Speaking out against border town violence: the killing of Loreal Tsingine and our community’s growing response

By Andrew Curley

Winslow, AZ – It has been over a month since Loreal Tsingine, a 27-year old Navajo woman, was gunned down in the streets of Winslow (3/27/16). At the time an unidentified clerk accused Tsingine of shoplifting a pack of cigarettes and cheap alcohol from a tattered Circle K in this northern Arizona town. These items were worth less than $50. But for these items she lost her life.

Tsingine, mother of an eight-year-old daughter, was already walking away from the Circle K when a large, white male police officer named Austin Shipley approached her and killed her. It was Easter Sunday. He shot her five times and later justified the killing by claiming that she attacked him with a pair of scissors.

A witness later described her last moments in gruesome detail. She was left dying, gasping, and mortally wounded. Her life ended near the Circle K. Austin Shipley, the killer, watched her die. He was unmoved and unhurried to help her.[1] The Winslow Police Department let her body lie in the street for hours. She wasn’t moved until the next day.

Shipley follows a long tradition of white settler violence against Native people. This repression is meant to intimidate us and prevent us from speaking out against injustice and colonialism.

But on April 2, 2016, we took a collective stand against this violence. In front of the Winslow Police Department we crowded around a single speaker and microphone. We shared our thoughts, grief, anger, and frustration over this brutal and tragic killing. Nearly all of the 350 of us in attendance were Navajo. Many had traveled miles from reservation communities in order to participate in the vigil. We stood there for hours speaking one after the next to demand justice for Loreal.

Loreal’s family has since identified two key demands when talking about justice for Loreal: 1) the criminal prosecution of Austin Shipley for her murder and 2) reparations to the family for her wrongful death.

For us at the Red Nation, and in conjunction with similar calls coming from the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, we demand an independent inquiry that involves Navajo community members in supervisory roles in the investigation.

We also want to emphasize that the murder is not an isolated incident. It is part of racialized and gendered violence against Native people in Arizona that has existed for centuries. It is also a part of a larger process of settler-capitalism, a structure of power, violence, and intimidation against our people.

We inherited these conditions of structural violence as descendants of people who were wrongfully forced from our lands and left with little resources to sustain ourselves. Our ways of life were attacked, destroyed, and displaced. We were compelled to sell our labor for wages to our colonizers in order to survive. And we did this with great resentment and anger. It is frustration with this displacement that leads us to break petty laws such as shoplifting or to resist the authority of the police.

These petty laws were designed to protect the private property of the elite and brand us as criminals in the eyes of state authorities. When we resist this order, both in rebellious actions like shoplifting or in collective, organized actions like the vigil on April 2nd, we are resisting and working to overturn the structures of settler-colonial capitalism.

On settler-colonialism

Since the sixteenth century, European colonists have coveted Native lands and resources in the southwest. The Spanish conquistadors moved northward up the Rio Grande from their killing fields in Mexico, slaughtering and terrorizing the indigenous people they encountered.

The history of colonization in Native North America is one of blunt appropriation and theft. Flashes of extreme violence were followed by years of low-level harassment and bullying. Over time different systems were used to intimidate Native people and undermine our inherent sovereignty, from forced religious conversion, boarding school education, to today’s routinized police harassment. Each system is designed and prefigured with the same intent: to take Native wealth and distribute it upwards and ensure we don’t resist. This sounds abstract, but in the case of Loreal’s killing, we see this violence’s tragically real features.

Border towns emerged as products of 19th century Anglo-American colonialism. During this time, the construction and ownership of railroads was a booming and lucrative industry. It served to move men and materials from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast in the expansion of U.S. imperialism. The last obstacle of hemispheric domination over North America was Indigenous claims to the land. Two things entered the region to deal with this obstacle: the U.S. military and settler-colonists. They got here first by wagon and then by rail.

