Since his heart attack 10 years ago, Jeff Hinz had tended as carefully to his health as he had to his ACE hardware store. Both had flourished. But as the three phones in his Bismarck store rang off the hook, as opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline vowed to boycott his shop and screamed death threats in his ear, Hinz’s chest began to tighten, his heart palpitating in a sickly familiar way.
On Nov. 29, a rumor hit the Internet falsely claiming that Hinz and his ACE hardware stores refused to sell propane and other equipment to the Standing Rock protestors. The fake story spread fast, appearing on Jezebel as well as several other leftie blogs, spawning a hashtag calling for a boycott of Hinz’s store.
“You go from the top of the world to the bottom in about two minutes,” Hinz said. “And scared—very scared. Your life is one thing, but everything you’ve built with your life? I’ve been in this town since ’87. I’m 56. You don’t go start over somewhere. This is my life’s work, and it’s essentially gone in a day. … For a little hardware store to get thrust into that kind of hate across the country, that’s not fun.”
As the Standing Rock protests have continued, they’ve drawn thousands of out-of-state activists, sowing bitter divisions in the small North Dakota communities. Several local businesses have experienced similar turmoil and threats, with local farmers and ranchers also complaining protestors have trespassed on their land, damaging or stealing their property and harassing them and their families.
These local accounts belie the claims of pipeline opponents, often repeated in the national media, that the protests have been “peaceful and prayerful.”
Representatives for the Standing Rock Sioux did not respond to Heat Street’s two emailed queries, sent over several days, about allegations of harassment and intimidation.
Hinz said the onslaught on his hardware store was especially heart-wrenching because he’s had a great relationship with the Standing Rock Sioux for decades. When his business was fledgling, he said, the tribe supported him, buying supplies for their housing entity, for their school. “They’re good, good people,” he said.
In fact, Hinz said he credits his Standing Rock Sioux friends with helping to debunk the story. It was outsiders—some who had flocked to North Dakota to protest, some who conducted their activism online—who spread the rumor.
“One gal claimed I ran up to her and pulled the propane tanks out of her arms,” Hinz said. “That never happened. People start fabricating stories. … This is a new technique in our country: Intimidate to get what you want. And it doesn’t matter who’s in the way. There’s a goal, a political goal, and it doesn’t matter who gets in the way. Somewhere in the mix [of the Dakota Access pipeline protests] is an element of people who operate this way. And it’s scary.”
Since the Standing Rock protests began, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has arrested more than 565 people—and nine out of ten of those charged with a crime have come from out-of-state, a sheriff’s department spokeswoman said.
In an interview with the Bismarck Tribune last week, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the Standing Rock tribal chairman, David Archambault II, has failed to keep protestors under control. “Archambault’s influence is non-existant,” Dalrymple said.
Others interviewed by Heat Street said that while they believe most of the protestors committing criminal acts have been from out of town, they fear that a small number of local pipeline opponents have also resorted to violence, vandalism, and intimidation.
When local hotels have kicked out disruptive outsiders, they too have received hundreds of phone calls, including death threats, the Bismarck Tribune reported last week. Heat Street confirmed this, though no one wanted to give an interview under their name.
Nearly everyone we called declined to comment. Several local businesses who had reportedly received threats wouldn’t talk. Nor would the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce. Several local workers, managers, and store owners said they wouldn’t give interviews because they were afraid opponents of the pipeline would target them, their families, and their businesses.
In the area surrounding the pipeline’s route, protestors have also bullied local ranchers and farmers, said Daryl Lies, spokesman for the North Dakota Farm Bureau.
Lies said he’s received numerous complaints of masked protestors trespassing onto private property, filming farming and ranching families. He said he’s also received several reports of snipped fences, vandalism, and stolen property.
“There have been animals that have been found slaughtered and missing,” he said. “They found the hides of animals who had been slaughtered and skinned.”
Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, also confirmed “cases of butchered and mutilated animals found in the vicinity.” As a quasi-state agency, the Stockmen’s Association has three licensed peace officers investigating the harm to livestock, Ellingson said.
“We can’t directly tie those to the protests until we know who the perpetrators are, but it is noteworthy that they are right next to the camp,” she said. Ellingson also added that when law enforcement have arrested protestors trespassing on ranchers’ property, they’ve sometimes found weapons, including knives.
Tom Schmidt, one rancher who lives near the protests, said that since the protests began, an ATV disappeared from his garage in the middle of the day. He says protestors also tried to steal his diesel pickup. When he got in the vehicle one morning, his glovebox was emptied on the floor, and his ignition was hanging down, dissembled in an attempt to hot-wire the truck.
Jared Ernst, another rancher near Bismark, described how he’d caught several protestors trespassing on his land, driving two pickups and two trailers and unloading their horses.
“I went around to tell them to get off my land,” Ernst said. “They said it was treaty land and I didn’t have the right to be there.”
Ernst said he argued with one of the men, “and two other ones came riding up on horseback, carrying a lariat like they were going to rope me.” Ernst said he shifted his stance so the protestors could see the holster on his belt, which held the revolver he carries daily. They left.
“That was my first experience with them,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of threats, text messages, phone calls, on social media. I’ve gotten violent rants that they’re going to come and rough me up and hurt my family.”
The Stockmen’s Association and North Dakota Farm Bureau also confirmed that protestors have shut down roads, forcing ranching families and farmers to take lengthy detours.
Several ranchers interviewed by Heat Street said they felt the protests had become lawless. They mentioned that because the protestors often wear masks, they don’t know how they’d even report them to police or take them to court. Others said that while they support local law enforcement, they often worry officers are outmanned.
In recent weeks, local Bismarck residents have organized into “neighborhood sentinels,” the Bismarck Tribune reported, providing 24-hour support to businesses targeted by protests. Opponents of the pipeline have claimed that some locals have gone a step further, actively threatening them.
Local law enforcement said that among other violent actions, protestors have thrown Molotov cocktails, logs, stones, and feces at them. One woman is now facing a federal felony charge after allegedly firing a stolen .38 pistol at a sheriff’s deputy. Local law enforcement also said opponents of the pipeline have doxxed them and threatened their families.
Protestors have routinely claimed police brutality; police have periodically used less-than-lethal weapons including tear gas and rubber bullets, saying that they’ve shown restraint.
In other words, tensions between pipeline protestors, law enforcement, and locals remain very high.
In recent days, North Dakotans near the protests say they’ve enjoyed a slight respite. On Dec. 4, the Obama administration announced it would deny a key easement for the Dakota Access pipeline, giving the protestors a victory—albeit one that may be reversed under a Trump administration, prompting more activism.
A blizzard followed days after the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ announcement, sending temperatures far below freezing and shutting down transportation—not ideal conditions for activism.
But even after the protests eventually conclude and the out-of-towners leave, many wonder the community will ever recover.
Hinz, the hardware store owner, said: “When everyone who came to attend this protest leaves, who’s left? How do the people of Standing Rock repair their relationship with Bismarck? I don’t know. … This was a last bastion, a place of peace and quiet, and this is innocence lost.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.