With the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and the shootings of police officers from New York to Houston, and the riots in Baltimore, the hostile relationship between police and the African-American community has once again intruded on American consciousness and consciences. And once again, Americans are predictably polarized along racial lines. But the problems extend far beyond the simplistic dichotomy of race to include Hispanics, the poor and even the mentally ill.
Witness the deaths of the homeless man “Africa” in Los Angeles or the mentally ill migrant worker Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Wash., and, most recently, Gilbert Flores in San Antonio. However polarizing these tragic events may have become, the questions on everybody’s mind were: Why did the victims run? Why did they resist? Why didn’t they simply surrender? It was in trying to find an adequate answer to these questions that I was reminded of an incident I witnessed several summers ago on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.
Indians are a small, almost invisible minority in America, but they are the poorest of the poor and have a long history of oppression by government authorities, first by the military and then by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
I was visiting the Crow Reservation with a group of college students during Crow Fair, an annual celebration in August that attracts visitors from around the world. We were in the backyard of one of our hosts, preparing for a purification ceremony known as a sweat lodge. We had started the fire to heat the rocks used in the sweat and were sitting under trees preparing the students for what was to come, and telling jokes and swapping stories while waiting for the fire to burn down. Out of the blue, we were approached by federal marshals.
Despite their clumsy attempts at folksy humor, it was clear that they wanted to intimidate us. They did not identify themselves or offer an explanation or a warrant. The weapons strapped to their sides apparently provided all the authority they needed to intrude on our privacy, not to mention the sanctity of the sweat lodge ceremony. Their tactic worked. What had been a garrulous gathering preparing for a sacred ceremony became stonily silent. They scrutinized and questioned us and, just as suddenly as they appeared, they left without an explanation.
When they questioned me, I bristled, more at the tone than the nature of the questions. I didn’t want to get into a confrontation in front of my students and I especially did not want to get my hosts in trouble, so I was compliant. Nevertheless, I was angry. Angry at the unwarranted invasion of our privacy and at myself for not having said something, anything. Most of all, I felt powerless, and I suddenly understood how my Indian friends must feel when confronted by police or other authorities.
At first, I was embarrassed for them. The descendants of the proud warriors who had once ruled the high plains had been cowed into silence. Indeed, they had been humiliated and, like me, they felt powerless. I could see it in their faces and hear it in their silence. And little wonder. They had been forced onto reservations at the point of a gun and became dependent on the government for their food, clothing and shelter. They learned not to challenge authority; their survival depended on it.
Hunger can be just as compelling as a soldier with a gun. The powerlessness that we shared for that brief moment had been internalized and their reticence was merely a silent recitation of the lessons of the past. They have an inherent and even inherited distrust and fear of police and the legal system.
As we began the sweat, my anger abated, which is precisely the purpose of a sweat. However, as I sat in the darkness and solitude of the sweat lodge, I couldn’t keep from wondering what would happen if federal marshals barged into a family gathering at my house. I would challenge their purpose and their authority, but that would hardly be necessary. I am white and live in a fairly affluent neighborhood. They would know that if they did anything untoward, I would resort to that greatest of all American traditions: I’d sue. Instead, they probably would politely introduce themselves, explain their purpose and even apologize for the intrusion.
Unfortunately, those courtesies were not extended to my Indian friends; the officers did not feel they needed to. The Indians did not have the wherewithal to challenge their authority. Indeed, their experience has taught them to distrust and fear authority, leaving them paralyzed and powerless.
The same is true for other minorities, especially people of color, whose experience with authorities has taught them the futility of challenging the police or the legal system. It is no secret that African-Americans are incarcerated more often and serve longer sentences for the same crimes as whites. And, as we have seen, are more likely to be killed by police.
Nor is their distrust and fear necessarily unfounded. Take Ferguson, for example. After the Brown shooting, investigators found that police arrested and the courts levied unreasonable fines for heinous crimes like walking in the roadway or not mowing lawns. Little wonder that a judge recently vacated many of those arrests and fines.
And then there was the case of Gray, who was arrested for “running while black” and died in police custody. Hence, the distrust, the fear and, unfortunately, the hatred that minorities harbor for police.
Just as among Indians, these attitudes do not result from a single, isolated incident but are learned from experience, are passed down from generation to generation, are accumulated over time and are reinforced by incidents like the killings of Brown, Garner and too many others. They finally become internalized, are not easily dislodged and often and quite predictably erupt into violence and lead to such tragic and brutal incidents as the recent “assassination” of the deputy sheriff in Houston.
As fate would have it, I had returned to the Crow Reservation when the troubles in Ferguson began and, as events unfolded, I was taken back to that incident of several summers earlier. I remembered the eerie silence that had descended over our group as my Indian friends sat powerless when confronted by the federal marshals, and I remembered how powerless I felt at that moment.
It was then that I realized that African-Americans in Ferguson and Baltimore, and minorities across America, must feel the same sense of powerlessness, only magnified many times over due to years of oppression and exploitation. As I look back on that encounter with federal marshals on the Crow Reservation, I now realize that it was an allegory for the collective and cumulative experience of minorities with the police and the legal system.
Keith R. Burich, Ph.D., is a professor of Native American history and director of the American Indian Center at Canisius College.