By DAVID CORREIA
Johnny Descheny, a Navajo Nation Council delegate, pulled into the parking lot of the Farmington Wal-Mart in early June of 2006 and saw two men scuffling on the ground. He told KOAT-TV that one wore the uniform of the Farmington police. That man was holding down another man and beating him with his baton. He then shot the man four times with his service revolver. “Every time the guy got shot, his body just jerked—just jerked three times,” Descheny told reporters. “That’s when the officer went up, aimed at the guy’s head and shot him in the head.”
The officer was Farmington police officer Shawn Scott, and his victim was a twenty year-old Diné man named Clint John.
Officer Scott’s incident report told a much different story than the one Decheny told reporters. Scott told investigators that John had seized his baton and was swinging it at the officer when Scott fired shots in self-defense. Another eyewitness, however, confirmed Descheny’s story. The man, who would only gave his name as Rick for fear of police reprisal, told a reporter from the Navajo Times that the officer was the one swinging the baton while Clint John “was trying to protect himself from Scott’s blows.” According to Rick, after beating John with his baton, the officer walked to his cruiser, retrieved his weapon, and fired four shots into John.
Despite these conflicting reports, the Farmington Times reported only the official police account of the shooting. They told their readers that John “swung at [the officer] and tried to take [him] to the ground.” Police chief Mike Burridge told the press that John tried to grab Scott’s baton prior to the fatal shots: “Our agency conducted a professional and thorough internal and administrative investigation, which has found that Officer Scott acted appropriately and within the scope of department policy.” District Attorney Lyndy Bennett declared the death a “justifiable homicide.”
A subsequent Navajo Nation investigation of the shooting noted that “eyewitness accounts of the confrontation varied and were divided along racial lines. Navajo witnesses reported that Mr. John appeared to be surrendering to Officer Scott after a brief physical altercation between the two. Non-Indian witnesses reported Mr. John was approaching Officer Scott in a threatening manner with the officer’s baton.”
Despite the fact that bordertown newspapers barely covered the killing, John’s death, and a separate botched investigation into a hit-and-run killing of a thirty-one year old Diné man named Tony Clah, provoked widespread outrage on the Navajo Nation and renewed demands that the Council do something about epidemic bordertown violence against Navajo people.
The Navajo Council eventually created the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) and charged it with investigating racial discrimination and bordertown violence. It was “to operate as a clearinghouse entity to administratively address discriminatory actions against citizens of the Navajo Nation.” Its first order of business was to conduct a series of meetings throughout Arizona and New Mexico to assess “race relations between Navajos and non-Navajos.” Between December 2008 and September 2009, the NNHRC held 25 separate public hearings and listened to more than 400 people testify on bordertown race relations.
In addition to common and long-standing problems of violence directed at Navajo men and women, the hearings revealed that state and local officials routinely turned a blind eye to Diné suffering. “Medical examiners and law enforcement personnel and crime scene investigators are quick to note the death of Navajos and Native Americans as chronic ethanolism (alcoholism) or the death as natural. It is believed and highly probably that these types of deaths are neither fully investigated nor litigated to the fullest extent of the law by agencies responsible to bring closure to the families of these victims.”
They found discrimination in nearly every off-reservation institution. Schools, which “allow mainstream religious activities but not traditional cultural practices; use mascots and slogans that are culturally insensitive to indigenous people.” High schools, they found, often segregate students based on race, while teachers routinely make derogatory statements toward Navajo students.
They heard stories that confirmed that Navajos are incarcerated in prisons at rates higher than other groups, where they are “denied access to appropriate healthcare.” They recorded hundreds of complaints of predatory lenders and pawnshops preying on Navajo consumers, and restaurants refusing to serve them.
They heard testimonials by people who described patterns of illegal dumping and water contamination at sacred sites.
In the years since the investigation that was sparked by the police killing of John, the NNHRC has travelled throughout Arizona and New Mexico to investigate forced relocations against Navajo people that stem from the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, discrimination against Navajo women and LGBTQ youth. It has examined the rapacious payday lending, check-cashing and used auto sales industry in Gallup and Farmington, which often targets and preys on Navajo elders.
