Commentary Violence

A Call for Justice Over a Mass Shooting in Indian Country

Jennie Stockle

If non-Native American communities, state governments, and organizations can quickly surround non-Native families suffering such a loss with warmth and kindness, then they should do the same when it comes to Native Americans and the families in their communities.

In February, a mass shooting happened in Indian Country at Cedarville Rancheria in northeastern California. Two people were injured and four were killed. One victim was only 19 years old. A group of children, including a 5-day-old, were present.

Like many small and even large tribal nation communities, most of the people at Cedarville Rancheria were related to one another. And somehow that connection seemed to become the focus of reports coming out of the region following the devastating event. As with many mass shootings, people seemed most interested in what motivated a crazed person to grab some guns and keep shooting until all the bullets were gone. Media outlets didn’t focus much attention on the beautiful and innocent human beings who were killed, but instead focused on trying to find motivations that could explain what can essentially never be explained in a way that makes sense of a senseless tragedy.

President Obama wrote letters of condolence to the families in Cedarville Rancheria who had lost their loved ones. Most of the people who received his letter were there when the shooting happened.

The tribal nation had about 35 citizens, and was part of a small community, with the nearest two towns comprising only 3,500 people. The townspeople knew of the Native Americans and what had happened to their people during the shooting. The alleged shooter, Cherie Rhoades, was in the community’s jail, and the State of California had taken over criminal jurisdiction in the case. However, the town or county responsible for seeking justice on behalf of the Native Americans did little to make a gesture toward the victims’ families, according to a local source. And, despite initial reports, it seems the townspeople fell back into resenting the local Indigenous people. California Gov. Jerry Brown did not write, and seems to have no intention of writing, a letter of condolence.

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It seems odd to Natives in Indian Country that local townspeople and even the state’s governor failed to show them the kind of support non-Native American communities seem to receive when one of their own is shot. Is there any reason good enough for their behavior to be acceptable?

If non-Native American communities, state governments, and organizations can quickly surround non-Native families suffering such a loss with warmth and kindness, then they should do the same when it comes to Native Americans and the families in their communities.

There is a real fear among some victim’s family members and other Native Americans that no one cares enough to do what is right. A general sense of disconnect from showing basic human compassion flows from all the coverage of the shooting. Outright racist and stereotypical commentslike “pow WOW” and “She’um drink too much Crazy Horse!” and “Most Indian reservations are full of drunks, stray dogs everywhere and they chase each other with bows and arrows”—go unchecked and are numerous. It is little wonder how a reclusiveness has invaded the small nation and made many victims’ families silent to mainstream news. This can be coupled with commentsposted in response to a piece that appeared at IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com that range from “This is awful news” to some victim-blaming in the form of projecting long-standing issues like Tribal Nation disenrollment and corruption fears onto the victims who are blameless.

It’s unclear what to do about the silence that’s come from inter-Tribal Nation leadership in matters of emergency crisis situations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the only such emergency crisis entity that isn’t law enforcement or first responders, made a statement about our strength and resilience but also sent the message to “move on.” Most of the Native Americans I talk with feel, as I do, that the shooting was a bleed over from the string of mass shootings that have swept through this country because we are not as separated as many would like to think—we are, after all, within the U.S. borders. But this time the people who were lost in the shooting became lost again in a bundle of apathy and vicious commentary. However, they shouldn’t be. People like Shelia Russo, Rurik “Two Bears” Davis, Angel Penn, Glenn Calonico, Melissa Davis, and Monica Davis—the victims of the shooting—cannot be forgotten, and now is not the time to “move on.”

Shelia Russo’s husband, Philip Russo, has spent much time and effort seeking justice for his wife and making sure the victims and what they stood for does get remembered. In a piece for the Huffington Post in May, he wrote:

When my wife Shelia was murdered, the world as I had come to know it and the future she and I had hoped on were violently brought to an end by a bullet. I want everyone to know Shelia for the smart, funny, altruistic woman she was and what a crime it is for the world to lose her. My wife died a hero, and I want people to know that. I don’t want the Alturas shooting to be forever defined by the face of a despicable murderer and thief. When people talk of the tragedy in Alturas I want them to think of Shelia and the names and faces and the stories of the three other lives lost that day.

In a more recent piece, he wrote:

My source of strength comes from my love for Shelia and my commitment to keep fighting for her. I keep a photograph of Shelia on the dresser in our bedroom. I look her in the eyes every day and ask myself if I’ve fought hard enough for her. I know that Shelia wouldn’t want anybody to feel sorry for her and she certainly wouldn’t want me feeling sorry for myself. What Shelia would want is for me to make sure this doesn’t end up as some tragic story but instead, to fight hard and steer this back on to a positive course and to use this experience to help others. That’s the kind of person Shelia was and that’s what Shelia always did best.

