By Ron Feemster, WyoFile.com
(Riverton, Wyo.) – At an Awareness Walk on Saturday, members and supporters of the Northern Arapaho Tribe renewed their commitment to end racism and discrimination in the city of Riverton, a goal city officials share, even as they downplay the role of race in a recent, controversial crime.
About 200 people in Riverton marched two miles on Saturday from City Park to the 789 Smoke Shop Casino, in support of Darryn Davis, an enrolled Northern Arapaho member who was hospitalized two weeks ago in what tribal leaders call a racist attack outside a bar. Many tribal members were outraged by the attack and horrified at the injuries suffered by Davis, who was flown to Casper for reconstructive facial surgery in the early morning of March 9. They were also angry that the police took eight days to arrest James “Skip” Crooks, the suspect in the case.
But two weeks after the incident, the walk itself seemed almost light-hearted, especially given the strong feelings about the case. From toddlers to elders, people wore Awareness Walk T-shirts emblazoned with the Arapaho flag on the front and the slogan “Fighting against racism and discrimination” on the back. Marchers chatted with friends and stopped frequently to take pictures of their children.
“It was a friendly, family atmosphere,” said Mike Broadhead, chief of police in Riverton. “I addressed the crowd for about two minutes in the park and talked about the route that we wanted everyone to take so that they would be safe. It was a very well-behaved crowd.”
A group of drummers led by Ethan Fighting Bear kept up a steady beat during the procession. When the marchers reached the casino they held a rally and shared a meal in the bingo hall. The drummers opened and closed the festivities by singing traditional songs, including the Eagle Song and the Victory Song. The atmosphere turned more serious, if not quite somber, as speakers took the podium.
“Today marks a turning point in racial relations between us and the city of Riverton,” said Layha Spoonhunter, 24, one of the organizers of the event. “Our purpose here is to impact change in the community and stand up against racism.”
Spoonhunter and a handful of other young people behind the march originally targeted everyday discrimination in Riverton. While the alleged incidents may often be less dangerous than fistfights, they are irritating and sometimes humiliating, according to the organizers.
For example, parents with children complain that employees who see them as potential shoplifters trail them around retail stores. Natives point to stores that are reluctant to accept tribal IDs as official identification, although that is required under Wyoming law. Some people at the rally said such small incidents moved them to take part in the awareness walk.
“When I came here, it was so backward,” said Nicola Black, a Navajo from Southern Utah who married a Northern Arapaho man 10 years ago. “I didn’t get so much of the stereotype in Utah. I didn’t think I would get stared at in restaurants when I came here.”
But for many others, including the organizers, the case of Darryn Davis became the focus of the march. Violence — and what they saw as a sluggish police investigation — redefined the march and lent it added urgency.
“Growing up I looked up to Darryn as a role model,” Spoonhunter said in his speech at the bingo hall. “When I heard what happened, I knew that I was going to take every step possible to make sure that justice happened. And to stand in support of my brother, Darryn. I want to say to my brother Darryn, you will always have my support. I will do everything I can to make sure your voice is heard.”
Kay Davis, mother of Darryn and two daughters who grew up half black and half Northern Arapaho, seized on the racial slur that her son says his attacker spoke before he threw the punch.
“I always taught my kids to be proud of who they are,” she said. “When they were born, I gave them names. And no one should be allowed to call them anything but the name I gave them at birth.”
The speaker everyone waited for was Darryn Davis himself. Two weeks after his hospitalization, the wires and the cast have been removed from his nose. His face does not look swollen, although his right eye remains bloodshot. He said he was beginning to feel better and to adjust to getting attention away from the basketball court.
“It’s been a tough two weeks,” said Davis, when it was his turn to address the crowd. “I wish it could have been avoided. I ended up getting into this situation. I needed help getting through it. In the last two weeks I have been very thankful and grateful to have my friends and family showing their support. It’s hard for everybody around here with problems with racism. I’d like to thank everybody for coming out and showing up.”
