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Morton County Commission Chair: Thoughts from inside DAPL protest issues

MANDAN—The Dakota Access Pipeline protests have dominated the news and coffee shop talk the past few months in North Dakota. The protests have also likely either directly or indirectly touched nearly everyone in the state.

That's because about 50 county, city, state and federal agencies, and more than 725 individual law enforcement or emergency management personnel, have assisted Morton County in dealing with the protests. The size, scope and complexities of the situation are vast, and there are some important points to keep in mind.

County and state government involvement is focused on public safety, protecting lawful activities of contractors and workers, and protecting the rights of protesters to legally assemble.

The primary involvement of government during this situation has focused on law enforcement and emergency management activities. This has put our law enforcement officials between two competing interests, the protesters on one side and the pipeline company on the other. This puts the county and state in the position of keeping the peace and enforcing the law in a situation where tensions and emotions are high on all sides. Law enforcement staff has done an incredible job and shown great restraint in fulfilling their duties, and they should be commended.

We also have to remember that beyond the two competing interests mentioned above, the pipeline is going into the ground on private property owned by regular folks like you and me.

Recently, much of the protest activity has occurred on this private property and the lives of local farmers and ranchers have been negatively affected by incidents of trespassing, property damage and masked individuals driving the roadways and occasionally stopping vehicles and blocking traffic.

Law enforcement staff is also responsible for responding to these types of calls, and ultimately the primary responsibility of law enforcement is to keep our citizens safe.

Who are the stakeholders and participants?

Stakeholders and participants are many. They include the general public, protestors, local landowners, the pipeline company, and many levels of government—federal, state, county and tribal.

I would like to focus a bit on the federal and tribal government involvement. The local representatives of federal agencies have been incredibly helpful in trying to keep the peace, enforce the law, and protect the rights of everyone involved; especially the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal and their respective staffs.

However, the federal government involvement has been absolutely terrible out of Washington, D.C. I would argue that it has actually made the situation worse by creating increased uncertainty and by flat out refusing additional assistance requested by our law enforcement leaders. During the most recent meeting of the North Dakota Emergency Commission, one of the members described the federal government response as "disgusting." I wholeheartedly agree.

The tribal government involvement is more complex and nuanced. Chairman Archambault certainly has a firmly held belief that the pipeline is not in the best interest of his people, and has called on any number of people to join his cause.

The population of the protest camps are some of those that have responded to his call. Having met with the chairman, I have no doubt he wants the protest to be non-violent and peaceful. With that said, I do believe the chairman or tribal government should take a more active leadership role in the camps. To this point, oversight and participation has been very passive.

This has made it difficult for state and county leaders to communicate with the camp population because outside of the chairman there is no single unifying leader that can assert authority. There is some level of responsibility borne by the chairman for the protest camps and the actions of those staying there.

My hope is that the chairman becomes more directly involved and exerts his leadership in the camps. I respect the man, and I believe those at the camps do too. His leadership and authority would carry real weight in keeping things calm and peaceful.

Is the protest peaceful or not peaceful?

The answer to this question is truly "both." Any assertions that it is completely peaceful and prayerful or completely violent should be dismissed.

It is important, however, not to mistake non-violent for peaceful. With a handful of notable exceptions, the protests have been non-violent, but on numerous occasions they have not been peaceful—damage to property, trespassing, closing roads, intimidation and threats to law enforcement and local residents; and as mentioned, a handful of violent acts.

The protest camps are filled with a number of different factions, each having different, or at least varying degrees, of motivations. Some are motivated by the issue of environmentalism, others by concerns over cultural and historical artifacts or the issue of tribal sovereignty, and historical injustice is yet another factor. And then there is a faction that is motivated simply by a desire cause mayhem. They may be looking to get their name in the newspaper or feel that they are part of a movement. But whatever the psychology, this is the faction that is worrisome.

Most of the local protestors, those from Standing Rock and the surrounding area are committed to peaceful, lawful protest. If you look at the arrest records, something like 85 percent are from outside North Dakota.

There is a minority faction—I would estimate 15-20 percent of the total camp population—that has demonstrated a lack of respect for the law and the rights of local residents in the area. I commend those who are committed to lawful and peaceful protest. And while it may not be easy, I hope those individuals, including Chairman Archambault, do whatever they can to marginalize or expel those who are not committed to peaceful and lawful protest.

Ultimately, it is in everyone's interest to eliminate that action. My constituents, as well as Chairman Archambault's, have been friends and neighbors for years, and we must continue to be when this is over. We must work together to ensure mutual respect for the rights of all our citizens, and put an end to the non-peaceful elements of the protest.

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