U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Friday announced attempts by federal officials to help mend fraying relationships in North Dakota between local law enforcement and Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.
With winter weather arriving across the Great Plains and after a spate of violent altercations, Lynch expressed hope that Department of Justice officials could mediate between hundreds of Native Americans that oppose the pipeline and the local officials who’ve asked them to end their demonstrations.
“Let me stress that violence is never the answer and that all of us have a responsibility to find common ground around a peaceful resolution where all voices are heard,” said Lynch in a videotaped statement. “Our first concern is the safety of everyone in the area – law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike.”
It was a clear call for peace without Lynch expressing support for a particular view in the dispute over the 1,172-mile pipeline through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. Last month, a woman’s arm was severely injured by an explosive during a protest.
“We recognize the strong feelings that exist about the Dakota Access Pipeline – feelings that in many instances arise from the complicated and painful history between the federal government and American Indians. We will remain committed to working with all stakeholders to enforce the law, to maintain the peace and to reach a just solution to this challenging situation,” Lynch said.
President Obama recently expressed hope that the pipeline could be re-routed away from Lake Oahe, a path opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux. Unlike Obama, Lynch suggested no solution to the central dispute.
The Department of Justice has a role to play, Lynch said, because of its commitment to supporting local law enforcement, to guarantee constitutional rights, including the free expression of speech, and to build relationships with groups of indigenous people.
“For the last several months, the Department of Justice has been monitoring the situation in North Dakota closely,” Lynch said.
It was unclear how successful he DOJ has been in working with North Dakota law enforcement and civilian groups. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Office of Tribal Justice are some of the DOJ sections working on the pipeline problems.
The potential for a confrontation between law enforcement and pipeline protesters has been rising. Hundreds of military veterans have streamed into Oceti Sakowin camp, the main protest site, to act as human shields for protesters, who prefer to be called water protectors. Federal authorities had ordered that the camp be evacuated by Monday.
“If the veteran group is doing everything lawful, then life goes on as normal,” said State Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) also ordered a mandatory evacuation earlier this week when a snowstorm hit.
Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which imposed the Dec. 5 deadline, and the governor’s office have promised not to use force to remove anyone who remains in the camp.
More than 500 people been arrested by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Protesters have complained of being hit with rubber bullets, tear gas and water hoses. Lawyers representing some of the detainees have criticized the acts of officials during the protests.
“I cannot imagine how much worse this can get,” said attorney Angela Bibens. “The state is acting with impunity. I’ve been here since August, and it has never felt more like running legal services in a war zone.”
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to The Huffington Post’s inquires.
Most of the pipeline is built except for a 20-mile section in North Dakota near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The tribe has sued to stop its completion by arguing its environmental impact was not properly studied and that it violates federal laws, including the Historic Preservation Act. The Obama administration in September said it would not issue the permit to builder Energy Transfer Partners while reviewing the tribe’s concerns.