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ACLU targets Indian civil rights with new office in Bemidji
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Audrey Thayer, left, was hired by the American Civil Liberties Union to run the ACLU's new satellite office in Bemidji. Thayer is collecting reports of alleged racial profiling and injustice in counties surrounding northern Minnesota Indian reservations. Thayer is talking with people at the People's Church in Bemidji. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Minnesota court records show Native Americans living in some northern counties are arrested at a rate far higher than any other race. That's got the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. The ACLU has had a presence in Minnesota since the 1950s, and its work has been focused mostly in the Twin Cities. Now, the ACLU has opened a satellite office in Bemidji. Organization officials say they'll target what they view as racial profiling against Native Americans. But not everyone agrees racism is to blame.

Bemidji, Minn. — Crime statistics in northern Minnesota are alarming. In Cass County, for example, American Indians make up only about 11 percent of the population, yet in 1999, they accounted for more than half the arrests.

If you break it down by specific crimes, the disparities are even more apparent. About 70 percent of people arrested for assault and larceny in Cass County were Indian. Indians accounted for nearly 80 percent of those arrested for vehicle theft and vandalism.

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Image Audrey Thayer

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota say the arrest numbers show law enforcement agencies in Cass and other northern counties are unfairly targeting Indians. Chuck Samuelson, who heads the St. Paul-based organization, says the statistics clearly show racial bias.

"The statistics just reek of wrongness. It's one of the biggest disparities in the whole country," said Samuelson. "That Minnesota would be worse off in terms of race relationships than places like Mississippi or Alabama is -- it should be, no matter what political party you're in -- if you're Minnesotan, it ought to be appalling. But it's the facts."

That's why the ACLU is targeting counties surrounding Minnesota's three largest Indian reservations -- Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth. The effort is called the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. The goal is to educate minorities about their civil rights, and -- if necessary -- to sue governments that violate those rights.

Audrey Thayer of Bemidji has been mingling with the Indian community all summer. The Ojibwe woman was hired by the ACLU in May to collect stories of alleged injustice.

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Image Sharon Smith

Thayer is in the basement of the People's Church, where a mostly Indian crowd gathers for lunch. She's talking to a woman who feels her home was illegally searched by local police. The police were looking for the woman's son.

The woman didn't want to share her name for this story. She says Indians living in poverty in northern Minnesota have had few places to turn when they feel they've been wronged by law enforcement.

"Who's going to help the Natives and the blacks up here? Who? Who are they?" asked the woman. "You'll get no help up here. You'll get help down in the cities if someone's done you wrong, yes you will. Not going to get it here. These are the good old boys up here. We might as well be in Montgomery, Alabama up here."

Outside the church, Thayer checks in with Sharon Smith, who has filed several complaints with the ACLU already. They involve repeated police searches of her home. Smith thinks it's because she's Indian.

To make an assumption that because we have a disproportionate amount of minorities in our jail, that law enforcement itself is responsible for that, I think is looking for a very simplistic answer to a very complex problem.
- Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winger

"They came into the house and went from room to room with guns drawn, and they had an assault rifle. And it was real scary," said Smith. "They've done this to me at least three or four times before, involving other people who were supposedly at my house who weren't at my house, but they came in to search anyway. And I just get real sick of it because I feel like they just single me out, and I don't know why they do it."

Such allegations by American Indians against the justice system in northern Minnesota go back decades. And law enforcement officials have for years echoed the same refrain. They deny racial profiling.

Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winger says his department has nothing to hide. Winger is in a tough spot. He says it's not politically correct to say what he believes -- that Native Americans are being arrested more because they're committing more crimes.

Winger and others in the justice system says it's important to consider the deep social problems within the Indian community. There's widespread poverty, high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, and too many broken, dysfunctional families.

"To make an assumption that because we have a disproportionate amount of minorities in our jail, that law enforcement itself is responsible for that, I think is looking for a very simplistic answer to a very complex problem," said Winger.

Winger says he doesn't have the answers. But he's tired of law enforcers being blamed.

"What it gets down to is that there may be a lot of reasons, but you know, I'm a cop, and that's what I have to look at," said Winger. "If you commit a crime, I have to hold you accountable for that. When you do your best to enforce the law fairly and impartially and without regard to race, and then you are constantly accused of being racist over and over again -- it does wear on you. And it's not a good feeling."

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Image Sheriff Keith Winger

Some in the Indian community aren't convinced. Bob Shimek lives near Bemidji. He's a member of the Anishinaabe Coalition for Peace and Justice, a local activist group. Shimek welcomes the arrival of the American Civil Liberties Union in northern Minnesota.

"There's now some civilian oversight in terms of what's going on in the area. The dynamics have changed. It's a different paradigm now. There's a third element here. It's no longer just us and them," said Shimek. "The Native community has been invisible in most respects for a long, long time around here. Start shining the light on these communities. It's critically important at this time."

Right now, complaints collected in northern Minnesota are sent to ACLU lawyers in St. Paul for review. But the organization is considering opening a litigation office in Bemidji.

Meanwhile, ACLU officials plan to monitor the courts in northern counties. They're organizing get-out-the-vote rallies. And they plan to expand their role of educating Native Americans on basic civil rights.

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