The George Zimmerman case is not just about stand your ground, or self-defense; it’s about the prejudice that exists to this day, it’s about a prejudicial justice system that makes the color of the victim’s skin predetermine the verdict of not guilty, with the message sent out to individuals like Zimmerman that you can get away with such a horrific act. Thanks to him, a child is dead. Here in Indian country, we understand that all too well.
After the not-guilty verdict was announced in the Zimmerman case, I believe most Indians felt the pain and sorrow Trayvon Martin’s family was going through. The verdict brought back memories of the tragic and in most cases unsolved deaths of Indians in border towns throughout Indian country. In my case, it was my uncle who was found dead on Main Street in Winner, South Dakota; no charges were ever filed. The families of the dozens of people whose deaths are unsolved, even uninvestigated, in Pine Ridge also understand the pain.
Renee Vaughan holds a sign during the Zimmerman trial
As a former law enforcement officer and then chief public defender of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, I have observed that a person with a firearm develops “courage” they did not have without it, and that, in more cases than not, this leads to a person’s death. The law in most jurisdictions once required people to retreat from confrontational situations, rather than seek to escalate them. The new so-called stand-your-ground and self-defense laws create a different situation, exacerbated by the verdict in the Zimmerman case. The requirement is turned around, with the result that this newly “courageous” person understands he can provoke rather than retreat, ignore the advice of trained police officers and, if the situation escalates, kill if he wishes.
As a trained police officer, I know the kind of skills and practice it takes to defuse any confrontation. Chances are, an untrained young person confronted unexpectedly, perhaps on a dark street, does not have these skills. He or she will likely panic, fight back, or even just sass back, upon being threatened and be killed in “self-defense,” as young Trayvon was.
In most cases, tribal members dread going to border towns because of the well-known, well-documented prejudice of the local townspeople; they want our money, but not our presence. Now with the precedent of the Zimmerman case, homegrown vigilantes can think they can justifiably confront a tribal member for any reason and then STAND THEIR GROUND and call it self-defense. The end result? One fewer Indian.
Although we dread the drive to the border towns, in most cases tribal members have no choice but to go there. These border towns are where we are required to get our license plates, pay taxes on fee lands, register to vote and early vote, even shop for groceries, because on most reservations these are not available.
Although we have a name for areas that present danger for our people (border towns) other minorities know theirs as the suburbs. If you dare go where you are not wanted, you do so knowing that if problems arise justice will not be on your side or that of surviving family.
Case in point, Robert "Boo" Many Horses’s body was found stuffed head first in a garbage container in an alley in Mobridge, South Dakota, on June 30, 1999. In October 1999, the magistrate dismissed the state's charges against four white teenagers who had allegedly placed him there. No one ever answered for this death.
Over the last five years in Rapid City, South Dakota, eight bodies, six of them Lakota, have been pulled from a shallow stream called Rapid Creek, which runs through South Dakota's second largest city. As of this moment, there have been no arrests.
Tribal members have faced this forever, but because of our now-small population, our isolation and stereotyping, we are not heard. Thank the Creator, this is not the case for Trayvon; his family, friends and prominent black and white supporters will be heard. As a result, the license to kill will surely be removed from our laws.
Although his death is tragic and we as Indian people feel the pain of his family, it is our hope that changes for the better will come from this. As a Native, I can tell you the deaths of our family members have not brought about this change. However, we support justice for Trayvon in hopes that the situation for all minorities will improve throughout the United States.
Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions.