Automatic Weapons & Guards in Camo: Welcome to Mining Country, Wis.
Rob Ganson didn’t realize he was living in a war zone. On July 6, he was making his usual Saturday walk to one of the Gogegic Taconite drilling sites in the Penokee Hills. He hikes up there each week to photograph and document activities by the mining company, which has eight drilling sites in the area.
Ojibwe mining opponents have built a Harvest Camp to protest plans by Gogebic Taconite to dig a giant open pit iron ore mine adjacent to the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Local tribes, environmentalists and concerned citizens say that the mine will pollute water in the Bad River watershed, home to several rivers that drain into Lake Superior. This pollution, they say, will damage fish, wildlife and wild rice and contribute to decline in quality of life in the region. Harvest camp occupants and supporters are making regular trips to the various exploratory drilling sites in the Penokee Hills in order to document work that GTAC is doing. (Related story: Fighting Mines in Wisconsin: A Radical New Way to Be Radical)
Ganson and his friends had walked about three-quarters of a mile from the Penokee Harvest Camp site to take a look at the most recent site where GTAC is conducting exploratory drilling. “We were just a group of middle-aged folks—we weren’t engaged in any activism. We just wanted to see where GTAC was drilling,” he recalls.
Walking slowly because of his emphysema, Ganson, 55, says he was surprised when he and his four friends approached the drill site and encountered a man dressed head to foot in camouflage, and carrying an assault rifle. Ganson was even more surprised when a second man suddenly appeared behind them in a similar outfit, also carrying an assault rifle. “I was kind of concerned for my wife,” he says. “I didn’t much like her walking into the midst of men carrying machine guns.”
Despite this unexpected display of firepower, Ganson focused on the job he had come to do: documenting what was happening at the drilling site. He also took some photos of the men.
As he was doing so, Ganson saw another man, also dressed in camouflage, sitting in a UTV parked at the drilling site. He reports that none of the men would speak to him. “I tried to strike up a conversation with them but they wouldn’t’ say a word,” he recalls. As Ganson and his friends approached the site, the first man met them at the entrance, clearly guarding the drilling area. He simply stood there facing them and holding an automatic rifle. Although they made no effort to follow the group; they made it clear that they were there to guard the site.
As Ganson and his group left he told one of the men, “Well, I hope they gave you guys some good mosquito dope.” He says that drew a small smile from the guard.
Paul Demain, co-founder of the Harvest Camp says he saw two men carrying assault rifles and dressed in camouflage during a visit to drilling site number 6 the next evening, on Sunday, July 7. He noted that one of the men was sitting in a vehicle with Arizona state license plates.
Bob Seitz, spokesperson for GTAC confirms that the company has hired security for the drilling sites and that the men have been up in the hills for a while. “These people aren’t supposed to be seen,” he explains. “This is probably the first time that visitors from the Harvest Camp have spotted them.”
He would not disclose whether the guards were employees of GTAC or of a private security company. “I will only say that we do have security on our property to protect our people. These guards are the same that we have had for some time.”
In a July 8 story in the Wisconsin State Journal, Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar said that the guards are from Bulletproof Securities, an Arizona company that boasts a “no compromises security force.” Both Jauch and Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland are writing a letter to GTAC, asking them to withdraw the guards, according to the WSJ article.
Seitz insists the security personnel are not there to intimidate Harvest Camp protesters. “These guards would tell you that they have not impeded any peaceful protest activities,” he says. That statement is difficult to confirm, since the guards refused to talk to Ganson or Demain.
According to Seitz, GTAC hired guards after a June 11 attack by mine protesters on their personnel at one of the drill sites. “About a dozen masked people attacked our rig and barricaded the road so that law enforcement couldn’t get in to help us. They threatened our personnel, a woman and threatened to harm her family.”
A woman from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Katie Kloth, has been charged by the Iron County D.A. for alleged theft and damage to property resulting from the June 11 protest according to Wisconsin Public Radio.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled next week for Kloth.
Seitz says he does not believe that the occupants of the Harvest Camp are responsible for the violence. He adds, however, that there have been subsequent attacks on GTAC drilling sites but declined to elaborate, saying only that protesters have approached the drilling sites at night. (Related story: Eco-Terrorism or Diversionary Tactics at Harvest Camp?)
According to Seitz, there are several camps of protesters in the woods near the GTAC drilling sites. “We have had surveillance on these camps,” he says. “I am not going to go into detail, however, about our security arrangement.” He claims there have been threats of violent action against GTAC on several Facebook blogs but wouldn’t provide details.
He adds, however, that GTAC has no problems with the people at the Harvest Camp. “We support their right to peacefully protest and have not interfered with that right.”
Speaking about GTAC’s ramped up security measures, Demain told the WSJ, “It’s come to a bad situation when you have to have a machine-gun to protect a business that people around here don’t want.”