With oil flowing, Line 3 battles now moving into courtrooms
Over the course of construction, around 900 people were arrested during protests. Many are still facing charges ranging from trespassing, a misdemeanor, to felony theft.
GRAND FORKS – Gina Peltier was arrested in Minnesota's Clearwater County while praying on a bridge in protest of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project. That was last August.
A Clearwater County Sheriff's Office Facebook post from Aug. 4 outlines the Aug. 3 encounter, 12 people occupied a bridge over the Mississippi River, located in a fenced-in easement. According to the Facebook post, some of the group left on their own volition, but seven remaining activists were arrested and taken to the Becker County Jail.
Peltier was among them. The Grand Forks resident —who is is Anishinaabe, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa — faces two charges for trespassing and $10,000 in fines for her act of peaceful protest in August.
While the region has seen fewer demonstrations since the $2.9 billion pipeline started flowing in October , the Stop Line 3 movement is far from over. Instead, the focus has shifted to legal battles faced by people like Peltier.
Over the course of construction, around 900 people were arrested during protests . Many are still facing charges, anywhere from trespassing, a misdemeanor, to felony theft. In response to the charges, energy has shifted to facing legal battles head on and applying pressure to state leaders to drop charges against those arrested for protesting. On Nov. 17, Stop Line 3 launched a petition to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison to drop charges against protesters; the petition has more than 84,000 signatures.
Joshua Preston, a Minneapolis-based attorney, says legal battles are a natural next step for the movement. Preston has been representing demonstrators involved in the Stop Line 3 movement since January 2021. He has between 40 and 50 clients in counties across northern Minnesota, charged with anything from misdemeanor public nuisance and unlawful assembly to gross misdemeanor trespass and felony theft.
“It’s no longer about just going out and holding space or witnessing or causing good trouble,” he said. “Now that people have been charged by the state with anywhere between misdemeanor to felony level offenses for demonstrating, it’s the next stage of the protest, for those who are interested in carrying the cases forward.”
As a member of a federally recognized tribe, Peltier’s case was transferred to the White Earth Tribal Court. She says if her charges were in Clearwater County, she would be facing jail time as well. Though the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office account of the arrest says otherwise, Peltier alleges she was doing nothing wrong.
“With the treaties and the laws, we weren’t doing anything wrong. The only reason we were arrested is because Enbridge wanted us arrested,” she said. “And that’s why it was so hard for the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Department to even arrest us in the first place, because they knew that we shouldn’t have been arrested or charged with anything.”
The treaties to which she refers were signed by Ojibwe tribal members in the mid-1800s and ceded Indigenous land to the U.S. government, but said tribal members would still have the right to hunt, fish, grow wild rice and gather on the ceded lands. Treaties in 1842, 1854 and 1855 are especially important in the area, according to Stop Line 3 .
Indigenous sovereignty is one of many angles used to fight charges, says Preston, but primarily applies to Indigenous people engaging in demonstrations in a peaceful, spiritual way, like Peltier. Others engaged with protests in other ways, like entering the Enbridge construction site and chaining themselves to construction equipment. Those are actions that likely cannot be defended under treaty rights.
Preston believes many charges against demonstrators are too severe. Those who chained themselves to construction equipment are often charged with felony theft. Others who demonstrated on Enbridge construction sites face gross misdemeanor charges for trespassing on a critical public service facility, utility or pipeline, which Preston says should be reserved for active pipelines and utilities, not the construction site.
So far, attorneys have not been successful in getting critical infrastructure trespassing charges dismissed with this argument.
“There will probably be some appellate level arguments of trying to get to the bottom of when a piece of pipe becomes a pipeline,” he said.
For now, Line 3 defendants have little choice but to face the legal system and hope for charges to get dropped, but in the meantime, other organizations support those legal battles. Preston’s clients do not pay for his services; instead, he gets financial assistance from the Center for Protest Law and Litigation. The Line 3 Legal Defense Fund supports defendants directly with financial support for case-related expenses.
Despite her arrest and legal battle, Peltier has no regrets about protesting Line 3.
“You think of not only all the people who live in Minnesota, but who travel to Minnesota to vacation, to fish, to swim in the lakes and rivers,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to do that if the water is poisoned, so I have no regrets. I was taking a stand for everybody’s fresh water.”
And she does not plan to stop anytime soon.
“Even though the oil is still flowing, the fight still continues. We can still stop the flow of oil,” she said.
Peltier says there are plans in the works to fight against Line 3 as the weather warms up, but she does not know if the movement will be as strong as last summer.
“It’s always something that’s unpredictable,” she said. “I started right away in November of 2020 and I’ve been full time in this fight ever since. Even back then going to the events and stuff, I didn’t expect it to be as big as it was.”
She hopes the fight continues, but acknowledges the future may bring a new focus for those in the movement.
“We do have a lot of water protectors who are facing charges and we do have different battles,” she said. “We have the Line 5 battle that’s happening in Wisconsin.”
“Water protectors are protectors, not really protesters, because everyone needs water to survive, to live,” she said. “That’s exactly what we were trying to do — protect the water in a peaceful way, in a good way.”