I Witnessed Cops Using Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets, and Sound Cannons Against Anti-Pipeline Protesters

Police tactics at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest have gotten dramatically more aggressive.

An anti-pipeline protester holds a bottle of water near police officers in riot gear.Wes Enzinna

Police tactics at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest grew dramatically more aggressive last week, with law enforcement using tear gas, rubber pellets, sound cannons, and other controversial methods to clear activists from a road and a nearby encampment. The latest clashes followed a complaint from Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault, who warned of an “overall militarization of law enforcement” at the pipeline protest and requested an investigation by the Department of Justice. 

As tribal members and their supporters occupied a stretch of contested land directly in the pipeline’s path, dozens of police from six states, dressed in riot gear and equipped with armored personnel carriers, cleared the path of protesters, teepees, and in one instance, a horse. Amnesty International, which is monitoring the confrontation, criticized the response from the Morton County, North Dakota, sheriff’s department. “Confronting men, women, and children while outfitted in gear more suited for the battlefield is a disproportionate response,” a spokesman said. In total, 141 people were arrested.

Anti-pipeline protesters behind barricades erected near police lines Wes Enzinna

Here are some of the aggressive police tactics I witnessed or heard about while observing the protests:

Tasers: Medic Noah Morris showed me this Taser barb, which he said he’d pulled from the cheek of a protester. An unknown number of other protesters were also tased.


Rubber bullets: I watched police shoot shot-gun-style weapons at protesters on more than a dozen occasions. Morris, the medic, also showed me these rubber pellets, which he’d retrieved from a protester’s leg.

According to multiple sources including the Los Angeles Times and the BBC, protesters’ horses were shot at with rubber bullets. One horse’s legs were so badly damaged it had to be euthanized. This video shows a horse whose rider says its legs were shot.


Sound cannons: Long Range Acoustic Devices, which emit an ear-splitting whine, were used intermittently throughout the day. Some models can cause permanent hearing loss. A number of journalists, including myself, wore earplugs to protect ourselves, but many of the protesters did not have earplugs.


Tear gas: Dozens of protesters were sprayed with tear gas for refusing to vacate the road they’d been blocking. Here are photos of two people I saw being tear-gassed for not moving out of the way quickly enough.

Anti-pipeline protester after being tear-gassed Wes Enzinna

Anti-pipeline protester after being tear-gassed Wes Enzinna


Drones: Though a no-fly zone enacted on October 25 forbids civilians and protesters from flying above the protest site, Morton County police and Dakota Access Pipeline employees flew drones over protesters. A helicopter owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access Pipeline, and a plane owned by Morton County have been seen flying over the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and nearby protest camps.

Holding cells: According to the Los Angeles Times, “protesters…arrested in the confrontation had numbers written on their arms and were housed in what appeared to be dog kennels, without bedding or furniture.” Yet according to a statement I received from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, it has held protesters in “temporary holding cells” while awaiting processing or transfer to other jails. The 10-by-14 foot cells are approved by the North Dakota Department of Corrections, and the sheriff’s department says inmates have access to “bathroom facilities, meals and drinking water.”

Holding cells at the Morton County Correctional Center Morton County Sheriff’s Department

For more scenes of last week’s protests—and the police equipment and tactics deployed against them—watch this video by the media collective Unicorn Riot:


The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.