They had all come together that day to rid themselves of a treacherous person, Cherie Rhoades, who was suspected of embezzlement and betrayal—two things that are not uncommon and have a long and bitter history in Indian Country. Those problems have been around since the days of the corrupt “Indian agent” who would take the food that was to be provided to Native Americans at no cost per U.S. government treaty agreements and sell less than a third of it to them. They would then sell the rest for profit and come back sometime later and steal the food they originally sold to the Native Americans. This of course led to starvation. This type of total resource taking has continued in recent years, when many Tribal Nation elected leaders, with the help of the others, were skimming money away from their community, including family members, for themselves. Most of the time they have gotten away with it or had little more than a slap on the wrist.

Rhoades’ motivation doesn’t matter. What matters is that all her crimes get answered for. What matters is that the local authorities, the State of California, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs take up the duty they swore responsibility to and seek justice for the victims.

Shelia Lynn Russo
Shelia Lynn Russo was non-Native and devoted her life to making sure the U.S. government fulfilled its treaty obligations. She worked and lived in the Native American community. She spent two decades of her life restoring land rights that had been taken away and building up communities wrecked by centuries of genocidal policies. “Moving on” should include continuing her work and continuing to remember her. She saved the homes of many Native families from being taken. She helped communities keep their children from being stolen. (She was there to implement whatever the Tribal Nation decided for itself and had no say in the governance.)

Rurik Davis
As you can see from this photo, Rurik “Two Bears” Davis has a kind smile. He was full of life. At the memorial site in mid-July, one of his daughters was making “BBQ ribs that Papa always loved.”

Glenn Calonico
Glenn Calonico was clearly a loved father. According to what is publically available on his Facebook page, where he is pictured among a crowd of children, he liked Joe Montanta, the 49ers, working out, and playing sports. He also liked history and adventure books.

Angel Penn
Angel Penn was 19 years old when she was shot while protecting her infant son in her arms. (Shelia Russo also spent the last few seconds of her life protecting another human being.)

As horrifying as the truth is that these four people died for no good reason, letting their murder escape the full measure of justice would be worse.

Recently, Philip Russo developed a fledgling hope of creating a library and victim’s memorial as a way to make sure they will forever be remembered by more than the people  who loved them. They surely deserve to be remembered more than the person who hopes to skate by the justice system without ever answering for all her crimes. They deserve the support of a nation better equipped than Indian Country. They deserve to have Gov. Jerry Brown send a letter of condolence. They deserve respect and not petty racism or projecting fears upon them. Maybe as the trial phase in this case progresses, we can all endeavor to give them the respect and honor they deserve.

Analysis Human Rights

Activists Seek Justice as Verdict Looms for Officer Involved in Freddie Gray’s Death

Michelle D. Anderson

Freddie Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Last year, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers' trials have been completed without convictions.

The bench trial of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking Baltimore Police Department officer involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, began on Thursday, July 7. Rice faces involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment; the state dropped a misconduct charge after acknowledging Rice was not directly involved in Gray’s arrest. The closing arguments in his trial are scheduled for this Thursday; the judge is expected to share his verdict Monday.

The Rice trial started just as the public began grappling with the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—and the subsequent murder of five police officers at a Dallas protest.

Castile and Sterling, both Black men, died during encounters with police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, triggering nationwide protests against police brutality and implicit racial bias that have continued into this week.

And just like the days following Gray’s death, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flooded with images, videos, and hashtags demanding justice.

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Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Activists and some Maryland legislators accused police of giving Gray an intentional “rough ride,” when inmates or persons in custody are transported in police vans without a seat belt and subjected to frantic driving, ultimately causing them injury. Last year, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers’ trials have been completed without convictions—and as activists on the ground in Baltimore wait for more verdicts, they are pushing for reforms and justice beyond the courtroom.

The first police trial, which involved charges against Officer William Porter of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office, ended in a mistrial in December 2015 after jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams acquitted Officer Edward M. Nero of all charges in May. Mosby had charged Nero with misconduct, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment for putting Gray into the police van without a seat belt.

But many viewed the trial of Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who drove the van, as the most critical of the six. Last month, Judge Williams announced that Goodson, too, had been acquitted of all charges—including second-degree depraved-heart murder, the most serious of those brought against the officers.

Kwame Rose, a Baltimore activist, told Rewire he was not surprised.

“The judicial system of America shows that police are never held accountable when it comes to the death of Black people,” said Rose, who was arrested in September and December during peaceful protests related to Gray’s death.

During Goodson’s trial, Williams said there were several “equally plausible scenarios,” that could have transpired during Gray’s arrest. He also rejected the state’s argument that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride,”according to a New York Times account.

