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Brutal Violence in Border Towns Linked to Colonization

In border towns like Albuquerque where Indigenous Peoples comprise a significant portion of the population, common sense has an additional dimension.

In the early morning hours of July 19, 2014 three teenagers entered an empty dirt parking lot in Albuquerque’s Westside. The lot is well known as a sleeping site for the homeless. The teens proceeded to viciously bludgeon Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson beyond recognition while the two men slept. Gorman, from Shiprock, and Thompson, from Church Rock, were Diné. Jerome Eskeets, who is also Diné, narrowly escaped with his life.

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In a July 23, 2014 interview with the New York Times (NYT), Eskeets claimed that the same teens had threatened him with an attack earlier in the month but he did not report the threats “because no one cares.”

Most reports on the killings focus on the perpetrators. They repeat the crime’s gruesome details or speculate about the teens’ chilling lack of remorse. Some reports have offered brief biographical sketches on Gorman and Thompson, presumably to recognize their humanity in death. Others border on sensationalization of the ‘drunk Indian’ stereotype that pervades stories about violence in Indian country. Notably, the NYT article makes a point to emphasize that Eskeets was “drunk, already, at 9:30 a.m.”

In response to the killings, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly met to develop a task force on Native American homelessness in Albuquerque and other border towns. President Shelly has called for a Federal Bureau of Investigation enquiry into the killings as possible hate crimes.

The Albuquerque District Attorney’s Office states there is no evidence that Gorman’s and Thompson’s murders were racially motivated. In fact, the perpetrators reportedly boasted about the indiscriminate nature of their attacks, which possibly exceed 50 separate incidents.

In informal conversations about the killings of Gorman and Thompson, I have heard others use the language of hate crimes to describe the incident. This makes sense: the crime occurred along ostensibly clear racial and class lines. The victims are all poor Native Americans, the perpetrators all poor Hispanics.

The label ‘hate crime’ is typically used to bracket a specific kind of violence motivated by extreme prejudice or bigotry. Congress defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

By emphasizing abject poverty, devastating alcoholism, acute racial tensions, or the exceptional violence that distinguishes these perpetrators from others, existing attention to Gorman’s and Thompson’s deaths filter the incident through the logic of extremes that we associate with hate crimes.

Why, then, do these comments seem less accusatory than uncertain, as if their hosts are grasping for available formulas to make sense of what appears to many online commentators as “senseless” brutality?

I think the answer lurks in the utter lack of remorse demonstrated by the teens, which itself extends from the randomness of their motive and use of violence. The label ‘hate crime’ assumes intention based on bias. It presumably measures the extremity of violence used to carry out an intention according to the intensity of bias, or hate, that motivates a person to engage in violent action in the first place. The label also requires proof of individual bias in the intentions of hate criminals.

The attacks on Gorman, Thompson, and Eskeets are glaringly absent of individualized intention or motive. The perpetrators reportedly claim no particular bias against the homeless, against Native Americans, or against anyone or anything.

If ‘hate crime’ is inadequate, we are still left with the problem of explaining such devastating violence. What if I were to suggest that the perpetrator is directly represented by the unspeakable condition of its victims after their bludgeoning? That it is the faceless, formless thing beyond our recognition?

This is precisely what I am suggesting. The faceless, formless thing beyond our recognition is, I argue, our collective common sense. Common sense is a term that describes how consensus is formed about rules, norms, and social expectations. Consensus emerges when we agree and act upon common rules, norms and expectations by routinely using them to live our lives and ensure that others in our society do the same. In this sense, common sense is neither fully conscious nor unconscious; it operates at the level of assumption, habit and value. It inhabits each one of us. This is why it is beyond our recognition—we don’t even notice its influence.

Typical values that structure common sense in the U.S. are patriotism, lawfulness, individual responsibility, freedom of choice, equality, virtue, and abundance. While the government certainly promotes these values, average people residing in the U.S. are expected to (and do) uphold, reinforce, inhabit, and monitor them in our everyday lives and in our everyday interactions with others.

In border towns like Albuquerque where Indigenous Peoples comprise a significant portion of the population, common sense includes these values but with an additional dimension. Lakota scholar Nick Estes urges us to understand border town dynamics through the lens of colonization. Some populations who came from overseas to the Americas chose to establish a new government and society that we now know as the U.S. Because their intent was to permanently establish a new nation, they had to displace, erase, or subjugate—to colonize—Indigenous Peoples already living here. After realizing in the 19th century that Indigenous Peoples would not be completely erased, the U.S. had to extinguish any competing political power they might have in the new order.

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Border town culture operates according to the common sense of colonization. In a nation like the U.S. where Indigenous Peoples are not only still alive but active in politics, the U.S. nervously continues to colonize them in order to reinforce its supremacy—indeed, its very existence—over a land that is not entirely its own.

Border towns are named as such because they border Indigenous land bases like Pueblos, the Navajo Nation, or Pine Ridge that sustain large populations and retain viable political power. In constant and close proximity to the perceived ‘threat’ posed by this presence to the supremacy of U.S. common sense, border town residents uphold, reinforce, and inhabit practices of colonization in their assumptions and everyday dealings with Indigenous Peoples.

Institutions of security like police assist everyday residents to instinctively monitor and contain this ‘threat.’ This requires and justifies excessive violence against Indigenous Peoples in border towns, like constant police harassment of Navajo panhandlers in Gallup or the brutal citizens’ murders of Gorman and Thompson here in Albuquerque.

As the source of this violence, the common sense of colonization is inherently violent. Border towns like Albuquerque—large Indigenous populations notwithstanding—are just like any other town or city in the U.S. They have laws, institutions of government, private homes, businesses, and distinct neighborhoods. They revere U.S. values like patriotism, equality, abundance and freedom of choice.

In border towns, however, colonization is a collective value that holds equal status. It works in tandem with these other values to ensure that Indigenous citizens agree and act according to rules of U.S. common sense. In this context, adherence to common sense values like lawfulness, abundance and virtue requires Indigenous erasure. When they don’t follow this perverse equation, Indigenous Peoples are treated as threats open to punishment of indiscriminate degree from multiple sources. This includes disdain; blame; negligent health care; indifference; exclusion from protection of the law; abandonment; criminalization; incarceration; assault; rape; and death.

They are, like Gorman and Thompson, open to being literally carved out in society’s collective image of acceptable existence and belonging.

“Because no one cares.”

Eskeets’ blunt words anchor this editorial. They bespeak a lived truth. I imagine Gorman and Thompson—like countless other Indigenous Peoples who live vulnerable and precarious lives—routinely experienced many forms of punishment before they died.

The common sense of violence is as real as Albuquerque’s city landscape. But it is not inevitable. Allison Gorman, Kee Thompson and Jerome Eskeets are not images of value. They are bila ashdla', five fingered beings, human beings.

And they have not been erased.

We all—especially those of us with privilege, including many Indigenous citizens like myself—contribute to and benefit from a system that ranks entire populations of people as sub-human and therefore deserving of punishment. In border towns, these populations are overwhelmingly Indigenous.

It is time to reject and raze the common sense of colonization.

Melanie K. Yazzie is Diné from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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