LINKS
2017-03-23 / Voices

Civil Rights Forum Only Tip Of Public Concerns

JIM KENT
Freelance Writer & Radio Producer
Making a Noise in this World

I’ve only had the opportunity to attend one public forum of the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. It was in 1999.

That was the one where Native Americans young and old traveled hundreds of miles to Rapid City to voice their concerns about racism in South Dakota. Excuse me, “perceived” racism in South Dakota - as many law enforcement personnel who sat before the panel chose to describe the dozens… and dozens…of complaints levied against them.

“Many had arrived before the proceedings began at 10:30 a.m.,” noted the Committee’s later report, “and stayed after the conclusion of the open session, filling the large facility to standing room only throughout the day and into the night.”

Allegations ran the gamut. More than once Chairperson Mary Frances Berry, a black woman, offered stern comments to those on the various law enforcement panels regarding their attitudes or comments. By the time the clock’s hands had swept past 11 p.m. some 50 members of the public had given testimony.

When it was all said and done then Gov. Bill Janklow referred to the Committee’s report - “Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System” as “garbage”. And as far as most Native Americans I know are concerned little, if anything, has changed from then up to and including the state’s recent legislation controlling public assembly brought on by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Nor will those looking to voice discontent over racism in the state be afforded much opportunity to do so during the Advisory Committee’s public panel session in Aberdeen tomorrow – despite a press release indicating an intention to “examine the subtle effects of racism in the state.”

That examination will happen, but strictly from the perspective of body cameras used by law enforcement personnel.

“There’s kind of an interest that we all have on the committee to understand what is the value of body-worn cameras to people’s justice and value in crime,” Advisory Committee Chairperson Dr. Richard M. Braunstein explained to me in a recent telephone conversation.

Although many communities across the country have shown an interest in obtaining body cameras – heightened by increased accusations of unwarranted police violence in many areas, Braunstein wonders if other programs, such as victim’s services, are impacted by their cost.

“If you have a body camera do you have to give up other things?” he asked. “Is it a trade-off?”

At this point the Advisory Committee doesn’t have an opinion to share on the use of body-cameras by law enforcement personnel because they don’t know enough about the topic – hence the Aberdeen public forum.

Why Aberdeen? Because it does have law enforcement body-cameras (since 2010) and can, hopefully, offer answers to at least some of the questions that Braunstein and his committee will have.

Any questions from the public that may arise as a result of the 3 hours of testimony by law enforcement personnel and, presumably, technicians regarding body-cameras will be limited to that topic. And though Braunstein doesn’t doubt that members of the public will have appropriate questions he doesn’t anticipate the volume of comments as, say, the 1999 Rapid City forum simply because the general public in this state hasn’t had that much experience with the technology due to its limited use here.

As a result, Braunstein anticipates that the 90 minutes set aside for public input should be sufficient time to cover any remarks those in the community might have. But he insists that the committee will extend that time, if necessary.

Comments and concerns about racism – subtle or blatant – will be more readily addressed in either of the two future public forums the Advisory Committee has planned over the next year. Although locations have not yet been determined one of these gatherings, I was assured, will take place in Indian Country while the topics discussed will focus on employment, housing and health care – any of which could use an entire session unto itself.

Whether focusing on body-cameras or racism in the workplace, the bottom line is that it’s reassuring to know a body like the South Dakota Advisory Committee is in place as a forum for the public’s concerns.

Now if we can just keep the word “garbage” out of any future references to its reports – publicly or privately, maybe South Dakota can start moving away from its racist reputation.

No…really.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at kentvfte@gwtc.net.

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