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It was a nice sunny fall day in Duluth on Monday, November 2 as somewhere around 200 people met at the Washington Community Center to organize a rally against Enbridge pipelines that span across Minnesota. Speakers at the meeting included Tribal Chief Jay Saros, Tribal Elder Jim Northrup, now former City Council candidate Kriss Osbakken and a prayer in Ojibwe from Zach Mitness. While there was plenty of representation from the indigenous community, people from all walks of life showed up to oppose the pipelines at the rally.
While observing the moments leading up to the march it was apparent that there were numerous individuals from out of the Duluth area present including non-mainstream media from Minneapolis. A lot of environmental rallies that have happened in the past revolve around the Minnesota Power Plaza with the usual chanting and sign holding. The higher than normal turn out and mixed presence of media made it seem like this particular rally might be different. It appeared that this demonstration was being led by members of The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) over local oversight. Native American influence with the speeches and demonstration was definitely a key part of the day, overall, they weren’t calling the shots.
Before the march, the group practiced their chants and people who were designated as “marshals” donned bright orange duct tape on their upper arms. The marshals were there to oversee and direct the crowd for protection along the way. The reason for protection and oversight became apparent as the crowd walked on to Lake Avenue heading south down to downtown. The group of well over 150 people chanting and holding signs was a little hard to miss and there were a couple of stops to wait for traffic lights along the way. As the group hit First Street and Lake Avenue, it became obvious that the Minnesota Power Plaza was not the ultimate destination on this march. We had heard some mention of an Enbridge office as well as Rick Nolan’s office. We talked to a couple of people about the plans of what would happen when were at the Community Center, but we didn’t get a definite answer on exactly what would transpire, which seemed unnecessary because we would be along for the ride throughout the ordeal and find out very soon. We just observe and report on such events, we’re not there to interfere.
The group veered off its course and headed into the parking ramp entrance of the Technology Village. The mass of people poured in and headed down a few halls and finally they reached a door at the end of one hall and went inside what is one of the Enbridge offices. In seconds there were around 75 protesters standing elbow to elbow in the entrance of one of the offices chanting. Within a few minutes later, tribal members brought in a large tom drum and there was quite a display of pandemonium. The group had caught the attention of the office and several Enbridge employees got up and walked out to take a break or perhaps the rest of the day off. Several employees stayed including one man who did not identify himself or his position with Enbridge to either the protesters or press at that time.
The man who met the protesters wasn’t very happy at the surprise visit of a room packed with people chanting “we are the people, we are united, we will not let you build this pipeline.” Things cooled off for a minute and the group asked if he would accept a letter of demands from the group as a representative of Enbridge and he refused to take it. Instead, the man scolded the group, “you all are trespassing, you need to leave the office.” This apparently wasn’t the response the group was looking for because some replied back, “so you can throw pipelines in our land and that’s fine?” (This refers to Enbridge going through Native American lands promised by treaties) and, “we fund you with our tax dollars!” (Whether from subsidies or from spill clean ups, the group had a point there). The man standing up for Enbridge without a powerpoint presentation in an uncontrolled situation that wasn’t set up to his benefit like at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) meetings was not about to answer a thing.
With his refusal of the letter and failure to say anything in his company’s behalf aside from threats of trespassing, the group carried on with chanting and Native drumming and song in the office. Several timid employees stood at a distance on their phones and there was no question the police would be coming soon. It took a few minutes, but an officer poked his head in and looked around, he didn’t seem too phased by the situation. According to a person in attendance, “wow, that’s a lot of people,” said the officer. A building security officer and several men who appeared to be the Technology Village building management were all walking around nervously trying to assess what was going on. If the group’s plan was to shake things up, they succeeded. After the sterile PUC meetings which have always ended up in Enbridge’s favor in the past, the demonstration was sending a strong message, but a message which would fall on deaf ears much like the PUC meetings. Overall, law enforcement presence at the PUC meetings and this encounter is inevitable because people being upset about environmental issues is potentially illegal, while destroying the environment apparently is not (Tony Hayward never sat a minute over Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf). They’re not there for the guys in ties who cause millions in damage. Nothing in the office was damaged besides maybe some ego on this day.
