Trayvon Martin, Stand-Your-Ground Cowards and Border-Town Murders

Oliver J. Semans

The George Zimmerman case is not just about stand your ground, or self-defense; it’s about the prejudice that exists to this day, it’s about a prejudicial justice system that makes the color of the victim’s skin predetermine the verdict of not guilty, with the message sent out to individuals like Zimmerman that you can get away with such a horrific act. Thanks to him, a child is dead. Here in Indian country, we understand that all too well.

After the not-guilty verdict was announced in the Zimmerman case, I believe most Indians felt the pain and sorrow Trayvon Martin’s family was going through. The verdict brought back memories of the tragic and in most cases unsolved deaths of Indians in border towns throughout Indian country. In my case, it was my uncle who was found dead on Main Street in Winner, South Dakota; no charges were ever filed. The families of the dozens of people whose deaths are unsolved, even uninvestigated, in Pine Ridge also understand the pain.

Renee Vaughan holds a sign during the Zimmerman trial (AP)As a former law enforcement officer and then chief public defender of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, I have observed that a person with a firearm develops “courage” they did not have without it, and that, in more cases than not, this leads to a person’s death. The law in most jurisdictions once required people to retreat from confrontational situations, rather than seek to escalate them. The new so-called stand-your-ground and self-defense laws create a different situation, exacerbated by the verdict in the Zimmerman case. The requirement is turned around, with the result that this newly “courageous” person understands he can provoke rather than retreat, ignore the advice of trained police officers and, if the situation escalates, kill if he wishes.

As a trained police officer, I know the kind of skills and practice it takes to defuse any confrontation. Chances are, an untrained young person confronted unexpectedly, perhaps on a dark street, does not have these skills. He or she will likely panic, fight back, or even just sass back, upon being threatened and be killed in “self-defense,” as young Trayvon was.

In most cases, tribal members dread going to border towns because of the well-known, well-documented prejudice of the local townspeople; they want our money, but not our presence. Now with the precedent of the Zimmerman case, homegrown vigilantes can think they can justifiably confront a tribal member for any reason and then STAND THEIR GROUND and call it self-defense. The end result? One fewer Indian.

Although we dread the drive to the border towns, in most cases tribal members have no choice but to go there. These border towns are where we are required to get our license plates, pay taxes on fee lands, register to vote and early vote, even shop for groceries, because on most reservations these are not available.

Although we have a name for areas that present danger for our people (border towns) other minorities know theirs as the suburbs. If you dare go where you are not wanted, you do so knowing that if problems arise justice will not be on your side or that of surviving family.

Case in point, Robert "Boo" Many Horses’s body was found stuffed head first in a garbage container in an alley in Mobridge, South Dakota, on June 30, 1999. In October 1999, the magistrate dismissed the state's charges against four white teenagers who had allegedly placed him there. No one ever answered for this death.

Over the last five years in Rapid City, South Dakota, eight bodies, six of them Lakota, have been pulled from a shallow stream called Rapid Creek, which runs through South Dakota's second largest city. As of this moment, there have been no arrests.

Tribal members have faced this forever, but because of our now-small population, our isolation and stereotyping, we are not heard. Thank the Creator, this is not the case for Trayvon; his family, friends and prominent black and white supporters will be heard. As a result, the license to kill will surely be removed from our laws.

Although his death is tragic and we as Indian people feel the pain of his family, it is our hope that changes for the better will come from this. As a Native, I can tell you the deaths of our family members have not brought about this change. However, we support justice for Trayvon in hopes that the situation for all minorities will improve throughout the United States.

Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions.

