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Is this America? Why All of Us Should Be Protesting at Whiteclay
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Jessica Cordova Kramer is Senior Managing Director of Alumni Engagement at Teach For America.
We left the Pine Ridge Reservation and drove 300 feet across the South Dakota border into the “town” of Whiteclay, Nebraska. No real housing, no street lamps, no sidewalks—nothing. As I looked around, lump in my throat, I was faced with a patently un-American scene: grown men and women passed out, on the street; a woman stumbling across the road.
Our guide, Robert Cook—a Teach For America colleague and an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe—was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Minutes away in neighboring Whiteclay, there are as many liquor “stores”—really trailers selling oodles of beer to Pine Ridge residents who walk over—as there are residents. Here, very successful American businesses are selling about 12,500 cans of beer a day, mostly to Oglala Lakota men, women, and children.
Alcohol is illegal on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but alcoholism rates are sky high; unemployment hovers in the 80th percentile. Life expectancy is about 20 years shorter than the rest of us. You’re lucky if you live past 55 on the reservation. Youth suicides are through the roof. Fetal alcohol syndrome abounds.
This week, a group of Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge citizens and some allies decided to organize a peaceful protest in Whiteclay to block the liquor stores from making sales. This kind of protest seems inherently American and exactly the kind of “bootstrap” action to improve community circumstances that Abraham Lincoln would cheer on. Instead of shows of support, these men, women, and children are being met with mace, arrested and blocked at the border by Nebraska sheriffs, and carted off in horse trailers like chattel.
I’m not Native—I’m White—but I’m angry as hell. Is this America?
I asked Robert what he thought of the way the protesters were being treated. He wrote back:
“This is outrageous and unacceptable! But still the status quo, when money prevails over what is right and humane. It makes me sad to think my grandkids will still have Whiteclay to deal with and alcohol killing our people.”
It’s easy to look at a map and cordon off the problem. It’s easy to say this is a Pine Ridge problem. An “Indian” problem. Stop walking over the border and buying beer. It’s a free country, right?
But it’s not just an “Indian” problem, or a Pine Ridge issue. What’s happening to the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge and the peaceful protestors in Whiteclay is an American problem across all 50 states, and here’s why:
The rights of companies to sell legal poison in one state shouldn’t win out against the work of a community in a bordering state to rise up and protect itself against child prostitution, rampant alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Federal and state laws regularly hold companies accountable for their actions, or inactions. Industrial companies can’t poison our lakes (too much); toy companies can’t make toys that can hurt our kids (too badly); and when food is tainted, it gets pulled from shelves before too much damage is done.
In this context, the liquor companies are no different from bars that continue to sell alcohol to very drunk people and let them drive off—in many states that’s both illegal and punishable by huge fines. Why? Because victims of DUIs and their relatives rose up and said, “No more.” The protesters at Whiteclay are doing exactly what our “founding fathers” said they should do to protect their communities against predators. Let ‘em.
I met at least a dozen Lakota people during my trip. These passionate, hardworking educators and advocates want to preserve their culture, live and work in this “New America,” and ensure their children are healthy, proud and successful by both “American” and Lakota standards.
The states of South Dakota and Nebraska should work together to back up the Pine Ridge citizens who are standing up to protect their community and their destiny, and force the liquor companies to move out. If you agree, read up and speak up.
To learn more about the Whiteclay protests:
Jessica is a quintessential New York, first-generation citizen and lawyer (no longer practicing) who found herself at Teach For America seven years ago and in the Midwest two years ago. Married to Eli Kramer (New York '03), executive director of Hiawatha Leadership Academies, the couple lives in Minneapolis with their two daughters Olivia and Talia. Jess is currently reading Rez Life by David Treuer while working to keep TFA alum engaged and fired up through volunteering, giving, digital media, and events.