It was during this time when the border towns surrounding the Navajo Nation were founded: Gallup (1881), Holbrook (1881), Winslow (1882), and Flagstaff (1881). All of these towns started as railroad depots. Each subsumed in a niche economy, with agriculture in Albuquerque and logging in Flagstaff. But they were intrusions into the historical pastoral lands of the Navajo people. And our ancestors were violently and forcefully removed from our traditional homelands during these years. 

Hwéeldi, or “the long walk,” initiated in 1862, was the catalyst event that defines modern Navajo life. In 1862 the U.S. Army entered Navajo lands, killed, raped, and pillaged, and forced our ancestors to walk more than 300 miles to a dusty little concentration camp in eastern New Mexico – Bosque Redondo –where nearly 2,000 of our ancestors died.

Our ancestors were interned there for over six years before they were allowed to return home to what is today the Navajo Nation. Hwéeldi changed forever our relationship with our lands, from a source of independence and self-sustainability to a place of refuge from violence. If the point of hwéeldi was to intimidate Navajo people into subjugation, then this process didn’t end in 1868 when our ancestors returned home. It continues into today. And Loreal Tsingine was one of its latest victims.

The first article of our 1868 treaty established a regime of intimidation that continues to plague Navajo people whenever we venture beyond reservation lines into the racist railroad border towns. And it directly contributed to Loreal Tsingine’s tragic death 148 years after it was signed. It is the first clause of the Treaty of 1868, the “bad men” clause, in which we are instructed to subsume ourselves to the authority of settler-colonial law enforcement:

If bad men among the Indians shall commit a wrong or depredation upon the person or property of any one, white, black, or Indian, subject to the authority of the United States and at peace therewith, the Navajo tribe agree that they will, on proof made to their agent, and on notice by him, deliver up the wrongdoer to the United States, to be tried and punished according to its laws; …

This was not just racism; it was also a function of capitalism. In 1867, a year before the Navajo people were forced to agree to “the bad men” clause, Karl Marx published Das Kapital, a critique of the political economy of Western Europe. In it he lambasted the “bloody legislation” or vagabond laws that criminalized the poverty of peasants who had recently been forced from their lands and who had to occasionally break petty laws against begging in order to survive in the rapidly urbanizing towns and cities of industrial England.

Marx argued that in much of Western Europe, the capitalist class and state lawmakers undermined the conditions of traditional subsistence livelihoods. Capitalist “enclosures” deprived peasants of their lands and access to resources that were previously held in common. The privatization of the commons was part of converting feudal England into capitalist England and took hundreds of years to accomplish.[2]

The history of our people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries follows the same path, but at a much quicker and violent pace. Our lands and water resources were illegally stolen and given to Mormon settlers and railroad companies. We were forced in many different and complicated ways into wage-labor life, from railroad, housing, and road construction, to mining and service industry work. We were pushed from our lands through coercion and pulled into towns and cities through circumstance. And we are kept under watchful eye and regularly penalized in order to prevent us from resisting and speaking out against this injustice.

As Marx wrote, “the fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assume that it was entirely within their powers to go on working under the old conditions which in fact no longer existed.”

148 years later, in the case of Loreal Tsingine, a white male, right-wing enforcer of Arizona’s vagabond laws physically attacked Loreal for allegedly shoplifting. Whose property was he protecting? She was accused of shoplifting from the chain convenience store “Circle K,” based in Tempe Arizona. Who owns Circle K? The Canadian based corporation Alimentation Couche-Tard, worth $26 U.S. billion in market value.[3]

These giant corporations that police protect make billions of dollars in selling cheap foods to poor people for more than these foods are worth. The real thief in this scenario was Circle K, not Loreal Tsingine. And she probably recognized this too. But Shipley, a uniformed defender of the capitalist class, acted on an instinct of racist colonial violence when he approached Tsingine on that fateful afternoon.