Ray Kelly, community relations director for the No Boundaries Coalition of West Baltimore grassroots group and a community interviewer for the West Baltimore Community Commission on Police Misconduct, said he was disappointed by the Goodson verdict. However, he noted that he was heartened by Mosby’s decision to bring criminal charges against the officers in the first place. “It’s a small change, but it is a change nonetheless,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Rewire.

In addition to the charges, Gray’s death eventually sparked a major “pattern or practice” investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Local activists, including the No Boundaries Coalition, which issued in March a 32-page report that detailed police misconduct in Baltimore and helped to trigger the DOJ, expected the findings of the DOJ investigation in late June.

However, the document has yet to be released, said Kelly, who is a native of the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was detained.

Kelly is expecting a consent decree—similar to the ones in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio—and a continued partnership with federal officials in the near future.

For Kelly, the trials—and the lack of convictions—have proved what leaders in groups like the No Boundaries Coalition have been saying in their advocacy. One of those messages, Kelly said, is that the community should continue to focus less on the judicial process for theoretically punishing officers who have committed wrongdoing and more on initiating policy changes that combat over-policing.

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group, seemed to echo Kelly’s sentiment in a statement last month. Two days after the Goodson verdict, Baltimore Bloc activists said it was a reminder that the judicial system was not broken and was simply doing exactly what it is designed to do.

“To understand our lack of faith in the justice system, you must first recognize certain truths: the justice system works for police who both live in and out of the city; it works against Black people who come from disinvested, redlined Black communities; and it systematically ruins the lives of people like Keith Davis Jr., Tyrone West and Freddie Gray,” Baltimore Bloc leadership said, referencing two other Baltimore residents shot by police.

The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Illinois v. Wardlow, said in a May blog post that police had legal case for stopping and arresting Gray, but also said the action constituted racially biased policing and diminished rights for Black and Latino citizens.

“The result is standards of police conduct that are different in some places than other places. It is a powerful example of institutionalized and structural racism in which ostensibly race-neutral policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups,” ACLU leaders said.

Right before issuing its statement in May, ACLU released a briefing paper that said at least 21 individuals had been killed in police encounters across Maryland in 2015. Of those fatal encounters, which included Gray, 81 percent were Black and about half were unarmed.

The ACLU said it was impossible for the agency to determine whether any officers were disciplined for misconduct in most cases because the police refused to release crucial information to the public.

The ACLU began compiling information about police custody deaths after learning that Maryland officials were not tracking those cases. In 2015, state politicians passed a law mandating law enforcement agencies to report such data. The first set of statistics on police custody deaths is expected in October, according to the ACLU. It is unclear whether those will include reports of officer discipline.

In line with those efforts, activists across Maryland are working to bring forth more systemic changes that will eliminate over-policing and the lack of accountability that exist among police agencies.

Elizabeth Alex, the regional director for CASA Baltimore, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of local, low-income immigrant communities, told Rewire many activists are spending less energy on reforming the judicial process to achieve police accountability.

“I think people are looking at alternative ways to hold officers and others accountable other than the court system,” Alex said.

Like the No Boundaries Coalition, CASA Baltimore is part of the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs (CJSJ), a collective of more than 30 local community, policy, labor, faith, and civil rights groups that convened after Gray’s death. CJSJ members include groups like the local ACLU affiliate, Baltimore United for Change, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

CJSJ leaders said the Goodson verdict underlined the critical need for “deep behavioral change” in the Baltimore Police Department’s culture. For the past year, the group has pushed heavily for citizen representation on police trial boards that review police brutality cases. Those boards make decisions about disciplining officers. For example, the city’s police commissioner might decide to discipline or fire an officer; that officer could go to the trial board to appeal the decision.

This spring, recent Baltimore City mayoral candidate and Maryland Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore), helped pass an omnibus police accountability law, HB 1016. Part of that bill includes a change to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) giving local jurisdictions permission to allow voting citizens on police trial boards. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed the changes into law in May.

That change can only happen in Baltimore, however, if the Baltimore Fraternal Order of the Police union agrees to revise its contract with the city, according to WBAL TV. The agreement, which expired on June 30, currently does not allow citizen inclusion.

In light of the current stalled negotiations, Baltimore Bloc on July 5 demanded Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young instead introduce an amendment to the city charter to allow civilian participation on trial boards. If Young introduced the amendment before an August deadline, the question would make it onto the November ballot.

Kelly, in an interview with Rewire, cited some CJSJ members’ recent meeting with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis as a win for Baltimore citizens. During that meeting, held on June 29, Davis outlined some of his plans for implementing change on the police force and said he supported local citizens participating on police trial boards, Kelly said.

