An attack on three journalists filming for a documentary in the Dakota Access protest camp is being investigated by law enforcement, following on the the heels of a request by North Dakota’s Congressional delegation that federal support be given to peacekeeping efforts by authorities in Morton County.
The attacks underscore the need for such assistance, North Dakota’s Congressional delegation said Wednesday. Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, meanwhile, said the escalation in tactics is cause for widespread concern.
“Unlawful acts in the protest camp have been escalating,” he said. “The public should know this, and we will continue to monitor it.”
The incident happened early Tuesday morning, according to a release from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Three journalists had been invited into the camp to interview protesters. Things went awry, however, when one of the journalists, identified in a video clip released released by the Sheriff’s Department as Phelim McAleer, began questioning protesters about their use of fossil fuels. McAleer is among filmmakers of “FrackNation,” a documentary aimed at countering the anti-frac movie, “Gasland.”
A video clip shows a protester grabbing McAleer’s mic, dragging him around in an effort to take it away. Another protester comes up to ask what is going on. There is a short discussion in which one protester insists authorized media should have a press pass. The journalist can be heard telling the two protesters who had invited his team in.
The next clip shows the journalists in their car on a 911 call, pleading for help.
“We are in danger,” a woman in the car says. “We are surrounded by protesters and they won’t let us go.”
McAleer tells the 911 operator they are being attacked by about 30 people, who are surrounding the truck, and that they have been blocked in with cars and trucks.
“They are trying to break into the car,” he says. “We are in real danger. Can you please come? They are trying to break into the car. They were attacking us for asking questions. And we are really scared.”
As the journalists are talking, the car begins to shake, and a rapping sound can be heard on the windows.
Officers arriving at the scene said there were a number of people wearing bandanas surrounding the journalists’ vehicle, and some were pounding on the windows. Other vehicles had meanwhile been parked so as to further block the journalists.
Lt. Glen Ternes said during a press conference Wednesday that officers on the scene were outnumbered three or four to one. Hoping to forestall any escalation in tensions, he used a public address system to plead with protesters to voluntarily let the journalists leave. He indicated that after some apparent communication with others, the protesters finally complied with the repeated request and dispersed.
Morton County authorities are continuing to investigate the matter for possible charges, and have asked the public for help in identifying all those involved. They can be reached at 701-667-3224.
“We are concerned, and the community should be concerned, about the escalation in tactics and individuals with prior criminal histories coming in from out of state to cause fear and terror,” Kirchmeier said.
In a press release, he said 43 of those arrested so far have a total of 276 previous citations and charges for illegal activity.
“The folks who want to legally and peacefully protest should be especially concerned for their safety inside of these camps,” he said. “The leaders of these camps and protests should think about the individuals they let in.”
An email seeking comment from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe about the incident was not immediately returned.
Rep. Kevin Cramer said the incident not only underscores the North Dakota Congressional delegation’s call for federal aid to law enforcement, but shows that certain elements of the protest are counter-productive.
“The keep-it-in-the-ground movement is diluting the tribe’s legitimate questions and authority in all this,” Cramer said, “and they are creating unnecessary tension between the tribe, and the state and people of North Dakota.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp meanwhile agreed maintaining peace and the safety of everyone remains her top concern.
“Even when tensions are running high, no one on or off of protest grounds should be made to feel unsafe,” she said.
That is key, Sen. John Hoeven agreed.
“That’s why we continue to support state and local law enforcement, including the use of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, to bring in additional law enforcement from other states like South Dakota and Wyoming,” he said. “No one’s safety or property should be threatened, whether they are journalists or farmers and ranchers living in the region.”