Pat Boyle, a Denver-based journalist, was shot in the abdomen last Sunday by a rubber bullet as he reported from North Dakota on a clash between demonstrators and police that would end with 26 protesters sent to hospitals and 300 requiring other medical treatment. One woman was severely injured and underwent emergency surgery on her arm, after officers unleashed “less than lethal” weapons, including rubber bullets, icy cold water, and, reportedly, concussion grenades on the crowd. Police were reacting to an attempt by Dakota Access pipeline opponents to tow away burned vehicles that officers had secured in place to act as a highway blockade, preventing access to pipeline construction sites down the road. The rubber bullet that hit Boyle tore right through his press pass, leaving a jagged hole through the words “Unicorn Riot,” his news organization’s name.
This wasn’t Unicorn Riot’s first run-in with police while covering the pipeline conflict, nor was it the media collective’s most serious. Reporters for Unicorn Riot have been arrested three times in North Dakota and twice while covering Dakota Access pipeline protests in Iowa. In North Dakota at least seven journalists in total have been arrested while covering the clashes, according to a count by the Bismarck Tribune. Others have been stung by tear gas, pepper spray, or rubber bullets.
The arrests of journalists and filmmakers covering the front lines of the Dakota Access pipeline fight highlight the limits of press protections and the central role of police, prosecutor, and court discretion in deciding whether or not members of the press should face legal consequences when covering protests. The arrests and violent crowd suppression tactics also reflect the refusal of police to discriminate between peaceful protesters, aggressive agitators, and journalists.
Unicorn Riot was one of the few media outlets that showed up on April 1, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe arrived on horseback to set up a camp called Sacred Stone as a base for prayer and protest against the planned Dakota Access Pipeline, which if completed will transport half a million barrels of oil per day from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota to a hub in Illinois. And the media collective has remained a presence as the standoff reaches into the winter months with few signs of abating.
On Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the Standing Rock Sioux tribe an eviction notice, demanding that thousands of people clear out of a second camp, known as Oceti Sakowin, located on land the Corps controls. “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” The letter directed inhabitants to a site further away from the pipeline construction area, dubbed a “free speech zone.”
“They’re giving us notice because the Corps of Engineers wants to reduce their liability when something serious happens,” said Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault during a press conference Saturday. “If [the Morton County Sheriff’s Department] wanted to, they would be able to come in and remove us. I don’t think that will happen.”