In July of this year, the NNHRC came to Albuquerque to investigate the brutal attack on three homeless, Navajo men by three teenagers. Alex Rios, 18, Nathaniel Carrillo, 16, and Gilbert Tafoya, 15, told police they were looking for “someone to beat up” in the early morning hours of July 19 when they found three homeless, Navajo men sleeping in a vacant lot on Albuquerque’s west side. The three boys tied handkerchiefs around their faces and attacked the men using cinder blocks and metal poles. One man escaped the attack, but Allison “Cowboy” Gorman and Kee “Rabbit” Thompson were not so lucky. The youngest attacker, Tafoya, told police that the three boys “took turns picking cinder blocks over their heads and smashing them into the male subjects’ faces.” They also told police that Gorman and Thompson were only their most recent victims. The survivor of the attack, Skeets, told the press the three boys routinely attacked homeless people in the area, usually in gangs of five or more. All three teens, who admitted to beating scores of homeless men before the July attack, remain in jail, indicted on dozens of counts, including first-degree murder.
The NNHRC worked with the Albuquerque Indian Center and First Nation’s Community Healthsource in Albuquerque to investigate violence against Native people in Albuquerque. After months of outreach, which included interviews with Native poor and homeless men and women, the Commission found a pattern of frequent targeted attacks on Navajo homeless people by attackers that included, also, officers of the Albuquerque police department (APD).
Since 2010, APD has killed 27 people in a pattern that the US Department of Justice condemned in a scathing April, 2014 report for engaging in unconstitutional policing and the routine use of unjustified lethal and non-lethal force. No mention is made in that report, however, of violence against Native people.
Last week the NNHRC held a six-hour public meeting at the Albuquerque Indian Center to examine what the Department of Justice ignored: “The Treatment of Navajo Citizens by Border Town Law Enforcement.”
The meeting began at 10 AM with a prayer led by Commission chairperson, and former judge, Steve Darden. Darden then introduced a number of City of Albuquerque officials who were attending the public hearing. Mayor Richard Berry, who has never stepped foot in either the Albuquerque Indian Center or First Nation’s Healthsource, sent Alan Armijo, the city’s Director of Constituent Services, to represent him at the meeting. APD Commander Donovan Olvera, who works with APD’s Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST), also attended the meeting. The NNHRC worked with COAST while conducting interviews with Native homeless men and women. One investigator told me that many homeless people in Albuquerque refuse to cooperate with COAST, the outreach arm of APD. According to the researcher, many homeless people consider COAST little more than a means for APD to keep track of people. One homeless man told me that COAST spends more time checking for warrants than helping homeless people find the services they need.
After introductions, Darden turned the meeting over to the Commission’s Executive Director, Lenoard Gorman. Gorman provided an overview of the NNHRC’s work and the purpose of the day’s meeting. He reminded attendees that the Commission was created following the shooting death of Clint John and the continued racialized violence against Navajo citizens in places like Farmington and Gallup.
Gorman said the NNHRC had a clear mandate. They were to assist in the investigations of specific complaints lodged by Navajo citizens. Since 2008, the Commission has received 400 complaints on a variety of issues. The Commission was charged with educating the public about the importance of investigating and confronting human rights violations. They were required to hold public hearings to assess relations between Navajos and non-Navajos, and finally, to engage the world community about human rights. “The U.S. makes a lot of promises,” said Gorman “but they’re rarely implemented.”
Lastly, he explained the purpose of the day’s public hearing. “We’re aware of the problems of policing in the United States, particularly after Ferguson. What’s important to us is that when Navajos complain to us, it’s common that they don’t want to report problems because of a fear of retaliation. Folks know that no one will respond to their complaints. Cops are a kind of click, a club that protects their own.”
He concluded by saying that “the role of the police is supposed to be to protect and serve, but our people tell us that we need to protect ourselves from the police.”
The Commission then turned the meeting over to those interested in testifying regarding their experience with the Albuquerque police department. Ambrose Ashley was the first to testify. He told Commissioners that he once went to an APD substation to file a complaint against an officer who refused to take him seriously when he reported a man accosting him with a gun. Instead of listening to his grievance, officers at the substation treated Ashley like a suspect. “They frisked me. They made me put my hands on the wall like I was a criminal.”
He also told Commissioners about APD bike cops frequently challenging him about what he was doing in the neighborhood and questioning him about his activities. “I was the Indian, so I was the bad guy, I guess. The police aren’t going to help us. They don’t care.”
