American Indians Killed by Cops at Highest Rate in the Nation, but They're Invisible in the Media

Human Rights

I  know it was unprofessional of me. But I wept when I read Stephanie Woodard’s investigative piece on the killings of American Indians by cops published Monday in the democratic socialist magazine In These Times. It’s no stretch to say it broke my heart.

The reasons for those tears, which continue to spring forth days after my first reading, are many.

Even though none were of my tribe, they were still my people, like me, descendants of the first humans to set foot on this continent 400 generations ago. Like the slayings of so many African Americans killed by police, the deaths of many of them could have easily been avoided by smarter, more compassionate and less trigger-happy cops. And, as is so often the case in matters relating to living indigenous Americans, these dead men and women were invisible. Most didn’t show up in the media or the statistics. Woodard’s story should have been on the front page of The New York Times, the centerpiece of a report on NBC, the subject of speeches on the Senate floor. 

The good news is that these killings have now been exposed. And, equally important, inspired by Black Lives Matter, some Indian activists, including Chase Iron Eyes, the Lakota lawyer of the Standing Rock Sioux who is running as a Democrat for North Dakota’s single congressional seat, have for the past two years organized Native Lives Matter to bring attention to this situation and hold police and prosecutors accountable. 

Here’s a taste of Woodard’s report:

SUQUAMISH TRIBE DESCENDANT JEANETTA RILEY, A 34-YEAR-OLD MOTHER OF FOUR, LAY FACEDOWN ON A SANDPOINT, IDAHO, STREET. One minute earlier, three police officers had arrived, summoned by staff at a nearby hospital. Her husband had sought help there because Riley—homeless, pregnant and with a history of mental illness—was threatening suicide. Riley had a knife in her right hand and was sitting in the couple’s parked van.

Wearing body armor and armed with an assault rifle and Glock pistols, the officers quickly closed in on Riley—one moving down the sidewalk toward the van, the other two crossing the roadway. They shouted instructions at her—to walk toward them, show them her hands. Cursing them, she refused.

“Drop the knife!” they yelled, advancing, then opened fire.

They pumped two shots into her chest and another into her back as she fell to the pavement. Fifteen seconds had elapsed from the time they exited their vehicles.

Fifteen seconds. Were their lives at risk? And if so, why would they advance? Was Riley threatening anybody but herself? Could these officers have possibly made a reasonable assessment of the situation in a quarter of a minute?

Given the paltry official statistics on police killings in general, counting how many Natives have been shot to death or died in police custody is no easy matter. Police have been supposed since the early 1990s to supply to the U.S. Department of Justice information about all the people of whatever race they shoot, justified or not. But this is voluntary and only 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 state and local police agencies have provided this information.

The FBI seeks to remedy this situation with a pilot program starting next year. Meanwhile, The Guardian and The Washington Post have been keeping their own tallies. What they’ve found is that hundreds—hundreds—of police shootings go unreported each year and that the information that is supplied to federal authorities is often as riddled with as many errors as the people slain are with bullets. 

As for the count of Indians shot by the cops, Woodard reports:

Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, looked at data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected from medical examiners in 47 states between 1999 and 2011. When compared to their percentage of the U.S. population, Natives were more likely to be killed by police than any other group, including African Americans. By age, Natives 20-24, 25-34 and 35–44 were three of the five groups most likely to be killed by police. (The other two groups were African Americans 20-24 and 25-34.) Males’ analysis of CDC data from 1999 to 2014 shows that Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.

In the press, Indian deaths-by-cops are invisible. Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel, and Lily Rowen—Claremont Graduate University researchers—reviewed articles published between May 1, 2014, and October 31, 2015, in the top 10 U.S. newspapers by circulation. Of the 29 Indians known to have been killed by cops during that period. just two received any coverage whatsoever. 

There was also zero coverage of Native “jailhouse deaths,” what the CDC euphemizes as “death by legal intervention.”

Native Americans’ experiences of violence and discrimination in the United States often parallel those of African Americans. Federal investigations have found that on the borders of reservations, Native Americans are treated as second-class citizens by police and public agencies in ways that echo the experience of black Americans in towns like Ferguson, Mo. [...]

Incidents aired even in recent hearings sound like tales from the pre-civil-rights Deep South. They ranged from denial of service in public places to police brutality to the failure to investigate murders. In Northern Plains states, USCCR members personally observed staff in restaurants and stores hassling or refusing to serve Natives. In South Dakota, the commission heard testimony about a police department that found reasons to fine Natives hundreds of dollars, then “allowed” them to work off the debt on a ranch. USCCR Rocky Mountain director Malee Craft described the situation as “slave labor.”

Here is an interview conducted by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now with Stephanie Woodard and James Rideout, a member of the Puyallup tribe and the uncle of Jacqueline Salyers, a 32-year-old pregnant mother and member of the Puyallup Tribe who was killed by police earlier this year in Tacoma, Washington. 

In the coming year, you can expect to read more here about Native Lives Matter and police violence and other mistreatment of Natives as Indians already at Daily Kos and others being encouraged to post here take a hard look at this appalling situation as we do our utmost to bring invisible Indians into the light. 

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