“Do those hurt?”
From my cross-legged position on the double yellow lines of Nebraska Highway 87, I had to squint up in the afternoon sun to see who was asking. He was sixteen or seventeen, wearing camouflage pants and a red bandana. He indicated the pipes covering my arms, locking me to four others in a human blockade across the road. The pipes were coated in tar, which was wrapped in chicken wire, which was encased in several layers of black electrical tape. A short length of chain connected each wrist to bolts inside the pipes.
“No, they don’t hurt.” The slight cramp in my elbows was minor; the sun-scorched blacktop under my jeans was worse. He studied me for a moment.
“Thank you for doing this for our people,” he said, before stepping back into line with the other tokalas, or young warriors, who stood with their spines as straight as the staffs some of them held. I nodded my appreciation of his thanks, feeling undeserving of his gratitude. Sitting on the sun-baked blacktop wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was nothing compared to the hardships his community endures at the hands of Whiteclay’s liquor industry.
Whiteclay is an unincorporated border town just across the state line from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. A fifty mile buffer zone around the reservation was designated in 1882 in order to shield those forced onto the reservation from the predation of alcohol peddlers, who would otherwise capitalize on the misery of the disenfranchised Lakota. However, the buffer zone was revoked by executive order from Theodore Roosevelt in 1904; the peddlers wasted no time. Whiteclay has a population of 14, yet 4 liquor stores sell 12,500 cans of beer each day, making tens of millions annually as they perpetuate & profit off the continued destruction of the Lakota. The stores violate their liquor licenses routinely. They’re known to sell to minors as well as to the obviously intoxicated. Human trafficking and sexual violence thrive in the toxic atmosphere of the town’s criminal operation, with documented cases of rape and of store employees trading beer for sexual favors. The effect of Whiteclay is felt by women and children on the reservation in particular, with rates of sexual assault and domestic violence double the national average.
On August 26th, the women of the reservation staged a March for Peace, demanding justice for the countless victims of Whiteclay, and accountability for those responsible. Groups from across the country—including Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center—joined the march. Myself and four others from Deep Green Resistance blocked the road for seven hours, shutting down all the stores & preventing $5000 is liquor sales.
What we witnessed that day made clear the racial lines along which oppressive power operates.
While four grown men, white employees of one of the stores, antagonized a fourteen year old Lakota boy with threats and racial slurs, law enforcement stood by silently. As soon as fourteen year old Wallace Little reacted in self-defense, they arrested him. Another deputy shot pepper spray indiscriminately out the window of his cruiser, hitting a 10 year-old in the face. The police made it clear that day that they had no qualms with using excessive force, but only on some – only whites are safe in Whiteclay. The racism of these events was disturbing to witness, but for the Lakota, it is part of the daily reality of Whiteclay, and a long history of atrocity.
A history of resistance provides a chance at a brighter future. Led and organized by Lakota women, a loose coalition of people and organizations across the country is forming, with folks as far away as California working to close the doors on Whiteclay’s alcohol & exploitation once and for all. Earlier this year, the Oglala Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Whiteclay stores, their distributors, and several brewing companies to hold them accountable for the damage they wreak on the Lakota.
Much work remains before justice is done. To raise awareness about Whiteclay, the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center is hosting a benefit concert, this Friday, September 21st with the Earth Guardians, Common Ground, and Oak Chezar at 6:30pm at the Friends Meeting House (1825 Upland Ave). The event will also raise money for the legal defense of those arrested at the August 26th action, who face $6000 in fines. Together, we can shut down Whiteclay and put it where it belongs; next to smallpox blankets, General Custer, and all others who find themselves on the wrong side of history.