted. Many are also imploring him to honor a series of treaties signed between the U.S. government and the Ojibwe people in the 19th century that protected the tribes’ rights to hunt, fish and gather on land and water they believe is now threatened by the pipeline.
For some, this week’s protests weren’t their first Line 3 action. Joe Hill, a Turtle Clan Seneca who lives on the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo, New York, arrived in Minnesota on Dec. 15, just as Enbridge was receiving its final permits to begin construction. He spent much of the winter, including many sub-zero nights, in a yurt about 100 yards from Line 3, as an act of solidarity with the Anishinaabe. “This pipeline isn’t just about this place or the Anishinaabe or the wild rice,” Hill said. “It’s about the world and what will happen if we don’t shut the tar sands down.”
Another campsite, the Northern Pines Camp, played host to a delegation of about 300 members of different faith communities. LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth and an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabe, addressed the campers Saturday evening before leading them down to Fishhook Lake, where the campers held faith ceremonies, including the recitation of Hindu poems and the Havdalah, which ends the Jewish Sabbath and marks the transition to a new week. Changes were also a theme of LaDuke’s speech. “We don’t need that pipeline…What we need is a just transition,” she said. “Are we gonna walk through and carry all that junk or we gonna walk through clean?”
Sunday was a day set aside for training in which activists were taught how to engage with law enforcement and informed about different levels of risk they would confront, the highest of which would have them facing arrest. Leaders of the gathering said they understood that many did not want to risk jail during Monday’s demonstrations. LaDuke also hopes that the law would fall on the side of pipeline opponents in the current legal challenges to Line 3.
“We’d like the courts to work,” she said, shaking her head, “but until then Enbridge has unfurled holy hell up here.”
Other protesters, however, weren’t interested in obeying the law or waiting for the courts to rule. They blocked access to the pipeline construction site with a fishing boat and bamboo poles, climbed on top of equipment and chained themselves to machinery. By Tuesday morning, more than 200 people had been arrested.
At the Two Inlets pump station just off of Highway 71 north of Park Rapids, law enforcement detained dozens of protesters over the course of several hours late Monday. The Northern Lights Task Force, the law enforcement collaborative overseeing the police response, flew a helicopter over the occupiers at the pump station, kicking up a cloud of choking dust, prompting the reported investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of the low flying helicopter.
Police encircled protesters remaining outside the pump station and issued a final dispersal order just before 10 p.m. on Monday night. Soon after, all remaining protesters save those who had secured themselves to either construction machinery or the boat being used to block the access road, were detained. Others were issued a citation and released.
Meanwhile, the Native group Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging (RISE) will continue a four-day prayer ceremony that began on Monday near the Mississippi headwaters in the path of the proposed pipeline.
“Where the spirits, the Manidog, guide us, [will determine] how much longer we will go from there,” said Dawn Goodwin, an Anishinaabe leader and co-founder of RISE.