On a sweltering day in mid-June, Clearwater County Sheriff Darin Halverson arrived at the spot where Enbridges’s Line 3 oil pipeline is expected to cross underneath the Mississippi River, not far from its headwaters.
About a hundred opponents of Line 3 — who call themselves water protectors — had been camped along the pipeline's path for a week, holding prayer ceremonies by the river.
Halverson told the water protectors that they needed to leave that day. Enbridge had given notice that the campers were trespassing, and asked the sheriff to evict them. But he gave them the day to pack up, and shook hands with tribal leaders.
By 5 p.m., the camp was completely dismantled, and most people were gone. A handful stayed behind to receive citations they could challenge in court. One person asked to be taken to jail.
It was a remarkably peaceful end to what could have been a volatile situation. Halverson said it was an emotional moment.
"There were just a lot of ‘thank yous’ on both sides,” he said. “They were thanking me for allowing them to exercise their treaty rights and respecting them. And I was thanking them as well, for holding true to their word."
As Enbridge continues building the replacement Line 3 pipeline along a new, 340-mile route across northern Minnesota, there have been some tense standoffs between Line 3 opponents and law enforcement.
Some pipeline resisters have complained of heavy-handed tactics by police, who've rounded up and arrested people holding marches and occupying construction sites.
In Clearwater County, Halverson has taken a noticeably different approach.
That final day of the Mississippi River camp on June 14 was a key test of the strategy he has used throughout his law enforcement tenure — to carefully balance the protection of public safety with the peaceful expression of free speech.
"I want to make sure people can exercise their First Amendment rights, as long as you're doing it peacefully and lawfully,” Halverson said. “I've told them I'll help you all day long, if you want to do that."
At the root of that strategy is a relationship built on trust with leaders of the community, including the White Earth Reservation — which covers part of Clearwater County.
Halverson, 49, served for 18 years as the Bagley police chief before he was elected Clearwater County sheriff in 2015. He and other area county sheriffs meet on a monthly basis with White Earth tribal police to discuss common issues or concerns.
"He's been doing a very good job,” said Dawn Goodwin, a member of the White Earth Nation and co-founder of the RISE Coalition, or Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging.
Goodwin has known the sheriff for most of her life. They attended Bagley High School together.
In 2019, Halverson and a deputy attended an educational summit White Earth leaders put on about Native American treaties, Goodwin said.
When resistance to the Line 3 pipeline began to heat up, he and Goodwin began communicating regularly. She kept him updated about their plans to hold peaceful marches and prayer vigils. As long as people weren't breaking the law, he gave them space to express their views.
After the weeklong camp at the Mississippi River, Goodwin said tribal leaders and Halverson talked about how to end it peacefully.
"Both of us together, we decided that this is a good opportunity to show the rest of the world how things should be,” she said. “The sheriff shouldn't be treating us as criminals, because we weren't doing anything criminal."
Goodwin said the promise to the sheriff factored into the decision to disband the camp after a week.
“If we stayed, that’s breaking that trust we have with the sheriff,” she said. “He held up his end. We need to hold up our end.”
Halverson said he was prepared in case things didn't go as planned at the Mississippi River camp. Officers from the Minnesota State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies waited nearby.
Halverson said some officers were impatient, and wanted to move in to arrest the campers. But he said he believed that the camp leaders would hold true to their word.
"I kept telling everybody that I felt that it was going to be handled peacefully, and that it was going to be resolved that way,” he said. “And it was, and we didn't have to bring anybody down there. So that was a good thing."
Clearwater County is part of the Northern Lights Task Force, an organization of agencies statewide that is coordinating law enforcement response along the pipeline route.
But unlike some other counties, Clearwater has not requested or received any financial reimbursement from a public safety escrow account Enbridge was required to establish, according to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
Halverson avoids criticizing other law enforcement agencies’ response to Line 3 protests. He said they've had to deal with criminal activity, like people climbing fences and vandalizing equipment.
Halverson said he hopes to avoid that behavior in his county, and keep the peace by keeping the communication lines open. He thinks his strategy could be a model — and not just for Line 3.
"We can show that things can be done differently, but there has to be work done on both sides,” Halverson said. “It’s not just a law enforcement thing, but it's people who are protesting as well. If we can communicate and work through differences or whatever, hopefully more things can be handled peacefully."
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