'Go Back to the Reservation!' Drunks, Racism and South Dakota

Brandon Ecoffey

Last Thursday the disorderly conduct trial of Trace O’Connell, 41, of Philip, South Dakota wrapped up in Rapid City. O’Connell is the white man accused of spraying beer on a group of 57 Lakota school children at a minor league hockey game and allegedly telling them to go back to the reservation. The children were from the American Horse School located on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and were at the game due to their stellar academic performance.

The incident went viral immediately as chaperone Justin Poor Bear turned to social media to vent his frustrations about what took place that night. The act that security, nor, the police, witnessed taking place has now caught the attention of most of Indian Country as well as a number of major mainstream media outlets.

The city that once played home to land snatchers and race baiting newspaper men in the mid to late 1800’s has continued on with its legacy of welcoming outright racism within its city limits into modern times with recent accusations of unnecessary use of police force, accompanied with the unsolved murders of numerous homeless Native people a few years back has only fueled the frustrations of Native people in the area who feel that the justice system has continually worked against them.

As parents and family members of the children involved have reacted expectedly by demanding that law enforcement do their job and hold this man accountable, the reaction from the general non-Native public has been to paint the event as a moment where the good ole boys, took their fun just a tad too far. Unfortunately law enforcement officials who have been quick to throw the book at petty Native offenders seem to have taken the same approach by only charging O’Connell with a disorderly conduct charge.

What we do know is that O’Connell had been occupying a luxury box along with 15 or so others located directly above where the children from American Horse School were sitting. When the hometown Rush scored a late goal, O’Connell celebrated the goal by swinging his beer “like he was roping.” The result was beer hitting the children and some in the suite. After a verbal exchange with one of the chaperones, someone allegedly heard O’Connell tell the kids to go back to the reservation.

Although there are conflicting accounts as to what exactly happened there is some contextual facts that the media has not adequately highlighted. Witnesses in the luxury box with O’Connell have all admitted to drinking during the 2-hour drive from Phillip to Rapid City, they admitted to drinking at dinner, and they admitted to continuing to drink at the game. Although the members of the group were likely heavily inebriated, testimony from witnesses in the group noted that prior to the start of the game there was conversation amongst the group about the conduct of the children sitting just below them. Witnesses in the luxury box who were with O’Connell said that there was expressions of dissatisfaction amongst the group that some of the children did not pay adequate attention to a pre-game honoring of cancer survivors, nor, did some of the children stand during the singing of the national anthem.

In the midst of so much drinking and celebration it seems a bit odd that these conversations about the behavior of children were of note to those in the box despite so much happening around them. Although judging children isn’t a crime it does point to a mindset amongst the group that is, if anything, relevant.

As a result of his alleged actions O’Connell was charged by the city with disorderly conduct. As a result of his lack of a criminal history and the perceived seriousness of his alleged crime the judge in the case ruled prior to the start of the trial that jail time would be taken off the table. That same judge has said that his verdict in the trial will be ready in the coming weeks as he plans to write a lengthy judgment in the matter.

Any offense committed against children is wrong but the obvious presence of an active and double-sided justice system in South Dakota is the real crime. Racism outwardly expressed by an individual to another individual is disgusting and wrong but systemic racism is the ultimate affront against any citizen.

In Rapid City this prejudicial system that has forced Native people to sit inside of the Pennington County jail for days or weeks on end because they cannot afford to pay the bond issued by the judge for crimes like disorderly conduct or even more petty offenses has allowed Trace O’Connell the luxury of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. For those who have sat those weeks in county jail while their pleas for freedom pretrial are weighed by the courts, hearing of this luxury afforded to O’Connell of being told prior to a trial that jail time is not an option —is a damn joke.

Unlike many people who have had to endure the humiliation of experiencing the inside of a county jail, Trace O’Connell, has never seen the inside of a cell despite being charged with a crime committed against children. He has never had to feel the weight of the justice system bearing down on his shoulders because the threat of jail time was taken away by the judge prior to him ever hearing any evidence presented in open court. O’Connell was not detained in police custody as a result of a single statement by a questionable witness and forced to sit in jail while investigators sought out an easily attainable grand jury blessed indictment. Instead he was afforded the luxury of having his lawyer represent him in pretrial hearings and even on the first day of his trial.

Had a Native parent poured beer on the head of their own child in such a public way the result would have been that family being broken apart by the state. Had a Native person spilled beer on a non-Native child while allegedly screaming racial charged statements they would have been arrested on the spot.

Whether Trace O’Connell is found guilty or not the world has seen how this city views Native people through the way the city has botched the case, how the local non-Native media has portrayed it, and through the blatantly racist commentary that South Dakotans have provided on social media. The one thing that Rapid City has done that is commendable is that they have presumed that O’Connell is innocent until proven guilty. I would just hope, that from now on, that same presumption of innocence will also apply to Natives.

Brandon Ecoffey is an award-winning journalist who was born and raised on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Brandon is currently the Editor of Lakota Country Times and the former Managing Editor of Native Sun News. He is a regular contributor to ICTMN.

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