A South Dakota man accused of shouting racial slurs and dumping beer on a group of Native American children at a hockey game was acquitted Tuesday on a sole disorderly conduct charge ― and activists say the case illustrates the prevailing racism in the state.
Trace O’Connell, 41, of Philip, South Dakota, was among a group of 15 men in a VIP suite at a Rapid City Rush minor league hockey game that allegedly poured beer and shouted racial slurs at a group of Native children sitting below them, telling them to “go back to the reservation.” The 57 children, ages 9 to 13, were all students at American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and were attending the game as part of an after-school event. The harassment forced them to leave the game.
O’Connell was the only alleged perpetrator in the VIP suite to face charges stemming from the incident. He was charged with a single count of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. If he had been convicted Tuesday, O’Connell would have faced, at maximum, a $500 fine, as Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn had already removed the possibility of jail.
“Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision,” Rapid City attorney Joel Landeen said in a statement provided to The Huffington Post. “We felt all along the City had a strong case with enough evidence to move forward for conviction. The disorderly conduct charge was the strongest charge the City could bring. We worked with the facts we had and it was a challenging case to administer, with a variety of recollections and perceptions to share from numerous witnesses.”
Britt Long, a civil attorney representing 33 of the students at American Horse School, alleged in a statement to the HuffPost that “the police investigation did not gather the facts that we know to exist, and the prosecutor did not introduce those facts in a case before the judge.” She claimed that key evidence of O’Connell’s crimes against the children was “never obtained, lost, discarded, or apparently never presented to the court.”
O’Connell’s lawyer, Michael Butler ― a prominent attorney that has defended clients on death row and was voted Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2007-2008 by the South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association ― told The Associated Press that the favorable decision wasn’t unexpected. He is concerned, however, that because of the case his client has been unfairly portrayed as the kind of guy who would pour beer on children and taunt them with racial slurs.
“There’s been some pretty vile and reprehensible things said about [O’Connell] by people who have no idea what they’re talking about,” Butler said.
“South Dakota’s attitude towards Native Americans is pretty much characterized by its racism”
Native activists, however, believe that the incident is about much more than O’Connell’s character, and say that the case reveals an undercurrent of racism prevalent in South Dakota. The Midwestern state has a long history of violence and hatred toward Native people, and was the site of many battles and depredations, stretching back to the 1800s and including the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, in which more than 150 Lakota were butchered by the United States Army and buried in a mass grave. Reverberations of conflict and loss remain today, as many of South Dakota’s over 75,000 Native people live in some of the poorest conditions in the country: Three of the five poorest counties in the U.S. encompass Indian reservations in the state.
More than 300 Native protesters braved freezing temperatures in Rapid City back in February to make sure that police and prosecutors held O’Connell and the other alleged perpetrators accountable for what the activists perceived to be a blatant act of racism. "We realize that Rapid City is one of the most racist cities in the country," Henry Boucha, one of the protest organizers and a former National Hockey League player, told reporters at a press conference at the time.
With a long history of racism in the state, Native leaders and organizations are disappointed but not surprised by the verdict.
"Honestly, I think our reaction is unsurprised," Matthew Renda, press director for the Lakota People’s Law Project, told HuffPost. "Our organization believes that what happened to the American Horse School students was an unconscionable display of racial animus."
"South Dakota’s attitude towards Native Americans is pretty much characterized by its racism," Renda continued. "Basically, we think that this is a symptom of a broader problem in South Dakota.”
Amid outrage, Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender is calling for calm following the controversial ruling.
"Although the friends, families and the students of the American Horse School will be disappointed, now is the time for calm," the mayor said in a statement provided by his press director. "The next decision is in the hands of the supporters of the students. I would hope cool heads will prevail."
The American Horse School did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
The mayor also indirectly addressed allegations of widespread racism, saying, “Let us use what we've learned from this incident to move forward, together, as we address race relations.”
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to HuffPost's requests for comment on the Lakota People’s Law Project’s assertion that the incident is symptomatic of racism against Native Americans in the state.
However, the lengthy statement provided by Long, the civil attorney, includes allegations of an improperly conducted police investigation and a willfully lackluster commitment by city officials to seek a conviction against O'Connell. The laundry list of grievances paints a picture of drunken white privilege halfheartedly prosecuted in a rural Midwestern city.