July 18, 2019

Navajo DAPL Water Protector Shot in Face Sues North Dakota Law Enforcement

NORTH DAKOTA – Marcus Mitchell, now 24-years-old, a Navajo tribal member, has filed a federal lawsuit against several North Dakota law enforcement agencies after being subjected to excessive violence while peacefully protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in January 2017.

“This case is not just about one person, but all indigenous people to preserve and protect what we have left,” said Marcus Mitchell. “This case means holding those accountable for the genocidal acts done upon indigenous people and their lands.”

In the fall of 2016, Mr. Mitchell, then 21-years old, traveled from Arizona to North Dakota to join the peaceful “water protectors”, in their demonstration against the construction of the DAPL. As a Diné from the Navajo nation, he was answering the Great Sioux Nation’s call to peacefully stand in support of the Nation’s sovereignty and to help them protect their ancestral land and burial sites, as well as the threat to the environment and water posed by the construction of the pipeline.

On the evening of January 18th roughly 200 water protectors were gathered in peaceful protest, such as praying, chanting and playing drums. A group of law enforcement officers, including Bismarck police, Morton County sheriffs and North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers, where dispatched to the scene with 12 gauge “less lethal” shotguns loaded with drag stabilizing bean bag rounds. They were commanded to, and proceeded to, fire on the crowd.

Mr. Mitchell, observing the shootings, placed himself in front of women and elders in the crowd, roughly 20 feet from the officers. Despite being peaceful and unarmed, without any justifications, officers identified him as an “agitator,” and then at least two different officers shot hit in the face, leg and back of the head.

“I went to Standing Rock to help the Standing Rock and the Sioux Nation’s people protect their sacred lands and identity,” said Mr. Mitchell. “It hurt me deeply to see law enforcement officers shoot, mace and hose unarmed Indigenous women, children and elders. It wasn’t right and I had to help the people.”

“Mr. Mitchell was only exercising his Constitutional rights in supporting the Great Sioux Nation’s efforts to protect their sacred land and their water. For that he was criminalized and brutalized,” said Shubra Ohri, an attorney for Mr. Mitchell. “He’s filing suit to take a stand against the routine repression of indigenous communities who only want to protect their land and sacred sites from corporate exploitation.”

A bean bag round entered Mr. Mitchell’s left eye socket, shattering the orbital wall and fracturing the left side of his skull and facial bones. The bean bag round became lodged into his eye, with strands of the round protruding out of his left eye socket.

Mr. Mitchell became immediately disoriented and fell face forward, his nostrils filled with blood impairing his breathing. The officers on-scene responded by pinning him to the ground, with their knees in his back, before handcuffing him and pulling him into a vehicle.

His friends found him two days later, disoriented and shackled to a gurney in the hospital, having undergone surgery. Law enforcement had concealed his location. He was still in pain and could not see out of his left eye.

While in the hospital, Mr. Mitchell was not informed that, during this time, he had been charged with criminal trespass and obstruction of a government function, which carries a maximum sentence of two years and $6,000 in fines. Nor was he informed that a warrant was issued for his failure to appear in court. His charges were eventually dismissed through a pretrial diversion agreement.

Mr. Mitchell still suffers from loss of vision, hearing, and smell, in addition to suffering from chronic and debilitating pain on the left side of his face.  He has undergone several medical procedures to treat his injuries.

Mr. Mitchell’s lawsuit argues that North Dakota law enforcement officers violated his constitutional rights to defend indigenous sacred land and resources recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United National Declaration of Human Rights Defenders.

The complaint also details the Morton County Sheriff’s Office’s policy and practice of using excessive force against the DAPL water protectors, including their reckless use of “less lethal” weapons. Throughout the DAPL protests, the County routinely equipped the law enforcement officers under its discretion with these weapons, including bean bag guns, without adequate training or accountability.

“North Dakota law enforcement’s clear aggression towards peaceful protestors, coupled with widespread use of unregulated weapons by untrained officers is alarming and reckless,” said Vanessa del Valle of the MacArthur Justice Center. “So-called ‘less lethal’ weapons are still dangerous weapons. They can – and do – inflict severe, including lethal, harm, especially when used indiscriminately or inappropriately. They are not something to be handed out lightly. They need to be highly regulated and officers need to be specifically trained.”

The lawsuit was filed in the Western District of North Dakota and argues violations of the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Defendants include the City of Bismarck, Morton County, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who was recently the subject of an online petition calling for his removal, which garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. The attorneys for Mr. Mitchell are: Sheila Bedi and Vanessa del Valle of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Shubra Ohri from Chicago, Illinois and Lawrence E. Chacon from New Mexico.