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Line 3: Police Violence and the Fight Against Tar Sands

November 15, 2021
tags:#Line 3 pipeline, #indigenous, #activism, #police brutality
by:Darsen Hover
Construction of the controversial Line 3 tar sands pipeline in northern Minnesota was completed ahead of schedule at the beginning of October, after a summer of heightened tensions between police and protestors.

The tar sands Pipeline

Line 3 is not an entirely new construction. The Canadian energy company Enbridge owns a six-line corridor, and the new section of Line 3 is designed to replace and re-route large parts of a deteriorating line that already exists. 

Operating at full capacity, Line 3 can carry 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Wisconsin, running through large swaths of Northern Minnesota, through Anishinaabe territory and Ojibwe treaty lands.

Tar sands (often called oil sands) are a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen - a tar-like substance composed of hydrocarbons that is used to produce petroleum products such as gasoline. The extraction and transport of bitumen requires even greater resources and effort compared to conventional crude oil. 

Much of the resistance to the Pipeline is due to the risk that it poses to the water supply in the region. A leak could lead to contamination of lakes and rivers, including the Mississippi River, under whose headwaters the pipeline runs. This could jeopardise hunting and fishing in the area as well as downriver from a spill, and endanger wild rice crops which are essential to the spiritual, traditional and economic livelihood of many members of tribes in the region. 

This concern is heightened by the fact that the pipeline will be carrying tar sands, which is a particularly risky type of oil to transport, and creates high levels of pollution during the refining process. A tar sands spill is more difficult to clean up than a spill from a pipeline transporting lighter oil, partly because the mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen is very heavy and acidic. 

Ongoing resistance

From the outset, indigenous activists and water protectors have engaged in tireless resistance to the project. Local tribes, as well as Groups like Honor the Earth, the Giniw Collective, Resist Line 3 and countless others have engaged on all levels, pressuring financial institutions who had invested in the process, putting political pressure on local and federal agencies to stop the project, and engaging in direct action at construction sites. 

Organisers and some lawmakers called on the Biden Administration to conduct a federal Environmental Impact Assessment of the project, as well as to halt construction of Line 3 by executive order, which he has failed to do. There was also significant pressure on Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz to stand up for Native treaty rights and halt construction. On 4 September, he was forced to halt his speech at a political event early when dozens of water protectors continued to chant in protest as he spoke. 

According to reporting done by The Guardian, police kettled at least 70 protestors at a demonstration outside of the Governor Waltz’s home in late August, a tactic used extensively against protestors in Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, to widespread criticism from civil rights groups.

In addition to direct action at construction sites and political pressure, opponents of Line 3 have also attempted to bring their argument to the courts. A challenge to the certificate from the Public Utilities Commission giving Enbrige the go ahead on the replacement was rejected by the Minnesota Supreme Court on 24 August. 

Heavy policing 

Since the Line 3 pipeline project began, more than 900 protestors have been arrested, and Democracy Now! sites reporting from the Giniw Collective that police violence and use of force at construction sites rose significantly over the summer, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse and arrest water protectors.  

In addition to these tactics, police have used a Long Range Acoustic Device, and there are reports of water protectors being denied medical care in jail and of a Department of Homeland Security helicopter being flown over a Line 3 pump station north of Park Rapids, approximately 20 feet above ground during a particularly large weekend of civil disobedience on 7 June. 

The Northern Lights Task Force, made up of both local and state law enforcement officials, said in a statement that the helicopter was dispatched to “issue a dispersal order to a large group of people in the area of Two Inlets Pump Station by Park Rapids, MN. The idea was to provide the order in a manner that everyone would be able to hear.” According to first hand reports from protestors on the ground, however, the dispersal order was not audible, and the helicopter forced people to the ground in response to the significant dust, noise and wind from the low-flying aircraft. In the same statement, law enforcement officials claimed that the disturbance was unintentional. 

According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Canadian energy company has spent more than $2 million to fund the Northern Lights Task Force, and has worked closely with law enforcement, participating in joint meetings, training sessions and sharing information. 

FairPlanet spoke with Brock Hefel, an activist in the fight against the pipeline, about his experience with law enforcement during the Line 3 protests. Hefel is a water protector, who got involved with the movement approximately two years ago when protests broke out in the Twin Cities in response to financial institutions like Chase and Wells Fargo investing in the project, before the permitting process was complete. As construction picked up, Hefel began attending direct actions at construction sites, sometimes acting as a police liaison, and supporting other activists who were locked down or getting arrested. 

