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ACLU of Montana representatives see 'upsetting' police response at Standing Rock

From the Faces of Standing Rock: Stories from the pipeline protest series
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SK Rossi and Meg Singer

ACLU of Montana's SK Rossi and Meg Singer pose for a portrait on "Media Hill" at the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Nov. 8.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette Staff

On Nov. 6, while hundreds of people participated in a forgiveness march down the main street in Mandan, a few stayed behind, walking on either side.

They weren't protesting. They were observing and documenting.

SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, was one of those people.

As protesters gathered outside the Morton County Sheriff’s office, Rossi walked around the building, phone out, taking photos and videos.

Rossi has done this before, in Missouri while working with the ACLU during the Ferguson protests.

Since arriving in Standing Rock on Nov. 4, Rossi has been working with other ACLU members from North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

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SK Rossi in Mandan

ACLU of Montana's Director of Advocacy and Policy SK Rossi documents the peace and forgiveness march outside of the Mandan County Memorial Courthouse in Mandan, N.D., on Nov. 6.

Rossi and Meg Singer, Montana’s Indigenous Justice Outreach coordinator, have documented protests, talked with legal advisers, traveled back and forth to Mandan and have spoken with people to fill out forms if they feel their rights have been violated.

Rossi and Singer work out of ACLU Montana’s office in Helena. Singer also is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

Rossi said they have been focusing on indigenous justice in Montana and continue to prioritize it in their strategic plan at the ACLU of Montana.

There is a stark contrast of police response between the armed protest that took place on federal land in Oregon compared to the response to the Native American protesters fighting for their rights on federal land in North Dakota, Rossi said. This is one red flag, among others, that pulled Rossi to Standing Rock.

“The police reaction is very upsetting,” Rossi said.

Seven defendants involved in the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon were acquitted by a jury in late October. Meanwhile, dozens of protesters at Standing Rock have been arraigned on charges like conspiracy to commit a riot, Rossi said.

“It’s a 180-degree response," Rossi said. It’s a “slap in the face” to people of color and to Native Americans who are trying to stand up for the safety of the land and their rights on that land.

For Rossi, the link to Montana is clear. Native Americans are the largest nonwhite population in Montana, and there's a history of discrimination in the state, Rossi said.

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Bean bag bruises

SK Rossi of the American Civil Liberties Union photographs Leo Keo's bruises from a bean bag gun after an altercation with police on Oct. 27.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding or lack of education among law enforcement about traditional practices, like burning sage and cedar, and how they are used during protest, Rossi said.

“It would be helpful if law enforcement reached out and asked those questions instead of assuming that something is going awry,” Rossi said.

Montanans also care about their environment and the sanctity of their land, Rossi said, citing the state's Constitution.

“We have a constitutional provision that guarantees the right to a clean and healthful environment,” Rossi said. “A lot of states don’t have that.”

Montanans depend on natural resources industries, but there needs to be more consultation with tribes when it comes to these issues, Rossi said.

“The folks that are here on federal land exercising their First Amendment rights aren’t doing it for fun,” Rossi said. “They’re doing it because they feel like their voices aren’t being heard."

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