"Once that oil gets into our water it is ruined and life around it will be ruined," protestor Bobbi Jean Three Legs told PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
November 04, 2016 02:26 PM
Credit: AP Photo/John L. Mone

A Congressional candidate was shot with a rubber bullet on Thursday while interviewing demonstrators gathered in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, in an incident that was captured on camera.

In a video that has been uploaded to Facebook, Erin Schrode, a 25-year-old activist who is running for Congress in California, can be heard interviewing a protestor about his opposition to the pipeline on the grounds that it cuts through sacred native lands and will threaten the Standing Rock Sioux nation’s sole water source when the sound of a gunshot ripples through the air and the camera jolts violently as Schrode screams out in pain.

Though the shooter cannot be seen as the shot came from behind Schrode’s back, she told the New York Daily News she turned around to see an officer still pointing the barrel of his rubber bullet gun at her.

“I was standing innocently onshore, not making any aggressive gestures, never exchanging a single word with the police who fired at my lower back from their boat. ” Schrode wrote on Facebook. “I was shot at pointblank range, dozens were maced and pepper sprayed in the face, hundreds faced freezing waters.”

After months of protests, tensions between law enforcement and the thousands who have gathered in North Dakota to oppose construction of the pipeline have boiled over into increasing violence and arrests.

Fourteen people were arrested at the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck during a protest Thursday afternoon. Those arrested were part of a group of about 50 protestors who traveled from the protest camps near Standing Rock to the Capitol Grounds to sing and pray, according to KFYR.

At least 268 protestors were arrested last week when police from six states and members of the National Guard cleared a camp of demonstrators from federal land in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Caro Gonzalez, a 26-year-old who was arrested on Thursday, says she was “brutalized and dehumanized” by police for protesting peacefully against the pipeline.

“The riot police grabbed me and yanked me to the ground face first and stomped on my arm,” Gonzalez tells PEOPLE. “They put me in handcuffs and then wrote a number on me and took me and others to a parking structure where they put us in cages that looked like dog kennels.”

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department defended its use of the enclosures Gonzalez and others have compared to “dog kennels” in a statement calling them “temporary holding cells” that have been approved by the state’s Department of Corrections for use in mass arrest situations.

Police have been criticized for using excessive force including spraying crowds with pepper spray and shooting protestors with Taser darts, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds.

Law enforcement officials have said that officers have used force when they deemed it necessary. Some protestors set fires along the road and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at law enforcement, according to a statement by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, while others prayed and passively resisted.

The militarized response, including the use of military Humvees, has drawn the attention of human rights groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations – both organizations have sent representatives to monitor the situation.

Last month, a UN human rights expert called on the United States to halt the construction of the pipeline, citing the significant risks it would pose to the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux and the potential destruction of burial grounds and sacred sites in its path.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation and other Native American tribes have been camped out on federally owned land they claim rightfully belongs to the Sioux people under an 1851 treaty for months to stage demonstrations against the $3.7 billion dollar project that is close to completion in North Dakota.

The 1,172-mile conduit is planned to carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the oil fields of western North Dakota to Illinois. Its path will cross four states and travel through active farmlands, forests and three major rivers.

Thousands have camped out near the pipeline’s planned crossing of the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock reservation. Protestors who call themselves water protectors fear that a spill or leak in the pipeline would contaminate the river, making the reservation uninhabitable.

“I want people to know how much this will affect us,” Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a 24-year-old resident of the Standing Rock Reservation who organized a petition against the pipeline that has been signed by 300,000 people, told PEOPLE in August.

“We use that river to cook, to bathe and to quench our thirst,” she continued. “Once that oil gets into our water it is ruined and life around it will be ruined and there will be nothing we can do to get it back.”

The company behind the pipeline, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, has argued that the pipeline will be a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to transporting the oil on trains. While pipelines do indeed spill less than oil trains, they do significantly more damage in terms of volume spilled, according to the International Energy Agency.

In 2015 alone, there were a record 132 significant pipeline spills, meaning one spill occurred roughly every three days in the U.S., according to CNN. On Tuesday, the governor of Alabama declared a state of emergency following a deadly pipeline blast – less than two months after that same pipeline spilled 252,000 to 336,000 gallons of gasoline in Shelby County, according to Fox News.

Credit: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Given these statistics, protestors believe it’s not a question of if the pipeline will spill but when. This is one reason why Gonzalez views the pipeline’s planned construction north of the reservation’s water supply as a form of environmental racism.

In the project’s initial proposal, the pipeline crossed the Missouri River near Bismarck, but that proposal was rejected due to its potential threat to the North Dakota capitol’s water supply, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

Protestors ask why the Standing Rock community is not being given the same consideration as the nearly 90 percent white city. “I feel like no one is thinking about our future,” Three Legs said. “We deserve a future too.”

On Tuesday, President Obama said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is examining possible alternative routes for the pipeline.

“I think right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline in a way,” President Obama said in in interview with NowThis. “So we’re going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”

A spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners said in a statement to NPR that the company is not aware of any consideration being given to a reroute, and added that they remained confident that their permission to begin construction on the portion of the pipeline that would cross under the Missouri River would come through “in a timely fashion.”

Many protestors have expressed frustration at what they see as a lack of decisive action by the President. This summer, a group of young people ran from the Standing Rock Reservation to Washington, D.C. to deliver a deliver 100,000 petition signatures calling for an end to the pipeline’s construction. The White House did not receive them.

This felt especially disappointing to those young people like Tariq Brownotter, who met President Obama when he and the First Lady visited the reservation in 2014.

“I love these young people,” Obama said after meeting Standing Rock Sioux youths at a school in Cannon Ball, according to the Washington Post. “I only spent an hour with them. They feel like my own.”

At the time, Obama said he left the meeting feeling “shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking.”

Credit: Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images

“When I talked to him [in 2014], he listened,” Brownotter told PEOPLE in August. “It gave me hope that I could change people’s mindsets on about the pipeline because it doesn’t just affect us on the reservation – it affects everybody.”

With Obama’s decision to “let it play out,” these young people feel like the President no longer hears them. But they’ve been heartened to learn that millions of others do.

On Monday, people from around the world began checking in to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Facebook after a post suggesting that police were using check-ins to target protestors went viral.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department denied that such a tactic was being used on its own Facebook page, writing “The Morton County Sheriff’s Department is not and does not follow Facebook check-ins for the protest camp or any location.”

Still, 1.6 million people checked in as a gesture of support for protestors. An additional 29,000 people donated a total of $1.4 million dollars to support protestors who have been camped out for months on GoFundMe marking one of the most successful campaigns in the site’s history.

Protests have also spread to New York and San Francisco, where protestors marched to major banks funding the pipeline. Celebrities like Shailene Woodley (who was arrested with protestors in early October), Mark Ruffalo , Susan Sarandon and Rosario Dawson have also joined protests and helped raise awareness about the cause.

No matter how many protestors are arrested or what decision the Obama administration ultimately makes, Gonzalez says she and the other protestors won’t give up until the pipeline project has been stopped.

“If we win here that sets a precedent, we demand to have a say and prevent environmental degradation,” she says. “This is an important moment for the indigenous rights movement and we will continue to show that the resilience of our people is beautiful.”