Burning Down the Bordertown
Twenty-nine-year-old Zachary Bearheels, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, needed to see his mother. He left his aunt’s house on the Rosebud Reservation, where he’d been staying, and boarded a Greyhound bus in Murdo, South Dakota, on June 3, 2017, bound for his mom’s home in Oklahoma City. He never reached her. The bus pulled into Omaha, Nebraska, late on a Saturday night. Bearheels, like most passengers, got off the bus to look for food or maybe a clean bathroom. While he was gone, another passenger complained to the driver that Bearheels was strange, his behavior erratic. The driver refused to let him back on the bus when he returned.
Bearheels suffered from bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder and required anti-psychotic medication to control his symptoms and stay well. He’d run out of the medication, and his symptoms returned. Abandoned in Omaha, without money or medication, Bearheels spent the night walking across the unfamiliar city. He walked past two of its hospitals and dozens of its churches. He walked past the Joslyn Art Museum, famous for its Native-themed architecture and its collections chronicling European conquest in North America. When the bus arrived in Oklahoma City without him, Bearheels’s mother, Renita Chalepah, filed a missing person’s report.
Bearheels walked all day and into the next. Sometime after midnight on June 5, he made it to a gas station and convenience store miles from where he’d started, exhausted, dehydrated, and hallucinating. A store clerk found him licking the windows of the store and dancing on the sidewalk in the dark. The clerk called the police, and two cops arrived, Jennifer Strudl and Makayla Mead. They handcuffed Bearheels and placed him in the back of Strudl’s cruiser. They ran a record check and saw he’d been reported missing. Strudl called Bearheels’s mother at 1:00 a.m. Chalapeh was up, so worried about her son that she hadn’t slept at all. She explained to Strudl that she was ready to drive to Omaha but needed to know her son was somewhere safe. He didn’t have his medication, she said, and he needed help. “Please bring him somewhere safe,” she pleaded, and suggested a crisis center, if possible. Strudl radioed her supervisor, Sergeant Erik Forehead, who refused Chalapeh’s request. “Take him back to the bus station,” he ordered.
Just then another cop, Scotty Payne, arrived. He pulled into the convenience store lot just as Strudl was opening the cruiser door to talk to Bearheels. But Bearheels was having none of it. He slipped past her and out of the cruiser, his hands still cuffed behind his back. The three officers chased after him. A fourth cop, Ryan McClarty, arrived, just as the others grabbed Bearheels and pinned him against a bottled water display on the sidewalk outside the store.
Some of this we know from lapel camera video, but all of what follows was captured by a camera in Strudl’s cruiser. The officers briefly release Bearheels, who turns away from them and stands facing the store. The four cops discuss something off camera, and then suddenly Strudl appears in the frame, walking toward Bearheels. She turns him around, back toward the cruiser and then the other cops join her, putting hands on Bearheels. The video is grainy, but Bearheels looks confused and quickly grows alarmed. McClarty grabs Bearheels roughly by his ponytail, while another officer pushes him toward the cruiser. Bearheels isn’t fighting back, but he struggles to get their hands off of him. As they approach the open cruiser door, walking toward the camera, Bearheels drops to the ground, his hands still cuffed behind his back. The officers circle him. Scotty Payne yells, “Taser! Taser!” and fires at Bearheels. The violent jolt of electricity knocks Bearheels onto his back. Only his legs and torso are visible. He lays momentarily still, breathing heavily, gasping for air. What looks like convulsions begin, but it’s more likely the electricity coursing through his body.
Apparently handcuffs, that most common of carceral tools, are a lethal weapon when not in the hands of cops.
Most Tasers that police carry can be used in one of two ways. On drive stun mode, an officer presses the Taser directly into a person’s body, delivering the electrical potential of 50,000 volts. Payne, however, fires the Taser like a gun, launching electrically charged darts toward Bearheels. The darts are attached to the Taser by wires and they attach to their victim like the fangs of a snake. In this mode, a cop can deliver the pain of electrocution over and over again. Bearheels lies on the ground as Payne cycles the Taser, twelve times in all, electrocuting Bearheels repeatedly over the course of nearly sixty seconds. The maker of the Taser, Axon, claims it is a nonlethal weapon, but this is true only if police use it as a nonlethal weapon. They don’t. Police kill dozens of people with Tasers every year.
