While the rest of camp is questioning when their departure date will be and discussing how clean we can leave this land once the spring flooding starts, it occurred to me that the legal team will still be defending our people in North Dakota courts long after most of us have moved on from Standing Rock. It could take years for them. This seems to be at least part of the state system’s plan to break us, the waiting game is common and a lot of our people are feeling the brunt of this powerlessness. “[Our water protectors] are right to be livid,” explained Sarah Hogarth, communications director for the legal team.
Over 570 water protectors have been arrested since our conflict with DAPL & state started last summer and this is why our water protector legal collective has grown to 80 volunteers working in civil and criminal with a paid staff of seven. Formerly called Red Owl, they operate on a collective model. I wanted to connect the hotline number sharpied up my arm with some faces. I got to speak with a handful of them.
At camp, under the cloak of night the dome had filled with smoke, electricity was out, and the post meeting drumming had begun. Headlamps were in order and I had to find the legal team by this method. The people started to file out and legal team member conducting a lot of meetings at camp, Angela Bibens, remained to answer questions. Introductions came and we hopped in a little 4 wheel drive to transfer ourselves to Rosebud camp where the team’s brand new tan arctic tent resides along the frozen shoreline of Cannonball River so we could gather some thoughts and pick up some legal forms for use in court the next day in defense of water protectors in the battle engaged with a federal grand jury regarding the case of Sophia who lost her arm in an explosion in a tangle with “the law” on Backwater Bridge, November 20th.
The civil rights violations and abuses on the ground are so prevalent it would make a mob boss cringe and in the court room they can’t disallow fair & neutral defenses like the governmental bodies seem to be working to do. It’s complexity of the highest order working in these conditions bridging the worlds of 20 below zero sleeping bags and federal court subpoenas.
“I know these folks are getting inadequate council. They don’t even get phone calls and can’t say beforehand what their public defender looks like.The sheriff tainted his own case with their Facebook page. He’s so confident about never getting caught, it’s suspect.” said Redford-Hall.
All members of the legal team I’ve spoken with have reiterated the view that this legal contest outdoes any protest that has come before it stressing the challenges in dealing with mass arrests and the environmental battle, not to mention apparent collusion between DAPL and law enforcement. Legal’s tent in Rosebud with wood stove is only one outpost for the team in their efforts to survive here. They keep a comfy room at the casino for appointments and also have a town office close to courtroom action where the townsfolk are none too nice to us. Anyone defending water protectors generally won’t find support. According to one story a local was heard addressing one of our people: “Stuck in the snow? If you’re with them water protectors you can stay stuck.” North Dakota is harsh and the weather is only part of that harshness.
Anne Redford-Hall, a senior member of the collective who had a conversation with me in legal’s room at the casino offered, “They’re playing hardball at all levels.” How many levels? 1st: county (Morton) 2nd: state (North Dakota) and 3rd: federal (U.S.) and believe it or not our legal team is even fighting at a fourth (4th) legal venue which is the Federal Grand Jury from where the subpoena was issued. And criminal court is one thing while civil is another fight. Examples of civil court are the people bitten by guard dogs and then there’s the legal battle over the closure of Highway 1806. The declarations signed by many of us regarding police brutality are for the civil case. Basically all harm done to our people falls into the category of civil. I’m told even federal court cases are easier to fight than the civil considering who it is being charged: government instead of citizens.
‘Pro hac vice’ means “on this occasion” and that’s the name of the motion our people are pushing for with the North Dakota Supreme Court. The deadline for the letters in support of this motion was December 30th and our team collected over 120 signed letters in support including one from Amnesty International found here: http://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/Choice_of_lawyer_comments_to_NDSC.pdf. We await the state’s decision.
It’s been proven we can gather the criminal defense but in this state these attorneys can’t practice without this pro hac vice granted. “Other states have less restrictive procedures for out of state lawyers to practice. With so many defendants we’ve simply hit our max,” explained Angela Bibens.
Our defense lawyers certainly have a lot on their plate. Just the pro hac vice process involves first informally requesting the temporary change from the state supreme court, then litigation against the state, and then the public comment period is open for organizations & lawyers to weigh in which gained us backing from 200 law professors and step 4: we wait for the state’s decision.
Legal even supports our defendants needing plane tickets to get back home. See: www.waterprotectorlegal.org. Like with so many things in life there’s a lot to take into account. I’m glad I got to take this ride.