A group of elementary school students went on a field trip to a local sporting event to celebrate their academic achievements. What could be more heartwarming? Unfortunately, things did not end well for this particular group of Native American schoolchildren in South Dakota, and this story is a reminder of how far our society and our justice system still has to go in achieving equality.
Early this year, a group of 57 third- through eighth-graders from the Lakota tribe attended a minor league hockey match in Rapid City, South Dakota. While they were enjoying the game, a group of three drunk men in the corporate-owned VIP suite above them allegedly began to question and harass the children. Their chaperone instructed them to ignore the men, but things got even worse when the drunk fans began to pour beer all over the students and shout racial insults, including “Go back to the Rez!”
The “Rez” is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Allen, South Dakota, where the students’ school, the American Horse School, is located. Pine Ridge and other Indian reservations in South Dakota comprise some of the poorest counties in the country. Their lives stand in stark contrast with those of the corporate sponsors who are able to rent VIP seats at sporting events.
This incident was undoubtedly deeply upsetting to those involved. What we should expect is a justice system that is prepared to serve the interests of rich and poor alike. Surely, anyone who racially abuses children and pours alcoholic beverages on them could be tried for crimes such as child abuse, hate crime, assault, or others.
Sadly, this expectation of justice has not been met, and the outcome of the incident, the proceedings of which are still ongoing, is all too predictable. Although police officials determined that three men were responsible for the attack, only one of them, Trace O’Connell, has been indicted, and his charge is a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct, with a maximum penalty of $500. His trial has just begun, and he has pleaded not guilty.
The harsh realities of racism confronted them severely on that evening. And the message that is sent by our courts is that it is acceptable to abuse children of an impoverished and historically oppressed community and get away with a slap on the wrist. Keith Janis, of the Oglala Sioux tribe, did not have high hopes from the get-go: “He’s [the judge] going to side with the defendant. There’s a double standard of justice here in South Dakota. Everybody who’s Lakota knows that.”
Rapid City has declared 2015 the “Renewed Year of Reconciliation,” in an attempt to improve race relations in the area. But these gestures seem empty if justice fails to be distributed equally. As the principal of the Native American school, Gloria Kitsopoulos, says, “Again, justice has not been served for the native people or the children.” Activists continue to protest the lack of repercussions, as once again we see that a VIP suite in America may come with the added bonus of criminal immunity. Cody Hall, founder of the Last Real Indians activist group, said “this isn’t the last … racial incident that will happen here in Rapid City.”
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.