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Protesters Block Highway To Mount Rushmore Amid President's July 4th Celebration


To South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore now that is where President Trump plans to celebrate Independence Day this evening, he along with as many as 7,500 other people will take in a fireworks display courtesy of South Dakota taxpayers. Hours before the event is scheduled to begin, however, protesters are blocking one of the major highways into the site. For more on tonight's event, we turn to Lee Strubinger of South Dakota Public Radio. He is at Mount Rushmore. Hey there, Lee.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise. How are you?

KELLY: I am all right. Thank you. And you are already there - right? - inside the event. What are you seeing?

STRUBINGER: Yeah. I'm - it's a filled auditorium, if you will, outside amphitheater. Right now, plenty of patriotic music's being played. I know - I think it's the Marine Band is getting set up to play some orchestral music. And it's a packed house. It's been a packed house for a couple hours now. And it's been really, really hot all day.

KELLY: Yeah. Now, meanwhile, there's this protest blocking one of the main roads heading into there. I am reading that police in riot gear have moved in. They're to clear the road. Give me a little background here. What are the protesters upset about?

STRUBINGER: They're upset with the president himself and what his administration sort of represents. There are - the protest itself is being organized by several Native Americans. You might recall the Dakota Access Pipeline two years ago...

KELLY: Of course.

STRUBINGER: ...And him approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, some of those things. So - and, you know, just the whole event itself. You know, the carving of Mount Rushmore is very controversial in Indian country. It's a sacred mountain for the Lakota. And so just kind of getting out and also getting, you know, their voices heard. And as you said, they were able to shut down the one highway that event organizers were using to bring people up into the memorial. What I'm being told now is that attendees or vehicles that are heading down the major highway before they head up to the memorial - which is about 2 miles away - they're being told to turn around to go out back to either Rapid City or they're being rerouted through another town in the Black Hills called Hill City and coming in that other way.

KELLY: I mentioned that there are fireworks tonight, which would, you know, be in line. We are in July Fourth weekend kicking off tonight. But was that part of this, the fireworks over sacred land, that was part of what protesters are upset or worked up about?

STRUBINGER: Yeah. There's always concerns for damage. I spoke with a gentleman earlier who's a spokesperson for the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. And, you know, he said that they're concerned about, you know, irreparable damage in and around this area. Fireworks had happened here before. And it's been 11 years since they've - since they've happened. So certainly not the first...

KELLY: Yeah. They've been banned at Mt. Rushmore for a while, more than a decade. Yeah.

STRUBINGER: Yeah. And they were stopped, you know, due to fear of, you know, fire, which is a very real potential out here. The Black Hills National Forest is in a moderate drought. But I know that they have plenty of crews that are out and sort of monitoring and will - their plan is to sort of move in towards the monument after the fireworks and put out any spot fires that might sort of crop up.

KELLY: Right. Right. And I will note, I'm looking at dispatches from the White House press corps there indicating that Trump is planning to arrive at the monument by helicopter tonight. So we'll see what impact this protest on the highway will have, if any. That is Lee Strubinger of South Dakota Public Radio. Thanks.

STRUBINGER: Yeah. You're welcome, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.

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