A poster demanding justice for the August 2010 shooting of John T. Williams in Seattle.

Police Brutality Against Black and Brown People: We're In This Together

Gyasi Ross

Native people are the most loving people in the world. And it makes sense—so many of us have seen this movie before.

We got our own problems, right?  Still, ever since the Michael Brown tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, I’ve received hundreds of Facebook messages and emails—Native people understanding the connection between black folks’ interaction with law enforcement and Native folks’ interaction with law enforcement.  The Natives who’ve contacted me seem to know, “We’re not saying all police officers are bad.  Heck, most are ok.”  But those Natives know that when things do go haywire and a police officer does do something bad to someone, it’s usually someone brown. And when that brown-skinned person is killed or hurt badly, it’s usually for something small.  Insignificant.  Something that doesn’t deserve deadly force.  Like allegedly stealing cigars.  

That’s rough.  But to quote Bill Murrary in Stripes, “That’s the fact, Jack!”

RELATED: The Shooting Death of John T. Williams

Those Natives told me—if I get a chance to write about this—to express that they understand the family’s profound sense of loss and grief.  They were very clear when telling me that they stand with the people of Ferguson.  They recognize this—this looks familiar.  Maybe that’s why so many Native people are standing with the frustrated and grieving folks of Ferguson.  Maybe that’s why so many are up in arms about this recent unnecessary death of yet another brown person. 

Photo by Jack Storms

Many of Natives have seen this movie before.  This looks a lot like John T. Williams—the beautiful and brilliant Native carver, shot while breaking no laws by Seattle Police Officer Ian Burke.  We recognize how the inquest tried to paint John T. as aggressive, as drunk—the same way that the Ferguson Police Department “leaked” information that Michael Brown may have had weed in his system. 

So what?  Who doesn’t have weed in their system??  Weed doesn’t make you aggressive—it makes you hungry and lazy.  But the police department is attempting to make Brown look like a “thug”—which we all know is code for “ni**er.”  We recognize this doublespeak, the smokescreen. 

Protesters marching the Seattle streets demanding justice for John T. Williams.

But I digress.

This movie looks a lot like the recent Becky Sotherland incident, tasing over and over and over an unconscious Native man in Pine Ridge. Or AJ Longsolider, 18 years old and died in a jail cell, sick yet no one from the state would help him. 

This looks like Black Wall Street—there are plenty of Natives in Tulsa; we remember how Blacks caught hell for doing well.  This looks like Oscar Grant—brutal.  Unnecessary.  Tragic.  

The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. An armed white man watches over African American prisoners and a dead man. In one day, the thriving black neighborhood was destroyed.

Look, there are plenty of good police officers. I mean, I come from a “Don’t talk to the cops” family, but I also know that there are many who do their jobs every day respectfully and lovingly.  This is not a condemnation of law enforcement—not at all.  But it IS an observation about some law enforcement.  I KNOW there are amazing police officers who engage in good and healthy practices—heck, just the other day, a member of the Suquamish Tribal Police took time out of his day to give instruction to my nephew that literally might save his life.  That’s community policing. That’s beautiful. That’s the opposite of police brutality. 

But when police brutality happens in this country, it happens to black and brown-skinned people entirely too much.  Now I’m not saying I want it to happen to white people more­—­all I’m saying is that there are a WHOLE bunch of white folks who were convicted of ugly, violent crimes, and they were around and healthy to stand trial.  And then there are a WHOLE bunch of black and brown people who weren’t alleged to have committed any crimes, or at worst a misdemeanor (like that pack of cigars), and those black and brown people aren’t alive anymore. 

Seems inconsistent. 

RIP John T. Williams.  RIP Michael Brown.  God bless all the victims of police brutality, of all colors. 

#Ferguson #RIPMikeBrown 

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
It does my heart good to know that at least ONE Native lawyer acknowledges this injustice. It does my heart REALLY GOOD to know that lawyer is Gyasi Ross!

