Line 3 protesters jailed in Aitkin County call COVID protection inadequate, a form of ‘intimidation’

Line 3 protest near the Mississippi River in Aitken County.

Simone Senogles, Mary Breen, Priya Dalal-Whelan, and Josh Phenow were four of the 22 people arrested Monday in Aitkin County for civil disobedience against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline.

The action happened where Enbridge plans to bore a tunnel under the Mississippi River for the pipeline. A lot of people think boring a tunnel under the Mississippi River is a really bad idea. The protest was on public land where Enbridge holds an easement. The site had “No Trespassing” signs posted.

Most water protectors received misdemeanor charges for trespass and unlawful assembly, seemingly minor offenses. Nonetheless, they spent the night in jail worrying about COVID exposure for themselves and their friends.

Senogles and Breen were among nine arrestees transported in a crowded van. The driver didn’t wear a mask, Breen said. The women were held in an overcrowded cell, with four sleeping on the floor. Not all jailers wore masks or wore them properly.

Senogles, a member of the Red Lake Nation and staff for the Indigenous Environmental Network, attended the action to live stream it and provide media support. She hadn’t planned on participating in the action. In the moment, she found herself wanting “to hold the line.”

“I live on the Mississippi River,” she said. “I couldn’t sit in my home, and look out on the beautiful river, if I wasn’t willing to engage in civil resistance to protect it.”

“We don’t need the oil,” she said. “It’s not serving the common good.”

The question is not whether the water protectors broke the law. The question is whether their punishment fit the crime.

Dalal-Whelan, who just graduated from high school, said she participated in the action because of the pipeline’s impact on climate change and the importance of shutting all tar sands pipelines down to have a survivable world.

She knew there was a chance she would be arrested, “but I wasn’t expecting them to hold people overnight during a pandemic,” she said.

Twenty water protectors were arrested under probable cause for gross misdemeanors. The official charges were dropped to misdemeanors, crimes typically punished with fines or community service.

Law enforcement brought in a bucket to get the tree sitter down.

Two people face more serious charges. One person had staged a ten-day tree sit on the easement to protest the pipeline. The other person allegedly tried to lock herself to a piece of construction equipment and kicked an officer, Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida said.

Guida defended the jail’s COVID procedures. “We have met with the Minnesota Department of Health. We’ve done a lot of training and education for our staff,” he said. “We have very strict COVID policies.”

Apprised of some of the accounts from inside the jail, he said: “I’m sure there will be all sorts of allegations … That’s kind of what people do when they get upset that they got arrested.”

Pushed to their knees

As arrests seemed imminent on Monday, the water protectors linked arms. When it came to the actual arrests, their treatment varied depending on the arresting officer.

Phenow said he linked arms with his brother, Jesse, on one side. His brother had a camera in his hand. A female officer was “kind and courteous,” he said, and let Jesse put his camera in his backpack before arresting him.

Still arm linked on the other side, a male officer approached Phenow and punched him in the arm to break the link. He pushed Phenow down to his knees and zip tied his wrists so tight it hurt.

“When I looked around, most everyone else was treated decently,” Phenow said. “I don’t know why this guy seemed to be particularly rough towards me.”

Dalal-Whelan said deputies didn’t use a lot of force on her, but she had some privilege being a smaller-looking girl. “I saw them doing a lot more to other people,” she said.

Senogles said officers “were unnecessarily physical.”

A law enforcement officer “grabbed me and flung me … and pushed me down on my knees,” she said. The officer pushed her head down, “even though I wasn’t moving.”

Simone Senogles. Photo: Indigenous Environmental Network.

Those arrested waited in the cold for an hour before jail transportation arrived, Senogles said. (In nearby Palisade, temperature that day ranged between 12 degrees and -2.) Her hands were zip-tied behind her back and they were cold. She couldn’t adjust her hat and her hair was in her face.

All the arrestees were trying to help each other with clothing adjustments as best they could, Senogles said. Law enforcement was mostly indifferent. When she asked one deputy to loosen the zip tie to improve circulation in her hands, she said she was told “to ball my hands up to stay warmer.”

Breen said she and eight other women water protectors were loaded into a van for the 40-45 minute ride to jail. They all had masks, but were in a cramped space with no social distancing. The driver didn’t wear a mask.

Sheriff Guida defended the decision to jail the water protectors: “There’s accountability that needs to happen,” he said.

Those arrested might have had past experiences in other locations where, in similar protests, they were removed from the scene and given a citation, he said.

“That’s not going to happen in Aitkin County,” Guida said. “If we have to physically remove somebody from a situation, it’s very likely they are going to end up in our facility for one night.”

Unidentified law enforcement officers stood in the middle of Great River Road Monday morning, prior to the arrests. Several stood close together, not wearing masks.

Strip search: Standard procedure

As the women arrived at the jail, a male jailer stood in the hallway and took everyone’s outerwear, Senogles said. She entered a bathroom door off the hallway where she was to disrobe and put on her jail clothes and plastic shoes. The door was ajar and had a window in it, she said.

She could see the male officer standing in the hall, she said. Had he turned while she was undressing, the officer would have seen her naked. She shared her concern with the female jailer. The woman reportedly replied: “Well, he’s just another officer,” but then stepped back so Senogles could move and get more privacy.

