Delvin Cree: Rodney King and injustice against American Indians

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 1980's and up to 2004, I often observed and at times played a role in correcting some of the improper treatment towards our people. No matter the ordeal, authorities often had a deaf ear when it came to the Indian community.

In thinking about the recent passing of Rodney King, his situation brought to light some of these old cases. When he was assaulted by police officers in the city of Los Angeles, the attack attracted a national audience and it created a hostile environment in some minority communities.

What happened to King confirmed what minorities were saying for decades about police brutality and the inability of city, county, state and federal officials to do something about it.

Back in Minneapolis, when the killings of our Indian women were not being addressed properly by appropriate authorities, a protest converged in the Indian community and a march was led toward city hall.

During this protest, I was asked by a friend to jump into an old truck where a traditional drum and a team of singers led the way for justice. I was very appreciative of having to be part in this call for justice and this also set the tone for me to become an activist for other American Indian causes.

It's interesting to note that the march may have scared some law enforcement because protesters easily pushed their way up to the third floor of city hall where officials were conducting business. It was that kind of action that showed the serious aspects of the case which involved the killings of our women.

Later, Billy Glaze -- a Caucasian drifter who described himself as an American Indian -- was sentenced to life in prison for the killings and the mutilating of three Indian women who were 19, 21 and 26 during the time of their deaths in 1986 and 1987. There was some sense of relief by the community after the sentencing of Glaze, who called himself Jesse Sitting Crow and was labeled a serial killer.

Law enforcement and city officials would later monitor Indian related cases more often after the incidents. Community leaders also addressed the ignorance of city officials and law enforcement in other cases when police brutality and racially motivated incidents were alleged.

As years passed another incident took place when two Indian males were driven around in downtown Minneapolis while in the trunk of a police car. I had the opportunity to do a story on this when I was a novice reporter at the time.

The April 17, 1993, incident received national attention and the two men -- Charles Lone Eagle and John Boney -- were awarded a settlement in the case. From my last contact with Lone Eagle, he recalled how the Boney drank himself to death after he received his money from the city.

Two women who were witnesses in the case couldn't believe what the officers were doing when they approached the two males. One had felt sorry for calling the police afterwards and cried during her interview with me.

"I hope there is some kind of justice here," she said at the time. "The officers in this case treated these two men in an inhuman way."

According to a complaint in the case, officers arrived to the scene and an ambulance assistance call was made for the Indian men. But the officers canceled the call and dragged the men to their police squad car and threw them in the trunk.

The victims would state later at a press conference that the ride seemed quite long. While in the trunk, they were thrown around, resulting in some injuries because they alleged one of the officers drove erratically.

The officers only got a slap on the wrist after authorities investigated the case. But the city ended up paying out $100,000 to each man after a civil rights lawsuit was filed and a jury ruled in the case two years later.

In another police brutality case a decade later, witnesses would report of man and woman being thrown out of a squad car in a south Minneapolis parking lot and left out in the cold in frigid 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 the press conference, community leaders stated one of the witnesses contacted off-duty police officers who were working at the Little Earth of United Tribes housing 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 a detoxification unit.

The councilman in the area where the incident took place, Dean Zimmerman, said he had a one-inch stack of incidents he collected in regards to cases of police brutality in Minneapolis. Zimmerman would also state a full scale investigation was being conducted into the Johnson incident.

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 first hand positive progress being made.

After the sentencing of Billy Glaze, the community collaborated with city and county officials and closed down all the liquor establishments on Franklin Ave., an area highly frequented by American Indians. Other improvements have taken place since then and today new development is visible in the same community.

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/writer for The Tribal Independent, an alternative on-line news source for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Cree is also a contributor to the tribe's newspaper The Turtle Mountain Times and, a national news source for American Indians.

More from Delvin Cree:
Delvin Cree: Turtle Mountain Band on the hook for a big loan (05/14)
Delvin Cree: Powwows an important part of tribal culture (4/20)
Delvin Cree: Explore energy development in Indian Country (03/23)
Delvin Cree: Treaties and the debate over 'Fighting Sioux' (2/24)
Delvin Cree: Predatory lending a cash cow in Indian Country (2/17)
Delvin Cree: Favoritism in Turtle Mountain tribal employment (2/3)

Join the Conversation