Forward Operating Base divides security and protesters

December 19, 2016

FORT RICE, N.D. (AP) — There are two tent cities in southern Morton County.

One is filled with teepees, colorful flags and the smell of burning wood and sage. The other is home to army tents, Humvees and heavy dirt-moving machinery.

Known as the Forward Operating Base, it’s been the main hub for police and National Guard patrolling the Dakota Access Pipeline protests since late October. It’s located on the campground at Fort Rice, where people usually come to go fishing in the summer, a place 8 miles north of the main protest camp.

Police and protesters have faced off as if enemies over the past several weeks, but their makeshift worlds are more similar than may be expected, The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/2gspq5t ) reported. And their proximity to each other and the pipeline construction hint at the intermediary role law enforcement has undertaken.

“We have been kind of caught in the middle,” said North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson.

At both places, there are tents for eating, trailers for medical equipment and rooms full of supplies — essentially, what is needed to keep people fueled, ready and warm in the plunging temperatures.

On Thursday afternoon, two dozen officers and guardsmen line up for food then sit in clusters at long tables in the main mess hall. Its lunchtime and many are glad that vegetables came with the cheese steaks.

As part of the larger operation, for which North Dakota has borrowed $17 million to fund, health and emergency departments provide food, medical care and other wraparound services to the hundreds of law enforcement and guardsmen rotating through there.

Chinese stir fry and an amalgam of tater tots, meatballs and gravy are among the favorite dinners, said Doug Murphy, of the state health department, who helps coordinate food at the camp. On the very busiest day, he served 2,000 meals.

“They take this, this and dump this on it,” he said. “Everybody lives off coffee, let me tell you that.”

Another tent, used for the twice-daily briefings, has cots stacked toward the left side, in case officers get stuck as they did during the blizzard Monday. In the protest camp, a dining tent similarly serves as extra sleeping quarters.

“It’s crazy and sleep-deprived,” said Murphy, who, tending to lunch, showed a close eye for what the soldiers and officers liked and wanted. He’s usually called to assist in floods, marathons and tornadoes.

Boxes of supplies are everywhere. Some are filled with the same as the protesters have: hand warmers, car batteries, snacks. While others, filled with riot helmets, flex cuffs, rubber bullets and buckets of tear gas canisters, are crude reminders of the most violent and tense standoffs that are the reason law enforcement is staged here.

Throughout the camp, there is a sense of readiness. School buses for transporting guardsmen are constantly running. Small groups of soldiers meet in hushed circles. Tactical maps are pinned to walls in an operations hub.

Officers typically start their day at this staging area, where they get briefed on what happened yesterday and what to expect today, Iverson said. Then they go on their assignments: observing the camp, staging behind the police line in case of arrests and shuttling supplies out to officers at the front.

Out-of-state law enforcement has been scaled back “substantially,” according to Iverson, but many here still have commuted from several hours away. And the National Guard recently stepped up its presence to 500 soldiers, who work highway barricades and surveillance, according to spokeswoman Maj. Amber Balken.

As of now, the law enforcement presence remains the same as it has been for the past few weeks, Iverson said, but the cold weather and anecdotal evidence that people are leaving the camps once estimated to contain 3,000 to 5,000 people may lead to changes soon.

“At that point, we do need to reassess out numbers that are involved and decide if we need to scale back as well,” Iverson said.

The FOB, as it’s known, is situated just off Highway 1806, a once pastoral drive, now lined with forbidding concertina razor wire and trenches to keep people off the Cannonball Ranch, where protesters established a camp in October atop the pipeline route.

The operation, which appears as if out of a war zone, is also the launching point for a police response widely criticized as militarized and aggressive.

On Thursday afternoon, radio transmissions came in to the base: There are a couple people on the Backwater Bridge. The police would know, as they have several Humvees and police cars stationed at a second base at the entrance to Cannonball Ranch and above the camp at all times. They watch for activity that could signal a protest or a move toward Turtle Island, a hill on Army Corps of Engineers Land, which protesters have attempted to climb multiple times in order to pray at a site they see as sacred and potentially to access the drill site a mile north.

Lately, tensions have reduced some, with police backing away from the bridge and up to their bases and observation points. And protesters have, by and large, stayed off the bridge.

Iverson said the extended protests have been stressful and “life-consuming” for the officers, who are often hours away from family and friends. On a personal level, Iverson, who has worked nearly every day since mid-August, recounted his son tearing up when he had to leave him at church to work on a recent Sunday.

“You’re either pro-DAPL or no-DAPL, and somehow it’s transformed into anti-police,” Iverson said. “We’re finding ourselves in the position where some are treating us as the enemy.”

Iverson maintains that law enforcement has acted professionally and with restraint, though many protesters, civil liberties groups and others have criticized them as taking a heavy-handed approach, favoring the rights of the pipeline company and using unnecessary force, including tear gas, water hoses and rubber bullets.

He said part of the goal has been to keep the protesters and pipeline security apart and avoid conflict between them, as happened on Sep. 3, when protesters clashed with security personnel armed with dogs and several people on both sides were reportedly injured.

“We don’t want to see a protester group get into a confrontation with the private security group,” Iverson said. “So we need to be in the middle.”


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com