Hubbard Co. Sheriff abused his power and won’t face consequences

Law enforcement line at Namewag in Hubbard County, July 28, 2021. Photo: The Giniw Collective.

Across the country, law enforcement’s credibility is under scrutiny. To regain it, it’s essential that it’s impartial in deed and in public perception.

The state and law enforcement did themselves damage in how they responded to water protectors resisting the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline in 2020-2021. The state approved a plan allowing Enbridge to fund an escrow account to reimburse law enforcement agencies for any Line 3-related costs. Those law enforcement agencies collectively received $8.5 million.

The Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office received nearly half a million dollars from the Enbridge escrow account. It also abused its power to intimidate those at Namewag, a camp set up by Giniw, an Indigenous women-led environmental protection group. At Namewag, they practiced traditional Anishinaabe ways and also actively opposed Line 3.

On June 28, 2021 the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office organized a shock-and-awe law enforcement response to Namewag … because it didn’t have an easement to drive a short stretch of county-owned land, the camp’s only access.

Let that soak in. Look at all the deputies in the photo above, and ask: Does this make sense over an easement infraction?

I don’t know if law enforcement agencies got reimbursed through the escrow account for this particular action. But clearly the Sheriff’s Office (and Enbridge) were upset that some of those living at Namewag residents were involved in direct actions against Line 3. That doesn’t justify using the easement as a pretext to break up the camp. (It’s like law enforcement pulling over a Black driver for a broken taillight, but on a larger scale.)

After lengthy legal proceedings, the Ninth District Court ruled Sept. 13 in Plaintiff’s favor, issuing an order to Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes that his office couldn’t block camp access.

In a way, the stakes aren’t high now. A temporary restraining order already had been in place for more than a year. Line 3 construction was done.

In a way, the stakes remain high, as there are no consequence for such law enforcement abuses. This will keep happening until there are.

No one is asking the question: Should the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office face consequences for it actions?

The Minnesota Police Officers Statutes and Training (POST) Board has a model “Use of Force” policy on its website. It reads: “Officers shall treat everyone with dignity and without prejudice … Officers shall use only that amount of force that reasonably appears necessary given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

This isn’t enforceable, but shows the county’s response was out of line with state standards.

According to the Court Order:

Hubbard County had a rule that said every time a property changed hands, the new owner had to get an easement from the County Board.

The property where Namewag is located passed hands several times. Winona LaDuke bought it. She got an easement for the 33-foot wide, 169-foot long road. She paid $192.

LaDuke transferred the land to Akiing. Akiing would later transfer it to Texas-based Switchboard Trainers Network. Ownership changed, but Namewag’s presence did not.

However, Switchboard didn’t apply for an easement.

Sheriff Aukes seized on this minor violation as a way to shut down Namewag. He issued Namewag notice that, because it didn’t have an easement, camp access would be closed to vehicular traffic.

Call this the State’s Rapid Response Team for Easement Enforcement (RRTEE). Photo: The Giniw Collective

Tara Houska, Namewag founder and one of the Plaintiffs, gave her account of events in a recent op/ed in the Park Rapids Enterprise.

“I was woken at 6 a.m. [on July 28, 2021] and told the sheriff was at the end of the driveway. Aukes had an ear-to-ear smile as he said we had until 10 a.m. to be off our property; after that any car attempting to enter would be seized and we would be arrested. He handed me a piece of paper and finished: “Go make your little calls, you’ve got till 10.”

“Around 11 a.m., folks tried dropping off water. Like many off-grid properties, we haul our water in. Police began threatening arrest. By nightfall, 12 people were arrested on Big Buck Drive and over 30 squad cars from half a dozen counties lined the dirt road. A riot line of police pushed up our driveway. I hugged my pets in the tiny shed I called home, told them I was sorry, l would be back …”

According to the Court Order, law enforcement began issuing drivers’ citations for violating Hubbard County Ordinance #36, which “is to regulate the use of off highway vehicles on county administered lands in order to protect the long term sustainability of these lands.”

Pause here to appreciate the irony. Sheriff Aukes is concerned that people driving on the 169-foot-long stretch of road could harm its the long-term sustainability, while at the same time taking money from a company building a 337-mile-long crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota, creating long-term environmental damage as it went.

In fact, we now know that less than two months after this confrontation, Line 3 workers ruptured an aquifer in Hubbard County at its LaSalle Creek crossing, one of at least three such breaches. The rupture released 9.8 million gallons of groundwater. To fix it, Enbridge crews injected more than 51,000 gallons of grout (think cement) underground.

Line 3 workers breached an aquifer in Hubbard County. Photo courtesy MN DNR

Plaintiffs LaDuke and Houska went to court to bar the County Sheriff from blocking camp access. In the court’s recent ruling, the judge said the easement goes with the land, not the purchaser. In other words, the county couldn’t require new landowners to get an easement if one already existed.

Further, the judge ruled that the easement was, in fact, “a road, not a non-vehicular trail” as the county tried to argue, according to a story in the Park Rapids Enterprise.

While Planitiffs’ won, Sheriff Aukes tried to put a positive spin on the ruling in a recent op/ed in the Park Rapids Enterprise, writing: “The judge actually ruled in our favor on plenty of items.”

That’s a stretch. For instance, Aukes said the judge denied plaintiffs’ request to have the county pay its legal fees.

Aukes tried to shift blame, writing “it’s unfortunate” that the easement dispute “turned into such a legal battle.”

No. It’s unfortunate — and wrong — that Aukes chose to respond to such a minor violation with a massive law enforcement mobilization.

Aukes even played the victim card, writing the county was “backed into a corner” having to choose between “showing favoritism” to people damaging a county trail, and looking the other way.

Again, please note the irony. Aukes says he’s concerned about favoritism at the same time his Office ultimately would get a half million dollars from Enbridge.

That kind of money gets lots of favoritism.

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