This violence isn’t random. It is not a spontaneous act of rage. It is a strategy of intimidation that is directed at Native people. It is a continuation of hwéeldi. It is meant to teach us not to resist, or to stand up against clear forms of injustice, and to teach us to obey petty vagabond laws in order to secure a capitalist political order.

For Tsingine, she recognized the injustice of her life and circumstance, of the history of our people. This is perhaps why she resisted this authority. Because she knew it was an unjust authority. We do not know and probably will never know if Tsingine was guilty of shoplifting. But her last actions were a statement on her circumstances. We should recognize what she pointed out, that the structure of settler-colonial capitalism in border towns like Winslow is unjust and we should resist them.

On resistance

Border town police are comprised largely of white male officers from the scant data publically available. In the nearby town of Flagstaff, AZ – with the only online statistics in the region – only 14 of 110 sworn law enforcement personnel were women in 2014 and only one was Native American. It is outrageous that in the City of Flagstaff, 45% of all arrests that year were arrests of Native Americans. That’s 3,044 arrests out of the 21,597 arrests of Native Americans in the entire state in 2014! In other words, 15% of all arrests of Native Americans in the State of Arizona in 2014 happened in Flagstaff alone.[4] When the city’s police were confronted with these facts, their response reflected the institutionalized racism against Native people that we regularly confront:

“Our arrest rates are what they are because they mirror our population. We have lots of folks that come into the city and don’t register as living here. They might be living with relatives, they may be staying in a shelter, they may just be coming off the reservation.”[5]

It is a fact that the number of Natives arrested in the City is disproportionate to the city’s overall population even if the Flagstaff police deny this. We are only 11 percent of the city’s demographics. Flagstaff City Police does not offer any introspection on this statistic. Rather, they claim that the Natives who were arrested were coming “off the reservation,” which doesn’t prove that these arrests weren’t disproportionate against Native people, but reveals the embedded attitude of the Flagstaff Police Department toward us. They see us as vagabonds coming “off the reservation.” In reality the largest transient population in Flagstaff are college students who are mainly non-Native, but Flagstaff’s record of police arrests don’t reflect this fact.[6]

Graph from Flagstaff Police Department’s 2014 annual report, pg. 39Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.16.16 AMWhat these statistics show is that Natives who come into town looking for work, education, or goods and services – including health care – are punished simply because we look poor and are assumed to be in violation of some petty state motor vehicle law. Why are Native drivers pulled over? Cracked windshields, expired registration tags, changing lanes without signaling. These are all small infractions used as pretexts to run exhaustive background checks on us, check if we are drinking, and all too often detain us.

But we actually live in Flagstaff, Winslow, and other border towns. We are not just “transients.” We contribute significantly to the economies of these towns and we are pushed around, harassed, verbally abused, and treated like second-class citizens, coming “off the reservation.” These vagabond laws are meant to scare us and prevent us from resisting and speaking out against inequality and injustice. They function as a form of low-scale warfare against us and are a continuation of hwéeldi. Loreal was a casualty of this war.

If we look again at the annual crime rate statistics for the State of Arizona in 2014, we see that the vast majority of Native arrests are detained for low-level offenses, DUIs, “liquor violations,” and the ambiguous category of “All Other, Except Traffic” that constitutes almost 30% of all arrests in Arizona regardless of race. The police are protecting the rich against the poor and the white settlers and business owners from the unsightliness of Native poverty.[7] And for traffic stops on the state’s highways, racial statics are not regularly kept.

But a 2009 report on racial profiling in Arizona’s Department of Public Safety found:

“Hispanics and Native Americans were significantly more likely than Whites and Blacks to have repair orders or DVERs as the most severe outcome received. Hispanics and Blacks were significantly more likely than Whites and Native Americans to have a citation as the most severe outcome received. Finally, for the most severe outcome—arrest—Hispanics, Native Americans, and Blacks were all significantly more likely than Whites to have arrest as the most serious outcome received.”[8]

This independent report is a confirmation of the way vagabond laws work today. Repair orders, lack of insurance, petty driving crimes that serve as a regressive tax on Native drivers who already have limited resources because of accumulated economic hardships that are a direct outcome of settler-colonialism. Enforcement of these laws often lead to arrest and more fines. But in the case of Loreal, it led to her violent death.

