Nearly 200 people were arrested on Monday while protesting the Line 3 pipeline, a long-distance tar sands pipeline that runs across Indigenous land and threatens food and water resources, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Indigenous and environmental groups, and even some elected officials, condemned the aggressive use of a helicopter to disperse protesters.
More than 2,000 people began gathering at an undisclosed location in Northern Minnesota over the weekend, answering a call from Indigenous Anishinaabe people and a coalition of environmental groups to disrupt the construction of the pipeline.
The “Treaty People Gathering” kicked off on June 7, when hundreds of water protectors arrived at construction sites where Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company, is ramping up construction of the Line 3 pipeline, which began in June after a several-month hiatus due to weather.
The direct action aims not just to delay and disrupt construction, but also to ratchet up the pressure on the Biden administration to intervene. Biden has avoided a public position on the issue, but growing national attention on the protests could make ignoring the water protectors increasingly difficult for the administration. The silence is all the more glaring as Biden has positioned himself as a champion of both climate action and Indigenous rights.
The Line 3 pipeline has been described as a replacement for an aging line, but much of it traverses new land, and the “replacement” will nearly double the current volume of oil traveling through the system, increasing it to 760,000 barrels per day. The emissions associated with the project would be equivalent to 50 coal-fired power plants.
The threat of oil spills is also not theoretical. In 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B spilled nearly a million gallons of heavy oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
Those opposing the pipeline’s construction are seeking to deliberately highlight how the project violates Indigenous people’s treaty rights.
“We called this mobilization the Treaty People Gathering because we are all treaty people. Our non-native allies have a responsibility to stand with us against projects like the Line 3 pipeline that put our Anishinaabe lifeways at risk. Today, we’re taking a stand for our right to hunt, fish, and gather, and for the future of the climate,” said Nancy Beaulieau, Northern Minnesota Organizer with MN350 and co-founder of the Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging (RISE) coalition.
The gathering aims to rekindle the spirit and energy of the 2016 Dakota Access pipeline protests, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a broad swathe of Native and non-Native allies, where thousands of people gathered in North Dakota for several months in the latter half of 2016.
The water protectors on Monday occupied two sites held by Enbridge, including the Two Inlets pump station. They sang songs, waved signs, marched, and some locked themselves to heavy equipment and machinery. For much of the day, Minnesota police watched nearby.
The events took an ominous turn around midday, when a helicopter with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a federal agency, approached the crowd. The helicopter swooped down low, hovering over a construction area that lacked vegetation. The aerial move kicked up a cloud of dust and debris that washed over people on the ground.
The helicopter flew away and then circled back and repeated the action, once again shooting up debris at water protectors. As video of the incident shows, the debris whipped up by the low-flying helicopter risked inflicting injuries.
More than a few people on social media, including Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), drew parallels to a very similar tactic used by the D.C. National Guard helicopters during the racial justice protests in Washington D.C. in June 2020. In that incident, military helicopters flew extremely low — as low as 45-55 feet above the ground — above a crowd of protesters. The use of a rotor wash, in which a burst of air from the helicopter’s rotors is used to disperse a crowd, is a common military tactic and was used to disperse crowds by the U.S. military in Iraq. Even the U.S. Army said that the shocking maneuver in D.C. last year was inappropriate and misguided.
Monday’s aggressive use of a helicopter to intimidate protesters drew the ire of pipeline opponents, who also drew parallels between President Biden and President Trump. The federal government under both presidents, as Monday’s actions illustrated, responded to calls for justice with a show of force.
The Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of state and local law enforcement agencies set up to surveil and respond to Line 3 pipeline protesters, issued a statement downplaying the helicopter incident, stating that the CBP action was intended to broadcast a message to people on the ground, not intended to kick up dust and “cause discomfort.”
As the day wore on, temperatures climbed above 90 degrees but water protectors remained upbeat. By late afternoon, however, police began making arrests. In some cases, they needed to cut chains and locks to remove water protectors from heavy machinery.
Nearly 200 people were arrested, according to the Anishinaabe-led environmental group, Honor the Earth.
The arrests come after efforts by both the state and Enbridge to crack down on pipeline protests. Over the past several years, including as recently as February, members of Minnesota’s state legislature have introduced multiple bills to impose harsh penalties on protesters, part of a sweeping campaign by corporations and oil companies around the country to surveil and crack down on opposition to energy projects.
And Enbridge has gone to great lengths to push the pipeline forward. The company has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for equipment and wages to an array of Minnesota law enforcement agencies to police the water protectors. It has heavily lobbied the Minnesota legislature and the public utilities commission.
As DeSmog previously reported, the company helped set up a front group that blanketed the state with op-eds, TV ads, and a social media campaign aimed at creating what appeared to be grassroots support for the pipeline, while the company tried to obscure its role in the PR campaign.
Enbridge did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to opposition on the ground, Enbridge is facing legal obstacles that could interrupt construction. Indigenous and environmental groups sued last year to overturn a state permit granted by the administration of Governor Tim Walz (D). A separate pending case targets a water and wetlands permit granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the same one that activists want Biden to rescind.
But the most immediate is a case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which is expected to issue a decision in June on a permit granted by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The case hinges on whether the oil is “needed,” and critics argue the approval for the pipeline was based on faulty oil demand projections. Conceivably, the court could halt construction in a few weeks’ time.
Even after the mass arrests on Monday, the Anishinaabe and their allies camped out at the site and plan to continue their direct action.
“Our ancestors made agreements to take care of this water and land forever together, and now is our time to do that,” said Winona LaDuke of Honor The Earth, one of the organizers of the campaign.