Fatal shooting in Wyoming raises questions about racism

Were two tribal members the victims of a hate crime?

 

On July 18, James “Sonny” Goggles Jr., 50, and Stallone Trosper, 29, were sleeping on green floor mattresses inside a drug and alcohol detox facility in Riverton, Wyoming. The men, both members of the Northern Arapaho tribe, were at the Center of Hope to get help with alcohol addiction. Just before 4:30 p.m., Roy Clyde, a 32-year-old Riverton city parks employee, walked into the center through a back door. He passed staff members as he made his way to the area where Goggles and Trosper lay. A few moments later, he pulled a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol and shot each in the head. Trosper was killed and Goggles was critically injured.

Clyde told police he was sick of homeless people congregating in Riverton’s parks, urinating in public and drinking bottles of vodka and mouthwash. So he went looking for “park rangers” — a local slur used mostly in reference to Native Americans who congregate in the city’s parks and drink alcohol.

Now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has started a probe into whether the shooting was a hate crime. Clyde, who is white, indicated to police that “his decision was not race-based and that he was targeting transient people regardless of race.” He indicated that if he had encountered white people meeting his criteria, he “would have killed them as well.”

But Northern Arapaho officials from the Wind River Reservation, which surrounds Riverton and is also home to Eastern Shoshone tribe, say Clyde’s actions tell a different story. They see the shooting as just one more piece of evidence that violence and racism against Native people in and around Riverton is an ongoing problem that needs more attention.

The shooting of two Northern Arapaho men in Riverton, Wyoming has highlighted the divide between Native Americans and non-natives in the area.
Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

"Racism has always been here — it's never left," says Dean Goggles, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council (the tribal governing body) and cousin of James Goggles. 

Tribal leaders are pushing for a hate crime charge, which would have to be tried in federal court because Wyoming has no hate crime law (one of only five states not to). Though a hate crime conviction wouldn’t result in a harsher sentence than a homicide would, the Northern Arapaho tribe hopes it would send the message that racist acts, rooted in a history of violence and discrimination against Native Americans, will no longer go unpunished. 

A hate crime is any criminal offense motivated by actual or perceived race, skin color, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. In most states, they're not free-standing crimes, but act as "penalty enhancements" for a homicide or aggravated assault. 

According to the latest FBI data, Native Americans experience the second-highest rate of race-based hate crimes in the U.S. The 2013 survey found 129 incidents, or 4.5 percent of all such crimes. That rate is surpassed only by hate crimes against African-Americans, who are targets for just over 66 percent of such crimes. Yet the numbers of these incidents are likely higher than reports show.

“The FBI count is known to vastly under-report hate crime stats," says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a progressive advocacy and research group. That's because motive can be hard to prove, so police departments are often reluctant to prosecute hate crime charges. Potok added that hate crimes against Native Americans have been on the rise over the last several years, a trend he believes is connected to a broader fear and anger among some white Americans about changing demographics. Potok believes that among Native Americans, there's a lot of underreporting for hate crimes due to distrust of police. "A lot of people feel like nothing will come of it, so it’s not worth reporting," he said. 

In Riverton, a town of 11,000 on the high plains of south-central Wyoming that was carved out of the Wind River Reservation in 1905 for white settlement, decades-old legal disputes over the reservation's borders have exacerbated tensions between Natives and non-Natives. Those tensions “heighten the way people see differences between themselves (and others),” says Tom Biolsi, a professor of Native American Studies at University of California-Berkeley.

Biolsi describes discrimination toward Native communities like the Northern Arapaho as still widespread but more subtle than in decades past. Typically, he says “it’s not the snarling kind of racism." For instance, Riverton’s police chief Mike Broadhead explains, a tribal member might respond to an apartment rental ad only to have the non-Native landlord claim it’s already been rented, or shop-owners might watch Native customers more closely in stores.

The recent shooting stands out, tribal leaders say, as an example of how an undercurrent of racism can turn violent. Another example of this occurred in February 2013. A Northern Arapaho woman named Cody Armajo was walking down a street in Riverton when a car passed her and she felt something hit her head. She noticed she was bleeding from one eye. At Riverton Memorial Hospital, a doctor decided she had no injury — she was simply drunk. According to the doctor, Armajo then became “agitated and uncooperative.” She was taken to the Fremont County Jail. But the jailer realized something was medically wrong with Armajo and requested she be taken to the hospital in Lander. There she received a CAT scan, which showed a bullet had entered Armajo’s eye socket and lodged in her skull.

Tribal leaders pointed to the 2013 incident when they traveled to Washington, D.C., in late July to meet with officials from the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, asking for the most recent shooting to be prosecuted as a hate crime. In their request, the Northern Arapaho leaders submitted the opinion of a federal judge, Alan B. Johnson, in a 2010 voting rights case that the Wind River tribes brought against the Fremont County Board of Commissioners over the county's election system. Judge Johnson sided with the tribes, writing that the evidence reveals that discrimination against Indians in the U.S., Wyoming and Fremont County is "ongoing" and further, "the Court rejects any attempt to characterize this discrimination as being politically, rather than racially, motivated." 

The tribe also tied the racism underlying the recent shooting to a growing national awareness of racism against African Americans. Wind River Councilmember Ronald Oldman referenced the shooting of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in June. “Like in Charleston, people need to acknowledge that racism played a role in this,” he said in a statement about the Wind River shootings.

Goggles too, drew parallels to African Americans' disproportionate representation in the criminal justic system. "Go to the jailhouse," he added, "they’re full of Natives."

For Broadhead, there were “certainly some racial overtones,” but he was reluctant to call Clyde’s actions a hate crime because the shooter said he was targeting homeless people, not Native Americans. The police department is conducting its own investigation, but because Wyoming has no hate crime law, they can’t look into it as racially motivated. 

Broadhead says no one during his tenure has lodged an official complaint of racial discrimination, but he says that may be because no real avenue exists to do so. The police department, which has two Native American officers out of 28 total, has considered hiring a liaison outside the department to help address possible hate crime complaints. That idea has gained more support following the recent shooting. Broadhead expects to fill that position soon.

The police chief says the shooting has been a wake-up call for many people in Riverton. For people who have not been systematically oppressed, it’s hard to perceive institutionalized racism that persists in communities today. But, he says, “we can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.