by Alan S. Hale, Standard Freeholder, February 23, 2019
AWKESASNE — The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) is pleading for calm after a protest in front of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service headquarters became violent on Friday night, resulting in a police SUV to be stolen by protesters and burned on an international ice bridge that connects different portions of the community.
Grand Chief Abram Benedict declined to comment when contacted about the riot, instead deferring to a statement put out on behalf of the MCA and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which governs the American portion of the Indigenous community.
“Akwesasne has faced many challenges as part of an ongoing effort to ensure that the health and safety of the community remains a priority,” reads the statement. “At this time, we respectfully acknowledge the differing perspectives on this matter and encourage continued peaceful dialogue. Throughout this process, we continue to seek the assistance of all Akwesasronon in promoting peace, harmony, and the working relationships we’ve proudly achieved in recent years.”
The Standard-Freeholder was at the scene of the protest prior to the violence but left before things came to a head. The following narrative of what happened was reconstructed by the accounts of several eyewitnesses, all of whom were protesters. Mohawk police chief Shawn Dulude was not available early Saturday afternoon to give the police’s version of events.
On Friday evening, the Mohawk police raided a recreational cannabis dispensary on Cornwall Island called Wild Flower Cannabis Dispensary for the second time in a month and reportedly arrested some of the proprietors. The store is owned by a group of traditionalists known as the Indian Way Longhouse, which does not recognize MCA authority and gave itself a cannabis-selling licence to open the store.
The raid caused people sympathetic to the longhouse to proclaim the arrested individuals “political prisoners,” and a call was put out for a protest in front of Mohawk police headquarters.
Dozens of people arrived, and after an extremely tense standoff, the police agreed to meet with a few representatives from the protesters. Three women were chosen, each representing one of the community’s traditional Mohawk clans.
“They had a few demands,” explained Marlon Johnson, a former grand chief candidate and traditionalist supporter. “One of them was for all non-native police, including the chief of police, to resign.”
By all accounts, the discussion did not last long. The women re-emerged telling the crowd the police were unwilling to listen.
It is here that the situation began to degenerate.
Up until this point, there were only two Mohawk police officers on foot outside the building at least four more waiting in SUVs nearby. Now, eyewitnesses said, more officers came out of the building.
“Before you the tension the air was enough to cut glass, but now it was cutting diamonds,” recalled Charles Kader, who is associated with the Indian Way Longhouse. “The activists got very close to the police vehicles and the police had lost control of the perimeter by the time the women walked towards the protest fire. The men responded by closing with the police.”
Exactly how the violence started is not certain. Kader offered the explanation another longhouse member, Roger Jock Kanerahtiio of the Bear Clan was grabbed by an officer, causing Kanerahtiio to fall onto another officer, who was his cousin. When contacted on Saturday, Kanerahtiio, confirmed this account.
After that, the younger men at the protest attacked simultaneously, throwing punches and knees primarily. One protestor may have been armed with an aluminum baseball bat. The police did not pull their firearms, but protestors claim pepper spray was used and one person may have been tazed.
When the melee began, officers rushed out their SUVs to help deal with the situation. One of the vehicles had its windshield smashed, while the other was stolen and driven away by three young men because it had been left running vehicle running.
“There was a cop on the outside holding on for dear life as his own cruiser sped down the street,” said Johnson.
The police SUV was later found set on fire. Kader claims all of the tactical equipment, including a long gun, had been left inside.
Friday night’s violence brings the political crisis that has been slowly gripping Akwesasne since the community approved a $240-million land settlement agreement in December to a dangerous new level.
The Dundee Land Claim Settlement, and the way the referendum was conducted to ratify it angered and emboldened traditionalists in the community who do not accept the MCA as a legitimate government.
The crisis began to blossom when the Mohawk police raided two longhouse-licensed cannabis dispensaries for not having an MCA-issued licence. This action spawned wide-spread anger and even a series of petitions that aim to use the community’s election law to remove the entire Mohawk council from office.
One of the raided dispensaries, Wild Flower, reopened immediately in defiance of the MCA and the police and began restocking. The second raid came just over 24 hours after the store announced on Facebook it had received new cannabis to sell.
It is not clear how many people were arrested on Friday or how many injured.