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Mennonite found guilty after protest at Standing Rock

9.17. 2018 Written By: Gordon Houser 5,000 Times read

Photo: Dennis Lehmann. Photo provided.

Dennis Lehmann has dedicated much of his life working for peace and justice. In February 2017, that dedication landed him in jail. A year and a half later, he finally appeared in court.

On Sept. 7, after a brief deliberation, a six-member Morton County, North Dakota, jury found the 65-year-old Freeman, South Dakota, native guilty of Class A misdemeanor charges of physical obstruction of a government function. Judge James Hill sentenced Lehmann to 90 days of unsupervised probation and ordered him to pay court fines. If he’s arrested for any reason within that period, Lehmann will have to serve five days in jail for his conviction.

According to a Sept. 10 release by the Water Protector Legal Collective (WPLC), Lehmann said after the conviction: “I see it more as an honor than as a stigma. Any time I have to report my conviction I’ll be able to communicate why I’m actually proud of what I did.”

What he did was serve as a “water protector,” trying to help stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from running through land north of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal land.

Jonathan Wallace, Lehman’s attorney, does pro bono work for WPLC and was in North Dakota from his home in Long Island, New York, to help handle multiple cases. In a Sept. 11 phone interview, he said he has been representing about 50 clients in North Dakota.

He said he “has tremendous respect for Dennis. He’s a person who has wonderful values, a lot of compassion.” Lehmann is the first Mennonite he’s met, he said.

In court, Lehmann brought a Bible with him and hoped to remind the jury of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but Judge Hill wouldn’t allow a lengthy explanation from the stand, according to the WPLC release.

“I was disappointed that he kept shutting me down,” Lehmann said. “The jury still might’ve found me guilty, but I wanted them to understand why it was important to stand with those protecting the water.”

Wallace said judges treat testimony differently; some allow statements, others don’t. “This one allowed Dennis to say some things, but not all he wanted.”

In his closing argument, Wallace said, he countered the prosecution’s stance that Lehmann technically broke the law and argued instead that he was following his conscience and beliefs. “A Brooklyn, N.Y., jury would have probably exonerated him,” Wallace said, “but that was unlikely here.”

In a July 31 phone interview, Lehmann related the story of his arrest on Feb. 23, 2017. He said he was “in the right place at the right time” with the water protectors when the police came and arrested everyone there, about 45 people, for “a physical obstruction of a governmental function,” and they refused to leave.

They were put in vans and taken to Manden, North Dakota, near Bismark, to an enclosed garage, where authorities took their winter clothes and possessions, put them in other clothes, then in steel cages, men and women separate, Lehmann said. About 30 of the men were taken four hours away to Grand Forks, cuffed from behind with plastic cuffs. “We asked to be cuffed in front, but the guard refused,” Lehmann said. “The last three hours were like torture; we weren’t allowed to use a restroom during the [entire] trip.”

Once they arrived at Grand Forks, the guards removed the cuffs and allowed them one phone call. “One person was able to pay $500 cash to get out, but the rest stayed,” Lehmann said. They had to remove their clothes and were put in orange uniforms. They didn’t get into their cells until midnight, then got up at 6 a.m. to shower and have breakfast.

Later, he said, a legal team came and got some people out with money contributed by people across the country. Some stayed until their arraignment. Lehmann and nine others met with a judge via video and pled not guilty. “I asked to have the $500 fee waived, but the judge refused,” he said. That evening they were released when a legal team from the Freshet Collective paid their bail.

This was the bond Lehmann forfeited at his recent trial, thus covering his court fines.

Lehman first went to Standing Rock in the fall of 2016, to the Seven Council Fires campground and the Sacred Stone campground. He said it was a positive experience, that people accepted one another for who they were and were nonjudgmental. He stayed three days.

He explained that the Dakota Access Pipeline wanted to put a pipeline under the Missouri River, where the tribe got its water. The water intake was downstream from where they wanted to put the pipeline. The water protectors tried to prevent this “geographical racism,” he said. Five earthen dams were built in the 1940s and ’50s for electricity and recreation and flooded lands owned by tribes rather than lands owned by whites.

This summer, Lehmann volunteered for Mennonite Disaster Service at the Pine Ridge reservation. MDS is building nine new houses this year for people there, he said. Most of the houses there are old FEMA trailers. Maretta Champagne, an Oglala Lakota tribal member, said the new houses will be especially helpful because they’re solid. People in their current homes are afraid they’ll blow away.

Lehmann said he is not interested in full-time work and follows a simple lifestyle. He served in Congo with Mennonite Central Committee for two years. He’s single, with three children.

While Lehmann has no immediate plans to get rearrested, he keeps a close watch on the section of the Keystone pipeline located closer to his South Dakota home, according to the WPLC release. “We had a leak eight miles from Freeman, which is north of the Keystone pipeline,” he explained. “The safety monitors didn’t go off as designed and the oil spilled out for five to six hours. All their safety measures meant to prevent exactly this kind of thing completely failed, and 16,000 gallons of oil fouled the farmland.”

“We’re all living on land that was once occupied by Native people,” Lehmann said, “and we often forget that. People should find out which tribes lived on the land where they live and try to develop relationships with those tribes.” He’s done that in the Freeman area through the Freeman Network for Justice and Peace.

In a Sept. 14 phone interview, he explained why he chose to be tried by a jury rather than only a judge: “It was important to me to share my reasons with a jury of my peers, even if I didn’t expect to be found not guilty.” He said he wanted to talk to them about how Natives and non-Natives can understand one another better and work together on a better life for all. He was disappointed that the judge cut him off.

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