My Experience at Standing Rock

I wrote “Tears I Can’t Hold Inside” in Los Angeles in January 2018, after I was forced to return to the United States from Paris (where I currently live) to await trial and see if I would be spending the next two months in jail in North Dakota.

This anxiety-filled journey stirred up memories of my arrest a year earlier, and the stint in jail that resulted. Although it was relatively brief, the impact was lasting.

In November 2017, I was on assignment as a reporter for Truthdig.com, a U.S. based political news and opinion website, to cover the “water protector” movement at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. There, at a camp called Oceti Sakowin (which means “Seven Councils Fire” in the Sioux language), indigenous and non-native Americans had gathered from around the country to protest over an oil pipeline being built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners.

“Although the protest—which continued for nearly a year—was completely nonviolent, thousands of water protectors were brutalized by police.”

The protest began when the private company decided to relocate the Dakota Access Pipeline from the predominantly white town, where the idea had received local backlash, and instead run it through indigenous treaty land, which included the reservation’s water source. Although the protest—which continued for nearly a year—was completely nonviolent, thousands of water protectors were brutalized by police. Hundreds landed in jail, some of whom are still serving sentences.

On the afternoon of November 20, I was arrested while covering a demonstration outside the jail, where people had gathered to protest a particularly traumatic police onslaught that had taken place at Oceti Sakowin the night before. Police had rained tear gas, stun grenades and freezing water into the crowd. One woman nearly had her forearm blown off, and more than 200 people needed medical treatment, including me. The tear gas choked me till I couldn’t catch a breath, and my eyes burned so intensely I thought I was going blind.

A scene from the night of November 20; Taken by Visceral Design (aka Donald Kaufman) for TruthDigs

During the course of the year, the police actions on tribal land had grown increasingly militarized. Their forces included municipal police as well as armed private “security,” and among the tools they were using at their disposal were high-tech spying apparatus, helicopters, rubber bullets, attack dogs, barbed-wire fencing even multiple tanks loaded with water cannons.

Despite this over-the-top response, water protectors stayed true to their pledge to remain nonviolent.

“Considering the circumstances, a bias against the police force was unavoidable. But what I saw the night before my arrest shocked me to the core, and it made me wonder what the police might be capable of doing behind closed doors.”

While living in the camps at Oceti Sakowin during the course of my coverage, I heard many stories about police misconduct taking place in the jails, including the strip-searching of women by men, but I couldn’t be sure what was true.  Considering the circumstances, a bias against the police force was unavoidable. But what I saw the night before my arrest shocked me to the core, and it made me wonder what the police might be capable of doing behind closed doors.

At the November 20 protest outside the jail, people sat on the lawn and chanted slogans, such as, “You are violent, we are peaceful.” They were there for about 20 minutes before the arrests began, on the grounds of (we were warned) disorderly conduct and breaking trespassing laws.

Camps Setup at Standing Rock; Tom Stromme – Bismarck Tribune

The first thing they did when they arrested us was to strip us down to our underclothes. At that time of year, temperatures can go well below zero in North Dakota. As we shivered from the cold, we were placed in cages resembling dog kennels. I later heard and encountered people that during subsequent police actions, got frostbite during their arrests.

“Once we got inside the jail, the police didn’t allow us to make a phone call, which is a right in many states for people who have been arrested.”

After an extended period of waiting, we were put on a bus for approximately three hours. Rather than cuffing our hands in front of our bodies, we were cuffed with our hands behind us. This forced us to jam our faces onto the back of the seats in front of us. For some, the handcuffs were so tight it cut blood circulation, causing their hands to puff up and turn purple. The police ignored all requests to loosen the cuffs. They also made a point of keeping the windows on the bus down, despite pleas to close them.

One of the water protectors had Lyme disease and was clearly suffering, but the police ignored all requests to come to her aid.

Once we got inside the jail, the police didn’t allow us to make a phone call, which is a right in many states for people who have been arrested. The next day, they were forced to let us talk when our lawyers called in.


I shared a bunk with one of the water protectors. Our cell had a door to another common area shared by two long-term prisoners. One told us, through the door, that he had been accused of being a contract killer; the other had been accused of arson.

No one responded when we asked to make our phone call or be given an extra shirt for the cold. The inmates next to us told me that the guards wouldn’t know or care if any violence or other emergency were to occur. They said that the security camera in the common room had been disconnected earlier in the year by an inmate who had hidden his shank knife in a niche in the corner of the common room – I could see the edge of the knife sticking out of the wall. We were also told that five days went by before the guards realized the camera had been tampered with.

We stayed in a perpetual state of hunger, and the guards “forgot” to give us our one-hour rec room break till the end of the second day, and then our break time was cut to 15 minutes. The rec room itself consisted of a small indoor room with one bench press and a few torn-up books.

At one point, I asked a guard about an inmate we had heard about who had hung himself from the cell bunk that we were staying in the night before we arrived. He didn’t answer directly, but he did chuckle about an inmate who he said had recently overdosed, and he confirmed that there had been multiple deaths in the jail that year.

After three days, we were charged with felonies and released.

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A home at Sacred Stone

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Now, a year later, I was back in the States to face those charges. As I awaited trial, I thought about the traumatization that occurred to so many Natives and the memories of my time in jail. Terror at the idea of having to go back overwhelmed me, inspiring me to begin “Tears I Can’t Hold Inside” (anatu also helped write the song).

In the end, my lawyer was able to get the court to dismiss the charges against me.

Although my time in jail was brief, it raised my awareness of what it is like to be imprisoned. Instead of a sad intellectual understanding of factual evidence, it became a visceral feeling inside of me.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 2.29 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. In the past 40 years, incarceration rates have gone up 500 percent, despite the fact that crime has decreased nationally. Almost half a million people are locked away for non-violent drug offenses. This should be considered a national crisis, but instead the system is allowing human beings to be turned into commodities used for profit.

Since my arrest, President Trump has signed an executive order allowing the construction of the pipeline to proceed. There has been one oil spill, and the camps and homes built by water protectors on the reservation lands have been confiscated by the police.

Despite that, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests touched the lives of thousands of people, including newly elected socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and provided the platform for the voice of the First Nation to be heard throughout the country.


Header Photo: Thomas Hedges

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