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The Art of Criminalization

A Lakota girl had no idea she would be brutalized and criminalized by a racist system leaving her with a record at school where she was suspended and a record within the courts.

Gwen feeling down.

Gwen feeling down. (Photo: Evelyn Red Lodge)

At the end of a school day last October, 13-year-old Gwen had no idea she was about to be brutalized by a classmate and a Rapid City police officer within minutes of leaving the safety of South Middle School grounds.

She had no idea she would be brutalized and criminalized by a racist system leaving her with a record at school where she was suspended and a record within the courts.

According to videos of the incident, which were corroborated by a family spokesperson, this is what happened—as Gwen's mother was not able to pick her up that day since bullying of Gwen became a problem.

The spokesperson said, "I was made aware of the situation the day after the incident occurred. [It] was an altercation between two 13-year-old Lakota girls, and a result of bullying. My niece [Gwen] was walking home from school with friends, when the other girl approached her from behind."

She continued that her niece was blindsided yet ended up on top of the other girl. She inferred that passers-by might assume her niece started the fight.

The spokesperson continued, "Then, Officer Holt happened by and eventually pinned the other girl. The fight continued, and the officer struck my niece in the face with a palm heel strike to her nose. She was bleeding from her nose as Holt is dragging her down. Eventually he pulls my niece down with her head twisted. 

The spokesperson added, "My niece was calling for her mom. It was so heart breaking."

Of course, officer Richard Holt was later found justified in his actions, while community members balked

As a community member attendee of several meetings over this situation, the picture we are painted past and present results in our abhorrence for a cop fueled by racism coming into the community and smacking our little girls around. In our Lakota culture we do not do this.

Lakota culture does not allow for brutalizing children. As Lakota elder attorney Steven C, Emery relates, "Wakanyeja kin awicapabsni heon hena wakan unpelo! (They don't hit children, because children are sacred!)

 Many of us were shocked by the violence Gwen went through that day. Within 24 hours of the viral postings of the videos a meeting was called for by the first Native mayoral candidate Natalie Sites Means who holds a juris doctorate in Law.

Below is the picture I am painted after Sites Means organized the first meeting she says was at the behest of Gwen's family and community.

Nearly 50 concerned community members attended several meetings.

In those meetings, we concurred that this was a case of classic criminalization of our Lakota youth in an ongoing and historic process.

The picture I painted from what I have gathered from simply being a community member and journalist reads like a cycle of abuse manual for police around the country. 

Hence, the art of criminalization I propose from the picture I am painted:

  1. Target the victim. Police target victims by race.

  2. Abuse the victim. Police physically and/or mentally abuse them.

  3. Isolate the victim. Police isolate the victim through jail.

  4. Blame the victim. Suggesting the victim take responsibility through a plea deal, even if the victim was not at fault or be further isolated. 

  5. Vilify the victim. The victim is then marked as trouble by the school, the community and the police/judicial system.

  6. Target the victim again. The victim becomes an easy target for police, and the whole cycle is repeated causing further damage, and ensuring the inability as an adult to vote, rent an apartment, get a job, etc. through the making of felons. The city ponders why most of the homeless population is Native or others of color.

  7. Move on to other victims. Police target victims by race.

Historically, we learned through the group meetings that officer Richard Holt killed a Native as a police officer under questionable circumstances. Of course, the police had their side which exonerated Officer Holt, yet the victim's girlfriend has a conflicting narrative.

According to another Rapid City Journal account, the girlfriend of the victim gave a narrative that does not exonerate Holt.

The picture painted reveals a racist city which punishes those who speak out about racism and crimes by police who exonerate themselves.

As confirmation to these thoughts, not one educator or community activist I spoke to would comment for this story.

One educator at a meeting expressed that he would not comment for publication as he would like to be able to feed his family.

One community member was able to speak out going back to 1995 into 1997 as an example of what we are thinking during the meetings.

A Lakota, Stacey Low dog, has been an activist in the community which began in 1995 when her boys were targeted to be criminalized.

Here is her story she related at her home in Rapid City's Northside.

Back in 1995, she said that the Rapid City police thought there was a gang problem. She stated, "They were going around making kids undress in the streets looking for gang tattoos. One of the kids was beaten and bruised all about his body." She added many community groups were formed about that time as the relationship between Natives and police became intolerable.

As racism is a historic issue here, her kids were also targeted by skinheads who threw army style teargas into her yard as her kids were playing saying, "Prairie niggers get out of here!" Next, she says that she called police who came and refused to look for the skinheads.

She continued they could have traced the teargas canisters to a person who likely got them from the Airforce base just outside of town. The police refused any action.

Time after time she relates the police would take an hour or two to come after she reported gunshots fired or other circumstances. They would come and take an hour or two to interview witnesses and then say that the time has passed to find the perpetrators. In one instance they threw her children's grandfather to the ground in response to a call for next door of violence.

Eventually, Low Dog armed herself with enough knowledge about reporting processes that she and police came to an understanding that her family would be left alone.

By March of 2000 after hearing testimonies, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reached the conclusion that "Despair is not too strong a word to characterize the emotional feelings of many Native Americans who believe they live in a hostile environment."

In March, 20 years will have elapsed without meaningful change as the commission's recommendations are non-binding. We as a community don't see much change in racist police behavior. 

Gwen is now charged in criminal court for assaulting the girl who blindsided her. Her next court date is 02/06/20. She will enter a plea.

For more information, a petition has been started to stand with youth against police brutality. Here is the link. 

Evelyn Red Lodge

Evelyn Red Lodge is a former Correspondent for Native Sun News Today, a contributor to High County News Magazine, and to Native Max Magazine. She is also a contributor to the three anthologies: Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects, Called Home: Book Two: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects, and In The Veins published by Blue Hand Books. She is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. She resides in Rapid City, S.D.

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