The vigil

The April 2 vigil was our first collective action against this longstanding campaign of harassment against us. We began at 3:30 pm MST (2:30 AZ Time). It was hot and uncomfortable. We were not given permission, but chose to stand in the parking lot in front of the Winslow Police Department because we wanted to highlight their complicity in Tsingine’s killing.

Immediately after her murder, the Winslow Police Department portrayed Loreal as a drunk, out-of-control Native shoplifter in order to undermine her credibility and deter sympathy toward her and her family. Loreal’s family had little recourse. They had no press person, or access to the media, or any institutional status that they could draw upon to challenge these claims. The Winslow Police department exploited their advantage. Loreal’s family had to prove in the public’s mind that she was not as the Winslow Police portrayed her and in fact it was Shipley who was violent, aggressive, and out of control.

It took a coordinated campaign of organizers, community members, tribal officials, and tenacious news reporters, but eventually the truth emerged. Austin Shipley was not a levelheaded police officer approaching an uncontrollable situation; he was someone who brandished his affiliation with a right-wing paramilitary group and who targeted women, young women, with lethal violence. His own record confirms this.

In 2013 he was suspended for a day without pay for saying “inappropriate” things to 15-year-old girl.[9] He was simply transporting the girl, a “Ms. Delgado,” from a holding cell to a medical center when the girl referred to him as a “rookie” officer and he lost control. He called her a “vulgar name” and later admitted the girl’s taunting got to him.[10] Just weeks before he killed Loreal, the Winslow Police Department suspended Shipley for tasing yet another 15-year-old girl who turned her back on him and disobeyed his instructions after he confronted her and her friends in a park.

The Winslow police failed to take notice of Shipley’s tendency to escalate situations into violent, dangerous ones. They failed to restrain him as he pushed, tased, and bullied people. He was a public threat to both Natives and non-Natives alike and yet the Winslow Police Department kept him on the streets.

This was why we held the vigil in front of the police department. The police didn’t challenge us on this. They placed barricades around us and even provided portable restrooms as a gesture of goodwill. But we were not interested in goodwill. We demanded a criminal prosecution of Shipley, reparations for the family, and an independent inquiry into border town violence.

The vigil featured speakers from Loreal’s family and members of Winslow’s Native community. They discussed who Loreal was as a person. She was a mother, cousin, niece, friend, and community member. They remembered good things about her even as the Winslow Police Department presented her as a vagabond and criminal. At the vigil we actively challenged the framing of the Winslow Police Department. We presented her not as an abstraction, but as a human being who had a life prior to this killing. As her aunt wrote:

It’s hard to describe how much this hurts. Memories of Loreal flood my thoughts. To see her face as a little girl, from a little one running around in diapers, jumping from couch to couch with her brother. When I slept over we would watch Fern Gully. It was always Fern Gully. I’d become her couch she would sit on my lap and we would watch it all. I remember a time when I slept over I thought I fell off the bed but I looked up and there she was bushy haired and smiling looking at me. As she grew older we lost touch … We found each other on Facebook we would laugh, talk and just basically caught up on life. Loreal was a beautiful, non-judgmental and funny person. On Easter I thought about her and prayed for her. Monday came and I heard and read all the stories on Facebook. Since then I cried unexpectedly. Wondering how this happen. Why? I got on Facebook everyday since then learning little by little of her story then reading the witnesses and their descriptions of the incident. I close my eyes and it plays out in my mind.

