By Ryan Fatica
Steve Martinez, a North Dakota activist who participated in the protests at Standing Rock, was taken into custody Wednesday after refusing to testify during his appearance before a federal grand jury in Bismark, North Dakota. Martinez is being held in the Burleigh County Detention Center and could face up to 18 months in custody on charges of contempt of court if he continues his refusal.
In addition to ordering him to be incarcerated, Judge Daniel Traynor also ordered Martinez to be fined $50 per day for each day he maintains his refusal to testify.
The grand jury is investigating a November 2016 incident in which a Standing Rock protestor, Sophia Wilansky, was gravely injured during an encounter with the police on the Backwater Bridge in rural North Dakota, about 50 miles south of Bismark. Wednesday’s proceeding marked the third time the US Attorney’s Office has subpoenaed Martinez to appear before the grand jury, which was first convened in late 2016.
Martinez was previously incarcerated for nearly 3 weeks following his February 3 appearance, but was released after his attorney filed a motion citing procedural irregularities in his contempt hearing.
“After having my rights stripped from me, I was imprisoned with no charges for 19 days,” Martinez said in a Facebook post after his release. “Even with the work of our legal team, the chances are high that I will be imprisoned once again for up to 18 months or the duration of the grand jury.”
Before 2016, Martinez, a former oil worker in the Bakken fields of Western North Dakota, would have never suspected he’d be facing a subpoena before a federal grand jury investigating pipeline resistance.
Martinez grew up in Pueblo, Colorado in an Indigenous and Chicano family, and moved to North Dakota to work in the oil fields amidst the Bakken oil boom. Workers from all over the country flocked to the barren region beginning in the mid-2000s to help pump ancient crude from nearly two miles beneath the earth’s surface.
But in 2016, Martinez saw the historic resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline project and decided he wanted to be a part of it.
Chava Shapiro, a non-attorney legal worker and former member of the Water Protectors Anti-Repression Crew worked with Martinez during his first grand jury subpoena in 2017. “He heard about what was happening at Standing Rock in the summertime and was just moved by it and loaded up his truck with water and supplies that people had been asking for and drove from the Western Plains, the Bakken oil fields, the four hours to Standing Rock kind of on a whim,” said Shapiro. “And then he never left. He went from working in the oil fields to being a pretty integral part of a social movement and Indigenous resistance against the desecration of ancestral lands.”
“It was a pretty big turnaround for someone in a really short amount of time,” said Shapiro. “He didn’t consider himself a super political or ‘woke’ person. He just considered himself a regular guy who, even though he himself had worked for the oil company, didn’t like to see what was happening to Native people’s lands and identified with that.”
Shapiro recounted the first time they met Martinez at one of the resistance camps set up at Standing Rock in 2016. “At the very beginning of December, I was in camp and a friend of mine came to me and said ‘Hey, my uncle is having a problem—he received a letter from the government and we don’t really know what it is. Could you talk to him?”
The letter, it turned out, was a prelude to his subpoena before a federal grand jury. “And so then he came and brought Steve to my tent and Steve showed me a request for his appearance.”
It comes as no surprise to those familiar with the history of repression against political movements in this country that the powerful resistance to the DAPL project would be met with powerful repression. “Repression is nothing new,” said Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Oregon.
“It is expected that when we challenge the status quo, when we push against capitalism and the profit-sharing mechanisms of the state, that they’re going to come at us with everything they’ve got, and they’ve got quite an arsenal to fight back against us.”
Federal grand juries have long been used as a way of punishing activists and gaining information that law enforcement can use to charge those participating in social movements with crimes. In recent years, they’ve been used in high-profile attempts to elicit information from hacker Jeremy Hammond as well as whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
Hammond served a ten-year federal prison sentence for computer fraud after he participated in the release of documents mapping the efforts of the private surveillance firm Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor) to surveil social movements. He was called before a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia in September 2019 and was held in contempt of court after he refused to testify. The grand jury, which was convened to investigate Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, also subpoenaed Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst turned whistleblower who also refused to testify. Both Hammond and Manning were released from prison last year.
“The process is meant to wear you down,” said Katie Yow, an activist from Durham, North Carolina who was subpoenaed to a federal grand jury in 2017. “Steve’s commitment and consistency throughout this, especially facing another subpoena years later, takes great strength and support. Bearing the many costs of not only incarceration but the overall abusive legal process demonstrates how solid his resolve is.”
Yow was subpoenaed before a federal grand jury investigating a bombing at the Republican Party headquarters in Orange County, North Carolina just three weeks before the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. “Nazi Republicans, Leave Town or Else” was spray-painted on the outside of the building. Photos of the burned-out headquarters showed charred Trump 2020 signs amidst the wreckage.
But federal grand juries are not limited to the investigation of specific events and can be used to question those called to testify about a variety of matters. According to The Grand Jury Resistance Project, “The grand jury operates in secrecy and the normal rules of evidence do not apply.” In the proceedings, prosecutors are given broad discretion in their questioning and neither judges nor defense attorneys are present.
In Yow’s case, the US Attorney leading the grand jury expressed interest in investigating “other events” and “other people” according to Yow.
“I don’t know anything relevant to a criminal investigation of the alleged incident at the GOP headquarters,” Yow said in a statement at the time. “The broad nature of the government’s interest in other information makes clear the way that this and other grand juries are used as fishing expeditions to attempt to coerce testimony on 1st amendment protected information.”
The current grand jury investigation in North Dakota is just the most recent event in a years-long effort on the part of federal law enforcement to target those who participated in the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017. According to Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Oregon, law enforcement has gone out of their way to target those involved. At Standing Rock, Regan said, “the whole playbook of standard activist repression was present.”
According to Regan, those efforts involved surveillance, infiltration, psychological profiling of activists, false arrests, grand juries, and criminal charges—a few of which have led to federal prison sentences.
The Water Protector Legal Collective (WPLC), a group formed to defend those facing repression for their participation in the protests at Standing Rock, has tracked over 830 state charges against Standing Rock protestors and 5 federal charges. All of those who faced federal charges are Indigenous, according to the WPLC.
Despite the huge wave of repression that Standing Rock protestors have faced, the movement continues to remain strong in supporting people like Martinez who are being targeted.
“Steve’s first subpoena in 2017 happened only months before mine,” said Yow, “and I was much better prepared for my fight because of the resources from his campaign and his example, as well as other grand jury resisters before him. It can be a terrible and isolating experience, but believing in this interconnectedness and being part of this collective strength is powerful.”
“Every one of us that refuses to cooperate,” said Yow “and stands strong with our communities makes the next one stronger.”
Ryan Fatica is a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective and a founding member of Perilous Chronicle. He is based in Arizona.