Photo: Leta Killer Facebook page
Steve Martinez has battled the U.S. government in court since 2017. Photo: Leta Killer Facebook page

Standing Rock activists are still fighting the U.S. government in court over its own violent actions

Activist Steve Martinez has refused to testify on behalf of the government for years about clashes that took place in 2016 and 2017.


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From August 2016 until March 2017, the rights to clean water and the protection of sacred land were brought into national spotlight. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, as well as activists across the country, participated in a long-winded battle in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Many of these peaceful demonstrations turned violent when private security guards clashed with protesters. 

During a particularly vicious clash on Nov. 20, 2016, Sophia Wilansky, an activist from NYC, nearly lost an arm from being struck by a law enforcement concussion grenade. 

Wilansky and her attorneys sought millions of dollars in damages from law enforcement officials and Morton County, North Dakota, for alleged excessive force, assault, negligence, emotional distress and defamation. 

As of January 2019, she is still fighting, but it’s against the government effort to have her lawsuit thrown out for “lack of proof” that her civil rights were violated. 

Morton County maintains the position that Wilansky’s injury was the result of the actions of other Water Protectors, and not due to any use of excessive force by law enforcement. 

But on the day of Wilansky’s injury, hundreds of other unarmed protesters were also injured, as law enforcement attacked them with high pressure fire hoses, impact munitions, explosive grenades, and chemical weapons. 

Steve Martinez is being confined in Burleigh County Detention Center for refusing, out of principle, to give testimony on these events before a federal grand jury. 

In early 2017, Martinez was issued to attend a similar grand jury as a witness to the events of November and Wilasnky’s injury in particular. 

Federal grand juries are panels of citizens investigating a federal crime. The proceedings are done in secret and the jury has broad power to force testimony on a range of issues that fall outside of the focus of the investigation, making them a convenient way to abuse the system. 

“There is a long history of grand juries being used to intimidate politically disfavored groups, from abolitionists to union organizers, anti-war advocates, and civil rights activists. This Grand Jury, which criminalizes movements for native sovereignty and environmental justice, is one more instance of such abuse,” said Martinez’ attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen.

Martinez refused to cooperate with the grand jury's request for information that could have been used against others. 

“I will in no way condone or cooperate with this attempt to repress the movement here at Standing Rock,” he said before his first appearance on Jan. 4, 2017. 

When he appeared before the Grand Jury again on Wednesday Feb. 3, 2021, Martinez invoked his First and Fifth Amendment rights, and still refused after the Magistrate Judge ordered him to give testimony. 

The Court held him in contempt of its order and over the objections of counsel, ordered his confinement until he agrees to testify, or until the investigation terminates — up to 18 months.

Martinez’s lawyers claim that these efforts are an attempt to force their client to collaborate with the Federal Grand Jury in order to shift the blame for Wilansky’s injuries from law enforcement to Water Protectors. 

Martinez does plan to challenge the finding of contempt, but remains prepared to serve the term of confinement, rather than participate in more secret and coerced proceedings. He objects to the grand jury as an institution, and believes it is being used as a tool to suppress his rights to assembly, association, religion and free speech. 

 “The state should not be intimidating people and trying to blame us for the harm they caused. I didn’t want to lose my freedom, but they are not going to break me,” Martinez said in a phone call from jail on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 6. 

Martinez’ partner, Leta Killer, wrote a heartfelt post on her Facebook page, informing her friends of the situation, and calling for support. 

“Standing Rock may have been 4 & ½ years ago, but it’s not over. Seeds of awareness & unification [will] spread all  over the world for voices to speak out [about the need] to protect our natural resources for all of our future generations. Please keep Steve in your thoughts and prayers & also the Water Protectors & Attorneys still fighting for justice. Mni Wiconi! Water is Life!” she wrote. 


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