Reports from Standing Rock detail horrific conditions
© Erik Molvar

A couple weeks ago one of my best students disappeared from the argumentation and advocacy class I teach at the local community college. I emailed to see if she was ok. I learned she was on her way to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

I had just made a donation to the Standing Rock legal defense fund earlier that week. I was supportive of the fact that she was going to go out into the world to practice advocacy; the real world experience is valuable, and it strikes me as fair that if the people of Bismarck have the right to reject the pipeline, the people of Standing Rock deserve the same right. 

On November 17, I received a follow up email from my student thanking me for the donation I had made to the Standing Rock Legal Defense Fund, because they had bailed her out of jail. The content that followed disturbed me. 

“I'm back at camp now, but they did put us in actual dog kennels. There were photos of the types of dogs on the walls and piss stains on the floor. They also didn't read me my rights or even say I was under arrest. I was arrested along with 28 others of the 400+ protesting on the 15th.” 

This sparked an email exchange between Miranda and me that lead to a phone call. 

During the call she passed the phone to a fellow protester who with a slight quiver in her voice told me she was afraid to share her name because she feared for her safety. If my writing identified her, maybe law enforcement would target her or her friends; she had been arrested, they had her identity, and she didn’t know what to expect. “There’s danger everywhere here,” she said. 

She told me that they were arrested at a prayer ceremony lead by camp elders, and that she had been slammed to the ground by uniformed officers with shields and helmets that kept her from distinguishing whether they were law enforcement or national guard. 

“It was three against one, that’s their strategy,” she said, “there’s tear gas in the air everywhere. They didn’t fire it directly at me, but it’s everywhere.” 

I was told that when they were arrested, they weren’t read their rights until after they spent a day in jail. 

Her description of the arrest matched my student’s description. She told me they were bussed to a facility where they were kept in dog cages with urine stains on the floor, pictures of dogs hung on the walls. Women were separated from men with chain link fencing and a tarp. 

They said their phones and money were confiscated, the money seized and turned into procurement cards and calling cards, allegedly without consent. The balance was not returned upon release, she said. 

The state of the jail uniforms made the women feel vulnerable, she said, and the tarp separating the women from the view of the camp’s men exacerbated that feeling. She went on to tell me they were strip-searched.

“It was just turn your head and cough, just spread your cheeks and cough, but they didn’t tell us what they were going to, so when the woman approached me with rubber gloves on, I braced for a body cavity search. It’s worse not knowing, you know?”

Ultimately they were moved from the dog kennels to the jail proper, where she said she was denied medical attention for the injuries she sustained during the arrest. After a day in jail, they were charged with class C felony for tampering with and damaging public services. She denies having damaged anything; she was just standing in the road. 

As we ended the call, she told me she didn’t want to me write the same kind of stories as everybody else, that she was honored to be there, to “be a protector.” 

All she really seemed to want out of this is for people to just think a little more about how their behavior contributes to these types of situations: “If you were here and you knew this was happening, you’d do things differently. If you want to know what’s going on, get your thumb out of your mouth; don’t fall asleep at the wheel. If you refuse to see you can’t care. If you want to know what you can do about this, just use less. Look at your consumption and ask why you’re so needy and hungry.” 

She then told me she had to go, and that my student had slipped off somewhere. 

I’m not at Standing Rock. I didn’t see these things with my own eyes, but I know my student. She’s a smart, charismatic, moral person. I don’t believe she’d lie to me about her experiences. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, but I know that I will never forget receiving a an email from a student explaining to me that law enforcement kept this bright young person in a dog kennel, and I’ll never forget the tone in her friend’s voice in the subsequent phone call. 

Some things just stick with you. 

Patrick holds a doctorate in organizational leadership and is the assistant director of debate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He regularly teaches classes at Cuesta College.


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