Payne stands over Bearheels holding the Taser, pulling the trigger every few seconds. Bearheels writhes on the ground, kicking at him with his unlaced, high-top sneakers. It’s unclear if Bearheels is trying to fight Payne off or simply convulsing from being electrocuted. Suddenly, McClarty lunges toward Bearheels and grabs him again by the hair. He lifts him off the ground and slams him down, driving his body into the pavement. “You’re gonna get it again,” Payne hollers. In the violence of the attack, Bearheels slips his cuffs and his right hand comes free. He frantically tries to defend himself against McClarty, but the cop spins him onto his back and pins him to the pavement. With his left hand McClarty holds Bearheels down, and with his right he unleashes a flurry of punches to Bearheels’s head. These are vicious punches, shocking in their force and efficiency. McClarty throws thirteen punches in eight seconds, each directly to the head. Each punch sends Bearheels’s head snapping back onto the pavement. Punch, pavement, repeat.
The other three officers stand over Bearheels, watching—and doing nothing—as McClarty kills Bearheels. A woman’s cries are heard in the background. Bearheels says, “I can’t fucking breathe!” and then goes limp. The other officers continue to throw Bearheels around while Payne radios for a rescue squad. The police place cuffs on Bearheels’s limp arms and put flex cuffs on legs no longer kicking. Paramedics arrive. They find no pulse. He is not breathing. They bring him to a hospital, one that he’d walked past just hours earlier, where doctors pronounce him dead.
The coroner’s report determines that Bearheels died from excited delirium syndrome, despite the fact that there is no such thing as excited delirium syndrome. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize it as a legitimate medical condition. It is a euphemism that coroners use for people that police kill with their tasers or in chokeholds.
Omaha police chief Todd Schmaderer fires Payne, McClarty, Strudl, and Mead. Payne and McClarty are charged with assault, but a jury acquits Payne, and prosecutors later drop misdemeanor assault charges on McClarty. Police “experts” convince the prosecutors that McClarty was justified in punching Bearheels. When Bearheels slipped his cuffs, they explain, he posed a threat, and McClarty was justified in eliminating that threat. Apparently handcuffs, that most common of carceral tools, are a lethal weapon when not in the hands of cops. In April 2020, an arbitration panel upholds Payne’s termination but reinstates McClarty, along with Strudl and Mead. They receive back pay but are required to take a “refresher” course in policing.
A month later, in May 2020, after three of these four cops—now Indian killers—are reinstated as officers, four Minneapolis cops murder George Floyd. There is no flurry of punches, as with Bearheels. Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck. One cop tells Chauvin, “I’m worried about excited delirium or whatever.” He asks if they should turn Floyd on his side. “That’s why we have him on his stomach,” Chauvin responds. “I can’t breathe,” gasps Floyd. Like with Bearheels, all of this is captured on video, and millions of people eventually watch as police slowly choke the life from Floyd while he cries out for his mother.
As in Bearheels’s case, the initial medical examiner’s report says nothing about police violence. “No physical findings support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation,” the first report reads. It is “underlying health conditions” not the racial animus and white supremacy at the heart of American policing that killed Floyd. Is this the definition of excited delirium? The slow grinding down of the bodies, hearts, and minds of Native, Black, Brown, and poor people by police?
It is not enough to say that police killed Bearheels or Floyd, nor is it enough to focus on the particular sadism of Payne, McClarty, and Chauvin. Rather, our task is to ask how we might account for their deaths, understood as a product of a murderous system built on Native extermination and anti-Blackness, designed to lead directly to premature Native and Black deaths. This is the quotidian nature of white supremacy—the everydayness of genocide—and it reaches deep into Native and Black lives, breaking hearts, shattering minds, and destroying bodies. These are the preexisting conditions for millions.
The murder of George Floyd sparked ferocious, organized, and principled movements for Black lives in a historical force unseen in generations. Countless many have tirelessly organized for years against police and the murderous system of white supremacy police uphold and defend. They were ready for this moment, because this moment is every moment. Millions took to the streets to direct righteous anger at the institution of policing itself. The aftershocks of these seismic ruptures toppled monuments of Confederate generals, Spanish conquistadors, and racist sports mascots. Decolonization and abolition are not mutually exclusive.
The masses in the streets broke the spell of inviolability surrounding the plantation to teach us that whiteness burns too.
