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LAWTON, Okla.–Armed police officers escorted members of Westwin Resistance out of a Lawton City Council meeting Tuesday after they halted the meeting with chants urging the city to stop construction of the nation’s first cobalt and nickel refinery.

The coalition of citizens from local Tribes and the city of Lawton have been organizing for months to push the city to reverse course on its support for Westwin Elements. The company is building the potentially hazardous facility on the ancestral land of Kiowa, Comanche and Apache Tribes without their approval.

Chanting “shut it down,” members of Westwin Resistance used the public comment portion of Monday’s city council meeting to apply public pressure on the city.

lawton council meeting
Lawton Mayor Stan Booker, center, reacts to members of Westwin Resistance disrupting the Lawton City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo by Creeseworks)

As Lawton Mayor Stan Booker tried to speak over the small group of land defenders, they continued chanting louder. In response, roughly half a dozen police officers forced out the group of mostly women and elders.

“There are burial sites down there. There are burial sites that y’all don’t even know about and y’all don’t care about,” said Shawn Dae, a Kiowa and Kootenai woman who led the chants. “They’re digging up our relatives,” she yelled as officers escorted her out of the public building.

Westwin Resistance leaders speak out at rally

Just before the Lawton City Council meeting took place, members of Westwin Resistance held a press conference and rally outside Lawton City Hall.

Members of the group spoke to a crowd of gatherers outside City Hall, holding a prayer ceremony, explaining the harms of the refinery, and preparing residents for the 2 p.m. Lawton City Council meeting.

Gen Hadley is a Lawton resident, Comanche Nation citizen and organizer for AIM (American Indian Movement).

Along with health, environmental and tribal sovereignty concerns, Hadley said she’s worried the project will bring more “man camps.”

“It’s a staggering number all across the United States, and in Oklahoma alone there’s close to 500 missing and murdered Indigenous people,” Hadley told the Black Wall Street Times.

lawton council meeting
Gen Hadley, front, prepares to speak during a rally organized by Westwin Resistance, a coalition opposed to the Westwin Elements cobalt/nickel refinery in Lawton, Oklahoma on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo by Creeseworks)

Studies, such as one from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2019, show work camps connected to extractive industries are associated with higher rates of violence against Indigenous women.

Members of Westwin Resistance demanded the city engage in a new public meeting to explain the health and environmental dangers the project will bring, along with an environmental impact study and full consent from surrounding Tribes.

They also want the city to perform an archeological dig to determine whether the bones and bodies of Indigenous relatives are buried under the site.

Indigenous elder demands environmental impact study at Lawton City Council meeting

Monday’s protest marked the second time members of Westwin Resistance voiced their concerns at a city council meeting in their months-long effort to stop construction of a first-in-the-nation project.

Lavetta Yeahquo, an Oglala Lakota elder, spoke during the city council meeting’s public comment portion, just before officers escorted out other Westwin Resistance members. Yeahquo recalled the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation.

At the time, Oglala Lakota members and supporters of AIM seized control of the town in protest of their inability to impeach a corrupt tribal president and the U.S. government’s failure to uphold treaties.

“Do an environmental impact study,” Yeahquo urged council members. “I’m an elder. I’m retired, and I want to see my City of Lawton do better.”

lawton council meeting
Lavetta Yeahquo speaks during the Lawton City Council meeting on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo by Creeseworks)

To view a livestream of the Lawton City Council Meeting, click here.

Why has there been no cobalt refinery in the U.S. before?

As climate change continues to wreak havoc on communities across the globe, the switch to renewable energy is becoming more common. Facilities that produce rare metals such as cobalt and nickel provide the resources in many of the items we use every day, such as smartphones and electric vehicles.

Yet Honor the Earth, a national Indigenous and environmental advocacy organization, refers to projects like Westwin’s refinery as “green colonialism,” an effort by corporations to push through extractive projects that harm the environment without consulting Indigenous communities.

The bulk of cobalt mining ownership remains in the hands of foreign governments like China, which has been heavily criticized for contributing to a humanitarian catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The African nation produces roughly 70% of the world’s cobalt, with much of it gathered through child slave labor.

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Children were found working alongside adults at cobalt operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (CNN Business)

There have been no cobalt or nickel refineries established in the U.S. Aside from the difficulties of sourcing the rare earth metals, the health and environmental hazards make it a dangerous endeavor.

Depending on the dose and length of exposure to nickel, it can cause severe health effects, including contact dermatitis, cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung fibrosis, and respiratory tract cancer, according to the National Library of Medicine. Cobalt can also cause cancer in humans.

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Westwin CEO fundraising at Trump’s house

In a November interview with Lawton’s KSWO, 28-year-old Westwin Elements CEO KaLeigh Long said she was motivated to help the U.S. produce its own cobalt after witnessing human rights abuses in Congo.

“There have been millions of people who have died in Congo. I’m a devout Christian and I was really compelled by the human rights crises in Congo,” Long said.

The City of Lawton and county entities agreed to a $3 million taxpayer-funded incentive package for the pilot project, a significant drop from a previous $24 million agreement that was watered down after issues with the level of experience on Westwin’s board.

Long maintains the support of city, state and national far-right figures, from Lawton City Council, to Governor Stitt. She’s organized a fundraising event at twice-impeached former president and criminal defendant Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago home in Florida on March 5th.

Yet her failure to engage with local Tribes, whose ancestors blood remain rooted in the soil, have led to heightened distrust and opposition.

Lawton City Council ignores demands at meeting

“It’s a bunch of us, not just Tribal members,” Kiowa and Absentee Shawnee citizen Kaysa Whitley, a member of Westwin Resistance told the Black Wall Street Times after the city council meeting. She said the issues go beyond tribal sovereignty.

“Our people have been murdered all across Lawton. We think it’s important to do an archaeological dig to see if we have any relatives buried over there,” Whitely said.

“This is ancestral KCA land (Kiowa, Comanche, Apache). Literally our ancestors roamed all of these plains. So, for them to build a refinery on top of our ancestor’s bones, that really says a lot.”

City leaders did not respond to protester’s demands at the city council meeting as Westwin Elements continues to rush through completion of the pilot plant.

While the city has no intention of stopping the project, members of Westwin Resistance and their growing number of supporters have no intention of backing down either.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

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