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January 15, 2015

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Tragedies

The fall and early winter of 2014 will always be remembered as the time when police violence against young black men boiled to the surface of the national consciousness. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became symbols of an epidemic of violence that has simmered in America for a very long time. Many of us in South Dakota watched the furor of marches and riots on television, and though we were concerned for our nation, did not feel personally touched by the deaths in far off Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY. For me, that all changed on the night of December 20th, 2014, when Allen Locke was shot by a policeman in the doorway of his Rapid City home.

Allen had worked for us at Wild Idea Buffalo Company for only short time. I did not know him well. He was a big, quiet guy that we had recently hired to help process buffalo meat. He was married with three children. He’d had some trouble with the law. He was working to getting his life back in order. In a lot of ways he was like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and a host of other kids trying to find their way in life. But he wasn’t a black kid. He was Lakota.

One of the ironies of what happened on December 20th was that, in coordination with other groups around the country, about one hundred Rapid City residents held an anti-police brutality rally in support of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Of course, in addition to their support of Brown and Garner, their rally was aimed at the relationship between local police and the Lakota people of western South Dakota. It was at that rally that Allen Locke started drinking.

Over the years, I have had a lot of Lakota friends and I know that they often get unfair treatment from the police. But I really never grasped their relationship with law enforcement, until one day when I was driving with Shane Brown, a Lakota guy from the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation that I’d known for years. We were driving toward the Rosebud Reservation and Shane had already pointed out a couple of times that I was driving too fast. I was only going a few miles per hour over the speed limit, but he was nervous and I chided him a little. “Relax,” I said. “We haven’t passed a car for fifteen miles.” Just then we topped a hill and there sat a highway patrolman with his radar gun aimed right at us.

“Damn,” I said. It struck me as funny that Shane had warned me just a minute before. But when I looked over at Shane I saw that he found no humor in our situation, he frozen in his seat – as still as a jackrabbit beneath a soaring eagle.

I was pleasant to the patrolman and when he took my license and registration back to his car I looked at Shane. I was hoping that he would at least tease me, but he didn’t even let his eyes meet mine.

When the patrolman returned he handed me a warning ticket and told me to slow it down. “Have a nice day,” he said.

We were miles down the road before Shane spoke. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he said, “he didn’t even shake us down.”

According to the police account, Allen Locke’s wife called the police because Allen had been drinking and she was afraid for herself and the three kids. They say that, when the young, white policeman approached the house, Allen came through the front door with a knife. That is all probably true. My question is: why did Allen come through that door with a knife and was there any way the policeman could have warned him?

I’m not naïve about these things. I know that when people have been drinking for a couple days that they do crazy things. I also know that when you really believe that you are about to be killed it is not like in the movies. The adrenaline explodes from every pore and there is no time to neatly step aside and apply a fantasy karate chop. There is not enough time to think.

There was just that one split second with those two young men confronting each other on the stoop of that house in Rapid City, South Dakota.

At Allen’s funeral in the tiny reservation town of Kyle, South Dakota I thought about when that one young man killed the other one and I knew that two hundred years of history had led to that moment. There were a hundred and fifty people in the gymnasium of  Little Wound School, and I believe, that I was one of only two white men. The other white man, was a kind Catholic priest, there to officiate the Christian part of the service. The Lakota Holy man, George Apple, was there to do the Lakota part, and he was already sitting with the drum group at the front of the gym. He was beside the open casket and the tables filled with pictures of Allen and his family. Above the tables, star quilts hung from a rope secured to the basketball rim. The quilts had been brought as offering for the family from supporters, and from experience, I knew that they would be given away to the attendees at end of the ceremony.

The drumbeats filled the gym with the music that I have always felt is a perfect match for the sad and savage plains of South Dakota. The singers chanted and the Catholic priest tried to make the bible reading heard above the murmur of the crowd, and the squeals of playing children. The people quieted as George Apple spoke to us in Lakota.

I had no idea what George was saying so I looked at the eight pallbearers who sat a few feet away. They were all big, young guys with tattoos on their arms, necks and a few showing through their buzzed haircuts. Some wore do rag bandanas and others wore those straight billed ball caps that I’d seen on the marchers in Missouri and New York. They looked a lot like Allen Locke: quiet, defiant and cocky. They could have been the followers of Crazy Horse – scary enough to frighten any young white man with a gun and a fervent desire to defend his community.  

When the Lakota part of the ceremony wound down, the drum group started up again. They sang a song with words that I could not understand, but felt the song just the same. The pallbearers rose and went to stand on either side of Allen’s body and the people rose to file past and shake their hands. I fell in line and one by one I shook the hands of those steely young friends of Allen Locke. In the Lakota way, their handshakes were limp, and if their eyes met mine at all, it was with apathetic contempt. Seven of them held their heads high and focused their eyes through me, to the back at the gym. But the last pallbearer’s eyes were full of tears, and for a fleeting millisecond, as I passed
his hand clung to mine.

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