‘People Are Still Putting Their Bodies on the Line to Stop this Pipeline’

A court found that the Dakota Access Pipeline was built unlawfully. These water protectors are still in prison for trying to stop it.

Joseph Bullington

In this photo from Sandstone federal prison, Michael "Rattler" Markus wears a bead work breast plate he made depicting an upside down American flag. Photo courtesy of the NoDAPL Political Prisoners Support Network

Michael Markus, known as Rat­tler, had mixed emo­tions when he heard the news. A fed­er­al judge had ruled that the Dako­ta Access Pipeline was built unlaw­ful­ly and ordered the pipeline to stop pump­ing oil pend­ing an in-depth envi­ron­men­tal review.

We have, and are, going through a lot, but this would heal,” Markus wrote to Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. At the same time, he wrote, it’s hard not to be heart­bro­ken.” Markus sent the mes­sage from Sand­stone fed­er­al prison in Min­neso­ta, where he is serv­ing a three-year sen­tence for try­ing to stop the pipeline from being built in the first place.

“People have got to recognize that people are still putting their bodies on the line in prison to stop this pipeline.”

Markus, who is Oglal­la Lako­ta, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reser­va­tion. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and saw com­bat. In 2016, when the NoDAPL move­ment gained momen­tum and resis­tance camps formed near the Stand­ing Rock Reser­va­tion, he made sup­ply runs to the camps. When pipeline secu­ri­ty guards unleashed attack dogs against water pro­tec­tors in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber of that year, Markus moved into the camps to stay.

Well I have been around a few years… lol, and I have been on a search to where I belong and what I need to be doing,” Markus wrote. When I first went to camp I knew that I have found where I need to be and what I need to be doing.” He took on the tra­di­tion­al Lako­ta role of akici­ta, which in camp meant keep­ing the peace between water pro­tec­tors and on the front lines meant watch­ing for infil­tra­tors and insti­ga­tors to pro­tect peo­ple from get­ting hurt.”

In Feb­ru­ary 2017, as the pipeline neared com­ple­tion and police pre­pared to clear the main Oceti Sakowin camp, Markus was one of a hand­ful of peo­ple, all Native, hit with fed­er­al felony charges for crimes alleged­ly com­mit­ted more than three months ear­li­er. Markus was charged with Civ­il Dis­or­der and Use of Fire to Com­mit a Fed­er­al Felony Offense, a charge that car­ries a manda­to­ry min­i­mum 10-year prison sen­tence. In 2018, he accept­ed a non-coop­er­at­ing plea agree­ment in part because, as he wrote in to RAITT, we were told we would not get a fair tri­al right from the get go.” In exchange for a guilty plea to the Civ­il Dis­or­der charge, the pros­e­cu­tion agreed to drop the Use of Fire charge and rec­om­mend a 36-month sentence.

This expe­ri­ence left Markus skep­ti­cal the court sys­tem can deliv­er jus­tice. I don’t think it will be stopped [imme­di­ate­ly],” he wrote in his mid-July mes­sage of the pipeline and the court order to shut it down. Because these peo­ple have so much mon­ey that they can pay the pock­et change fines and keep mak­ing millions.”

His words turned out to be pre­scient: Ener­gy Trans­fer LP, the com­pa­ny behind the pipeline, chal­lenged the rul­ing and on Aug. 5 a fed­er­al appeals court paused the shut­down order. The pipeline will con­tin­ue to oper­ate while the envi­ron­men­tal review is con­duct­ed, pump­ing half a mil­lion bar­rels of oil per day out of North Dakota’s Bakken for­ma­tion and under Lake Oahe on the Mis­souri Riv­er, just upstream from the Stand­ing Rock Lako­ta (Sioux) reservation.

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Mean­while, Markus remains in prison — an increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous place to be as the pan­dem­ic rages on. Covid-19 out­breaks have already swept through many pris­ons and deten­tion cen­ters and a recent report revealed that U.S. Mar­shalls are ship­ping Covid-pos­i­tive inmates all over the fed­er­al Bureau of Pris­ons (BOP) sys­tem. As of this writ­ing, Sand­stone prison had three con­firmed cases.

