RAPID CITY, S.D. — Carrying homemade signs in favor of free speech and against the Keystone XL pipeline, more than 80 people prayed, marched, chanted "our voices won't be silenced" and demonstrated Wednesday in front of the federal courthouse in Rapid City.
The Protect the Protectors Rally spoke out against a new "riot boosting" state law aimed at pipeline protests before lawyers argued motions in a First Amendment lawsuit against the bill.
"Landowners, tribal people, families are against this pipeline and this law is a threat to our right" to protest, plaintiff Nick Tilsen — president of NDN Collective, a Rapid City-based indigenous advocacy group — said into a megaphone in front of the courthouse.
Tilsen referred to Senate Bill 189, which established a legal avenue and funding source for the state to pursue out-of-state sources that "riot boost" or fund violent protests. Those found guilty of breaking the law can be sent to prison for up to 25 years.
The South Dakota ACLU, on behalf of Tilsen and others, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Kristi Noem, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom arguing that the new law and two older riot-related statutes violate the First and Fourteenth amendments by discouraging free speech and being unclear about what exact actions are considered boosting or encouraging a riot. The other plaintiffs and rally organizers are the NDN Collective, Sierra Club, Dakota Rural Action, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Dallas Goldtooth of the IEN.
Lawyers for Noem and Ravnsborg say the laws don't threaten free speech because they only apply to violent actions, while Thom argued he can't be sued in the first place.
Demonstrators — many who previously protested the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation — met at NDN Collective on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning to make signs and banners with messages such as "You can't lock up free speech," "Penalize spills, not speech," and "Is this riot boosting?"
"These laws are targeting not only the indigenous communities, but anyone that is standing up, anyone that wants to stand up" against extractive industries, said 35-year-old Waniya Locke — who drove five hours from Wakpala on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation.
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The laws are "vague" in defining riot-boosting, said Tilsen, a 37-year-old Porcupine resident and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
"We end up in a situation where the police and the legal system has such a huge leeway in deciding what is rioting boosting, deciding if you're violent," he said. Tilsen said he's also afraid that the law could end up "holding a whole group of people accountable for something that one person does."
Once sign making was complete, the group drummed and prayed before marching five blocks along the sidewalk to the federal courthouse on Ninth and Main streets.
The Legislature passed SB 189 at the "11th hour" after a short hearing because the government is afraid of the power and successes of those who organize against extractive industries, Sabrina King of the South Dakota ACLU told the crowd.
Native people should speak up because the government has suppressed their voices in the past, such as when they were sent to boarding schools, said anti-pipeline activists Faith Spotted Eagle, a 70-year-old from the Yankton Sioux Tribe, and Joye Braun, a 50-year-old from the Cheyenne River Tribe.
People from across the political spectrum have concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline and "we shouldn't be labeled rioters" or eco-terrorists, said Rick Bell, president of the Black Hills Chapter of Dakota Rural Action.
Terrell Iron Shell, a 26-year-old from the Pine Ridge Reservation, said SB 189 needs to be overturned before it inspires similar laws in other states.
After multiple speeches, the group ended with another Lakota prayer before filing into the courthouse for the 3 p.m. motions hearing.