Tensions in the northwest Nebraska town of Whiteclay have been escalating for the past month following allegations of violence against beer distributors. Shortly before a scheduled press conference Friday morning in Lincoln, activist Timothy McKenzie was arrested. He was intending to file a complaint against a Whiteclay liquor store owner for alleged violence against protestors.
The tiny town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, located in Sheridan County northeast of Chadron, is infamous for annual sales of millions of cans of beer to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian reservation, where alcohol is prohibited.
Earlier this month, there were two separate incidences of alleged vandalism and violence against beer delivery trucks in Whiteclay, including threatening drivers at knifepoint, damaging vehicles and destroying beer containers.
Minutes before he was to speak at a press conference Friday morning, activist Timothy McKenzie was arrested by Nebraska State Patrol troopers on charges of terroristic threats, third-degree assault, theft and two counts of criminal mischief. Sheridan County Deputy Attorney Jamian Simmons said the charges pertained to the incidents on May 3rd and 13th, adding that a warrant also was filed Thursday for activist Olowan Martinez. The Oglala Sioux tribal member is being charged with terroristic threats, theft and two counts of criminal mischief.
When I called Martinez for comment, she had no idea.
Martinez: "There’s a warrant for my arrest out of Sheridan County? For what?"
Reporter: "I believe it was theft and criminal mischief."
Martinez: "Theft? That’s funny. What did I steal?"
Reporter: "Alcohol, is the allegation."
Martinez: "I didn’t steal alcohol, I destroyed it! I smashed it!"
Martinez stressed that only trucks were damaged; she said protestors didn't threaten or harm any humans, and that truck drivers who said otherwise were lying.
At the press conference on Friday, Winnebago activist Frank LaMere said the warrants were intimidation tactics. He pointed to the many times he’s been arrested but never convicted.
Simmons with the Sheridan County attorney’s office disagreed.
“Laws were broken, and people were threatened and propery was damaged," she said. "If you violate the law in Sheridan County, you're going to be arrested."
McKenzie’s allegations against beer store owner Jason Schwarting, allegations he had intended to file with the state Liquor Control Commission Friday morning before being arrested, are being investigated, Simmons said. McKenzie and other protestors claim that Schwarting, the owner of Arrowhead Inn in Whiteclay, provided baseball bats and artillery-like fireworks to people and offered them money if they attacked the protestors.
Schwarting could not be reached for comment.
Activists were skeptical of any investigation, saying allegations of violence against Native people "always fall on deaf ears.”
I asked Martinez what her plan is, now that she has a warrant for her arrest.
“They can go ahead and arrest me for whatever they want," she said. "The fact is, they’re still commiting genocide on the Lakota people ... and this only adds to it.”
Frank La Mere agreed.
“(Whiteclay) is a tinderbox. It is a time bomb waiting to go off," he said. "And there's nothing Sheridan County, the State Patrol, Gov. (Dave) Heineman or Frank LaMere can do when that happens."
His voice rose. "People are angry.“
Sheridan County Sherriff Terry Robbins said the situation in Whiteclay is "tense." Around three weeks ago, protestors like Martinez and McKenzie set up a camp they call “Zero Tolerance” near the border between Nebraska and the Pine Ridge reservation. They call themselves nonviolent protestors, but Robbins said that's not true: "They are not nonviolent."
He said the county has increased patrols in the area of Whiteclay to make sure no one gets hurt and no property is damaged.