Reckless driver tries to intimidate water protectors
On Dec. 18, Lee Lewis was driving Cass County back roads monitoring construction of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. He was volunteering with Watch the Line and following the law. He would stop where the proposed pipeline route crosses roadways and take photos from the public right of way.
He recalled seeing Sheriff Department vehicles a couple of times, either driving or parked near pipeline crossing sites. After a while, he noticed two sheriffs vehicles following him. They turned on their flashing lights and pulled him over, he said. A deputy got out of the first car and asked Lewis what he was doing.
“I told him that I was scouting Line 3 and making observations,” Lewis said. “He asked if I was a Water Protector. I said ‘yes’.”
The deputy told him he was within his rights to make such observations, but the department had received a call of suspicious activity. The deputy asked for Lewis’ driver’s license, calling it routine.
Lewis gave him his ID, but why should he have to? He had done nothing wrong. And why two squad cars?
This seems to be Enbridge’s standard operating procedure. If employees see anyone observing the pipeline, they call in “suspicious” activity. Sheriff’s deputies intervene on the company’s behalf.
Healing Minnesota Stories is collecting stories about law enforcement interactions with those opposing Line 3 and will continue to post them.
Counties seem to have a perverse incentive to respond to Enbridge complaints. As part of the permitting process, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) required Enbridge to fund a “Public Safety Escrow Account” to reimburse law enforcement for Line 3-related work. For instance, sheriffs can apply for reimbursements for such things as “Public safety related costs for maintaining the peace in and around the construction site.”
It makes sense that Enbridge should have to pay for such costs. At the same time, responding to Line 3-related calls also becomes a revenue maker for law enforcement.
Watch the Line volunteer Aimee Sutherland drove through Cass County on a Dec. 11 pipeline monitoring trip. A black jeep with tinted windows began following her, playing leapfrog as she would stop to take pictures, she said. Soon, a Cass County Sheriff’s vehicle was following her.
“I was traveling a gravel road alone with the sheriff on my rear,” she wrote in an email. “He followed me for about ten minutes until I reached Crow Wing County. I felt uncomfortable as I have traveled this road without seeing another person many times in the past.”
Earlier this month, Jaci Christenson and a friend traveled to monitor pipeline construction in Carlton County.
They accompanied their friend, a Minnesota Chippewa Tribal Member from the Fond du Lac Reservation, in observing Line 3 construction as it passes through her homeland.
“As we stood within the legal right of way … Enbridge called 911 with false allegations of impeding construction,” Christenson wrote in an email. “Fond du Lac Tribal Police arrived and shortly thereafter, several more tribal vehicles. They followed us to the next two sites while we observed construction. Although we were treated respectfully by Tribal Police, the relationship with Enbridge was apparent.”
Meanwhile, water protectors continue to stand against Line 3. On Saturday, roughly 300 people attended a rally in Aitkin County near the site where Enbridge plans drill under the Mississippi River. The group then got in their cars and drove west to the spot where Enbridge is boring a pipeline tunnel under Highway 169.
The action stopped traffic and construction “as water protectors held space and documented irregularities in the pipe,” according to a media release from the Giniw Collective. “Nearly thirty police squad cars from multiple counties and the Department of Natural Resources were onsite.”
“We need good paying jobs up north that don’t require us to destroy our environment,” said Tara Houska, Giniw’s founder, in a media release. “Where is the investment in the north land? Where is the upholding of treaty rights? Where is the Walz administration on this pandemic pipeline?”
Law enforcement arrested and cited eight people. “Seven people were booked on possible charges of gross misdemeanor trespass on critical infrastructure,” MPR reported. The other person “was cited and released for failing to leave and unlawful assembly.”
Natalie Cook attended the event and said as things were ending, she saw two people she knew walking back to their cars on the shoulder of the road. She reported seeing a large pick-up truck swerve at them, then swerve back. “It felt very unsafe and very scary,” she said.
Jean Ross was one of the two people threatened by the truck. “It really was unnerving,” she said. “Obviously he was trying to intimidate us.”
“I wasn’t that scared at the time,” Ross said in a Tuesday phone call. “But I have been on the verge of tears ever since.”
Erick Boustead, another attendee, didn’t see the incident, but noticed a number of people running towards him. They were telling people to get the truck’s license plate number. A law enforcement officer pulled the driver over. The conversation was short. “They let the truck driver go almost immediately,” he said.
Donna Bowen saw what happened and told the officer who stopped the truck she was a witness. The officer responded: “‘That’s OK. I’m not going to do anything about it now because we are too busy, so I will contact him later,'” Bowen recalled.
She wondered why the officer didn’t require a breathalyzer test.
Ross said she told the officer that lax treatment “just emboldens people.”
“I see this as a microcosm of what happened at our national Capitol,” Ross said. “Good Old Boys letting other Good Old Boys have a pass.”
Mille Lacs County Deputy Jake Hillesland was the officer who handled the incident. Because of data practices laws, he couldn’t talk about case specifics, he said in a phone interview today. He still needed to talk with the District Attorney’s Office, but expected some legal follow up, either the driver would received a citation or a court summons.
Ross and her friend were parked a good distance away on the shoulder of Highway 169. Law enforcement was threatening to tow people’s cars.
Bowen, who didn’t know either Ross or her friend, offered to give them a ride to their car. When she got there, she crossed the center line to park on the shoulder (facing south next to the northbound traffic lane). That way, Ross and her friend wouldn’t have to get out of the car on the ditch side, she explained.
As Bowen was waiting to drive back onto the highway, a State Patrol officer came up to her window and “demanded” to see her license, she said. He yelled at her to stay in her car.
The officer returned and gave her a citation for “crossing the middle line.”
“I got him at the wrong moment,” Bowen said with some grace. “It was my fault.”
Said Ross: “We are planning on going back. … We are not going to be intimidated by these guys.”
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