When addressing justice for American Indians the subject is often sensitive and at times things can get very controversial. No matter the results, eventually we all deal with it and move on.
When I lived in Minneapolis through the 1980s and up to 2004 I often observed and, at times, played a role in correcting some of the improper treatment towards our people.
I remember a time when a caucasian man was killing our Indian women. Another time two adult men were put in the trunk of a police car and driven around. Still another instance: officers were said to have beaten an American Indian man and left him and a female companion out in frigid cold temperatures at a housing complex. No matter what ordeals may have taken place, proper authorities would often have a deaf ear when it came to incidences like these.
When thinking about the recent passing of Rodney King, his situation has brought to light some of these old cases because when King was assaulted by police officers in Los Angeles, the attack attracted a national audience and created a hostile environment in some minority communities.
What happened to King confirmed what minorities were saying for decades about police brutality and the ignorance of city, county, state and federal officials to do something about serious cases.
When those killings of our American Indian women in Minneapolis were not being addressed properly by appropriate authorities, a protest converged in the Indian community and a march was conducted that was aimed for city hall. I was asked by a friend to jump into an old truck; a traditional drum and a team of singers led the way for justice. I was very appreciative to be part of it—it set the tone (for me) to become an activist for other American Indian causes. It’s interesting to note that the approach at city hall by the group of protesters may have scared some law enforcement officials because protesters easily pushed their way up to the third floor of city hall where city officials were conducting business. It was that kind of action that showed the serious aspects of the case.
Later, Billy Glaze, a caucasion drifter who described himself as an American Indian, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1986-87 killings and the mutilating of three women, aged 19, 21 and 26. There was some sense of relief in the community after the sentencing of Glaze, who was also known as Jesse Sitting Crow and labled a serial killer. Law enforcement and city officials would later monitor Indian-related cases more often. Community leaders also addressed the ignorance of city officials and law enforcement in other cases when police brutality and racially motivated incidents were alledged in other Indian cases.
Years later, I had the opportunity as a young reporter to cover the aforementioned incident when the two American Indian men were driven around downtown Minneapolis in the trunk of a police car.
The incident, which occurred on April 17, 1993, received national attention. The two native men, Charles Lone Eagle and John Boney, were awarded a settlement in the case. During my last contact with Lone Eagle, he recalled how Boney drank himself to death after he received his monetary settlement with the city.
Two female witnesses in the case couldn’t believe what the officers were doing when they approached the men. One felt sorry for calling the police afterward (she’d called them because the men were passed out drunk near one of their homes and she was concerned) and she cried during her interview with me. “I hope there is some kind of justice here,” she said. “The officers in this case treated these two men in an inhuman way.”
According to a complaint in the case, an ambulance assistance call was made, but officers canceled the call soon after. The two men were then dragged to the police squad car and thrown in the trunk. The victims would state later at a press conference that the ride seemed quite long and that they were injured from being thrown about the trunk. They also alleged the driver drove erratically during the incident. The officers would later get little more than a slap on the wrist after authorities investigated the case. The city would end up paying out $100,000 to each man after a civil rights lawsuit was filed.
In another police brutality case a decade later, witnesses would report a man and woman being thrown out of a squad car in a south Minneapolis parking lot and left out in freezing weather. The man was allegedly beaten by the officers according to witnesses.
The incident sparked protests and a press conference was held to address the issue on January 29, 2003, during which community leaders claimed that one of the witnesses contacted off-duty police officers, who were working at the complex at the time of the incident. Leaders also wrote in a press release, “When residents and staff reached the male (Johnson), they further discovered his upper torso and head were urinated on during this incident.” The officers then took the man, Ronald Lee Johnson, to the county hospital for medical attention. He later spent the night in detox.
Minneapolis councilman Dean Zimmerman said he had a one-inch stack of police-brutality cases. He also said a full-scale investigation was being conducted at the time of the press conference.
In the 22 years I lived in Minneapolis, I have to admit the course of action taken by community members did have an effect on how government agencies dealt with minority issues. While I served on several community boards, committees and groups, I saw progress being made.
After Glaze’s sentencing, the community collaborated with city and county officials and closed down all the liquor establishments on Franklin Avenue, an area frequented by American Indians. Other improvements have taken place since then, and today new development is visible in the same community.
The Rodney King incident is one of many that has drawn attention to how city, state and federal officials have ignored serious matters surrounding police misconduct and other similar cases. Some improvements have been made between minority groups and other agencies over the past couple of decades. I’m sure such progress will continue.
The Rodney King case will never be forgotten and it will always be in our minds as we continue to address similar concerns in Indian Country.
Rest in Peace Rodney King.
Delvin Cree is a columnist for The Tribal Independent, an alternative news source for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He is also a contributor to the Tribe’s newspaper, The Turtle Mountain Times. He is a frequent contributor to Indianz.com and IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com.