Accord­ing to Olive Bias, a mem­ber of the NoDAPL Polit­i­cal Pris­on­er Sup­port Com­mit­tee, Markus has filed a request for release to home con­fine­ment, as pro­vid­ed for in the CARES Act in response to Covid-19, but has so far been denied release. A group called Loved Ones of Indige­nous Fed­er­al Pris­on­ers, which grew out of an effort by the Bis­mar­ck-Man­dan Uni­tar­i­an Uni­ver­sal­ist Church to sup­port incar­cer­at­ed water pro­tec­tors, has peti­tioned for the imme­di­ate release of all fed­er­al pris­on­ers with less than one year remain­ing in their sen­tences regard­less of their offense, among oth­er demands.

Bias, who uses they pro­nouns, says the BOP’s response to Covid-19 has pret­ty much been to be puni­tive.” When the pan­dem­ic hit, Bias says, the BOP start­ed putting pris­ons on lock­down. They read me Markus’s account of what that means on the inside: Pris­on­ers can­not leave their bunks. Guards des­ig­nate show­er time and poten­tial­ly even bath­room breaks. No cer­e­mo­ny, no rec time … no TV room, no exer­cise.” Bias also read me a lat­er report from Markus: While being on lock­down we have no social dis­tanc­ing…. There are 62 men shar­ing three toi­lets, one uri­nal, three show­ers and five sinks…. We are a tin­der box wait­ing for a spark and the guards are the spark.”

Bias works on Markus’s case as a para­le­gal but, like him, has lit­tle faith in the courts — in either their abil­i­ty to keep pris­on­ers safe from Covid-19 or to stop the pipeline.

He’s going to stay in lock up for a pipeline we’ve been say­ing for over four years is ille­gal,” Bias says. It’s a prime exam­ple of how dead­ly bureau­cra­cy can be.”

When they first heard that the court had ruled the pipeline’s con­struc­tion unlaw­ful, Bias says, I was hap­py, but it was like What else is new?’ This is some more paper-push­ing stuff.”

To Bias, paper-push­ing” was nev­er going to be enough to stop the pipeline. That’s why we went out and put our bod­ies on the line,” Bias says. We didn’t need the courts to tell us that what we were doing was right.”

Bias grew up in Chem­i­cal Val­ley, West Vir­ginia, where they learned that there is no guar­an­tee of clean rivers or safe drink­ing water — a truth to which many of us in the West are dan­ger­ous­ly naïve. In 2014, as Evan Osnos recounts in his New York­er arti­cle Chem­i­cal Val­ley,” a stor­age tank spilled indus­tri­al coal min­ing chem­i­cals into the Elk Riv­er upstream from the largest water-treat­ment plant in the state, poi­son­ing the drink­ing water of some 300,000 peo­ple. That one plant served 16% of West Virginia’s pop­u­la­tion, Osnos writes, in part because coal min­ing has reduced the avail­abil­i­ty and qual­i­ty of oth­er water sources, prompt­ing West Vir­gini­ans to board up their wells and tap into the pub­lic system.”

These lessons brought Bias, in 2016, to North Dako­ta to join the Lako­ta-led water pro­tec­tors fight­ing DAPL.

It’s what I do with my life because I had to grow up with fam­i­ly mem­bers who were sick because of extrac­tive indus­try,” Bias says.

Bias lived in the anti-pipeline camps for five months and got sev­en state mis­de­meanor charges of their own. Bias has been deal­ing with the gen­er­al legal after­math of Stand­ing Rock ever since, fight­ing their own charges and sup­port­ing the fed­er­al felony defendants.

As peo­ple cel­e­brate the court rul­ing against the pipeline, Bias wants to remind them that the phys­i­cal part of the strug­gle is not over.

We’re still fight­ing this pipeline, because we still have peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed for the work we did in camp,” Bias says. Peo­ple have got to rec­og­nize that peo­ple are still putting their bod­ies on the line in prison to stop this pipeline.”

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All the fed­er­al felony charges stem from Oct. 272016.

In late Octo­ber, as pipeline con­struc­tion approached the Mis­souri Riv­er from the west, many pipeline oppo­nents moved a mile north from the main Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone camps and set up a front­line camp, where they erect­ed teepees and tents direct­ly in the pipeline’s path.

On myth vs. fact” web­pages, the pipeline com­pa­ny and state police assert that the pipeline does not cross trib­al land. This is a deceit­ful over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. The front­line camp was sit­ed on land that the pipeline com­pa­ny had pur­chased in Sep­tem­ber 2016. As the water pro­tec­tors point­ed out, how­ev­er, the land had been reserved for the Lako­ta under the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties.

