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UPDATED: NCMC board to pursue inquiry into Line 5 protest scuffle

 North Central Michigan College seen from above
North Central Michigan College, in Petoskey.

LATEST (07/14/23): The North Central Michigan College Board of Trustees will pursue an investigation into the melee between protesters and college staff that occurred last month at a guest lecture on Enbridge's Line 5.

The motion was passed behind closed doors during a special meeting Friday after an inquiry was requested in a letter from the Association of Faculty and Professional Staff.

In a text-copy of the motion, the board said it has “been working with the City of Petoskey Department of Public Safety and is reviewing statements of Luncheon Lecture participants that were in attendance on June 22, to determine the facts surrounding this incident.”

The board’s investigation will be through the Michigan Community College Association. No further details were offered Friday.

"I welcome the findings of an independent investigation," Finley said in a statement. "This will help us all move forward."

The incident occurred at a ticketed NCMC’s Luncheon Lecture Series event featuring Enbridge Community Engagement Manager Paul Meneghini, who was invited to present on the planned Great Lakes Tunnel Project beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

The $500-million tunnel project would encase Line 5 — Enbridge's 69-year-old dual pipelines that move crude oil and natural gas liquids along the Straits of Mackinac, and across the U.S.-Canada border. Both the pipeline and the project are flashpoints for a number of groups concerned about the environmental impact to the Straits, tribal sovereignty and safety.

A shaky video, shot by protesters shared with IPR, showed them interrupting the event, chanting “No Line 5,” before they were pushed out of the room by a group of people that allegedly included President David Finley.

Woodward Video.mp4

Another video shows the same scene from the audience. It was recorded by Ed Timm, who was in attendance at the lecture. The video was shared with IPR by both North Central Michigan College and protesters.

Audiance Video.mp4

After seeing the video and media reports, NCMC’s Faculty Association requested a neutral third-party conduct an inquiry into the incident.

“If this had happened at MSU or University of Michigan, this would be a firestorm,” Faculty Association President Chet Jessick said.

In a statement he read over the phone, Jessick said Finley may have violated a section of the employee handbook that says staff should refrain from violent behavior.

“In addition to the concerns about the alleged physical altercation, we also see the potential infringement on the civil rights of protesters and the chilling effect that President Finley’s alleged actions may have on free speech and open discourse on our campus as a major issue,” the statement said. “As a public educational institution bound by the principles of the First Amendment, North Central Michigan College is responsible for upholding and protecting the rights of free speech, assembly and expression for all members of its community.”

“A thorough investigation is imperative to restore the confidence in the protection of free speech and ensure that our campus remains a safe and inclusive environment for robust intellectual discourse.”

NCMC officials said the school's Board of Trustees received a letter written by faculty members on June 30 requesting an investigation, and a special meeting of the Board of Trustees has been planned for 10 a.m. Friday to discuss it.

The trustees will meet in closed session to decide whether an inquiry will move forward, according to a board statement.

Holly T. Bird, an attorney representing the protesters and an affiliate with the Michigan Water Protectors Legal Task Force, said the group gave statements to local police on the physical violence they experienced.

One anonymous water protector said in a statement he left the protest "bloodied and bruised," and another submitted a photo of a lacerated forehead.

Bird said she applauds the faculty association for requesting an inquiry.

"No one has the right to physically remove someone or physically attack somebody in that way," she said. "Those are things that should be left up to law enforcement who are specially trained in those matters."

Bird said the protesters did not come to the event to be arrested and would have stayed within a designated protest area if they were shown one.

According to a previous NCMC statement, "The college supports orderly protests on campus and tried to redirect them to a space designated in the center of campus for protestors/demonstrations."

That space, according to NCMC officials is large concrete circle near the center of campus.

"As the protestors hid in the bathroom prior to barging into the conference room, NCMC officials did not have the opportunity to direct them to the designated location," the statement read. "Even after the incident, they were twice offered the opportunity to peacefully protest in the designated location. The protestors rejected this opportunity while shouting expletives at NCMC staff. The protestors fled the scene on foot."

NCMC does not have campus security, instead at the college’s request, Petoskey Public Safety patrolled the perimeter of campus prior to the event looking for large gatherings or protesting behavior, and none was noted.

Both parties in the incident have discussed potentially pressing charges with police.

Trustees and Finley did not respond to requests for comment before press time. Finley was out of the office this week, according to a receptionist at the college.

Another Line 5 within the Luncheon Lecture Series discussion is scheduled for Aug. 17 at NCMC. This event will be a panel that includes Bird as well as Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians tribal members JoAnne Cook, Netawn Kiogima and Deleta Smith and legal perspective from Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW).

Currently, Line 5 is being discussed on several fronts.

The state and Enbridge announced “The Great Lakes Tunnel” in 2018, but in 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Enbridge to shut down Line 5 by revoking a 1953 easement. Michigan and Enbridge are waiting for a federal judge to decide if the argument over Whitmer’s shutdown order should be heard in a state or federal court.

In 2021, Canada invoked the 1977 Transit Pipeline Treaty with the U.S. for the first time. The treaty sets forth agreements related to the transit of oil across the border. In doing so, Canada could make Line 5 a nation-to-nation issue and stall litigation on the state level.

In April 2023, leaders from 51 tribal nations sent a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling on Canada to withdraw its invocation of the 1977 Transit Pipeline Treaty. Before that, all 12 of Michigan’s federally recognized tribes signed a letter to President Joseph Biden asking him to allow the state’s efforts to shut down Line 5.

In June, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Bad River Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin which sued Enbridge over Line 5. The judge ordered the Canadian energy company to shut down and move part of Line 5 off the Bad River Band’s reservation within three years.

In early July, Enbridge said it can relocate a section of its Line 5 pipeline to comply with a judge’s order, but that it also is appealing the decision. The company filed permit requests to reroute the pipeline around the reservation back in 2020, and is urging quick government action on those permits.

The decision to build a tunnel underneath the Straits of Mackinac to shield Line 5 from damage was delayed to 2025 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In March, the Corps announced that it would take an additional 18 months to review Enbridge's permit application for the tunnel project. A recent decision in June, reported by The Detroit News, showed the Corps will only consider the 4 miles of Straits pipeline, which was lauded by Enbridge and decried by environmental groups that wanted the pipeline considered in its 645-mile entirety.

After the protest incident at NCMC, Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy released a statement saying the company "recognizes the rights of people to express their views legally and peacefully, and to discuss Enbridge’s business and projects. We encourage active discussions about our operations and projects, as long as everyone is respectful of one another and non-violent.”

Editor's note, July 12, 2023, 6:02 p.m.: We've updated this story since it was initially posted with more context and information, with editing help from the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.