Police Shooting Stirs Long-Simmering Tensions In Riverton
On a sunny October afternoon two weeks after the police shooting of 58-year-old Anderson Antelope, dozens marched down a busy street in Riverton chanting "Justice for Andy."
Antelope's son Anderson Antelope Jr. and nephew Dean Wallowing Bull led the marchers, wearing red to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. They said the purpose of the march was to remind the city of Riverton that Antelope’s family is still waiting for answers.
"We haven't had word from any of the authorities," Wallowing Bull said. "They still haven't released the name of the officer involved in the shooting. They still haven’t released any video surveillance from Walmart."
What authorities have shared is an allegation that Antelope attacked an officer, who had been trying to arrest him, with a knife. That officer was uninjured in the attack and is on leave from his position according to local officials.
Antelope, a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, struggled with alcoholism in the years before his death. As a result, family members say he was physically disabled, mentally unhealthy, and prone to bouts of confusion.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that no one was in danger when officers first approached Antelope, likely in response to a report of public drunkenness. Things started to escalate when an officer tried to physically move Antelope from the sidewalk in front of the Walmart.
A Familiar Story
The news of Antelope’s death quickly made its way around Indian County through social media. People began to draw comparisons with other police shootings of Native people. Like Jason Pero, a 14-year-old who police say lunged at them with a knife before they shot and killed him on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin in 2017.
The case also bears one similarity to the 2017 killing of Zachary Bearheels
"How does one end up dead because they're considered a public nuisance by a business?" asked Bearheels' sister Adrienne Chalepah in an interview.
Her brother, who was Kiowa Apache and Rosebud Lakota, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Chalepah said he was experiencing a mental health crisis when Omaha Police detained him outside of a convenience store. Beaheels was 29-years-old and unarmed when officers punched him in the head repeatedly and fired a taser at him 12 times.
Three years after his death, Chalepah said the effects are still rippling through his tribal communities. She said it troubles her as her children grow up, looking less like Native boys and more like Native men.
"I have a pretty severe case of PTSD because of this fear of the police," Chalepah said. "But at what point does the criminal justice system take responsibility for some of these issues, of the breakdown in trust in communities?"
"They Can Feel That Animosity"
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Native people are killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group. Nationwide, people with mental illnesses are also more likely to experience violence of all kinds -- including from police officers.
But Antelope’s family members believe the circumstances that led to his death are unique to Riverton. His niece Autumn Wallowing Bull said that in the years before his death, her uncle was what some in the city might derogatorily call a "park ranger." That's local slang for a homeless Native person who hangs out in the city park.
Recalling a 2015 incident, in which a city employee shot two Northern Arapaho men in the head and told police he had been looking to kill "park rangers," Wallowing Bull wondered if that label might have led others to view her uncle as a nuisance or disposable.
"I don’t know if this cop just got frustrated with him, finally had enough of him, pulled his gun and decided to end him when he could have just tased him or maced him," Wallowing Bull said.
Growing up on the Wind River Reservation, Wallowing Bull said she had her own bad experiences with Riverton Police. Now, when she visits this reservation border town, she said she notices a difference in the way she’s treated. Strangers stare at her, she gets followed around stores.
She said she moved away to Billings because she doesn’t want her children to experience that.
"When we do come back here I always have to tell them hey, you guys gotta watch out. Watch what you're saying, how you look at certain people. Keep your eyes to yourself," Wallowing Bull said. "And they can feel it when we come back here. They can feel that animosity, that something's different."
The Riverton Police Department is not responding to requests for comment on the shooting while they wait for the State Department of Criminal Investigation to release a report. But Riverton City Mayor Richard Gard responded to concerns about bias on their behalf.
"Our police department is just that, it's a police department. And when laws are broken, they come and take care of those broken laws," he said.
In other words, according to Gard, it isn’t the police department's job to provide mental health or addiction counseling.
"I have total confidence in all of the officers. So, I don't think there's a racial slant to this. I think there are people that would try to make it a racial slant, but I don't see that. And all the choices that were made were made by Mr. Antelope," Gard said.
Gard said he knows that even though he doesn’t believe Riverton Police carry any racial bias, some of his constituents feel differently, and that that distrust has real consequences. He expressed disappointment that some Native residents of Riverton might not call 9-1-1, even in unsafe situations, for fear of what might happen to them when the police arrive.
"We want everybody to feel safe. And we want them to call our police department," Gard said. "So if I said 'No, I don't care about people's feelings and their safety level,' that would be totally incorrect. I do, the police do. So, if you feel like you're targeted or there's a problem you really should come in and explain to us why you do, and maybe you have a case."
While they wait to learn more about Anderson Antelope's last moments, his family members say they hope people will start to take racial divisions in Riverton seriously and work to break them down. Antelope's nephew Dean Wallowing Bull said that starts with how people who are labeled "park rangers" are treated.
"This needs to be addressed. You know, our street people here in town, they're not safe. And if anybody's on the streets and things happen to them, who do they report that to? Because the city of Riverton Police are not going to listen to them."
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.