Earlier in the day, heavily armed police officers clad in riot gear and equipped with SWAT trucks closed in on the demonstrators, demanding that they remove the blockade they had set up on the highway. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department told ABC News today that protesters had also set tires on fire.
A witness told ABC News today that law enforcement used sound cannons to disperse the demonstrators who had gathered. Donnell Hushka, the public information officer for the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, told ABC News law enforcement did utilize “an LRAD, which gives a long range high pitched noise, to clear and disperse crowds.”
Today’s conflict comes after police arrested more than 120 demonstrators last weekend, bringing the total number of protest-related arrests since mid-August to 386 people, according to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.
Protesters said heavily armed law enforcement officers unleashed pepper spray on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators on Saturday, while officials say the protesters were illegally trespassing and the pepper spray was deployed as a preventative measure. Demonstrators justified their presence by citing an 1851 Treaty that they say specifies that the land was designated for Native American Tribes. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department released a statement today saying “authorities began taking steps to remove the illegal roadblocks and protesters trespassing on private property near Highway 1806.”
Wyn Hornbuckle, the deputy director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Justice, told ABC News in a statement that the department was “taking the situation in North Dakota seriously.”
Hornbuckle added that department employees have “been in communications with state and local law enforcement officials, as well as tribal representatives and protesters, to facilitate communication, defuse tensions, support peaceful protests, and maintain public safety. The department has also offered technical assistance and community policing resources to local law enforcement in support of these goals.”
Morton County Chairman Cody Schulz defended the Sheriff’s Department, saying, “The claim that law enforcement is escalating this situation is simply untrue. The law enforcement personnel from across the state, and now across the country have shown incredible professionalism and unbelievable restraint in the face of more and more aggressive tactics and illegal activity from the protesters. As we have stated from the very beginning, we fully respect the 1st Amendment rights of all protesters. The protester’s rights are just as important as those of the citizens of Morton County. But they are not more important.”
Danny Grassrope, 24, told ABC News Saturday that he was arrested at the protest site and witnessed police officers spraying protesters while they were praying.
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