This year, the Baltimore Police Department has also implemented a new use-of-force policy. The policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability and is the first rewrite of the policy since 2003, according to the Sun.

The ACLU has welcomed the policy as a step in the right direction, but said the new rules need significant improvements, according to the Sun.

For example, the policy requires reporting to the department when an officer flashes or points a weapon at a suspect without shooting; the data will be reviewed by the police commissioner and other city officials. However, it doesn’t require the same from officers who use deadly force.

Notably, the policy requires officers to call a medic if a person in custody requests medical assistance or shows signs that they need professional help. Gray had requested a medic, but officers were skeptical and didn’t call for help until he became unresponsive, according to various news reports.

Rose, who recently received legal assistance from the ACLU to fight criminal charges related to his arrests last year, said citizens should continue to demand accountability and “true transparency” from law enforcement.

In the meantime, with four trials—including Rice’s case—remaining and no convictions, many are looking to see if Mosby will change her prosecution strategy in the upcoming weeks. Roya Hanna, a former Baltimore prosecutor, has suggested Mosby showed poor judgment for charging the six officers without “adequate evidence,” according to the Sun.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City’s police union has urged Mosby to drop the remaining charges against officers.

The trial of Officer Garrett E. Miller is slated to begin July 27; Officer William Porter, Sept. 6, and Sgt. Alicia D. White, Oct. 13. All officers charged pleaded not guilty.

Baltimore Bloc, citing its dissatisfaction with her performance thus far, demanded Mosby’s removal from office last month.

Kelly, who counts Baltimore Bloc among his allies, has a different outlook. Calling’s Mosby’s swift decision to charge the six officers last year  “groundbreaking,” the Baltimore activist said the ongoing police trials are justified and help give attention to police misconduct.

“She should follow through on the charges ….We need that exposure,” Kelly said. “It keeps the debate open and sparks the conversation.”

News Law and Policy

Supreme Court Tie in Dollar General Case ‘Clear Victory’ for Tribal Sovereignty

Nicole Knight Shine

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

A U.S. Supreme Court tie on Thursday represented a win for tribal court authority in a case involving a Dollar General employee accused of molesting a 13-year-old more than a decade ago.

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

Justices deadlocked 4 to 4 in their opinion, leaving in place a federal appellate court decision that rejected Dollar General’s challenge to tribal court jurisdiction.

“It’s a clear victory,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, counsel to the nonprofit National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), in an interview with Rewire. NIWRC filed an amicus brief in the case in favor of tribal sovereignty, along with 104 other organizations. “Dollar General spent a lot of time, and lot of money, and a lot of resources attempting to completely eliminate tribal jurisdiction.”

In 2003, Dale Townsend, a Dollar General store manager, allegedly engaged in repeated acts of sexual molestation at the store on a then-13-year-old Choctaw boy, who was placed there by a youth job-training program. The Dollar General store sits on tribal trust lands, agreed to Mississippi Choctaw tribal court jurisdiction regarding its store lease, and operates under a business license issued under Choctaw code.

In 1981, the Court ruled in Montana v. United States that tribal authority extends to non-Natives entering into consensual relationships with a tribe “through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements,” as SCOTUSblog wrote in the case preview.

Dollar General, however, argued the tribal court had no authority. In its appeal, the Tennessee-based corporation invoked a 1978 ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts lacked judicial power over non-members in criminal cases.

The boy’s case, however, was a civil matter. While the tribe’s attorney general took steps to bar the Dollar General manager from the reservation, the U.S. Attorney did not bring criminal charges against Townsend. The boy’s family is suing Dollar General and the store manager for damages in excess of $2.5 million, a case that can now continue in tribal court.

Advocates had called the closely watched case an “attack on tribal sovereignty.”

“Nowadays, it’s a very good thing when tribal rights and powers are freshly affirmed,” Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, told Rewire in a phone interview Thursday. “Had Justice Scalia been sitting on the Court, this case would have depended on Scalia’s vote. That’s why there was a great deal of concern and anxiety about the outcome of the case.”

The death of conservative Justice Scalia, and Republican gridlock, has left the highest court in the land with only eight justices.

“If Dollar General had been successful … tribal governments would have been stripped of their inherent jurisdiction over the majority of individuals attempting to harm their men, women, and children,” Nagle, counsel for NIWRC, told Rewire.

“In Indian country, our men, women, and children face the highest rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder—higher than any other population in the United States,” she noted. “The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that the majority of these assaults are committed by non-Indians.”

When prosecutors decline to pursue these kinds of crimes, survivors have increasingly turned to civil courts for recourse.  

More than four out of five Native women are subjected to some form of violence, and 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, according to a May 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report.

Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Chief Phyllis Anderson told the Associated Press that the Supreme Court tie was a positive outcome “not only for our tribe, but for all of Indian country.”