Violence against indigenous peoples at home and abroad


I was recently thinking about the deaths of Colten Boushie and Jason Pero, both of whom were murdered by scared white men. The fear of their indigenous victims, of course, was enough to justify a hung jury in the former, and no charges in the latter. I was wondering how many people knew about it, and if it was receiving what I felt was sufficient media coverage. I think the answer is probably no.

Who can say what alchemy is involved in the viral nature of some events but not others? For example, a cop shot an unarmed black man lying on his back in a northside suburb of Milwaukee. Against all odds, charges were filed against the officer. However, the case resulted in a hung jury a few weeks back, and prosecutors have decided not to retry the case. A Google News search yields results that are almost all local. For whatever reasons, it didn’t filter out into the national consciousness.

Jason Pero, a 14-year-old member of the Bad River Band in northern Wisconsin was murdered after he called 911 to report a male walking around with a knife matching his own description. The cop – Brock Mrdjenovich –  takes up the story from here saying that Pero refused commands to drop the knife. Pero supposedly lunged from 10 feet away and Mrdjenovich, fearing for his own life, was forced to take the entirety of the legal process into his own hands as judge, jury and executioner.

Mrdjenovich reported that Pero said between bullets that he wanted to die, and Mrdjenovich was quick to oblige, despite also having a taser and pepper spray at his disposal. There were no witnesses or video to contradict Mrdjenovich’s account. St. Croix County prosecutors declined to file charges. Since he was determined to have done nothing wrong, Mrdjenovich remains employed, though the police district is  “dedicated to rebuilding and restoring trust and a working relationship with the community at all levels through continued community policing, officer education and training, and proactive involvement with all citizens of Ashland County.”

I actually kind of believe Mrdjenovich’s statement about Pero’s final words – with no one to contradict him, it would be far better for his defense strategy to claim that Pero was screaming he was going to kill him rather than himself. Then again, one would think Pero’s admission would get him to stop firing. A trial likely wouldn’t have yielded a conviction, but neglecting to bring the case to a jury trial is absurd – a man with a gun shot a boy with a knife from 10 feet away.

This is similar to another story, one I hadn’t heard of before writing this, regarding another apparent “suicide-by-cop” scenario:

Back in July 2015, Denver police shot and killed Paul Castaway [a Lakota man] who they said was charging at them with a knife. However, other eyewitness accounts and a surveillance video showed he was holding the knife to his own neck, and the 911 call his mother made said he was mentally ill and drunk. Castaway was only a danger to himself, but the police thought shooting him in the chest was the quicker solution instead of helping him.

Charges weren’t filed. Pero also showed signs of distress and mental illness. There were cuts on his arms and he had fentanyl in his system at the time of his death. The common thread of possible mental illness in the two stories highlight another area that the police are ill-equipped to deal with, especially with regards to Native communities (and, sorry, here’s another horrible story from my hometown that was recently brought to light). That mental issues may arise from institutionalized racism (both similar and different to that experienced by African Americans) is tangential to the larger issues of how the State and their shock troops interact with Native Americans, who are

killed by police at disproportionately high rates. […] [A]ccording to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans were killed by police at a rate of 0.21 per 100,000 from 1999 to 2014, and African-Americans (who outnumber Native Americans roughly 10 to 1) were killed at a rate of 0.25 per 100,000.2

Even so, police killings of Native Americans are probably undercounted, said D. Brian Burghart, a journalist who runs the Fatal Encounters database, one of several independent projects aimed at producing a more complete tally of the number of Americans killed by police each year. Killings by police, as a whole, are undercounted by the CDC and other federal agencies. For instance, in 2014, the CDC logged 515 such deaths, while Fatal Encounters found more than 1,300.

And when police kill Native Americans, even the more accurate independent databases often miss or miscategorize those deaths, said Burghart and Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of the Mapping Police Violence database.

It’s a nesting doll of incomplete data that leaves Native Americans as both one of the groups most likely to be killed by police and the group most likely to have its deaths at the hands of police go unrecorded.

For Jason Pero, outside of a few articles, notably in CNN, Huffington Post, and the New York Daily News, the story didn’t receive what I would consider to be widespread coverage. There also didn’t appear to be many follow-ups regarding developments subsequent to the time he was murdered. And so, while it merited a blip on the radar, it was soon buried under the constant churn.

Colton Boushie, on the other hand, had significantly more coverage and was seen as just the latest indignity inflicted on the indigenous natives of Canada. Though it hasn’t really seemed to enter into the general consciousness of their neighbors to the south. Or perhaps it has and I’m wrong.

This time, the murderer was not an agent of the State, making him unable to benefit from having the full heft of its weight behind him. But, as a white man, he was more than able to benefit from combining his whiteness with fear. That, as we’ve seen so often, is a deadly combination, both in terms of justification of deadly force and for crushing the chances that victims and their family have for receiving any modicum of justice.

Boushie, a resident of the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation of Saskatchewan, was murdered by Gerald Stanley, on whose property the incident occurred. Though it was alleged that Boushie and his friends were attempting to break into cars in the area, they were never charged. Which is pretty odd. It was a case that focused far more on Boushie and his friends than Stanley, the only person that day who murdered someone. As Darcy Lindberg writes in The Conversation,

It is clear that Colten Boushie, despite breaking no law, was never provided the presumption of innocence before guilt that Gerald Stanley was given in his trial. The mix of being a stranger on someone else’s property, intoxicated and Indigenous were lethal to Colten’s life, and most likely fatal to justice afterwards.

While many are decrying that Colten’s indigeneity had nothing to do with his death, such a view dangerously ignores the century plus of evidence planted in the imagination of the prairie settler, one materially aided by law. Once planted, it has created a dangerous license that continues to have devastating effects on Indigenous peoples.

