“If any of these law enforcement shoot one of my people, it is going down, people,” Atsa E’sha Hoferer tells the camera on Facebook Live. “We are prayerful people.”
He gets cut off by the screaming of a long range acoustic device—a sound cannon, the kind used by police to break up protests in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this year. But even over the alarm, people watching on computers and phones can hear the soft voice of a protestor singing and strum a guitar. The wind whips Hoferer’s bandana against his neck. A police bullhorn tells the protestors to move.
Though cellular connectivity on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota is limited, it is videos like this that first alert the world of what is going down. Twenty-six thousand people watch as the video pans out to show the front lines of the clash between law enforcement and Native Americans, who are protesting the creation of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. They fear that if the pipeline were to break, it would destroy drinking water. On one side, a line of law enforcement dressed in black, flanking two armored vehicles. On the other side, hay bales. Within minutes, the gap between the hay bales and trucks closes. Then the service cuts out. After a few frozen minutes, the stream ends. But at 2:30pm ET there remained many others ongoing.
Reports suggest that tensions between the people protesting the North Dakota Pipeline and law enforcement have been high in the past few days. Over a hundred protesters were arrested on Saturday. North Dakota’s Morton County Sheriff’s office explained that today’s operation is in response to “illegal roadblocks and protesters trespassing on private property near Highway 1806.” Native American activists don’t deny the roadblocks. “This is our stronghold,” activist Robby Romero told the LA Times earlier this week. “They will not cross this line.”
The Sheriff’s office told WIRED that law enforcement agencies from across the state and even surrounding states are helping break up the roadblocks. It was unclear if the National Guard was also helping; representatives could not be reached for comment. In the video, a helicopter circles protesters on horseback.
Highlighting the power of cross-amplification between social networks, actress, and high-profile activist Shailene Woodley took a screenshot of one of the Facebook live streams and shared it on Twitter. People retweeted her tweet using the hashtag activists have adopted since the summer: #NoDAPL. At 3:30pm ET, only one live stream continued, from a local television news station. A few minutes later, Hofer started his live stream up again. In the background, police on the bullhorn could be heard saying, “We need you to go the south line of the camp. We don’t want to make arrests.”
It’s a wonder any of these live streams managed to happen at all. Cellular service at Standing Rock is reportedly abysmal. “It’s a blackout, from when it first started, because there is no communication,” Chief Looking Horse of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Nations told WIRED last month at a meeting in New York. It wasn’t always like that, he explains. “We used to have our cell phones, but as soon as we took a stand there, they just shut us out,” he said. “You can’t even make calls from the cell phone from that camp. You have to go probably about 20 miles south to get service.” WIRED was not able to verify this claim.
Reception was demonstrably bad throughout the day, as Hoferer and others’ livestreams cut in and out. At the same time, the tech world was focused on news that Twitter is laying off hundreds of employees and shuttering its video-only service Vine. Today, Standing Rock once again makes plain that the immediacy of livestreaming and Twitter are vital news delivery services.
At 4:45pm ET, livestreaming shows law enforcement crossing the hay bale roadblock protestors have in the road. “My aunties and uncles are getting arrested down there,” Hoferer tells Facebook Live at 4:55pm ET. Police order him down from the truck he’s recording from. Before he signs off he yells, “20,000 people are watching you right now!”
Correction at 5:30pm ET: An earlier version of this story misidentified the armored vehicles as tanks.