No Surprise, But We All Should Matter

Dwanna L. Robertson

I'm not surprised by the recent grand jury ruling against indicting Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Disgusted. Heartbroken. Angry. But not surprised. I know too much to be surprised. I teach college classes about how the U.S. criminal justice system doesn’t work for people of color the same as it works for white citizens. Students and I read, research, and discuss the statistics of disproportionate stops, searches, arrests, charges, prosecution, and sentencing against people of color, particularly black and Native people.

We learn that police officers are protected by Supreme Court rulings to racially profile. Even though the Department of Justice theoretically prohibits profiling, its guidelines actually allow for profiling based on religion and national origin, particularly at our national borders. These same guidelines do not apply to all federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies. Race really does matter in the use of deadly force by the police. According to a report by ProPublica, young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police officers than young white men.

Native men are frequent victims of police use of deadly force. For example, on August 30, 2010, in Seattle, Washington, an unarmed Ditidaht First Nations man, John T. Williams, was shot to death by Officer Ian Birk. Williams was a 7th-generation wood carver who suffered from a hearing impairment. He was carrying a carving knife and a piece of cedar when Birk shot him, only seven seconds after being ordered to drop the knife. A video of the incident can be found here.

No criminal civil rights charges were filed against the officer who killed Williams. Indeed, any supposed protection of our civil rights is hard to enforce even if “illegal” racial profiling happens. Recently, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan explained that the high burden of proof set by state and federal laws prohibit such “criminal civil rights” cases. An investigation by Durkan and the Department of Justice did find that the Seattle Police Department “had a pattern of using unconstitutional force and found troubling evidence that it acted with racial bias.” The usual rhetoric of community and police cooperation given as a solution wasn’t surprising.

My own research reveals that indigenous men and women deal with unrelenting injustice inherent within the U.S. criminal justice system. Natives are overrepresented in both criminal behavior and in criminal victimization. For example, one out of every 25 Native adults is under the supervision of the criminal justice system on any given day – twice as many as white adults. One in every 10 Natives are likely to experience violent assault, more than any other racial group. One-in-three Native women will be raped in her lifetime with 80% of these rapes committed by a non-Native person.

Unfortunately, it’s commonly understood that these numbers are underreported due to a historical lack of trust in legal authority. Who can blame us? From the late 1700s, American Indians have been exploited and brutalized by the U.S. legal system. Over the centuries, U.S. armed forces gave way to local, state, and federal legal institutions to enforce the laws of a white society. Legislative acts of Congress, administrative directives from presidents, and judicial rulings by state and federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court, have upheld an unjust canon of law against Indigenous Peoples.

Imagine the number of cases of Native women, men, and children victimized by sexual assault, physical violence, and/or police harassment and brutality that go unreported because of this distrust. Imagine the impact of being too scared to call the police because they’re the ones who might hurt you.

We don’t have to try that hard. On December 21, 2013, Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket was shot seven times by the very people his father had called to help him. Mah-hi-vist, a citizen of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Nation in Oklahoma, suffered from a diagnosed mental disorder and was experiencing an episode. His parents, Melissa and Wilbur, were afraid that their 18-year-old son might harm himself. So, they did what any parent might do. They called 911.

Within moments of four local law enforcement entering the Goodblanket home, Mah-hi-vist was dead. An autopsy found that the teen was shot seven times and tasered twice. On April 28 on the Facebook page created to spread the news of her son’s death, Melissa posted that one shot was “to the back of his head.” The Custer County sheriff’s department claims that the teen threatened them with a knife. The family disputes this. The shooting has been ruled justifiable by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations. I wasn’t surprised then, either.

Colonialism’s legacy of “divide and conquer” continues to be used as an instrument of community dysfunction among peoples of color. In 2012, I gave a presentation in front of a group of sociologists that I dedicated to both John T. Williams and Trayvon Martin. Everyone knew who Trayvon Martin was, but no one had heard about John T. Williams. They weren’t interested in knowing, either. I think of this phenomenon as “bad news” fatigue.

I realize that, due to numerous campaigns of genocide waged against us, the percentage of indigenous people in the U.S. is quite small (only 1.2%). But from my experience, most Native people stand in solidarity with other peoples of color and with our white allies in the fight for social justice. Please stand in solidarity with us. Perhaps, my next presentation will be dedicated to Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket and Michael Brown. I want to be surprised that people know, or want to know, Mah-hi-vist’s name.

Because we all should matter.

Dwanna L. Robertson, citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, a regular columnist for ICTMN, and a public sociologist.

