One Million Bottlebags

The first album I ever bought was Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black. I don’t remember how old I was, but I couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9. This album is a classic and sparked a wave of ‘conscious’ political hip-hop that would be nearly drowned out by the explosion of the gangsta genre and the rise of the west coast some years later. At an age that young, I didn’t really understand most of what was being said – after all, I was growing up in the mountains of British Columbia. I’d never even seen a ‘hood, let alone understood the suffering of the people who lived there. It would, therefore, take me several years to understand the track “1 million bottlebags”:

Malt liquor bull
What it is, is bullshit
45 another gun to the brain
Who’s sellin’ us pain
In the hood another up to no good
Plan that’s designed by the other man

But who drink it like water
On an’ on, till the stores reorder it
Brothers cry broke but they still affordin’ it
Sippin’ it lick drink it down, oh, no
Drinkin’ poison but they don’t know

How could I connect, at that age, under those circumstances, to the helpless rage Churck D was trying to articulate at seeing his friends literally drink themselves to death? And in true Chuck style he pulled no punches in laying the blame (and the bodies) at the feet of predatory liquor companies who flooded black neighbourhoods with advertisements, targeting young black men with their substandard and unsafe product. Combine that with the widespread poverty and accompanying ambivalence toward the suffering of black people by the American government, and it’s no wonder that Chuck was so furious. Good thing those days are over, eh?

Women of the Oglala Lakota nation along with activists from Deep Green Resistance, AIM Grassroots, Native Youth Movement, Un-Occupy Albuquerque, Occupy Lincoln, and Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center took part in a march from Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge into White Clay to protest against the predatory liquor industry present there. White Clay has a population of 14, yet 4 liquor stores in the town sell 12,500 cans of beer each day. The stores have been documented repeatedly selling to bootleggers, intoxicated people, minors, and trading beer for sexual favors. “For over 100 years the women of the Oglala Lakota nation have been dealing with an attack on the mind body and spirit of their relatives”, says Olowan Martinez who is a main organizer of the event and resident of Pine Ridge. “The Oglala have been silenced through chemical warfare waged by the corporations who are out to exploit and make a profit off of the suffering and misery of our people. The time has come to end this suffering by any means necessary.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess. This time though, instead of targeting poor black folks in neglected inner cities, they’re targeting poor Native folks in neglected reserves. Alcohol and other substance abuse has been a constant source of suffering and social, medical, and financial hardship in Native communities for generations. If addiction were as endemic in the country at large as it is among First Nations communities, we would declare it a national health crisis. But because it’s happening to people who are ‘the other’, just as it was in Chuck’s day, it is noticed only so long as it takes to cluck disapprovingly and mutter some trite statement about ‘personal responsibility’.

So the Lakota stood up and organized a peaceful demonstration to protest the poisoning of their community by opportunistic and unscrupulous profiteers who brazenly violate not only liquor laws but basic human decency. And because they live in America, they could feel secure in the knowledge that their right to assemble and their right to speak was protected by the same government that had always made sure their human rights were respected in the past. Yeah, you know how this story ends…

Less than a half hour after the lockdown began a police officer rolled down their window and indiscriminately pepper sprayed into a crowd. Up to 12 people were pepper sprayed including the 10 year old son of a Lakota woman who helped organize the march. Also, an elder Lakota woman, Helen Red Feather, reported having her leg hit by a police car in motion.  Medics with the protest treated pepper spray injuries.

If ever you catch yourself, as even I do from time to time, forgetting why members of low-status minority groups might not feel welcome or included in the self-flattering and obsequious praises of the great land of freedom and opportunity that we were forced to endure at last week’s Republican National Convention, remember this story. Recognize that this is a story of an oppressive occupying group who lied, cheated, murdered, and segregated a group of people, then either passively (or in some cases actively) poisoned your children in order to maximize the amount of money they (the occupiers) could make and minimize the amount of power that you could accumulate for yourselves. And when you tried to stand up for yourselves, remembering the importance of not harming your fellow human beings, you were sprayed with chemicals and locked up for your trouble. It’s an old story, and one that will keep repeating as long as we keep allowing ourselves to see those in the greatest need as needing a stern lecture instead of our time, care, and most importantly our ears. Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


  1. atheist says

    Thinking seriously about the problems of Native Americans tends to stop any sense of self pity or any free-floating distress I may be feeling about the state of the West or the world. It is a grim but useful exercise in that way.

  2. leftwingfox says

    Malt liquor and fortified wines… even Maine, which required hard liquor to be sold at agency stores, these were available large and cheap at gas stations, drug stores and bodegas.

    Wikipedia redirects “Low-end fortified wines” to “Bum Wines”. Several of the brands, like Night Train and Thunderbird are made by the E.J. Gallo winery, which conspicuously avoids associating itself in any way with it’s own product.

    I actually thought your story was from Canada at first. Bootlegging cabbies were pretty common out in the Maritimes, and there was one small liquor store in a tiny community near the reservations which had longer hours than the ones in the city, despite them all belonging to the provincial government.

  3. lirael_abhorsen says

    I really want a teleporter so that I can go around and medic all these protests without the minor problems of affording plane tickets and having to take several days away from my life responsibilities. As it is, I have to pick and choose carefully what is likely to need medics among protests that I care about, and sometimes my educated guesses are wrong.

    I did the RNC. Had some interesting times and provided care to some folks who needed it, but while the police brought out incredible piles of less-lethal weapons to threaten us with – I’ve never seen so much of that crap in so many varieties – they didn’t use it, and were not at all eager to arrest people. Not that I wanted them to be brutal, it’s just that in this imperfect country/world where police brutality happens at protests and otherwise, I might have been of more use as a medic putting that time and effort into something else, like this Lakota protest, which I didn’t even know about until after it happened.

  4. smrnda says

    Food deserts are fairly common in many urban areas in the US, though there’s always a liquor store around the corner. Given that cities have to give licenses to sell alcohol (at least in the States) you’d think they could do something to promote a healthy ratio of stores selling real foods to convenience and liquor stores.

    I do tend to find people look at alcohol or drug abuse among the poor or among marginalized groups and argue that it’s a choice, but all said, college kids are boozing it up just as bad but end up not having to pay the same price.

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