During the two weeks since the assault on Davis, many locals have come to the defense of Brooks, saying that claims of racism have no basis in the facts of the case. After all, the two were childhood friends, and although Brooks allegedly used a racial term, it can be chalked up to a heated argument between two people who were drinking at a bar — not a crime where the victim was selected for his race.
The city’s reaction
There were few non-Natives at the meeting. But some Riverton officials said they would gladly have attended if they had received an invitation.
“I heard through the grapevine that it was happening,” said Ron Warpness, the Riverton mayor. “I wasn’t invited. I wasn’t sure what the intent of the event was.”
The mayor said he had spoken to the police about the incident outside Bomber’s Bar. Warpness was more concerned about the injuries suffered by Davis than the words that were spoken. “If you’re in that kind of situation and you are out drinking, you are not going to use the nicest language,” he said. “Maybe later you might apologize in a quiet moment for what you say. I do not think it is wise to be incensed by the language that was used in the heat of the moment.”
In general, the mayor was concerned less with focusing on race and more with putting the priority on finding solutions to problems.
“People on both sides of the river see this through the lens of racism,” Warpness said. “I’ve lived here for 70 years. I understand the racial component to it. But the more we focus on the racial component, the more we get the racial component. If the focus is instead to solve problems, then I’m more than happy to talk with them.”
Warpness asked questions about the march and the speeches afterward. He seemed genuinely interested in the points of view expressed by the Davis family and the young people who organized the march. “It is interesting to me,” he said. “If they felt that strongly about it, why haven’t they called me?”
Steve Weaver, the city administrator, was happy to hear reports from the police of a quiet and orderly march through town.
“The peaceful march from the park was a positive,” Weaver said. “The police participated and helped keep order and keep people safe.”
What about hate crimes?
James Simmons, the president of the Casper chapter of the NAACP, also spoke at the rally after the march, focusing primarily on the importance of recognizing the elements of racial crimes that can set them apart from everyday crimes.
The motive for a crime, and the words, including the “N-word,” as was allegedly used in the Davis case, when spoken in the commission of a crime, can make it a hate crime under federal law. In Simmons’ view, the words allegedly spoken by James Crooks make the attack on Darryn Davis a federal hate crime. And in Simmons’ view, it should be a hate crime under Wyoming law.
“Let me tell you what message the legislators of Wyoming are sending when they won’t adopt a hate crime law for us,” Simmons told the crowd. “They’re telling the perpetrators of hate crimes that it’s all right. They’re condoning what the perpetrator does.”
Noting that the state of Wyoming does not have a hate crime statute, he suggested that the NAACP could become a conduit to the U.S. Justice Department, calling crimes like the one against Davis to the attention of federal prosecutors. In fact, the FBI is already monitoring the case, according to tribal officials close to the investigation.
Simmons brought membership forms for the NAACP and invited the leaders of the rally to help organize a chapter of the organization on the reservation. As the people began filing outside to return home, Spoonhunter, the Davis sisters and some of the other young people were sitting at a table filling out the forms and handing them to Simmons.
Organizing at home
“The next step will be organizing the NAACP chapter,” Spoonhunter said. “That’s the most beneficial way we can go. We’re looking at it as a chapter for the reservation, Riverton and Lander. We think anyone anywhere can be a victim of discrimination.”
The city officials who spoke about the situation commented to WyoFile, not to the young people who organized the rally. Apparently, the organizers did not invite the city elders. But their remarks about goals for their planned new NAACP chapter show a desire for an outside monitor of social conditions on and near the reservation.
“We want to get justice for our tribal members here on the reservation,” Spoonhunter said. “If they are assaulted, we want to push the courts, to push the city to try the perpetrator the same way they would try any other. It’s our constitutional right to get a fair trial.”
Spoonhunter said the other long-term goal is to press for a hate-crime statute in Wyoming. “That’s one thing that I personally, and talking with the family, that we would like to see: a hate crime bill passed in Wyoming.
“Getting it passed through the Legislature would be a landmark achievement,” Spoonhunter went on. “We’d like to see a legislator take up this bill in the next session. We don’t see how, in a state that calls itself the ‘Equality State,’ we don’t have a hate crime bill.”