Elites and nearly all elected officials, as expected, have scoffed at or patronized these Black and Native-led uprisings, condemning and vilifying those taking to the streets. “Why do people burn down their own neighborhoods?” they ask. Because these have never been their neighborhoods. U.S. cities have never belonged to Black people. The end of chattel slavery offered no end to white supremacy. The plantation system continued on in the form of Jim Crow and in a ruthlessly policed racial apartheid organized around the theft of Black wealth. Black people were no longer the property of white overlords, but race relations—between Black and white—have always been—and remain—a property relation. Police are the enforcers of this relation, patrolling Black people as the plantation overseers once did, making, upholding, and defending racialized property relations. The geography of the United States is a geography of white supremacy—the Jim Crow sundown towns and the property redlining that reinforced it—a geography of unfreedom that excludes Black people from owning homes and land and of possessing collective social wealth.
It is this history that kindled the fires that erupted in cities throughout the United States following the murder of George Floyd. You can’t burn down your “own neighborhood” if it never belonged to you. It belonged to police, so we set it on fire. What burned was not Black property, but white property, the property of the owning classes: their chain stores, payday loan centers, fast-food chains, slumlord buildings, and banks. By burning down the police stations that patrol the plantation, people burned down the plantation. The fires burned brick and mortar, but the target was a different form of property, what the legal scholar Cheryl Harris called “whiteness as property.” The masses in the streets broke the spell of inviolability surrounding the plantation to teach us that whiteness burns too.
The plantation is where capital was first amassed from the forced labor of enslaved African people on the stolen lands of Native people. Expropriating wealth based on forced labor and stolen land requires an astonishing commitment to collective colonial violence. This commitment fueled U.S. westward expansion. The settlers dragged the relations of the plantation along with them as they raped and murdered their way through Native lands. It took more than temporary settler outposts to sustain this commitment to violence, and so these outputs developed into towns and cities. This is what settlers meant when they talked of bringing “civilization,” as they liked to say, to their “western frontier.”
We call all of this the bordertown. Settler colonialism has so transformed the world we live in that few settlers see their cities as spatial expressions of settler violence. The word instead took on other meanings. The bordertown most commonly describes the cities and towns along recognized international borders, such as the U.S.-Mexico border. These are considered the borders that matter in the everyday life of a settler. We draw on Native vernacular, an everyday language of resistance, to recognize the borders that settlers ignore. These borders exist everywhere settler order confronts Native order. And since we find this confrontation everywhere in settler society, everything in a settler world is a border, and every settler is haunted by this border—a Native presence that should not exist, that blurs the edges of settler ontology. This fundamental contradiction compels settlers to act like settlers; they sense the threat but cannot name it; they are always on the defensive.
The bordertown typically refers to white-dominated settlements that ring Indian reservations and give spatial form to the violence and exploitation that defines everyday Native life, past and present. It is a cruel invention that imposes on Native people a million daily indignities. Yet is not just a place. It is a relation where the contradictions of settler colonialism emerge and show themselves to all. The constant crossing of borders is everywhere. The spatial transitions of off- and on-reservation, the moving across international boundaries, the skipping into and out of jurisdictions, and the knowledge that every Native step constitutes a transgression of a settler border and a settler rule.
Bordertown is the word that describes the murderous colonial condition that has come to structure Native life.
“Off the reservation” is a political and military expression designating someone who is uncontrollable and, therefore, a threat to power. “Originally the term [off the reservation] meant a particular kind of ‘outlaw’ a Native person who crossed the territorial border, called a reserve or reservation, set by the United States or state government,” writes the Laguna Pueblo feminist Paula Gunn Allen. More prison than homeland, reservations offer no refuge from this settler geography. According to Gunn Allen, the boundaries also include imposed political and heteronormative norms, the strictly enforced divisions of territory, race, gender, and nation. A transgression of these cruel fictions—“going off the reservation”—made one a renegade, an outlaw, who could be hunted down and, usually, executed. Many reservations began as prisoner of war or concentration camps—and some remain so. Settler law allows Native peoples to call these homelands, but only until settler law says they can’t.
The word bordertown also captures a very specific accusation. The name itself—a noun, town, adjectively modified by border—reveals and clarifies the settler project. Every town is a bordertown, because every town serves as a border that settlers must defend. But the name bordertown anticipates its own failure and predicts its own demise. This is why we render it as one word. It is a bordertown, not a border town. Why? There is no objectively innocent spatial form in a settler world that we might call just a “town.” Rather there is only the spatial expression of the settler project—borders, violence, and police. Every settler town is a bordertown, because every Native person on land that the settler desires, whether in a city or on the reservation, represents and embodies the active ongoing failure of the settler project. Bordertown is the word that describes the murderous colonial condition that has come to structure Native life and, thus, Native resistance to overturn that order. The only way to resolve this fundamental contradiction is through Native liberation.
This essay is excerpted from Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation, forthcoming from PM Press.