Water protector beats bogus charge, case raises questions about biased law enforcement

A District Court Judge in Aitkin County dismissed charges against water protector Shanai Matteson Thursday morning, on day two of her trial. Matteson was charged with “aiding and abetting” trespassing on Enbridge right of way during Line 3’s construction.

The jury had been selected. It had heard from two prosecution witnesses. Before calling any defense witnesses, and before the case went to the jury, Matteson’s attorney Jordan Kushner moved to have it dismissed.

Judge Leslie Mae Metzen gave it the heave ho.

Shanai Matteson, water protector, artist, and mother of two, after her court victory. Photo: Keri Pickett.

Matteson faced “bogus charges,” said Kushner, a Twin Cities-based private civil rights attorney. The state couldn’t back them up.

“The prosecution failed in its attempt to criminalize Shanai’s use of free speech and to create guilt by association,” he said.

It’s an embarrassing loss for the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors who brought the charges. It’s just the latest example of the disparate justice systems faced by water protectors compared to Enbridge.

While Minnesota’s regulatory agencies provided very lax oversight of Line 3 construction, Minnesota law enforcement came down hard on water protectors.

(More background here.)

“The prosecution failed in its attempt to criminalize Shanai’s use of free speech and to create guilt by association,”

Jordan Kushner, matteson’s attorney

The case “should never have been brought in the first place,” Matteson said in a statement released on her behalf.

Matteson is a fifth-generation resident of Palisade (in Aitkin County) and a cultural organizer, artist and mother of two young children. She faced up to one year in jail and thousands of dollars in fines, if convicted.

Matteson’s crime was speaking to a group of people gathered at the Water Protector Welcome Center in Aitkin County on Jan. 9, 2021 for about 90 seconds.

“We are looking for people who might be in a position to potentially get arrested, if that’s what it comes to today,” she told the crowd. “… I hope some of you will consider that.”

Then she offered information on jail support for those who might choose to get arrested.

Later, some of the people left the Welcome Center to participate in an action at a Line 3 construction site. Matteson didn’t go. Eight people were eventually arrested.

A small news organization took a video of the Welcome Center event and posted in on Facebook. Law enforcement found and watched the video, then worked with the county attorney to charge Matteson with aiding and abetting trespass.

Matteson said she thought it was important to fight the charges. “So many of the cases against climate activists – and especially Indigenous people acting in defense of their own lands and water – are facing similar baseless charges,” she said.

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“Many were charged after being profiled by statewide law enforcement, which received more than $8.6 million from an escrow account set up by Enbridge and the Public Utilities Commission [PUC]. That is a dangerous precedent that only incentivized police to take careless measures like they did in my case and others.”

Matteson was referring to a system the PUC approved whereby Minnesota law enforcement agencies could submit reimbursement requests to an Enbridge-funded escrow account for their Line 3-related costs. The Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office received $355,394 in one lump-sum payment March 1 of this year for wages, personal protective equipment, etc.

The Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office also participated in the Northern Lights Task Force, a coordinated effort among Minnesota law enforcement agencies “to quickly confront any protest against the pipeline,” Unicorn Riot reported in 2019. Created in 2018, the Task Force “coordinated resources and communication between police agencies and … Enbridge.”

These financial and working relationships between law enforcement and a for-profit multinational corporation raise ethical questions about whether law enforcement was impartial — including Aitkin County’s decision to charge Matteson. It raises questions as to what extent the anticipated reimbursements influenced the Sheriff’s Office’s decision to spend time doing surveillance of water protector’s social media and pursuing criminal charges against them.

Lawyers helping other water protectors facing criminal charges say they are unaware of anyone else besides Matteson facing the “aiding and abetting trespass” charges.

That’s stunning, considering how many Line 3 actions took place in 2020 and 2021. Approximately 1,000 water protectors were arrested. There must have been a whole lot of “aiding and abetting” going on, but few if any others charged besides Matteson.

Just a thought. Given the fact the judge found the case meritless, there should be an investigation into 1) Why Matteson appears to have been singled out among water protectors for these charges, and 2) The extent and type of social media surveillance law enforcement used against water protectors.

Matteson said the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office use of social media and other means to surveil and harass her and others “has had a traumatizing impact on me, my kids and other members of my family.”

“I say that knowing that Indigenous people in this county are put at even greater risk, as they are constantly profiled and threatened with violence and unequal treatment by law enforcement and others acting on law enforcement claims,” she said. “This makes me both angry and ashamed, because I lived here my whole life and didn’t fully comprehend this.”

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