Standing Rock: arson accusation renews fear of police targeting military veterans
Navy veteran under suspicion for arson says claim is unfounded and an attempt at bullying by North Dakota police: ‘I am here for peaceful reasons’
Sean Sullivan, a 35-year-old navy veteran from San Diego. Photograph: Courtesy of Sean Sullivan
North Dakota police have accused a US veteran of arson at Standing Rock, renewing concerns that law enforcement is targeting former service members for prosecution.
Police on Thursday said that Sean Sullivan was a “possible arson suspect” and sent out a photo taken from his Facebook page of him standing near a burning structure at the main encampment at Standing Rock, which officers evicted last week.
Sullivan, a 35-year-old navy veteran from San Diego, who returned home from Standing Rock on Monday, had not heard he was a suspect until a Guardian reporter called him on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s just completely unfounded,” said Sullivan, who was part of a group called VeteransRespond that recently traveled to North Dakota to assist the remaining Native American activists demonstrating against the Dakota Access pipeline. “It’s intimidating. They’re just trying to bully me around. Everyone knows I didn’t start that.”
The arson accusation, which police said could lead to prosecution, is the latest in a series of arrests and charges filed against veterans aiding indigenous groups fighting the pipeline, which could soon be in operation. Last month, police filed charges against two veterans supporting Standing Rock, holding one in jail for several days. The prosecutions raised concerns that police were trying to prevent them from going to the camps.
The Guardian interviewed Sullivan last week on the day a highly militarized police operation began raiding the camps and making arrests. Throughout the day, some activists were setting fire to remaining structures at Oceti Sakowin, the main Standing Rock camp that is now completely evacuated.
Sullivan told the Guardian at the time that he witnessed an explosion in a tipi and helped two people to safety. On Thursday, he said the photo that police took from his Facebook shows him near a different burning structure. He said he was on the other end of camp when people first lit it on fire and that he briefly came over later and took a photo of it.
Sean Sullivan says the photo on his Facebook page was taken near a burning structure, but he had nothing to do with the fire. Photograph: Facebook
Sullivan said many journalists saw him take a photo and that the image he put on Facebook is from Vice News.
“I’m not a violent person. I’m just here for peaceful reasons,” said Sullivan, adding that he did not set any fires. “I was there to observe and assist as needed.”
The police screenshot of his Facebook page includes his comment saying, “I didn’t start that!”
The veterans charged last month were accused of drug offenses after they were searched and found to have small amounts of cannabis, which they said they were prescribed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some Native American activists are already facing serious arson charges and potentially hefty prison sentences. Many similar charges, however, were also dropped or rejected by a judge last year due to lack of evidence.
Asked if police had additional evidence linking Sullivan to the fire, Rob Keller, spokesman for the Morton County sheriff’s office, said “there may be, but I don’t have that information.” Keller said he suspects Sullivan could face charges, but did not provide further details.
Police also released photos of a woman who allegedly “was seen running away from a building just before it started on fire”.
“It seems like they are targeting the veterans,” said Matt Crane, one of the vets charged with a marijuana offense, who left Standing Rock before the evictions. “Why would they be going out of their way to do that?”
Crane said he suspected Sullivan became a target since he was a visible member of VeteransRespond who had talked to multiple reporters. “I know Sean. I’ve worked with Sean. I couldn’t picture him doing that in a million years.”
He added: “It feels like somehow they are trying to continue this narrative that the veterans … are a nuisance and criminals and dangerous. It’s total bullshit.”
Mark Sanderson, executive director of VeteransRespond, said he was shocked by the news. “This has to be the most ridiculous bit of police investigative work that I’ve ever seen. They just pull a picture off social media and throw it up and say he’s a suspect.”
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