We need justice for Jason Pero

November 16, 2017

Brian Ward reports on the police killing of an Obijwe boy, the latest chapter in the long history of police violence against Native American communities.

POLICE IN Odanah, Wisconsin, shot and killed a 14-year-old Indian boy last week--and now they're blaming the child for his own murder.

Jason Pero, an Ojibwe boy from the Bad River Indian Reservation on Lake Superior was shot in the heart and shoulder by Brock Mrdjenovich of the Ashland County Sheriff Office.

Mrdjenovich shot Jason within five minutes of responding to a call that someone was walking down a street in Odanah with a knife--and the officer didn't allow EMTs to help for a full 15 minutes after Jason was shot.

Not surprisingly, the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) and the sheriff's office, which polices the reservation along with the tribal police, conducted an investigation that was more of a justification. Their report claims that officers found a butcher knife on the scene, contradicting eyewitness statements that Jason only had a cell phone. The department has yet to release dashboard footage of the shooting.

The Wisconsin DOJ also claims that Jason had made the call to police and described himself--and then, when officers arrived, refused to drop the knife and lunged at an officer.

A candlelight vigil for Jason Pero
A candlelight vigil for Jason Pero

The DOJ account claims Jason initiated his own suicide via police murder on the basis of a claim that Jason was "despondent" for several days. But Jason's family says he had been home sick with the flu during that time.

Jason lived with his grandfather, Alan Pero, who told reporters: "He got murdered out in front of the house here...He's a boy. There's warning shots. There's Tasers. There's pepper spray. You don't go right on a 14-year-old kid and go for the kill zone."

"He was a big old teddy bear," the grandfather continued. "He teased his little nephews once in a while, but that was the meanest part he had."

JASON PERO is gone, but his killer Brock Mrdjenovich is on paid administrative leave. Even if Jason did in fact have a knife--and we should keep in mind that every claim by the Wisconsin DOJ is countered by the community and witnesses--there is no reason for the police to murder a 14-year-old.

How could this have happened? The answer lies in the history of racism and police violence in Indigenous communities.

Jason's death brings to mind Cleveland's Tamir Rice, another middle-schooler killed by police almost immediately after officers responded to a call. Then also, police tried to blame Tamir for his own death at their hands--because he was playing with a toy gun.

Tamir Rice is African American. Jason Pero is Native American. Both communities face high rates of police violence.

Indigenous people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than African Americans--a crisis that typically remains under the radar and isn't discussed nearly enough.

According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans only represent 0.8 percent of the population, but are 1.9 percent of those killed by police. 18 Native Americans have been killed this year by police officers.

Like African Americans, Native Americans are also disproportionately represented in the prison population--especially in states with a significant Native population. According to the Prison Policy Initiative Native Americans in Wisconsin are about 1 percent of the population, but about 4 percent of the prison population.

Unemployment rates among Native Americans reach as high as 90 percent on some Indian reservations--it's 81 percent on the Bad River Reservation where Jason lived. Nationally, Natives have a jobless rate that is twice that of the white population--similar again to African Americans. Roughly 25 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives live below the poverty line, and on some reservations, the poverty rate is as high as 50 percent.

Racial profiling against Natives is rampant among police officers. This is made easier by states like South Dakota, where those who live on reservations have plates that start with the number 6, making it easy for cops to know who to pull over with no probable cause.

Police violence and racism is nothing new to indigenous communities in a country founded on Indigenous genocide. In fact, Sitting Bull, one of the most famous Indigenous resisters, was murdered by an Indian police agent in 1890.

Just last year, the Morton County police in North Dakota beat up peaceful Indigenous activists resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation and sprayed water onto the camp in below-freezing temperatures. The Morton County cops were continuing a long police tradition of protecting capitalist infrastructure projects at all costs, even if it means violating treaties and the civil rights of Native protesters.

THE AMERICAN Indian Movement (AIM), one of the most militant Native organizations in U.S. history, was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis mainly by Ojibwe people in the area looking to resist police violence in their communities.

In Like a Hurricane, Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior discuss the organization's original intentions:

One of the first projects of the new group was the AIM Patrol. AIM raised money to equip cars with two-way radios, cameras and tape recorders so they could monitor arrests by the police department. When the AIM Patrol heard police dispatched to certain bars or street corners, officers would be met by Indians in red jackets carefully observing their actions. AIM also became expert at providing attorneys for those arrested. It was a tactic similar to Black Panther campaigns to monitor police in Oakland, California, and other cities.

More recently, the Ojibwe in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan fought hard in the 1980s to ensure that the states would follow various treaties that the Ojibwe made in 1836, 1837, 1842 and 1854, which ceded land to the U.S. but ensured the right to hunt, fish and gather on the lands they ceded.

After the court confirmed Ojibwe off-reservation hunting and fishing rights, these battles played out at fish landings.

Ojibwe would perform ceremonies before they went out onto lakes to spearfish for Walleye. White protesters would call this unfair and special treatment. One of the most popular slogans of the white protesters was "Save a Walleye, Spear an Indian." In The Walleye War, Larry Nesper discussed the racism:

The equation of human and nonhuman life implicit in the exhortation represents a necessary condition for a conflict between Indians and non-Indians. Some whites equated an Indian life to the life of a fish. At the height the conflict the Wausau Daily Herald went so far as to publish a drawing by a North Lakeland elementary school student of a fish spearing an Indian.

To this day, the Ojibwe still enjoy their treaty rights to off-reservation hunting and fishing because they fought back. But the racism they encountered and overcame still persists throughout the North Woods of Wisconsin.

Fighting police violence has always been at the core of Indigenous activism in the U.S. Movements like Native Lives Matter, which hosted a vigil and protest calling for Justice for Jason in Minneapolis last week, were not just inspired by Black Lives Matter, but the history of fighting police violence in their community.

The Ashland County Sheriff's Office and other outside police forces that come onto Native land to terrorize Indigenous communities are a new shade of a the same old colonial force. We need to fight this continuing injustice.

Native Lives Matter! Justice for Jason! End the police violence in all communities! Full Indigenous sovereignty and reparations now!

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