A U.S. military veterans group announced new efforts to support the Standing Rock Native American tribe and protesters who oppose completion of the Dakota Access pipeline, just days after President Donald Trump took action to move the project forward.
Those efforts include developing the capability to deploy thousands of veteran volunteers to Standing Rock, potentially putting the White House in a politically difficult position. They come as tensions have escalated between protesters and law officers in recent weeks.
Veterans Stand launched a fundraising drive on GoFundMe last week to support a network of protesters camped out near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It seeks to raise $500,000 to buy supplies for campers, provide car rides for volunteers and create a rapid response ability. It has raised about $19,000 in two days.
"We stand in unity with our brothers and sisters in Standing Rock (and beyond) and our community is ready to mobilize," the group said on the GoFundMe page.
About 4,000 veterans traveled to the reservation in North Dakota last month to support the protest by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, environmentalists and other activists, according to figures provided by Veterans Stand.
The Standing Rock Sioux oppose completion of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access pipeline because it would pass beneath a source for the tribe's drinking water and construction would disrupt sacred land, they say.
Dakota Access pipeline route, source: Energy Transfer Partners
The project, which would deliver oil from North Dakota to Illinois, is nearly complete except for a small portion about half a mile north of the reservation. That stretch requires an easement from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Protesters won a temporary victory under former President Barack Obama when the Corps denied the easement. The Corps launched a new environmental impact study with the goal of identifying new routes for the pipeline — an option Energy Transfer Partners said it would not consider.
Anthony Diggs, communications director for Veterans Stand, said the new campaign is motivated in part by Trump's presidential memo ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite its environmental review and consider other actions that would pave the way for the project's approval.
The group's ongoing support sets up a potential confrontation between veterans and an outspoken president who frequently praises the military but rarely holds back when challenged.
Trump suffered backlash during the presidential campaign after he made disparaging comments about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Pakistani-American parents of a fallen U.S. soldier. The couple spoke out against Trump's policies, including a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States.
The president ignored a reporter's request to make a statement to the Standing Rock community after signing the presidential memo. White House press secretary Sean Spicer later said Trump would speak to all parties involved.
The presence of veterans among protesters has a potent effect, Diggs said. Energy Transfer Partners, the government and local authorities knew it would be a public relations disaster "if they had veterans standing in solidarity in peaceful protest being fired upon with rubber bullets on live TV."
Veterans Stand is focusing on delivering aid to protesters remaining at the camp, and will hold off on deploying volunteers so the group can avoid complicating logistics or stretching resources, Diggs said. The decision to send more volunteers will be made with tribal leaders, he added.
"We still have people on the ground out there, but we want to make sure we're going out there in service," he said.
Still, Diggs said the veterans group has the ability to rapidly scale up its presence if necessary.
"The 4,000 could have easily turned into 20,000, because that's how we're trained to operate," he said, referring to the December deployment of volunteers.
Veterans Stand said it was also taking new steps because "turmoil and uncertainty at Standing Rock has increased significantly" in the last two weeks.
Diggs said an escalation took place this month after the Morton County Sheriff's Department and private security firms began moving to clear protest camps.
Rob Keller, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, said authorities had not tried to remove protesters. Instead, sheriffs and National Guard troops responded to the actions of some of the camp's more militant activists.
Those people recently cut wire blocking access to a contested bridge and a fence along the Missouri River, and attempted to reach a drill pad for the Dakota Access pipeline located on private property, he said.
The incident in question began on the afternoon of Jan. 16 and escalated over three nights, with protesters throwing projectiles at officers and flanking the sheriffs' position in a tactical, intimidating manner, according Keller.
The department arrested 21 people on various charges, including inciting a riot and resisting arrest. It reported firing bean bag and foam rubber rounds at protesters and using pepper spray and smoke canisters to disperse the crowd.
The department wants to remove protesters from the camps because forecasts for flooding in the area in coming months make it critical to haul away abandoned cars and clean up the site, Keller said. Flooding could wash waste into the Missouri River after months of protests that at times attracted thousands, he added.