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MORTON COUNTY — A no-surrender line became a line of retreat as a militarized police force overwhelmed hundreds of Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and pushed them from a front line of resistance back to the main camp.

Over the course of five hours, starting around noon, police pressed the protesters half a mile south on N.D. Highway 1806, away from a new camp they built Sunday directly atop the pipeline easement.

The unrest continued into the evening hours with police reporting two fires on the nearby Backwater Bridge and people throwing Molotov cocktails at police. Authorities also reported two incidents of shots fired. One woman allegedly fired a handgun towards police while being arrested. An armed man, who was allegedly run off the road by protesters and possibly not connected to the protest, is being treated for a gunshot in his hand.

And in the late afternoon, flames and thick black smoke billowed from the cab of one of three Dakota Access Pipeline earth movers just over the hill on Highway 1806 as protesters walked back to the main camp on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.

Police arrested 141 people on Thursday, according to the sheriff's department. Charges include engaging in a riot, maintaining a public nuisance and conspiracy to endanger by fire and explosion.

The end-of-day drama followed hours of confusion and escalating tensions that police attempted to contain.

Confrontation begins

Repeatedly calling over the loud speaker for protesters to return to the main camp, promising no arrests if they went peacefully, the two to three hundred officers eventually surrounded the several hundred protesters who formed human lines of resistance.

Emotion and conflict emerged in the group, with some urging peace and prayer and others throwing logs, water bottles and rocks at officers. They eventually fell back under a force of pepper spray, rubber and bean bag bullets, tasers, smoke grenades and relentless, inch-by-inch, pressure from police, witnessed by Tribune reporters.

Law enforcement claims they only used pepper spray and high-pitch warning tones. However, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II criticized the way other crowd dispersing methods — rubber bullets and concussion cannons — were also used. 

There were visible injuries among the group, including dozens with burning eyes; one person with rib cage bruises, apparently from bean bag bullets; and one other with a sore arm from allegedly being grabbed by police. Law enforcement reported no injuries by evening, though at least two officers were hit with wood objects thrown by protesters.

Protesters set up a series of three barricades in their attempts to stop police. A contingent started a fire at the first, set up temporary straw bales at the second and two men locked to the undercarriage of a pickup at the third.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier claimed a victory in the late afternoon, saying, "We are not leaving the area. We are holding it."

And Gov. Jack Dalrymple complimented law enforcement's efforts to remove the protesters from Dakota Access property.

"This situation has been well handled from start to finish," Dalrymple said. "Going forward, hopefully we have persuaded protesters that public roadways and private property is not the place to hold a protest."

Down but not out

Organizer Dallas Goldtooth said the day was also a victory for protesters. 

"This is not a loss, we always knew this camp was at risk," he said. "We want the world to see how far North Dakota and their police will go to protect an oil company."

Many protesters were troubled by the day — some by law enforcement's response and others by the shouting and shoving among their own over how to protect the camp. Some people prayed, others took more direct action.

"We need our numbers to get back at the prayer," one called out, asking the group to retreat. 

Another fired back, "You're doing the police's work for them!"

Loren Bagola walked down the highway along with the retreating protesters and called it a sad day. 

"They used extreme force and tear gas against people who were praying," he said. "I'm heartbroken."

Police broke up a circle of 50 people in prayer, as they moved through the front line camp, searching tents and teepees and marking them with orange X's when they'd been cleared.

Olive Bias, of Colorado quietly sang as she backed up under police pressure.

"We said that this was no surrender here, so different people had different ideas about no surrender," she said. "We've been so successful with what we've been doing for so long. Now look. It's nothing but chaos."

Joe Pulliam, of Pine Ridge, S.D., said the disagreements among protesters was "going to happen."

"There's young militants that want to take action and elders that know better," he said. "How can you blame us after hundreds of years of deception and genocidal tactics?"

As police formed a cordon around protesters on the highway, yellow construction equipment started work on the pipeline within view, in an area the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said contains sacred sites. 

"They're taunting us. They're making it worse the way they know how," Pulliam said.

About 50 protesters marched into the construction zone, where they encountered police, and several were arrested. Soon after the protesters were cleared from the site, roughly 30 private Dakota Access security guards walked over the hill from behind the construction to observe the protesters getting pushed down the highway.

Conflict continues

Thursday's confrontation followed failed negotiations between top law enforcement officials and camp leaders. Law enforcement insisted that protesters clear out of a camp on private property and stop blocking the road for public safety reasons. Protesters said the land is theirs by an 1851 treaty and refused to move.

Protests have been going on in southern Morton County since Aug. 10. The actions support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's effort to protect their water and sacred sites from the $3.8 billion Bakken crude oil pipeline. 

Construction is nearly complete in North Dakota, but the company lacks a critical easement from the corps to cross the Missouri River/Lake Oahe. 

Dalrymple said he tried to convince Archambault to tell the protesters to leave the Dakota Access property for the main camp. 

"To the best of my knowledge, he did not do that. But I think that we need to keep asking the Standing Rock Tribal Council to encourage peaceful protest,” Dalrymple said.

In a statement Thursday evening, Archambault said, "We won't step down from this fight. This is about our water, our rights, and our dignity as human beings."

As a long line of horses, people, cars and trucks retreated to the main camp, some said the fight is far from over. They are expecting more people to come and support their stand against the pipeline.

And in an uplifting moment, hoots and hollers were heard from the retreating crowd as two men on horseback herded buffalo through the Cannonball Ranch. Within minutes, the same horse riders were fleeing police in side-by-side ATV's and disappeared over the hill.

Red Warrior Camp spokesman Cody Hall said he isn't sure the front-line camp will be occupied again. There is a possibility of using corps land near the Missouri River as a next front, he said.

"Tomorrow is another day," said Bagola, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "We'll be back."

Blair Emerson contributed to this report.

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Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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