A Navajo tribal member who traveled from Arizona to North Dakota to take part in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline is suing law enforcement officers he says subjected him to “excessive violence.”
Marcus Mitchell, 24, who now lives in New Mexico, claims in his lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court that officers in January 2017 fired shotgun beanbag rounds at peaceful, unarmed protesters including himself.
One round “entered Mr. Mitchell’s left eye socket, shattering the orbital wall of his eye and his cheekbone, and ripping open a flap of skin nearly to his left ear,” his complaint says. “The bean bag round became lodged into his eye, with strands of the round protruding out of his left eye socket.”
Mitchell has undergone several medical procedures but suffers from vision, hearing and smell problems, along with “chronic and debilitating pain on the left side of his face,” according to the civil rights lawsuit.
The complaint against Morton County, city of Bismarck and state Highway Patrol officers seeks unspecified money damages to compensate Mitchell for his losses and to punish law enforcement. It’s backed by the Chicago-based MacArthur Justice Center, which uses the courts to advocate for human rights and social justice.
"This case is not just about one person, but all indigenous people to preserve and protect what we have left,” Mitchell said in a statement. “This case means holding those accountable for the genocidal acts done upon indigenous people and their lands."
Bismarck spokeswoman Gloria David said the city had not yet been served with the lawsuit. Highway Patrol spokesman Wade Kadrmas declined comment, citing pending litigation. A Morton County official did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Law enforcement has denied using excessive force against the thousands of pipeline opponents who camped near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in southern North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 to protest construction of the $3.8 billion project built by Texas-based Energy Transfer to move North Dakota oil to Illinois.
Authorities say some protesters used violent and illegal tactics, and that officers were subjected to thrown objects and in one instance gunshots. The protests resulted in 761 arrests over a six-month span.
Mitchell was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and obstruction of a government function. The charges eventually were dismissed through a pretrial diversion agreement, according to the MacArthur Justice Center. Mitchell’s legal team declined to provide details of the agreement. The prosecutor who handled the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The case file is sealed.
There are two other protest-related excessive force lawsuits filed against North Dakota law enforcement ongoing in federal court. Both stem from a violent November 2016 clash in which protesters tried to push past a blocked highway bridge near their main encampment. They were turned back by authorities using tear gas, rubber bullets and water sprays. Police said protesters were throwing objects including rocks, asphalt and water bottles at officers.
One lawsuit was filed by group of nine protesters. The other was filed by Sophia Wilansky, a New York City woman who suffered a severe arm injury in an explosion, the cause of which hasn’t been proven by either side. Both lawsuits seek money damages. Defendants in both cases are seeking to have them dismissed.
The protest also has spawned other lawsuits that remain unresolved. Two members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a reservation priest are suing law officers and state officials over the prolonged shutdown of a highway in the protest area. Energy Transfer is suing Greenpeace and other groups for allegedly trying to disrupt the pipeline. Four Sioux tribes in the Dakotas are suing Energy Transfer and the federal government over the pipeline itself, hoping to get it shut down. And North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is suing the federal government to recoup the $38 million the state spent policing the protests.