Police Brutality

“They Don’t View Us as Being Human” — the ongoing killing of Andy Antelope in Wyoming

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

County attorney Trent faces conflicts of interest in choosing whether to prosecute Derek Colling

Albany County (WY) for Proper Policing Founding Member, Karlee Provenza, submitted this piece to five major newspapers in Wyoming, including the Laramie Boomerang and WyoFile. All of the pursued outlets declined to run the op-ed.

by Karlee Provenza
December 20, 2018

Albany County officials have found themselves in tough situations since Sheriff’s Corporal Derek Colling shot and killed unarmed Robbie Ramirez on November. 4th.

Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley faced controversy for hiring Colling in 2011, given Colling’s history of violence. Colling had previously killed two people in the line of duty, he was fired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for another on-duty assault, and he cost the City of Las Vegas $100,000 in a civil lawsuit.

Now that Colling has killed a Laramie resident, people in Albany County are wondering whether O’Malley should shoulder some of the responsibility for Ramirez’s death.

Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent is also in hot water. She has refused multiple requests to publicly release the body and dash camera footage of Ramirez’s killing, even after she showed it to journalists and allowed television stations to cherry pick bits for rebroadcast. This leaves Trent awkwardly trying to explain why it was okay to release the video to some members of the public, but not others.

Meanwhile, Trent faces a separate dilemma as the county’s prosecutor.

As County Attorney, Trent represents the people of Albany County. But she also represents the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. How, then, is she supposed to decide whether to prosecute an employee of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department (her client) on behalf the people of Albany County (also her client)?

The short answer is: she shouldn’t decide. Trent faces a clear ethical conflict of interest, and she should recuse herself from this case.

Laws regarding prosecutorial conflicts of interest are not very clear in cases that involve police defendants. Police rarely face criminal charges in court, so there is simply little legal precedent in this arena to guide us.

But what is absolutely clear is that police and prosecutors have close, symbiotic relationships. Prosecutors rely heavily on police. Police literally bring them work by arresting suspected criminals. When prosecutors decide to pursue charges, they rely on police investigation and testimony to secure convictions. Since the public tends to evaluate prosecutors on their ability to convict criminals, prosecutors’ jobs literally depend on police.

Police-prosecutor relationships are especially tight in rural places like Albany County (and most of Wyoming). The same officers work with the same prosecutors day in and day out, forming valuable personal as well as professional bonds and cultivating a sense of trust. When you spend years working daily alongside police to protect the community, it is exceedingly difficult to switch roles and go after someone your professional life depends on.

Trent may or may not have legal ground to remain the prosecuting attorney on Colling’s case—Wyoming law is ambiguous. But if she chooses to remain, there is absolutely no guarantee she can put aside biases that would impact her decision-making. This would threaten the fairness of any trial, leaving open the possibility that a conviction could be overturned. It would also risk making a mockery of our legal system. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall cautioned: “… actual prejudice in such circumstances misses the point, for what is at stake is the public perception of the integrity of our criminal justice system.”

There would be several viable options for continuing to administer Colling’s case after Trent’s recusal. The case could be moved to another county, or another county’s attorney could be put in charge. Similarly, the Wyoming Attorney General’s office could take the case or appoint a special prosecutor.

Each option presents challenges. And these options may even decrease the likelihood that Colling faces charges—an outcome that would likely dismay many Albany County residents.

But people who are concerned about Robbie Ramirez’s death at the hands of police should also be concerned about a criminal justice system that allows conflicts of interest to go unchecked.

We cannot stand aside and allow for corruption because it is easy or convenient. Regardless of whether someone thinks Colling should face charges, it should be obvious that Trent’s situation is problematic.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, a prosecutor’s obligation “…is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”

A forum on police reform will take place from 6 – 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 4, at the Lincoln Community Center (365 W Grand Ave.) in Laramie. Snacks and child care will be available. More information is available on the ACOPP site.

The Right to Fear

by Cate Morrison

An astonishing thing happened in Rhode Island last Thursday morning.

I will piece together the complicated timeline to the best of my ability, mostly on the basis of the Providence Journal reporting.

9:00 am: Donald Morgan is being transported to a court appearance for vehicle theft by a state trooper, when the trooper stops to assist a car crash. While handcuffed but unsecured, Morgan gets into the driver’s seat of the police cruiser and drives away. The cruiser is located by GPS and found abandoned. According to an eyewitness, 40-50 police officers descend on the scene.

(roughly) 10:30 am: A call goes out over police radio to be on the lookout for a “white Ford F150” with “something hanging out the back.” A Cranston police officer assumes the truck must have something to do with Morgan. He then sees a white Ford F250 “driving erratically,” and pulls the driver over. The driver stops, but then drives on. The Cranston officer loses sight of the truck.