For my loved ones, I love you all so very much. I know I do not tell you or show you that I do. You are always in my prayers, always in my thoughts and heart… Please be strong for one another most of all Loreal’s daughter, and siblings. Encourage, comfort and always forgive each other.

I grieve in different ways and with what has happen to Loreal. I am doing my best to make her story be heard.

We all can make her story be heard.

It’s tie to band together and ask for Justice for Loreal.

We all want the truth this is our time to ask and make a change in history to say this happens in the Native American nation also. No more injustice we deserve the Truth. JUSTICE FOR LOREAL!

We stood there in solidarity for Loreal’s family. Through this vigil the community pushed back against the Winslow Police Department and against larger structures of settler-colonial violence. We pushed back and started to reclaim our communities from our colonizers.

Moving forward

We envision a world in which the police don’t prey upon us. At the Red Nation, we work to organize our communities against acts of violence and injustice and to hold border town police accountable for their actions. When we organize together and stand in solidarity with one another we empower ourselves. It’s fear and intimidation that keeps us silent and keeps us divided. But we know better than to fall for these tactics any longer. In the coming weeks the Red Nation will continue to organize and pressure the Winslow Police Department, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the State of Arizona, and the Navajo Nation to pursue justice for Loreal’s family. We need people to join us.

We demand compensation to the family and the criminal prosecution of Officer Shipley. We demand an independent investigation of Loreal’s killing with members of the Navajo Nation overseeing it. For ultimate justice, greater changes need to be made in how our society works and functions and these will take some time. It will take more organizing and activism from many different groups to end hwéeldi. But these changes won’t come as top-down reforms, or in the form of diversity workshops for police officers (Shipley received this in 2013), or in the form of pleasant words from public officials in the Navajo Nation and the State of Arizona. They will come from us and we look forward to this work.

 

[1] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2016/04/08/witness-fatal-winslow-shooting-loreal-tsingine-he-shot-her-dead/82752698/, Last accessed 4/29/16

[2] As Marx wrote about the much earlier history of Western Europe, “…these men, suddenly dragged from their accustomed mode of life, could not immediately adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were partly from inclination, in most cases under the force of circumstances. Hence at the end of the fifteenth and during the whole of the sixteenth centuries, a bloody legislation against vagabondage was enforced throughout Western Europe.”

[3] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/couche-tard-chairman-says-bay-street-investors-blocking-founders-control/article29699072/

[4] This statistic was developed from a comparison of total Native American arrests in 2014 (21,597) against the City of Flagstaff’s self-reported arrests of Native Americans during the same period (3,044). For Arizona 2014 crime statistics, see: http://www.azdps.gov/About/Reports/docs/Crime_In_Arizona_Report_2014.pdf, and for Flagstaff Police Department’s 2014 annual report, see: http://flagstaff.az.gov/DocumentCenter/View/47895, Last accessed 4/13/16

[5] Sergeant Margaret Bentzen, a public relations officer for the Flagstaff Police Department. See: http://fusion.net/story/288338/loreal-tsingine-killed-by-police/ , Last accessed 4/13/16

[6] In 2014 only 1,567 NAU students were “Native” from a student body of 27,715. See: https://nau.edu/PAIR/_Forms/Fact-Book/Current-Fact-Book/C-Student-Characteristics/, Last accessed 4/13/16.

[7] Arizona 2014 Crime Report, pg. 66 See: http://www.azdps.gov/About/Reports/docs/Crime_In_Arizona_Report_2014.pdf, Last accessed 4/13/16

[8] Traffic Stop Data Analysis Study: Year Three Final Report, pg. xi. See: http://www.azdps.gov/About/Reports/docs/Traffic_Stop_Data_Report_2009.pdf, Last accessed 4/13/16

[9] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2016/04/06/file-winslow-officer-who-shot-navajo-woman-mix-warnings-praise/82702856/

[10] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2016/04/11/winslow-officers-file-details-history-using-force-before-loreal-tsingine-shooting/82888708/