It’s pretty fucking enraging that so many are quick to assume that bigotry played no role. Also enraging is that the mere possibility of biased indigenous jurors was able to be weaponized by the defense – any juror who even looked indigenous was removed. Further, the chosen jurors weren’t screened for racial bias and were not instructed by the judge to disregard any prejudice they may have had (not that it would have mattered most likely). It just goes to show how malleable and adaptable white privilege can be.

Obviously there’s much more to the case than what I’ve written, but I just want to highlight the following, from the same link in the previous paragraph. Part of the defense hinged on Stanley claiming

his finger was not on the trigger when his gun went off as it was facing Boushie’s head (that is, he claimed it to be an accident and not an intentional act) and that he reasonably believed the gun was empty (i.e. no negligence).

In support of his testimony, Stanley relied on a phenomenon known as “hang fire” – a delay between the pulling of the trigger and the gun firing. In this case, there was a significant delay between when Stanley said he last pulled the trigger as part of a series of warning shots and when the gun fired the fatal shot. That period of time included him taking out the magazine, getting to the car, reaching in to move a metal object and then across the steering wheel to turn off the ignition.

If that sounds like highly improbable bullshit, that’s because it is:

Both the Crown and defence experts testified that the gun was functioning properly, not prone to misfires and that hang fires are exceptionally rare. According to the Crown expert, any delay is usually less than half a second.

Instead, the defence relied on two lay witnesses who testified about their experience with similar delays with different guns. One of them, who approached the defence to offer his story during the trial, testified about his experience 40 years ago while gopher hunting. Despite serious questions surrounding the admissibility of this evidence, the Crown did not object.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. A fucking gopher hunter with a 40-year-old anecdote. I guess the jury of Stanley’s peers saw a fellow peer in this mysterious gopher hunter, who magnanimously came to the defense with his exculpatory bombshell.

Racial violence against unarmed or mentally ill, both perpetrated by the State and by individuals, can easily be justified by five simple words: “I was scared for my life.” For the indigenous of North America, these present-day manifestations of racial violence are seamlessly incorporated into centuries of bigotry, in conscious and subconscious form.  In its subconscious form, it is so old, so reified into the relationships with the State, that it probably doesn’t even feel like bigotry to the actual humans who perpetuate it. Can it even be called hate, at this point? To those whom are continuing the historical legacies of settler colonialism, it probably just feels like how things are. How easy it would be, such people think, were the indigenous to just act White. Although, the word they would actually use is Normal, and would likely fail to admit that White and Normal are virtually synonymous in their worldview.

***

Pero and Boushie belong to a class of people that are seldom visible to the general populace, except as “inspirations” for mascots, casino owners, or merely living relics of a bygone era. They can also, at times, emerge as a cause célèbre amongst #resistance-types, but such instances are always ephemeral – remember Standing Rock? And would it surprise you to learn that there are continuing battles between the fossil fuel industry and the indigenous? I can confidently say that that isn’t widely known. It’s not like I’m that much better – I know vaguely about a few, but it takes several Google searches to give me a better picture.

Appalling treatment of indigenous peoples by the nation states they happen to exist within isn’t relegated to North America. To name but a few, there are the reindeer herding Sami of northern Scandinavia; Sama-Bajau sea nomads of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; Iraqi Marsh Arabs; and the Andamanese and Sentinelese  inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Such peoples have long resisted integration into the surrounding vampiric socio-economic infrastructures that lust after unmitigated access to their land, resources, and labor. The ramifications have been and will continue to be catastrophic. At least as long as those infrastructures exist.

Perhaps most galling is the bewilderment displayed by those who are unable to comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to shed their cultural identifies in order to fully assimilate into the dominant paradigms that have oppressed, displaced and killed them with relative impunity for generations. But then again, they probably haven’t read any Steven Pinker. Thus, they sadly don’t truly know the error of their ways – beckoning on the horizon is the shining city on the hill that is global capitalism nestled within the cocoon of meritocratic nation-states. Their humble entrance into its bottommost rungs – not as Others, but finally as true Citizens – will show them the self-evident superiority of what they’ve long feared. Truly the sky will be the limit with discipline, hard work and a can-do attitude.

All kidding aside, their continued resistance is really fucking admirable – in a just world, such resistance wouldn’t be necessary. At the very least, when they are killed, their killers should have to face actual consequences. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Comments

      • says

        There was a big celebration last year about it being Canada’s 175th birthday. Considering much of our country was built on the genocide of First Nations people, the theft of their land, and the use of treaties as toilet paper, I couldn’t bring myself to care about it at all. We just a whole thing (also last year) with a white Conservative senator talking about all the “good things” the murderous residential schools did. She got raked over the coals for that, but she also had a lot of support.

        • says

          Shit like that is so weird. I recently read about something similar in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Seeetgrass. She writes about these heritage celebrations in Carlisle, PA (I think it was there, I don’t have the book in front of me) and it’s so grotesque. Her grandfather was sent to a boarding school there, and it was, according to Wiki the “flagship Indian boarding school.” It’s like, if you’re very recent heritage contains an almost unimaginable and unquantifiable amount of human misery perpetuated by your ancestors, maybe don’t celebrate it?

  1. kebil says

    Thank you for writing this. As Tabby mentioned in their comments, many of us Canadians are proud of our multicultural present, our reputations as an international peacekeeper (although that may have ended around 2001), and the fact that we never had slavery (not really true), and feel that we are not a racist society. I felt this way for a long time. Eventually I have begun to realize that our racism is profound, but in Canada we dehumanize Indigenous people, dismiss their concerns and needs, and deny them justice much like the US did decades ago. In Canada, Indigenous issues are given as much concern as African-American issues were given in the pre-civil rights era.

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