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100IndigenousAmerican's picture
In the Dine'tah (Navajo), the shootings by police in border towns surrounding American Indian reserves is astounding and the abuse remains passively reflected beyond those immediately affected. This apathy comes from deep assimilation by politicians and the police on the reservations. The tendency is to blame the families, especially by native people that can affect change. The shootings in my memory began with the activist Larry Casuse in 1973 in Gallup NM. Shootings that are more recent continue in Farmington. In Tempe Arizona, a young white man stated an argument with a Navajo family in a Wal-Mart cashier lane, a fight ensued, and the white person pulled a gun and shot the Navajo and within hours, the cops called it justified shooting. The cops never arrested the shooter. Why pay attention to the media hype on the black race; the Natives and Mexicans have more causality at the hands of law enforcement at a higher per capita and we remain silent. Native politicians that really care should call for a comprehensive research on killings in states using Federal Government funding to stop or slow down the atrocities against Native American or brown people.
sweetgrass777's picture
Good Article. I think now we understand the importance of unity as people of "color" oppressed by "Racism". Racism "being where one dominant group gives their own an economic and social advantage over other oppressed groups". Unfortunately Natives and blacks have lots of common ground to come together on. Oppression, shared family ties, Discrimination and a long history of isolation and limited access to what whites put aside for their own and not for us. If Native people are only 1.2% of the population we better start aligning ourselves with our Black brothers and sisters and stop being haters ourselves. Some of our people have attitudes worst than whites. Where did we learn it from? Black people are not our enemies they are our brothers. We isolate ourselves, Keep them out of the tribes, ostracize them because this is what the white man wants.Yes there are many acts of violence against Native people. Who in the hell cares. Stop sitting on the reservations killing each other and drinking our selves to death. We are politically weak. That is why no one cares. If we go black relatives or tribal members let them come back home to the culture. 500 years of Genocide and slavery go hand in hand. Northeast and Southeast Native people who have absorbed much black blood but are still Native are apart of us. They will not like it. They knew if we banded together 500 years ago then we would be a great threat. They would have a hell of a hard time holding us back if we came together now. Wake up Native people!!!!
bandman1967's picture
Thanks for your service and dedication to children and students. Your essay was thought provoking but the comparison to what happened in Ferguson is flawed. The court case was through and well represented and for you to sit on the side, especially as an educator, as I am and go on as you did about Ferguson is illogical and hurtful. Stick to the facts and remember where you live. You have a right to say anything you want but so do I. Rethink the facts. You are very good with the history end and probably correct but not on Ferguson.
bandman1967's picture
Thanks for your service and dedication to children and students. Your essay was thought provoking but the comparison to what happened in Ferguson is flawed. The court case was through and well represented and for you to sit on the side, especially as an educator, as I am and go on as you did about Ferguson is illogical and hurtful. Stick to the facts and remember where you live. You have a right to say anything you want but so do I. Rethink the facts. You are very good with the history end and probably correct but not on Ferguson.
stevef's picture
I can only assume that because of your clout, that you saw evidence that the rest of us were not allowed to see that made you determine in Ferguson fits into your agenda of 'poor downtrodden skins'? You yourself print 'racial profiling' in the 'us as skins and black' ... good guys, cops and white guys...bad. I also think many abuse statistics. Under strict following of your per capita percentages, us poor men are being victimized by you mean women of the world. We only make up roughly 50% of the population and 95% of all prisoner convicted of serial killings have been men! You sexist women! Us poor men being abused by you females! That MUST mean that a ton of you women are getting away with Murder?
Wanbli Koyake's picture
@bandman1967 & stevef are seeming trolls –no business– stick to porn!
Wanbli Koyake
Bob G.'s picture
I believe Ms. Robertson has done a nice job with this article. Awareness is an all-important issue. We need ALL human beings is this fight for right, fight for our Mother Earth and our fight for the children. Inclusion is critical. I saw this movie where inter-galactic soldiers were taking over Earth (remember that Travolta thing)? It might be a bit late if that comes to pass. "Until the color of a man's skin is no more importance than the color of his eyes"
Bob G.
hesutu's picture
Very good article. Native women are also unique as being the only group that is raped by men of a different ethnicity. Amnesty International has the incidence of non-indian perpetrators at 86%: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/maze-of-injustice Despite these facts, when discussing this issue with whites it is extremely common that they will try to explain the high incidence of rape as a problem of indian men being sexually violent predators. The statistics show that nothing could be further from the truth. Indian women are seen as exotic prizes for violent white predators. Furthermore, it is well known that under US law, white people can not be prosecuted by tribes or by states for raping indian women on reservations, and only the DOJ reserves itself this right, which it generally chooses not to exercise, turning reservations into rape camps, which is genocide itself. Yes, the VAWA, only a year old, now allows indian tribes the "privilege" of prosecuting violent white sexual predators under a restricted set of circumstances, but it is only allowed if the tribe agrees to forgo traditional systems of justice, such as restorative justice, and go instead with a clone of the costly and ineffective white american justice system.