Breen said jailers confiscated her N-95 mask and gave her a paper one.

Guida said the strip search is standard practice for anyone going to jail. People can bring in weapons or drugs, so it’s for everyone’s safety. Asked about the N-95 mask, he said it could be used as a weapon. “A lot of the N-95 masks have a hard metal nose piece in them,” he said. “Those have been taken out and sharpened and used as a knife.”

Likewise, the women weren’t allowed to have hand sanitizer in their cells. If they asked for it, a jailer would give them a squirt. Breen said the sanitizer had alcohol in it and jailers didn’t want anyone drinking it.

Current Line 3 route (orange) and proposed route (green). Note where Line 3 crosses the Mississippi River in Aitkin County.

Tight quarters and COVID exposed

Phenow said after his strip search, he was put in a one-person holding cell with five other men. Then they were moved to a gym, where they could social distance.

The younger men were mostly concerned about two older gentlemen from Duluth. “There wasn’t much in terms of special considerations for them regarding COVID and their risk level” because of their age, Phenow said.

The arrestees and guards treated each other with respect, he said. But he did worry about COVID exposure.

All four water protectors interviewed for this story said some jail staff didn’t wear masks or wore them improperly. “Once we got inside the jail, a bunch of the cops had masks below their noses,” Dalal-Whelan said.

The 12 arrested women were put in a section of the jail meant to hold eight prisoners. The unit had four two-person cells, a shower, and a common area (a TV, two small tables, and eight chairs. Jailers brought in four more chairs so everybody had one.)

The Aitkin County Courthouse and Jail. Photo: Wikimedia.

Four of the women, including Signoles, slept on the floor on mats.

Breen said she and her cellmate ate their meals in their cell. Others had to eat in the common space. “There was no way to be six-feet apart and eating,” she said.

Asked about the jail conditions, Sheriff Guida said they had a plan to house people outside the county. “But we had staff and room for people here, no issues,” he said. “We are certainly within the DOC [Department of Corrections] guidelines.”

Guida said there was just “a very slim possibility” of people getting sick. “These people could come in with COVID already,” he said. “We don’t know that. We have no quick tests.”

The department follows the governor’s COVID orders. But the policy isn’t a mask mandate, he said: “The policy is only a recommendation.”

As critical sector workers, there are times when they don’t wear masks, Guida said. “The vast majority of time that we are in close contact with people, we have our masks on to protect their [the public’s] safety.”

Families, friends phone in

Dalal-Whelan said it was helpful to have everybody together. It provided a sense of community. “We sang and played cribbage,” she said.

Unbeknownst to them, family, friends and their various organizations launched a call-in campaign that night, seeking release of the water protectors. They learned about it from jail staff complaints.

Senogles said a jailer came in and said: “My children are home alone because of you.” The phone lines “are all clogged up because all of your people are calling. … You are hurting our community by what you are doing.”

Line 3 clear cut near the protest site.

One water protector tried to engage the jailer in conversation, Senogles recalled. The woman said: “It’s not because of us that your children are home alone or that we are in jail. It’s because of the companies that are polluting our Mother Earth. They are responsible for all of our suffering in this situation.”

The water protectors had received little if any information on what was going on or when they would be released. The jailer’s comments lifted their spirits.

“It helped us to feel not isolated, not alone,” Senogles said. “We had people that were watching out for us.”

Even sleeping had its challenges, she said. Throughout the night, male jailers walked through their cell area every half hour for welfare checks. The jailers had to weave around the chairs and tables and those, like her, who were trying to sleep on the floor.

“It was very intrusive and a little scary,” she said.

Said Phenow: “It seemed pretty unnecessary to spend a night in jail. … Clearly, they were trying to send more of a message.”

Choice and accountability

Those doing civil disobedience knowingly break the law — and are willing to take the consequences — to make a political statement. People deserve to know the consequences of their actions to make informed choices. That’s difficult if each jurisdiction has its own rules about what acts will result in jail time.

Guida framed the Sheriff’s Department’s decision to jail Senogles, Breen, Dalal-Whelan, Phenow and the others as one over which it had “no choice.”

“They put us in a spot where we had to respond,” Guida said, arguing they arrested people to keep them safe. “If we don’t have a choice in what we do, we don’t have a choice.”

Water protectors

I disagree with that frame. Once the demonstrators were out of the area and away from any supposed danger, the Sheriff could have chosen to release them with a citation.

Guida acknowledges the water protectors are not “heinous” people; they didn’t commit a violent offense. He consulted with the County Attorney to reach the decision he did. There was “choice.”

Saying they had “no choice” is an effort to shift the blame onto water protectors for any problems they encountered in jail, including COVID exposure due to mismanagement. That’s wrong. The Sheriff and county need to be accountable for their choices, just as protesters need to be accountable for theirs.

“How we were treated was absurd,” Breen said. “It was extremely punitive. They were trying to intimidate us. They can’t do that and expose us to COVID.”

Senogles said the experience left her feeling bad for all the people who are incarcerated, especially people who are incarcerated for no good reason, for non-violent crimes.

“It was terrible to experience,” she said. “But it won’t stop us from protecting our water.”

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