In the 1860s, Markus’s ances­tor, the Oglala chief Red Cloud, led the Lako­ta in a war to stop white min­ers and set­tlers from mov­ing through their land as reserved by the 1851 treaty. In 1868 the U.S. gov­ern­ment capit­u­lat­ed and agreed to remove the forts along the Boze­man Trail. Only then did Red Cloud ride into Fort Laramie and sign the 1868 treaty, which closed the trail to white set­tlers and estab­lished the Great Sioux Reser­va­tion, a vast tract of land that com­prised the entire west­ern half of present-day South Dako­ta. The treaty also defined a mas­sive unced­ed Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry,” which no white per­son … shall be per­mit­ted to set­tle upon” or with­out the con­sent of the Indi­ans … to pass through….” The unced­ed ter­ri­to­ry con­tained large swaths of present-day Nebras­ka, Wyoming, Mon­tana and North Dako­ta — includ­ing the land south of the Heart Riv­er and north of the Can­non­ball Riv­er where, in Octo­ber 2016, the water pro­tec­tors were camped in the path of the DAPL.

On October 27, 2016, a water protector roadblock on County Road 134, north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, attempts to slow law enforcement’s advance and prevent them from flanking the front line camp. (Law enforcement photo)

At around noon on Octo­ber 27, a hun­dreds-strong mil­i­ta­rized police force approached that camp along High­way 1806 with plans to evict the Lako­ta and their allies — for tres­pass­ing. The force was heav­i­ly armored and armed with batons, bean­bag shot­guns, pep­per spray and assault rifles, and sup­port­ed by mil­i­tary humvees, snipers, armored per­son­nel car­ri­ers mount­ed with LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Devices), and a sur­veil­lance heli­copter. To the west, Dako­ta Access con­struc­tion equip­ment and per­son­nel could be seen at work on the pipeline route.

We planned on sit­ting in a prayer cir­cle around the camp,” says Bias, who was at the treaty camp that day. But that’s not how it turned out.” When they saw the lev­el of force aimed their way, Bias says, the group decid­ed they couldn’t just let the police march into camp. Pipeline oppo­nents con­struct­ed bar­ri­cades from logs, tires, pal­lets, and dis­abled vehi­cles. We need­ed time to either get our peo­ple out or get more peo­ple up here,” Bias says.

As police advanced down High­way 1806, blar­ing the LRAD, the water pro­tec­tors set the bar­ri­cades on fire. Miles away to the west, police trav­el­ing on Coun­ty Road 134, where Bias says Markus was serv­ing as police liai­son, also encoun­tered a water pro­tec­tor road­block. That bar­ri­cade, too, was set ablaze in an attempt to slow the police advance and pre­vent them from flank­ing the 1806 road­block and enter­ing the camp.

As Bias notes, almost all the fed­er­al charges relate to the bar­ri­cades being set on fire.

"I just want people to know that if you do go to jail for fighting for future generations, stand tall and be proud that you are on the right side. Don't be afraid to take the necessary steps.”

By night time, the camp had fall­en and many peo­ple had been injured. Police had arrest­ed more than 140 peo­ple and dri­ven the oth­ers south along High­way 1806 as far as Back­wa­ter Bridge. There, using the nar­row bridge as a strate­gic choke­point, they estab­lished a road­block. Secu­ri­ty forces set up a line of flood­lights, razor wire, and sur­veil­lance points that stretched for miles along the pipeline route — a mil­i­ta­rized buffer zone that, for months after­ward, made it near­ly impos­si­ble for water pro­tec­tors to reach the con­struc­tion site.

In the days since, as nation­al atten­tion has turned else­where, Markus has paid more than most in the bat­tle to stop the pipeline.

What else is there to under­stand about being locked up for doing what is right?” he wrote in the mes­sage from Sand­stone. I wish I was out there with the peo­ple fight­ing the good fight. But I have been told in a way I am still help­ing. I don’t always see it but that’s because I’m a front­lin­er. I just want peo­ple to know that if you do go to jail for fight­ing for future gen­er­a­tions, stand tall and be proud that you are on the right side. Don’t be afraid to take the nec­es­sary steps.”

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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