At least three bills have been approved by North Dakota’s Senate in response to actions carried out by the Dakota Access pipeline protesters last year which saw violent confrontations between water protectors and law enforcement officials.
The new bills, which sailed through the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday, seek to increase penalties for those accused of inciting riots or participate in ones that include more than 100 people. Inciting riot carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, while participating in one could land protesters in jail for a year.
Another bill makes it a crime to trespass or protests on “public safety zones” that can be declared as such by the state’s governor. Demonstrators who “pose a threat” to the public and protest in those zones would also face jail time.
The Republican senators behind the bills made it clear that the proposed laws are a response to the Dakota Access protesters who used common protest practices in their action against the pipeline.
Water protectors chained themselves to construction equipment and blocked roads used by construction trucks for Energy Transfer Partners, the firm behind the pipeline.
“I have no doubt that the vast majority of the people at the DAPL protest are peaceful,” said Senator Kelly Armstrong, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging support for the bills.
“But there is a strong minority and contingent that has not always acted peacefully and our laws have proven to be inadequate down there in regards to felony prosecution.”
Another bill also seeks to ban adults from wearing masks in most cases. Supporters of the bill argue that protesters at Standing Rock wore masks in order not to be identified by police officers.
“We all have a right to free speech … but we do not have a right to evade prosecution of a crime,” Republican Senator Janne Myrdal told reporters. Many protesters did wear masks to protect them from the heavy tear gas police unleashed against them during confrontations.
Some might have used face cover to avoid identification and later arrest by the local police force, which has been accused of brutal practices against the Native American protesters.
The Dakota Access pipeline was stopped by the administration of Barack Obama in December following months of protests by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe water protectors and their allies, who argued that the pipeline was being built on sacred lands and could damage their water sources.
The action against the US$3.8 billion pipeline has attracted more than 300 Native American tribes from across the United States in a show of unity that is being called historic. However, the contentious project was revived by President Donald Trump just a week after he took office in what the tribe said was a payback for his supporters in the oil industry.