Brock, along with twenty eight others, was arrested in the Ditch Arrest, which took place on 15 June, 2021. He cites this as a turning point in the police tactics that were used on protestors as a matter of practice. “The day I was arrested was the first time that I knew of someone being directly assaulted by an officer. One of the arestees was grabbed and put in an arm bar. It probably did happen, but I don’t know of anyone being directly assaulted before.”

“I know someone had been tackled earlier in the winter,” he added, “but that was surprising and irregular, and then those types of things happened all the time after that point. I think the [Treaty People Gathering] was such a big action that the Northern Lights Task Force and the police started to organize more intensely. Whenever there were any actions after that point you just expected that the police would show up in an intense way, locking us face down entirely, putting highway roadblocks up, and just making it extremely difficult even to protest legally, because they can make it illegal.” 

“Even if you’re in a totally legal space,” Hefel further stated, “they can say they’re blocking everything off and you’re in the police zone. It feels very unsafe when that happens.”

After his arrest, Hefel was found guilty of unlawful assembly and public nuisance and given sentence of thirty days in jail and a year-long probation. This was his first offense. At his sentencing, the judge explicitly stated that one of the primary reasons for his unusually harsh sentence was deterrence.

“They’re constantly trying to deter us,” Hefel said “That was even stated by the judge when he sentenced me. He said that one of his primary goals was deterrence.” 

Hefel was taken into custody immediately after the jury's verdict, which is an unusual practice for someone only convicted of a misdemeanor.

He has been released now, and is currently facing charges of felony theft, a typically severe charge that was often brought on Line 3 protestors for offenses some are arguing would generally result in much more minor charges. Hefel is being charged for allegedly crawling into a pipe from which he and another person were physically removed by officers and firemen who pulled them out through approximately half a mile of the pipe, part of the way by a rope. 

The oil flows, but the green fight continues

Construction of Line 3 is now complete, and oil began to flow through the pipeline at the beginning of October. While this has certainly altered activists’ approach, resistance to Line 3 has continued. 

In a press release sent out in early October, Winona Laduke, Executive Director of Honor the Earth and one of the most prominent leaders of the movement said, “Line 3 is a crime against the environment and Indigenous rights, waters and lands, and it marks the end of the tar sands era -- but not the end of the resistance to it.” 

“Enbridge has raced to build this line before the Federal court has passed judgment on our appeals about the line,” Laduke further said, “but the people have: We believe the most expensive tar sands oil pipeline ever built in the US will be the last.” 

Over the course of the last month, resistance to Line 3 and pressure on the state and federal government from climate activists to curb use of fossil fuels has continued, heightened in part by negotiations on climate funding in the Build Back Better bill, and the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow. On 14 October, opponents of Line 3 marched in Washington DC as part of the five day “People vs. Fossil Fuels” mobilisation, demanding that President Biden stop Line 3. 

In the same interview, Brock Hefel told FairPlanet that he is personally switching his energies towards supporting people who are facing charges for protesting. He also believes that activists will continue to increase pressure on the politicians who have supported the pipeline. 

“I think there will be actions focusing more on dropping charges, pressuring the politicians, pressuring people who have a legal say in the state of Minnesota,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of focus on the governor and other politicians, especially those who are up for re-election. I think that’s a pressure point, it’s a shift for a lot of people in my eyes.” 

Despite the fact that Line 3 is operational, and many climate activists are focusing their demands on Federal action to combat climate change, resistance to Line 3 at the sites themselves is not necessarily over. 

“I still think there’s going to be a lot of direct action at the sites, there are indigenous leaders that still want that to happen and I hope it does,” said Hefel. “I hope people are still watching because we need to protect them. We need to make sure that the police know that people are still watching and they’ll have repercussions if they do these terrible things that they have been doing.” 

Image by Selim Arda Eryilmaz

Article written by:
Darsen Hover
Embed from Getty Images
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at a press conference to address the Line 3 Pipeline project at Nymore Beach in Bemidji, Minnesota.
© Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
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Law enforcement officers stand off against demonstrators at an Enbridge Inc. Line 3 pump station during a 'Treaty People Gathering' protest in Hubbard County, Minnesota, U.S.
© Nicole Neri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Environmental and tribal groups say Enbridge Energy's plan to rebuild Line 3, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil and regular crude, would worsen climate change and risk spills in sensitive areas where Native Americans harvest wild rice, hunt, fish and gather medicinal plants.
© Nicole Neri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Gloved hands hold a sample of freshly-mined oil sands. The oil sands have the consistency of cookie dough at room temperature, are solid at freezing temperatures and flow like molasses when heated.
© Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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