Whiteclay Liquor Stores Shut For Good

Whiteclay closedIn a Victory for Pine Ridge, Oglala Lakota Have Chance to Reclaim the Town that Caused Much Pain

Sometimes sunlight shines through the smallest opening. Such was the case on September 30th, when an error in legal paperwork shut down four liquor stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska for good. The stores bootlegged 11,000 cans of beer per day, mostly to residents of the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Sioux reservation just over the border in South Dakota, perpetuating cycles of physical and social harm to the residents there. The Nebraska Supreme Court Decision ends the store owners’ appeals, allowing the reservation to start healing and the town to recast itself from a source of pain to a site of hope.

“[The] Nebraska Supreme Court decision means that the shame of Whiteclay is over,” said Dave Domina, the who fought to keep the shut-down order in place, to the Omaha World-Herald.

“When Alcohol Justice joined this fight five years ago, there were already Oglala Lakota activists engaged in direct non-violent actions who’d been at it for decades.” said Jorge Castillo, advocacy director at Alcohol Justice. “All of us knew that if we were persistent, we would see the stores shut.”

The stores first closed in early May as the result of a Nebraska Liquor Control Commission decision. That decision refused to automatically renew the stores’ licenses on the grounds that law enforcement in the area was insufficient to deal with the crime, sex trafficking, injury, and poverty in the area. The assumption was that the stores would have to re-apply, and would be denied in the face of the ongoing public health disaster in the town.

The decision did not sit happily with a few Nebraskans. Loren Paul, a Sheridan County Commissioner who had advocated for keeping the stores open, told the Guardian, “It’s market forces … [Whiteclay] is there because there’s a need and somebody is going to supply that need.” Unsurprisingly, the store owners launched a court challenge at the district court, arguing that the liquor stores did not have the authority to order the re-application.

“The arguments made by the liquor stores were unbelievable,” Castillo said. “How can you argue that a liquor commission only exists to rubber-stamp alcohol outlets? A liquor commission’s job is to make sure that alcohol is sold in a way that is both legal and it doesn’t hurt the community."

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson concurred, and appealed the decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Yet instead of ruling on the validity of the liquor commission's ruling denying the renewal of the licenses, the court found fault with the legal process of the beer store owners. Citing the owners’ legal team’s failure to notify citizen protestors of the appeal, the Supreme Court threw out their entire case--leaving the Liquor Control Commission’s ruling in place.

In an October 2 editorial, the Lincoln Journal Star editorial board hailed this “rare victory to the tribes residing on the Pine Ridge Reservation.” However, they caution, the economic and social forces that enabled the liquor stores to gain their foothold are still in place. The decision, they chastise, “by no means absolves [Nebraska] of responsibility in the community and family problems caused by Whiteclay.”

Indeed, Whiteclay faces a number of challenges as it climbs free from the torrent of alcohol sales. As the Guardian notes, the area is still wracked by unsolved murders. Neighboring Pine Ridge experiences an ongoing plague of suicides and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Meanwhile, federal grants and assistance have been drying up.

“I’ve lost cousins and other relatives on the streets of Whiteclay,” Seymour Young Dog, a retired engineer living in Pine Ridge, told the World-Herald. “We’ve got to make this a better place.”

Nebraska State Senators Patty Pansing Brooks and Tom Brewer, the most prominent critics of the Whiteclay beer stores in the State Legislature, co-hosted a summit on Saturday, September 30, in Whiteclay to look for new directions for the town. A Family Dollar is slated to open and the Oglala Lakota are building out social services and counseling resources, suggesting new directions for the town and the Pine Ridge residents.

"From the beginning we held to a simple premise, namely that anything that can be legally opened can be legally closed," Castillo said. "The end of the illegal activities associated with the Whiteclay liquor stores will now change the trajectory of the Oglala people for the rest of time. The people of Pine Ridge have a new future ahead of them."

UPDATE: Whiteclay Redevelopment has launched a crowdfunding campaign for Whiteclay Makerspace, a facility for Lakota artisans to practice their crafts and revitalize their community.

READ MORE about the history of the fight to close the Whiteclay stores.

Hope and Reversals as Whiteclay Fight Goes to the Courts - 4/27/17

Nebraska Liquor Commission hearing on Whiteclay liquor storesThe residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation saw daylight for a moment, until a Nebraska judge ruled the door slammed shut. Presented with evidence of the chronic and unaddressed public health catastrophe caused by a flood of alcohol coming through the tiny nine-person town of Whiteclay, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ruled unanimously to pull the licenses from the town’s stores. On Thursday, April 27, however, Lancaster County District Judge Andrew Jacobsen threw out the commission’s decision, ruling that automatic renewals of liquor licenses are constitutionally mandated.

