Hundreds still face trial on charges from Line 3 protests

Oil started flowing through Enbridge’s recently completed Line 3 months ago. But the cases of hundreds of activists who face the consequences of their actions in the failed attempt to stop Line 3 before it got started have yet to flow through the courts in several northern Minnesota counties.

The Grand Forks Herald’s rundown of the array of charges against the pipeline’s most lionized opponent, Winona La Duke, provides a good example of the broad extent of alleged offenses brought by authorities.

On July 19, 2021, LaDuke was arrested with six others, and charged with gross misdemeanor trespass on critical public service facilities, pipeline, utility posted; gross misdemeanor trespass on critical public service facilities, pipeline, refusal to leave upon demand; and misdemeanor obstruction of legal process, interfering with a police officer. The group of women were seated in lawn chairs and secured to each other with log chains and various locks on a boardwalk between the Shell River and a horizontal drill setup.

It’s a long shot to say the least, but La Duke’s orthodox legal defense was previewed in her appearance in Wadena County Court this week.

Monday’s nearly two-hour hearing was largely an opportunity for the defense, led by tribal attorney Frank Bibeau, to attempt to exonerate LaDuke by explaining that by her understanding of treaty rights she was not trespassing on private property, rather she was seated on Anishinaabe land and had the right to be there, according to statements from LaDuke and other witnesses in the contested omnibus hearing.

But according to the criminal complaint against LaDuke, she was protesting on land owned by Enbridge, the company that built the 340-mile replacement pipeline that travels across Minnesota. Land that had “No Trespassing” signs adorning both sides of the right of way and property the group had not been given permission to access. She and the six others refused to leave when given dispersal orders, according to the criminal complaint.

Yet attorneys for the many non-tribal defendants will be on their own when it comes to devising a legal defense. Apparently they haven’t had much success to date on convincing prosecutors to drop or downgrade some of the most serious charges, according to the Herald.

Indigenous sovereignty is one of many angles used to fight charges, says [Defense attorney Joshua] 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.

Given that reality, it may be that the defendants’ best shot lies outside the courts. An online petition begun by pipeline opponents asking Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison to drop charges against Line 3 defendants has more than 84,600 supporters.