by Matt Stannard
October 8, 2020
Last year, Solidarity Wyoming co-host Yana Ludwig interviewed Riverton, Wyoming organizer Chesie Lee and activist Ron Howard concerning the complex and often hostile relations between indigenous people and white residents (called settler colonials by some theorists) in Lander, Riverton, and the Wind River Reservation. The police killing of Andy Antelope was still fresh in everyone’s minds then. It hasn’t diminished since then, and the reason for that is largely the actions and inactions of public officials there.
Earlier this week Wyoming Public Media published a detailed story of the unrest and mistrust in Riverton, and on the Wind River Reservation, surrounding the police killing of Mr. Antelope, a 58 year-old member of the Northern Arapaho Nation. What began as an arrest for public intoxication outside of a Walmart on September 21, 2019 ended with a fatal shot by a still-unknown cop to Andy Antelope’s head (in an act of disturbing opacity not present in higher-profile killings by police, the name of the officer hasn’t been released to the public).
The cops’ and Fremont County’s narrative is that Mr. Antelope charged the unknown officer with a knife, earning him a shot to the head. “Antelope’s family members and others who knew him well have doubts about whether he could have posed a real physical threat,” reports WPM’s Savannah Maher. “He was 58-years old and in bad health, largely because of his addiction. He had poor balance and struggled to get around without help.” But the numerous questions raised by both native and non-native community members have not only gone unanswered, but have been treated with demoralizing contempt. The state DCI seemingly did little more than rubber-stamp the killing by re-telling the narrative exclusively from the anonymous officer’s point of view (a technique DCI also deployed when sugarcoating Albany County deputy Derek Colling’s killing of the unarmed Robbie Ramirez in November of 2018). And Fremont County has not allowed a public inquest into the killing.
The reason for the lack of a public inquest appears to swing somewhere between local political disagreements and a genuine fear on the part of Fremont County that an inquest might reveal that the officer they are shielding from scrutiny acted inappropriately. But it seems unfathomable that such an investigation would be denied to a white victim of a police shooting. Mr. Antelope was dead within seven minutes of his encounter with Officer Anonymous (who allegedly was wearing body armor more than sufficient to protect him against serious injury from a knife attack even if Mr. Antelope hadn’t been disabled and physically weak).
Mr. Antelope’s family and friends are furious that there was no public inquest. The police and public officials have been behaving exactly as police and public officials typically behave, revealing — and thus reconciling and restoring — as little as they are allowed to get away with. The settler paradigm demands maximum deference to law enforcement and zero to a vulnerable human displaying instability in an act that was probably minimally dangerous. For us to debate proportionality, we’d have to acknowledge precisely how much Native lives matter to non-natives.
Although the heartbreaking story has not received the kind of media attention it warrants, it illustrates the way colonialism and capitalism do violence to indigenous people, and people of color, on rural stolen land. It’s a particularly sad illustration of how the system brutalizes its most vulnerable victims gratuitously, meaning unnecessarily but also as a kind of surplus, a piled-on kind of violence.
Unnecessary because there seems to be no rational policy-based reason, and no ethical reason, and no public safety-based reason, and no medical or clinical reason, why that cop had to kill Mr. Antelope. There are countless examples readily obtainable of police disarming white hostile suspects, so even if Mr. Antelope was hostile, (we’ll never actually know), he likely could have been peacefully pacified and put to bed (and in a truly rational society, provided thereupon with the human and institutional resources to get him through whatever he was going through).
According to Chesie Lee, at least one retired police officer, Ed Fowler, agrees with Lee and the Antelope family and friends that the killing was unwarranted, and I’m certain that if this were investigated by others outside of DCI, even more questions would emerge.
But as is so often the case (and here egregiously so) with police shootings, official inquiries only ask if the officers’ actions are justified and very rarely if they are necessary–and never, if so, what makes them structurally necessary. What sets the conditions of necessity? Such structural discussions don’t ever happen because the protection of (particularly indigenous) life is not a policy priority in American policing–not explicitly, not implicitly in the dusty soul of white government.
Uncertainty over how much Native lives matter inspired Ms. Lee to host a forum on September 26 asking that very question. A few days earlier, on the one-year anniversary of the shooting, 50 residents had marched in protest of the death and cover-up. I was present at the September 26 event, and the speakers all expressed outrage and sadness at the way every responsible party seems to have treated the incident as a regrettable inconvenience.
One speaker, Karen Returns to War, charged that white people in Lander and Riverton do not understand their Arapahoe neighbors, nor how white material practices perpetuate disparities including addiction. Returns to War quoted John Trudell on how American platitudes of freedom and dignity are never extended to indigenous people. “They don’t view us as being human,” she said. Wyoming ACLU’s Antonio Serrano also spoke at the event, in his usual engaging and heartfelt fashion, invoking the commonality of struggle between all people of color in Wyoming and in the country, promising that “Someday we will get to a better place but it’s gonna take all of us to get there.”
A letter sent to Chesie Lee from former Riverton mayor Ron Warpness illustrates Return to War’s point concerning white residents’ and leaders’ view of the Native community. In the letter, Mr. Warpness berates Ms. Lee her for holding the forum and for comparing Mr. Antelope’s martyrdom to Jesus (Ms. Lee’s work includes a strong religious component and such comparisons are common and appropriate theological positions, given the gospels’ citation of Jesus’s attitude towards people society views as flawed). The letter is mean spirited in the extreme, ridiculing Ms. Lee for being “an apologist for all things tribal” and asserting that Mr. Antelope had lived an “unproductive, destructive and criminal life” (it’s especially important that reactionaries like Warpness call indigenous people “unproductive,” since being indifferent to capitalism is part of what led settlers to condemn indigenous people in the first place). For good measure, the former mayor urges Ms. Lee to read Blackout by Turning Point USA spokesperson Candace Owens, and asserts a parallel between Black Lives Matter and the conditions of indigenous people. It would be hard to make up a fictional minor public official making such toxic and frankly laughable arguments.
Similarly, when Wyoming State Rep. Andi Clifford (D. Riverton), on behalf of her fellow Arapaho Wyomingites, called for transparency in the investigation during a legislative hearing, her Republican colleagues chastised her for her lack of decorum. Their response reminds me, once again, of rhetorical scholars Donald Smith and Robert Scott’s well-known critique that “civility and decorum serve as masks for the preservation of injustice” and, echoing what Karen Returns to War said, “that they condemn the dispossessed to non-being.”
Mr. Antelope’s son, who spoke at the event via telephone, called from jail, where he had been for some time, unable to make bond for a minor charge. Nobody in power is asking what connection there might be between the father’s unnecessary and carelessly addressed murder and the son’s subsequent actions. A diagnosis of trauma is only available for the privileged. For white settlers, asking such questions on behalf of the indigenous are as inconvenient as the demands made by the families of victims of police shootings. We can do whatever we want, kill whomever we want, and resolve ambiguities completely in our favor.
One powerful conclusion for me is that, apart from Wyoming ACLU’s limited resources, there is little-to-no legal aid infrastructure for victims of police violence here. Maybe a benevolent advocate will read this and get in touch with the Antelope family. They’re hurting, and Wyoming is unsurprisingly indifferent. If a rich white university student in Laramie had been ticketed for MIP on a Saturday night, they’d have more resources at hand than any indigenous person killed by a cop in Riverton.
Photo by Angela Burgess, USFWS