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tmsyr11's picture
THis is likely a dated opinion from a week ago after the JURY gave their decision. But the facts remain, what is being done NOW this week for THOSE tribal members ( young men) killings and/or maiming other tribal members over ramphant alcohol drinking, drunk driving, drugs, gang retaliations. WIth as much time being wasted to a Law Jury's decision over two people who happened to b e in the wrong place at the wrong time, killings, murders continue throughout indian reservations. Where is the outrage for these 'racial' events? Where are the collectively wet eyes for indian on indian tragic events particularly for two people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Interesting with your comment to "stand your ground" defense. Should your reactionary racial alarm based on a slam-dunk jury decision be just as applicable to.....home owners living on a federal indian reservation? The response time on tribal police can be sometimes 20-40 minutes away considering the vast array of land (if your a large reservation - TO, Navajo, etc.) Should i stand and wait while community gangster and 'hoodie-wearing' rats invade my home and steal my tv, x-box, shot-gun, pistol, jewelry, rugs, traditional effects (baskets, deerskin, crystal, etc.)? This is one reason WHY there is always some-body in the house as family can't leave house vacant from less than 24-hours without the threat of home invasion. It seems the traditional elders (who have gracefully passed on), always reminded us (young grandchildren) to get inside the house as it was getting dark and night was going to happen. We had no business to be outdoors at night considering our time was during the day-light. If Trayvon had been in his house that night, would he still be alive today? If break-ins, vandalism, property damage had not occurred in prior nights in the COMMUNITY where George Zimmerman, would Zimmerman have not encountered this YOUNG MAN wearing a hood?
chahta ohoyo's picture
halito, oliver....you are truly a point of light in the darkness...the most shameful part of this story is that a person of OBVIOUS hispanic descent(altho this was NEVER mentioned by the press) perpetrated this crime on another non-white person...
chahta ohoyo
Two Bears Growling's picture
tmsyr11, The elders & grandparents were right my friend. Kids NEED in the home when darkness draws near. I have always made sure my children & those in my care were in the house as it got dark. Those are the times the worse things seem to happen to folks it seems. Evil needs no excuse to strike my friends. It lurks & searches for someone to strike. It is the nature of those evil ones. I always tell others to PLEASE travel as a group when you do have to be out & about. The more eyes we have in Indian Country looking out for our many people the better off we will be my friends & extended family. May the Creator look out & protect those of our people who are living in a good way. May His Army of Light always look out for the least among our people: The young, elderly, disabled & weak. Blessings, peace & protection to all of you & those so special in your lives.
Two Bears Growling
Jacqueline Gowran's picture
Lets start with not allowing our children to be in a place/situation that they should not. We must protect what is most precious to us, our children, our future existence. Trayvon was a child and yes tmsyr11... The boy Should not have been out at night..... Going to a store to buy candy. Really.... Is that a good idea when the time to rest is near.
Jacqueline Gowran
Robertico Henderson's picture
Before we concern ourselves with what goes on in the dominant culture we should fix what is going on in our reservations. As an addictive disorders therapist and educator I assure you, we have plenty to work on in our own backyard. Let's talk about fixing that first.
Robertico Henderson
nativewomn's picture
If you'd been paying attention, Zimmerman is white and Hispanic, but only cops to being white, and is know for HATING hispanics...and blacks...and anyone, basically, who isn't white.
Staring Eagle's picture
I disagree...this op\ed is oozing racism and contempt from the very beginning. Go ahead trying to keep our people in the dark ages and see how that works. Our people should stand tall and reject the racism that inflicts us from both in and outside. We are in charge of our destiny...not the ones that would choose to keep our red blood covered in another mans clothing. Be proud...arm yourselves against all evils...including wolves in sheep's clothing.
Staring Eagle
tateota's picture
Thank you for your concern for Indian Country, normally I don’t respond to comments concerning my opinion but I will make an exception for you. We know all too well about crimes in Indian Country and we have been addressing it. We also realize what is happening in Indian Country did not just happen overnight and will not be fixed overnight. The problem you identified occurs because of poverty and despair created by individuals with idealisms who changes Federal and State laws to benefit themselves or corporations at the cost of Tribes. It has been proven over and over that social and economic conditions occur when minorities are kept from participating in electing official who create these laws. As of today there are States including where I live that create barriers just to keep Tribal members from voting. In order to create change on reservations we must create laws that are fair, this is not happening. Law Enforcement in Indian Country has always been underfunded and for that matter our schools which again is part of creating problems in poverty stricken reservations. Trayvon Marten was not in anyone’s home, because he is Black and your reaction I am guessing he died as a warning to others. You have completely changed the circumstances in order to justify your stance or should I say STAND YOUR GROUND. Children were not only called in at night, but they were called in, each one by their names not because of the evil the night carries, but because their selves, their being were not completely attached and calling them would bring them home as a whole body and spirit. Our young men always went out into the night it was part of our culture to experience mother earth and it creatures at every hour of the day. I could go on and on, but I realize you and I will just disagree so I guess I will just get ready to go outside and get some yard work done. It’s raining a little so I will put on my hoody; I hope I don’t have to go up town to get some skittles because I might meet someone who wants to stand their ground.