At some point, so far unclear, Providence police officers spot the truck entering I-95 north at the Providence Place Mall. What follows is an astonishing show of force.

There are unofficial estimates of 30-40 marked and unmarked vehicles that converge on the truck. Bystanders said the police officers themselves were driving in ways that would endanger the public.

Penned in by police vehicles, the driver attempts to first reverse and then go forward—though from videos, it is unclear if the lurch and drive forward is intentional or if Joseph Santos has already been shot dead with his foot on the pedal. Officers open fire on the truck’s cabin. Driver Joseph Santos is killed. Passenger Christine Demers is critically wounded. At this point, 5 Providence police officers and an unspecified number of state troopers all opened fire at some point at Santos and Demers.

They had nothing to do with Donald Morgan. They were unarmed.

Five officers were involved in the shooting, according to police officials. Estimates from bystander videos suggest 40 rounds fired.

When I first heard the story, my first mordant thought was “how soon will the victims’ arrest records be released?” The answer was a bit over 24 hours. The ProJo online headline announced “Police Identify Two Shot Thursday on Highway On-Ramp.” The identification was solely legal—the lead: “Both Joseph J. Santos, 32 and Christine E. Demers, 37, who remains hospitalized, had extensive involvement with law enforcement and the courts.” The following texts struggles to substantiate the claim. The records were revealed for the sake of shaming the victims, but they told of a far more disturbing pattern of human suffering at the hands of the law—where small infractions, petty arrests and add-on charges snowballed into more and more time, warrants and infractions, and struggles with addiction became criminalized. These were no great dangers to society, and given the number of officers responding, were also not threats to specific members of the public at the time. The chase was officer-initiated, sustained and heightened.

Aristotle, in his account of the emotions, comes to a very uncomfortable conclusion about the connection between individual and social feeling. Some people have rights to emotional responses that others do not. Deprived of a social standing that could be threatened, the slave cannot feel anger. Daniel Gross explains it as an economy of emotion, where social collectives invest concern in some and not others, and a system of not rationality but reason. There are reasons to be hopeful, angry or afraid, and to feel kindness, shame or admiration. Before even the word, emotional response expresses a rough system of judgment. One is worthy of pity, another indignation, some feared, others admired—this tells us about the originating reason of the world before it is laundered into more genial types of justification. My reaction tells me about what I am before I even know what I think. If I’m angry, you cut me down without cause. If I’m afraid, you can, want to and will cause me harm. If I am kind, I want to help you for no benefit to myself when you need it.

There is a caveat. The emotions are social. Some people have the right to feel. Others don’t.

What did Joseph Santos do to die, and Christine Demers to be gravely wounded? At most, Santos drove badly and Demers did nothing. They panicked after an initial stop for driving a white Ford truck, triggered by a fallacious state-wide bulletin. They then had police from several different towns and jurisdictions swoop down on

The enabling conditions of fear are a presumption that a) someone or something has the ability to hurt you, b) that it wants to or is going to hurt you, c) that it is close by and thus can hurt you. Santos and Demers both knew about the ability for the law to hurt them. They knew that they were being pursued with sudden, unexplainable and overwhelming force. They found themselves surrounded by this force without any way to understand why, when even bystanders were astonished. They were right to be afraid, to act in ways that are extreme and unreasonable, but their actions became instead justification for their nearly inevitable deaths once the horrible machinery began moving.

We know that the reaction of fear is deemed generally socially acceptable, because one of the most common responses to officer-involved shooting is that they feared for their lives or for those of members of the public, and thus deviated from standard practice.

Fear, however, is granted to some and not others. Santos and Demers were not allowed to fear. They weren’t given the benefit of the doubt.

What happens to members of public who fear for their lives? Why do they have no right to fear?

When police officer shootings occur, the feeling of fear is processed through its reasoning. The suspect was capable, willing and realistically in that situation able to hurt you. The specific Providence police were wound up and ready to fire on who they believed to be Donald Morgan. But Donald Morgan wasn’t there. It was two people with a history of petty crime, wrung through an uncompromising system, who got scared and tried to run when an unimaginable phalanx of police descended on them. Overwhelming force came down upon two people who had done nothing to deserve such a response.

They panicked. The officers did not. They killed with absolute control.

I thought that the body cameras and bystander films would show a scene of chaos and confusion. They did not. Officers cover the truck and systematically shoot into it, calmly and in formation. The videos show an execution.

We ask—how to process a mass shooting? How do we even comprehend a person shooting 26 in a church or 58 at a concert. We have a far greater vocabulary, though, for a single person shooting dozens of people than we do multiple people shooting 40 times at two unarmed people, whose greatest crime was panicking. What do we say then?

Cate Morrison is senior lecturer and director of debate at the University of Rhode Island.

Photo credit: ABC news, from bodycam footage.