BY MARK ANTHONY ROLO
It wasn’t that long ago that a few Minneapolis cops would go rogue and spend their time on duty harassing the city’s American Indians. They would drive up and down Franklin Avenue on the south side looking for a few good, usually intoxicated Indians to shake down, oftentimes using senseless violence.
At its worst, this violent racism by those hired to “protect and serve” would lead to dragging some of these Indians (mostly men) down to the base of the Franklin bridge. There the Indians would be beaten bloody. How many American Indians ended up in the hospital or were left for dead on the streets is unknown. But we know it did happen. And to con-firm that this is not just history, but something rampant today, a new report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that American Indians die at the hands of cops more than any other population group in this country.
According to the latest data collected by the CDC (1999 – 2015), American Indians are shot dead or die from manhandling by cops at a rate that is 12 percent higher than African Americans. And they die at a rate that is three times higher than whites. And according to the online database Fatal Encounters, which monitors police violence that results in deaths, 22 Indians died at the hands of cops in 2016. Now, one might say that is not a glaring number. But considering how few of us are still alive on this continent the numbers of Indians is irrelevant given that even one death is one too many.
Of course, the news of the CDC’s report comes as a surprise, even to American Indians. We remain the invisible race in this nation. However, on occasion, we do grab the headlines. And it almost always hits too close to home.
Last November, a teenage male living on my reservation, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, was shot point blank by a white county cop. Jason Pero’s family says the death of their son was unbelievably unnecessary. Jason was home from school because he was ill. The cop says the teenager waved a knife at him. The family angrily disputes this as fact.
Some reservation members, including me, say if it had been a tribal cop approaching Jason the result probably would have ended very differently. While not perfect and certainly not always above reproach, the handful of Bad River cops (who are white) know Indians and they know the community. No doubt when that Ashland County cop shot Jason Pero dead that day, the fear that enflames racism had to have played a major role in the decision to pull the trigger.
White America would like to think racism against American Indians no longer exists. And why wouldn’t they? If this country can dismiss the cop violence against African Americans while staring into the lens of a smart phone camera then yes, of course they would roll their eyes when confronted with the reality that police brutality against American Indians is not a thing of the past.
Back in the spotlight days of the American Indian Movement (AIM) exposing violence against Indians by cops and tribal governments was a founding cornerstone of the organization’s mission. This focus on Indian violence led to the Occupation of Wounded Knee. It led to AIM patrols on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis to confront cop brutality. And like tribal cops, AIM members were not perfect. But they were quick to take on the cops and the city.
I remember years ago a local reporter heard about some Minneapolis cops picking up two inebriated Indians and locking them in the trunk of their squad car to transport the men to a detox center. The reporter called AIM and it was not long before the organization raised enough hell to get pledges from the city that change would be swift. However, whether or not much change happened is debatable. But there is no dispute rogue racist cops still roam the city’s streets.
Yet, things remain unchanged on reservations. Border town racism is alive and well in Indian Country. The tragic death of Bad River’s Jason Pero reminds us of this reality. One has to wonder how many more senseless Indian deaths will it take before these border cops deal with their racism? Can real change take place when racism is clearly foundational to the training of how cops deal with Indians? The solution is more than classroom diversity and sensitivity training. Like other reservations, Bad River Indians are elbow to elbow each day with whites – in WalMart, job sites and in public schools. Indian 101 is nothing more than offensive lip service to those who should know better.
How many more Indian deaths will it take before border town communities understand that since the white man landed on our shores American Indian lives have always mattered. Is it too much to invest in recognizing and respecting the humanity of all people?
And lastly, many of our people say our invisibility has meant the survival of our race. I agree for the most part. But perhaps we have been paying too high of a price for the “luxury” of being invisible. The Pero family and the Bad River Tribe are not going to stay invisible on the outrageous death of one of their own. They are demanding the federal justice department investigate Jason’s death.
If we want cop violence to end we must, as a people, demand the kind of change that truly matters. And that begins with raising our collective voice.