Nathan Phillips’ birthday fell on the same day of the eviction of the Dakota Access protest camps last year.
“The snow was flying, the camp was on fire — oh, I didn’t get no birthday cake,” the 64-year-old Omaha tribal member said Thursday.
Phillips was among the last of the protesters encamped near the Cannonball River in southern Morton County when law enforcement evicted the camps from Feb. 22-23, 2017, effectively ending the monthslong protests against the controversial pipeline that's now been flowing oil since June.
Hundreds of related criminal cases remain open a year later, while those who participated in the protests say that time impacted them.
“I would have done it all over again,” said Jameson Dargen, who lived at the camps after his father’s death in November 2016. “I went out there initially just to be able to help and it allowed me to figure out who I am, what I’ll do.”
The Fargo native was the last arrestee, the “last man standing,” he said. He climbed atop a wooden structure to watch and film officers entering the Oceti Sakowin camp on Feb. 23, 2017.
After bailing out of jail, he said he was eventually able to reacquire his car and electronics. He said he's been all over the map since then, from Washington, D.C., to Brooklyn, N.Y., to Las Vegas.
“I might end up in L.A. now,” Dargen said. “We’ll see.”
He's charged with three misdemeanors in two criminal cases related to protest activities — one of hundreds of defendants awaiting adjudication.
Trial court administrator Donna Wunderlich, of the South Central Judicial District, said Friday that 527 cases are closed, 196 are open, 97 are inactive with warrants, three are on appeal and eight have satisfied their conditions for deferred impositions — meaning the crime is now struck from their record.
Forty-one criminal cases of the 831 total state cases were charged after February 2017, Wunderlich said. One case was charged as recently as November. Trials reach out to September, more than two years after the protest arrests began. Three of seven federal defendants reached plea agreements last month.
With a year passed since the protests’ end, Freshet attorney Sam Saylor said, as in any extended prosecution, the memories are “obviously impaired or they just go stale” with the passage of time.
“I think generally people are ready to come to a resolution on these things and sort of be done with it because the charged atmosphere is sort of gone,” he said.
“There’s no more protests … but is it worth going through all the court appearances and inflicting pain on the actual defendants themselves, but also generally dragging this out so the taxpayers in Morton County have to essentially pay for the court to be open and the judge to be brought in to hear these cases, and I wonder if the costs justify the benefits or really any benefit that might be here.”
Morton County State’s Attorney Al Koppy and Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Grosinger did not return two emails sent to each of them requesting interviews, or a phone message left for both of them with their office.
Criminal cases tick off about every week, but just three defendants have appealed in more than a year of prosecution.
Appeals are individual decisions, according to Saylor, but as counsel to two appellants, he said he'll make sure First Amendment rights to assemble and protest are protected in North Dakota. He's representing Mary Redway and Alex Simon, who Surrogate Judge Thomas Merrick sentenced to incarceration last year as the first protest defendants to serve jail time.
“Again, I think a lot of these protests fall under the category of First Amendment-protected activity, and if that’s not being recognized by the courts, we’ll need to keep that going, to appeal to make sure those rights are asserted,” said Saylor, adding that most arrests were likely for crowd control.
With his criminal charges, Dargen said he’s been flagged in background checks for jobs and hasn’t been able to find much work.
"I didn't really connect the two until I saw I couldn't drive for (a delivery service) because I required further investigation," he said. "It's been over a month."
Phillips returned to the site of the camps last week to lead a dayslong prayer walk to Mandan. He said a recurring dream after the camps’ closure led him to organize the walk.
“For myself, it’s a continuing of a prayer that started last year, of a commitment to stand for our youth, for our children, for nature and for myself, standing for my nation,” he said.
“We just want to learn how to live together and see a better future for ourselves as a whole, as a body of the whole.”