Eventually, around five or six officers arrived and they said that “anyone who doesn’t want to be arrested can leave right now.” There was a slight moment of hesitation, but it was a direct lawful order to leave. Slowly the group started to go back into the hallway. The group continued chanting, actually it held at about the same amount of momentum as when they were in the office once most had cleared out of it. A security guard asked a member with a bullhorn to quit using it because there were other businesses at work and they agreed to stop using the amplification device.
We were among the last few to voluntarily leave the office under threat of arrest. The final scene that we witnessed was seven protesters who had sat down arms interlinked with a few other straggling press, Enbridge employees and the police. Once we got outside the office, the small rectangle window on the door was sealed up with paper and tape so no one could see what happened inside. During this time a few protesters had gone to another door to see if someone from Enbridge would accept their letter of demands. The police ordered them to leave and protesters followed their orders after they settled to deliver the letter by slipping it under the door. After some members spoke with the police, they agreed to leave the hall and finally went to the usual destination of the Minnesota Power Plaza.
We noticed that there was some activity of police and building management at the Superior Street entrance of the Technology Village, but none of the arrested protestors left from there. Instead it was reported that they were led through the skywalk to an “undisclosed location.” A man who was one of the seven arrested stated, "they marched us through the Skyway and to the lobby of the Weiland block building where we waited for transport to that jail." Five men where brought to the St. Louis County Jail for tresspassing and were later released that night after booking. Two were detained, cited for tresspassing and let go.
While this was happening, a smaller group went to Rick Nolan’s office and his staff accepted the letter of demands without incident. Nolan has been on the fence when it comes to pipelines. That has caused distrust among those who had supported him in the past. While he has opposed the pipeline at times, he has gone and more recently voted to approve projects such as the Keystone pipeline.
In the end, we’re not exactly sure what this all proves other than bringing the issue of pipelines to the forefront once again, and this time in a rather unconventional manner. There are many questions about the regulation of the pipelines and while the PUC meetings make it seem like there is being some sort of people’s say on what is happening, they come off as more of formality that Enbridge employees are paid to sit through and attend. Yes, we all like cheap gas and jobs, but the question of what this area’s land and water is worth hangs in the balance. Enbridge has no problem laying down pipelines through indigenous lands, but the second a few people from that area walk into an office and try to hand off a letter the police get called. Can Native Americans call the police on Enbridge and have their employees arrested when they are on their treaty land? Unlikely.
Enbridge released the statement that it, “recognizes the rights of people to express their views legally and peacefully, and to discuss Enbridge’s business and projects. We encourage active discussions on our operations and projects, as long as everyone is respectful of those who live and work near our pipelines, including our employees and contractors, and of our pipelines and facilities. Enbridge will continue to engage in conversations with individuals and communities in areas where we have operations or active projects.” It’s uncertain if that’s what they told the people along the Kalamazoo River where over a million gallons were spilled in 2010, but it’s likely they meant no intentional disrespect. It’s quite possible that they meant no disrespect with any of the hundreds of failures they’ve had over the years but that doesn’t turn anything back. “Enbridge has wind and solar divisions, and that’s what we should be looking at” said Kriss Osbakken who spoke and was in attendance with the group.
Once we got back to the Community Center, there was plenty of all sorts of press around. We observed Mahyar Sorour from MPIRG give a statement, “These pipelines are incredibly detrimental to not only folks that live near the communities, but also to the environment and largely contribute to climate change, which is why we are here today We will continue to get arrested, we will continue to show up and we’ll continue to turn out, cause this is our planet,” said Sorour.
At the Reader, this isn’t our first rodeo and it won’t be our last. Over the years, we haven’t personally seen this level of action being taken by protestors. We’ll take Sorour’s word on more people being arrested because the issue of pipelines has reached a boiling point where loud voices reach deaf ears. While we would like to be unbiased, we know how large companies act to get what they want and we know how they minimize things when they go wrong. Native Americans from the region have every right to be questioning the actions of Enbridge and everyone who is looking out for this area should realize that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when this company changes the environment that we enjoy today.
The account was also covered by Unicorn Riot, an alternative media newsource which has branches in several major cities including Minneapolis. Their coverage can be seen at http://www.unicornriot.ninja/?p=2636