A camp that began for the water ended in flames on Wednesday afternoon as law enforcement moved to close the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps. Prior to the mandatory evacuation deadline, protesters set fire to many of their remaining structures, arguing that this ceremonial destruction was the only way to prevent the area from being desecrated by law enforcement. A mandatory evacuation deadline had been set for 2 pm, but nearly two hours later, law enforcement remained on the perimeter, encouraging protesters to leave on their own.
The mandatory evacuation deadline was the final stage in process that had begun on Tuesday, when law enforcement set up a roadblock near the camp’s southern gate. At that time, they shut down traffic into the camps, while allowing protesters to leave if they wished.
Roughly 150 marched out of the camp early Wednesday afternoon, chanting and singing as they walked to the highway just before the mandatory evacuation deadline took effect. Still, roughly 50 protesters vowed that they would be arrested rather than leave the site. In an effort to keep the situation calm, police offered to let those people come onto the road to be arrested peacefully.
Meanwhile, the state of North Dakota is doing all it can to encourage the protesters to leave peacefully. The North Dakota Department of Human Services, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, and the North Dakota Department of Health set up a travel assistance center to offer protesters a bed, a meal, and a bus ticket to anywhere in the lower 48 states.
While some North Dakota residents have grumbled about taxpayers paying for such amenities for protesters, many acknowledge that the assistance is likely cheaper than arresting, jailing, and charging protesters who refuse to leave.
However, the state is prepared to be more firm with those who still resist leaving.
“We’ll be reassessing the situation after 2 o’clock about how we address those individuals that indicate they don’t want to leave the camp,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum told reporters at a press conference Wednesday.
“In staying, they’re doing that against eviction orders from Army Corps of Engineers, the state of North Dakota. And they’re doing that without the support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who has respectfully asked for sometime for protesters to go home,” he said.
Media access to the area is limited. Most updates on the situation come from livefeeds by protesters themselves. These videos show that although most of the tents had been cleared away, numerous semi-permanent structures remain. Protesters had begun to set these buildings on fire to prevent law enforcement from taking them.
“There are quite a few ceremonial burnings of buildings, [but] there are still a fair amount of structures out from people who decided to stay and assert their rights under the 1851 and 1868 treaties,” said Johnny Dangers, one of the protesters, in a video posted to Facebook.
Dangers stresses that protesters have cleared much of the Sacred Stone camp, leaving behind only some straw bales and pieces of wood. Warm weather last week has softened the ground, leaving the entire area a sloppy, muddy mess, pockmarked by pools of water.
Despite the deadline, police were wary of moving into the camp. For more than an hour, protesters waited for police to advance. Protesters admitted that the police were “playing a waiting game” and trying to see if people would leave voluntarily. The delay also ensured that anyone remaining would be in violation of the eviction order and potentially subject to criminal charges.
Perhaps more importantly, the delay began to show cracks in the protesters’ resolve. Videos posted to Facebook show groups arguing about advancing on the police line, evacuating, or remaining on the campsite away from police lines. Other livefeeds from the camp show protesters encouraging each other to regroup by moving from the Oceti Sakowin camp to a new camp, the Cheyenne River camp. Another shows protesters asking the police to allow them to evacuate “the grandmas” from the area. Police on the ground are allowing the elderly women to depart and are giving protesters a 4 pm extension to exit the area.
Slowly, as camera batteries died, these feeds have dropped offline. Posts to the Standing Rock Rising Facebook page end soberly, with “I gave up.”
Despite the tension, police avoided moving into the camp to clear it by force. Ten protesters were arrested before police drew back for the night around 7 pm. According to Governor Doug Bergum, cleanup efforts will recommence at 9 am on Thursday. Meanwhile, a small group of protesters remains at the camp site.