One year ago this week, Sophia Wilansky stood on a bridge outside Bismarck, North Dakota, in a crowd of hundreds of protesters.
Wilansky, then 21, had traveled to North Dakota to protest the construction of a natural gas pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. She planned to stay the winter.
Instead, in the early hours of November 21, 2016, a grenade nearly tore off her arm.
“She’s dealing with a life-changing injury,” said her father, Wayne Wilansky. “And psychologically that’s very difficult. The year anniversary comes up, it’s very disturbing.”
Sophia Wilansky no longer speaks to the press. Her father spoke with the Forward on November 17, days before the anniversary.
On the bridge last year, police attacked protesters with water cannons and rubber bullets. At 4 a.m., protesters say, police threw a concussion grenade that exploded near Wilansky’s arm.
Police deny that they used concussion grenades that night, but they have charged no protesters with possessing or using explosives.
The injury has, for the moment, put Wilansky’s life on hold. Unable to use her injured hand, she has had to relearn basic life skills. She can now chop vegetables and cook one-handed, and she has figured out how to zipper her jacket using her mouth.
“She’s remarkably resilient,” her father said. “In some respects, I think her mental status is better than mine.”
Wilansky graduated from Williams College in 2016. She was a committed anti-pipeline activist, protesting pipeline construction in the Boston area and the Hudson Valley. In college she was an actress and was active in the arts scene and in environmental groups.
“Sophia was not someone who cared what others thought of her,” Joseph Baca, a friend of Wilansky’s from Williams, told the Forward last year. “If she believed in something, she was going to stand up for it and make her opinion heard.”
Wilansky has undergone four surgeries this year. She has another scheduled next month. It won’t be the last. She’s now waiting for a nerve transplant from March to take hold. If it works, surgeons will begin to transfer tendons, one at a time.
At this point, she has no feeling on one side of the hand and little motion. A small victory came in recent weeks when she was able to move her thumb slightly.
“That’s a major improvement,” her father said.
The FBI seized key evidence in the days after the injury. Agents took both the shrapnel removed from Wilansky’s arm and the clothes she was wearing when she was injured. Wayne Wilansky said he plans to sue for their return in the next few days, in order to gather evidence for a federal civil rights lawsuit over the explosion.
Meanwhile, the pipeline Sophia Wilansky protested has been built and is operational. In early November, a separate nearby pipeline spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil near Amherst, South Dakota, a few hundred miles from Standing Rock.
“Not exactly a surprise,” her father said.
Wilansky now lives at home with her parents in New York City, still unable to work. “She’s going to physical therapy and dealing with the pain and dealing with the surgeries,” her father said.
Successive surgeries have made it difficult for her to cut down on the painkillers she takes. “She tried to stop the opiates cold turkey, and that was a disaster,” her father said. “Every couple of weeks she tries to reduce the dosage a little bit.”
The government, meanwhile, has made it difficult for Wilansky to travel, according to her father. He said his daughter has traveled twice this year to South Dakota, where Native American groups honored her. Both times, a caravan of police cars pulled her over as she left the airport. On multiple recent trips to Canada to visit friends, Wilansky was detained crossing the border back into the United States.
“She gets depressed sometimes,” Wayne Wilansky said. “But she continues to move on and she’s very adaptable.”
But he expressed frustration at the government’s response to the incident. “They haven’t taken depositions or under-oath testimony from any of the police officers,” he said. “There’s 18 witnesses. They haven’t spoken to a single one. There’s no effort to get actually to the truth of what happened.”
In June, The Intercept published a report that traced local police claims that protesters had their own makeshift explosives to an FBI informant inside the protest camp.
“Obviously, disinformation is a major component of how they dealt with the protests,” Wayne Wilansky told The Intercept at the time.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported last week that FBI agents had sought evidence earlier this year, from her Facebook page, that Sophia Wilansky had broken federal explosive laws. She has not been charged, though AP reported that the investigation is ongoing.
Wilansky’s attorney told AP that it seemed to her the goal of the search may have been to look at Wilansky’s friends and associates.
“There’s nothing on her Facebook page that would concern me,” her father told AP.
Sophia Wilansky Is Still Injured A Year After Grenade
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.