BuzzFeed's John Stanton gives us this week's Sunday Long Read, a hard reminder that there's one ethnic group in this country that faces even worse odds of being victims of police brutality than African-Americans do.
Hours after seeing her 14-year-old grandson, Jason, lying in the street just feet from her home, with police and EMS hovering over his motionless body, Cheryl Pero found herself in the cavernous gymnasium of the Bad River Reservation community center.
Cheryl and her husband, Al, couldn’t go home — where they’d raised Jason since infancy — because it was a crime scene.
So the family awaited word in the local gym about why an Ashland County Sheriff’s deputy had just fired two shots into the chest of Jason, who friends and family say was a relatively normal, happy child. With news of the shooting spreading rapidly via text message and Facebook, members of their tight-knit tribal community soon joined them.
Tracy Bigboy, a neighbor and victim services coordinator for the tribal government, was dispatched to take care of the Peros’ needs. She stood in the cold air outside of the community center, quietly smoking a cigarette, until Ashland County Sheriff Mick Brennan pulled off Highway 2 and into the parking lot.
With his squared-off shoulders, neatly cropped silver hair, and mustache, the 62-year-old Brennan has a carefully crafted by-the-book reputation and looks every inch the small-town sheriff. As he and one of his investigators approached, Bigboy stopped them, warning the sheriff that emotions were running high inside the gym and urging him to talk to the family privately.
As the Peros huddled in private with Brennan, it seemed to the family that the sheriff hadn’t come with answers, or even condolences. His main message, as the grieving Peros remember it: Let him control the public narrative of Jason’s death.
“Don't talk to the media,” Bigboy and the Peros remember Brennan telling them. “Let us go first so we can tell you what to say.” And they say he had a warning for the community: Settle down and don’t riot.
Now, two months after Jason took two bullets to the chest on Nov. 8, his family still doesn’t know exactly what happened the morning that Deputy Brock Mrdjenovich shot him dead. Jason’s family says the sheriff has told them nothing, and Brennan did not respond to multiple requests to speak to BuzzFeed News about the shooting and about local law enforcement’s relationship with the Bad River community. Michael Nieskes, the St. Croix County District Attorney who has been appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the case, declined to comment.
The feeling of sadness and loss is palpable among members of the Bad River Band. But there’s also a deep sense of numbness and fatalism here that manifests in the nonchalant ways people talk about other violent encounters involving law enforcement and Native Americans. Jason’s death was at least the second time in as many months that a member of the Bad River Reservation had been killed by uniformed officers: On Oct. 28, a Jackson County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed 27-year-old Lucas DeFord in nearby Black River Falls.
Locals have long complained about being pulled over for what they consider no good reason. “Driving while Indian,” they call it. And then there’s “the women,” a sort of shorthand that refers to allegations detailed in federal lawsuits that Sheriff Brennan did nothing as one of his jailers repeatedly raped and assaulted Native American women. “You’ve heard about the women, right?” locals say almost between thoughts.
The lack of information since Jason’s shooting has only compounded tensions here, laying bare the deep-rooted, systemic racial divisions between the Bad River tribe and the white community of Ashland.
“This has been going on for generations and generations, and it’s not going to stop,” Bigboy said.
The death of a young Ojibwe boy at the hands of a Wisconsin sheriff's deputy turned into a major news investigation of county law enforcement and the criminal mistreatment of peoples America long ago trapped in the hell of reservations. Still trapped today, with police still treating them even worse than black America.
And that's saying something.