eddiemac's picture
In response to Mr. Semans' post, I would like to submit my further thoughts on this already timeworn subject. Mr. Semans: I too am an ex law enforcement professional with over 30 years in one form of law enforcement or another, private, military, municipal and federal. Need I remind you that civil law enforcement is 99% re-active and only 1% pro-active. When were you, a "trained police officer" ever on the scene, prior to the actual crime occurring, to prevent it? If you were like me, you got there only in time to witness the agony of the survivors, who in most cases, never survived the loss of family treasure, family dignity, or family life. In the 30 minutes it took for you (or me) to learn of the crime, the "perps" had time to be on their merry way out of town or state, wagging their tails behind them. A vast percentage of crimes against persons or property go unsolved. If they are captured and brought to justice, it is by the hard work of street cops and detectives, who, after doing so, pass the ball off to the legal agencies of municipal and state's attorneys and judges. The person to person contact of victim and law enforcement officer ends there. The "perp" is brought before a court of law and tried. The "perp" is still considered innocent, even with mounds of evidence against him/her. The "perp" either voluntarily on involuntarily pleads innocent and the trial process starts. Listen up now Mr. Semans, as you may have forgotten this important point. Evidence is given for and against the "perp" who sits before a jury of peers selected by the Prosecution and the Defense. At the termination of presentation of "facts", the jury is instructed by the Judge on how they must find the defendant and explains the law at question to them. The jury then sits and digests all the facts and evidence presented and, based on that deliberative process, finds the defendant either not guilty or guilty in all, or in part, of the States charges against him/her. That, sir, in our governmental process that has lived and endured for almost 250 years, is called JUSTICE. Like the end result or not, it is just what George Zimmermnan AND Trayvon Martin received. Had this so called "child" been home that night, and not out roaming a neighborhood that was not his, he would never had been challenged by Mr. Zimmerman, a recognized neighborhood watch person. He would never had to utter the racial term "Cracker" to his lady friend on the telephone which first set the racial stage, even before Mr. Zimmerman challenged him. Were you there Mr. Semans? Were you able to see under the disguising hood of this stranger? Did you see who was on top or who was on the bottom of the fracas? Did you see for yourself who was getting pummeled and who felt that his life might be in danger? NO! You were not! Your argument is strictly based on HEAR SAY! Not allowable in a court of law! Maybe in yours Mr. Semans, but not in a Court of Law in the United States. Mr. Zimmerman is and was entitled to the same rights as "child" Trayvon under the law. Had this little hooded hoodlum been at home that night instead of roaming the streets for "candy and soda", he would be alive today. As far as your contention that the "Stand Your Ground Law" in Florida (or anywhere else) creates a new class of people you call "the newly courageous" you're stepping on thin ice. This law and others like it where passed by the good courageous people of this nation to finally take a stand against and not retreat from, in their homes or while peacefully enjoying their right to be upon the streets, these punks who range free, victimizing good law abiding citizens. Punks who realize that their actions will probably go unchecked by a slow, reactive police force or an unprepared court system. Punks that have , prior to "Stand Your Ground" laws, roamed the streets nightly, free to rape, rob and murder or maim. The "Stand Your Ground" laws have freed the law abiding citizens of America from the shackles that made them back up. It has freed them to say "NO" I'm not backing up from another possibly murderous punk hidden beneath the disguise of a hood". Those poor NA souls that you describe who met hideous deaths were not the victims of "Stand Your Ground" laws. They were victims of their fellow man. Their deaths, in no way, were a result of "Stand Your Ground" laws. Stand Your Ground laws in many ways resulted from crimes of this sort. Sadly, due mostly to human nature, these terrible crimes against persons will continue. We "newly courageous" citizens of Florida feel much safer in the knowledge that we no longer need to cower from these hooded vipers roaming our neighborhoods and streets. We pass all legal requirements and tests to own and carry weapons of self defense. And we rest, assured, that the hooded punks know this and this knowledge causes them to pause and think before they take any illegal action against us. I appreciate and admire your support of justice for Trayvon. He deserved it and, received it. I hope that all future Trayvons also receive justice. And I truly hope that they consider this justice before they step out into the world of the "newly courageous.
tateota's picture
Shame on you Mr. courageous, it goes to show individuals in suits or shirts & dress pants are far more dangerous than a young man in a hoody.