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.