Commissioner Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico (Disclosure: In addition to serving as a commissioner on the NNHRC, Denetdale is an Associate Professor at UNM, and a colleague of mine in the department of American Studies), asked Ashley about the July murders of Gorman and Thompson. “What do you make of the fact that the police had no idea the three attackers had been preying on dozens of homeless men?”
“I have no idea,” replied Ashley. “Those things are just put aside. If the families [of the victims] hadn’t said anything, nobody would know anything about it.”
Commissioner Denetdale followed up by asking Ashley if he thought violence was a regular part of life for homeless Navajo men and women on the streets. “It happens whether we’re homeless or not. The danger is everywhere. But the homeless are just easier targets. Someone was shot to death on the streets recently and no one even heard about it. It wasn’t reported.”
Helen Tafoya spoke next. She told Commissioners about a dispute with a neighbor that escalated when they wouldn’t turn down their music. “They were making so much noise we couldn’t hear anything. My daughter asked them to stop but they got mad at her. Our landlord told us to call the cops. A cop came but he did nothing. He questioned us for thirty minutes and even watched as the neighbor started yelling at us and even spit on my grandson. He did nothing. The cop started cussing us out, in fact. We had to move out of the apartment.”
Denetdale asked Tafoya about Gorman and Thompson. Tafoya responded by saying that “it isn’t just Navajo on the streets. It’s all nations.” Tafoya said she works with homeless people, providing food and clothing to those in need. “Based on your work,” asked Denetdale “how common is it for them to experience violence from police officers?”
“We hear this often,” said Tafoya “all the time.”
“Violence by police?” asked Denetdale.
“Yes, all the time.”
A woman named Ruane testified next. Ruane told a story of being threatened, stalked and harassed by her former husband in Gallup, an Anglo man. He would call the police on Ruane and the Gallup police would believe him and not Ruane. “I lost everything in that marriage. I moved to Albuquerque to get away from this guy.”
In the middle of Ruane’s testimony, less than one hour into the hearing, Alan Armijo and Commander Olvera left the Indian Center. Other City officials began talking among themselves in the back of the room, ignoring Ruane’s story.
Commissioner Denetdale asked her if the police take her complaints seriously. “No,” she said. “He held me at gun point once, but the police just believe him.” She went on to tell a story about picking him up at a bar in Gallup years earlier. He was drunk and she was sober, but the police escorted him home and then arrested her.
“Has this happened with APD?” asked Denetdale.
“Yes, he had my car towed repeatedly. I finally gave up on trying to get it back. When I called police once, they just turned their back to me when I tried to complain.”
A camera crew from KOAT-TV showed up at noon. They took a few minutes of footage and then left, never talking to a single person.
Geraldine June came up to the microphone after Ruane. She told a story of being dragged out of her vehicle by her hair by a New Mexico State Trooper in a DWI stop. “By reflex I tried to defend myself.” She was charged with 21 counts including aggravated DWI and battery upon a police officer and spent five years in prison. “Now, if I’m pulled over by a cop, they treat me like I’m armed and dangerous.” She was a victim of domestic violence in Albuquerque but is scared to go to the police. “When I call the police I go to jail.”
June was followed by Christine Harvey. “APD just pulls me over walking down the street. Once an officer pulled my hair and dragged me to the ground. I was standing on my own stoop. It’s ridiculous how APD here in Albuquerque treats us.” Commissioner Frank Bradley, a former police officer, explained police procedure to Harvey, but Harvey interrupted him to say, “Just because I go to class and work, why would they think I’m drinking?”
When Harvey finished her testimony, Commissioner Darden said “We’re hearing about people being discriminated based on their race.”
The director of the Albuquerque Indian Center, Kiutus Tecumseh, testified before the Commission next. He told the NNHRC about the work of the Center. The Albuquerque Indian Center provides a free lunch each day to anyone who comes to the center. While Tecumseh was talking, dozens of people sat at tables just behind him eating hot fry bread and bowls of posole while listening to the testimony. Echoing others from throughout the day, Tecumseh told Commissioners he’d “witnessed quite a few injustices while I’ve been here in Albuquerque.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, the second of six planned hearings on police violence in New Mexico and Arizona, I asked Commissioner Denetdale what she learned. “I think the pervasive atmosphere of fear of retaliation from the police was compelling.”
The NNHRC will hold its next public hearing on the treatment of Diné citizens at the hands of law enforcement on January 7, 2015 in Gallup, New Mexico.