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
Until all the facts are in and JUSTICE given is supposed to be COLOR BLIND, then the writer's comments along with those of TV Media Generals and News Pawns are all speculations and innuendo. Isn't there or shouldn't there be a code of attorney ethic/practice regarding false claims and innuendo speech?

Zucchero's picture
Submitted by Zucchero on
Thank you Gyasi, this is important. I believe that the first version of the story that the police told us about Michael Brown's murder was that the policeman stopped him because he was jaywalking. Which ever story is true we'll never know but being SHOT 6 TIMES while unarmed does seem very excessive. I don't understand the fear, suspicion, and hatred that so many whites have to any people of color. It hurts in so many areas of our lives like employment, housing, and just being able to live freely and do things that whites take for granted like shopping without being treated like a thief, or walking or driving through most neighborhoods .... and wearing a hoodie. It is disheartening also how many times the media chooses to BLAME THE VICTIM with people of color and make wild accusations about any photographs they find of the victim. The show of force and military police will work in the short term but will not work forever.

value116's picture
Submitted by value116 on
Thank you, Gyasi, for your powerfully written, well-reasoned article. The "shoot-to-kill" for jaywalking, or allegedly committing an alleged misdemeanor mentality must be questioned, not commended. We don't need to have a 6 week or month investigation to determine "excessive force" when we have a dead man lying in the street without a weapon who didn't resist arrest. More extensive evaluation of the hearts and minds is needed on a regular basis for those who would "protect" us.

Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
It isn't just brown or black, today it's whites too. There is an understanding in political and corporate elite circles that groups in the United States will be allowed to organize and protest, to a point. Once that line is crossed color makes no difference. The uprising will be put down. Witness the Occupy Wall Street movement. To the elites, maintaining power is an unassailable right. What was once white supremacy has now transformed into "elite white supremacy", white supremacy for the few, the 1%. Whites too who do not serve the corporate state, might as well be brown or black. They too are dismissed as troublesome and expendable. Conflating skin colors in a common cause may lead to some changes. They will be slight improvements in economics and education. In my opinion conflating two very different cultures based upon skin color ultimately creates more problems than resolutions. It seems to me that following the teachings of our Traditional culture will raise and transform us. Our Peoples will again be strengthened and lifted by the deep culture of our Ancestors. There is a reason that our Ancestors lived on Turtle Island as First Peoples for forty thousand years or more. There is also a reason why the Yonega people have only lived here for 238 years and their society is dying fast. One only need to live Traditionally in Right Relationship with or relatives and find the great blessing of Spirit, nothing more, nothing less. The Yonega have chosen the path of greed, death, and self destruction. It is inevitable. I see everyone and everything in the light of Spirit, not skin color. I am deeply thankful for the lifeways that my Ancestors gifted to me. It is their path that i follow and find the balance and harmony of life. It is the path of Spirit. It is a hard path to walk sometimes.

ShadoWarrior77's picture
Submitted by ShadoWarrior77 on
I don't believe anybody has enough facts about the Brown killing to assume the cop intentionally murdered him. There is no video to prove anything. All we know is he was a gangbanger that just robbed a store and assaulted the clerk. We have a witnesses saying he was surrendering and others saying the officer was being attacked. And there will never be a fair trial so we may never know what really happened. As for cops in general, the only way to stop these killings from happening is to actually have a strict ROE for LEOs like we do for the military. If we had severe punishments for cases like this, they would assess the threat more thoroughly before executing.

Gedaliah's picture
Submitted by Gedaliah on
@shadowwarrior77 watch Fox News much? One thing that I will agree with you on, " we may never know what really happened". However, I can recognize the same play being used from a play book that's been used for the last 30 years. Muddy the waters enough to paint the "alleged" victim into someone whom was threat and had to be dealt with. Easy... Now the armed officer becomes the victim.