The unexpected ruling flew in the face not only of the residents of Pine Ridge, but also a rapidly growing number of Nebraskan leaders. State Senator Patty Brooks had already declared White Clay a “public health disaster.” Col. Tom Brewer, a freshman state senator whose district includes Whiteclay, has stood strong for the closure of the stores even as constituents threaten to withhold their votes. After an April 6th hearing Liquor Commission hearing, which uncovered appalling health consequences and chronic crime paired with very little law enforcement efforts, the liquor commission deliberated on whether to force the four Whiteclay stores to re-apply for licenses, unanimously agreeing not to automatically renew. Under the conditions afflicting Whiteclay, there was little chance a new application would have been approved.

Judge Jacobsen’s decision undermines that, however, ruling that a felony conviction, the licensees can’t be forced to reapply. To Alcohol Justice Advocacy Director Jorge Castillo, however, that makes for a delay, not a reversal. "It is clear that the Whiteclay Liquor stores have been breaking the law and devastating the Pine Ridge community for decades,” he said. “With growing public awareness and pending hearings, these stores can't continue to get away on technicalities forever."

The Nebraska Attorney General’s office is appealing the decision, however; after a rapid legal back-and-forth, it appears the liquor stores will close until the appeal is decided. Even if the stores prevail again, the Attorney General’s Office alleges the stores have engaged in bootlegging, and a hearing on those charges will go forward later this year.

"Pine Ridge activist and community advocates have fought hard for decades they are not going to give up now,” said Castillo. “Alcohol Justice will continue to assist in this effort until we stop the illegal alcohol activity associated with the liquor stores taking place in Whiteclay."

The coming months will show what new efforts are needed from advocates for the Sioux and public health. But starting Sunday, even if it only lasts for a few days, Pine Ridge and Sheridan County will know what it’s like to live without the constant, devastating specter of alcohol harm.

READ MORE about the Nebraska Liquor Commission hearings.

Hearing Date Moved; Buying Out the Bad Guys - 2/27/17

Hearing Date Moved; Buying Out the Bad Guys

bruce bonfleur

Street minister Bruce BonFleur doesn’t just forgive those who trespass against him. In a bold quest to undo the damage they cause, he hopes to hand them millions of dollars. BonFleur heads up Lakota Hope, a ministry that caters to those impacted by alcohol sales in Whiteclay, a 12-person Nebraska enclave that nonetheless moves over 3 million cans of beer per year from four liquor stores. These sales predominantly involve residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a legally dry jurisdiction which nonetheless suffers from crippling rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related harms.

BonFleur told the Omaha World-Herald that he plans to raise $6.3 million to purchase the town’s four liquor stores. State legislators have recently asked the liquor stores to reapply for their licenses, giving the state time to review the law enforcement strain created by the tiny town’s massive alcohol trade. This has created uncertainty among the store owners, which in turn allows a rare opportunity for BonFleur and allies to buy out and close up the stores once and for all.

First, of course, he needs the money. He has launched the nonprofit Whiteclay Redevelopment L3C to raise funds and share the Whiteclay story.

As for the store licenses themselves, the state rescheduled the hearings from March 7th to April 6th. The rescheduling follows a challenge to the Sheridan County (wherein Whiteclay is located) commissioners’ recommendation that the liquor licenses be renewed. If BonFleur is unsuccessful, state liquor board intervention remains the last, best hope to end Whiteclay’s ongoing public health disaster.

TAKE ACTION to tell the Nebraska legislature to save lives and shut down the Whiteclay liquor stores.


Spotlight Shines on Whiteclay Disaster - 1/26/17

Sheridan County Commission Fails Residents

A beer truck in front of a liquor store in Whiteclay NEOn January 11, the Sheridan County, NE Board wasted an opportunity to address an unmitigated public health disaster in its back yard. Asked to evaluate the appropriateness of liquor store licenses in Whiteclay, NE—a tiny town of 12 that sells over 3.5 million cans of beer a year, largely to the neighboring, legally dry, Pine Ridge Reservation—the board voted unanimously to recommend reapproval.

Nebraska state government, spearheaded by State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, has been aggressively pushing for open hearings around the Whiteclay liquor licenses. Key to this process was a recent hearing at which the liquor store owners made the case why their licenses should be renewed. Around 60 attendees made cases for and against reapproval, with the Omaha Journal-Herald reporting that the majority of arguments were against.

The Lincoln Journal-Star provided a rundown of the local ills caused by the flow of alcohol into Pine Ridge. These include unsolved murders, widespread fetal alcohol syndrome disorders, the overloading of local behavioral health and medical services, and lasting damage to the family infrastructure. “It’s in every single one of our families,” Pine Ridge advocate and Alcohol Justice ally Olowan Martinez told the Journal-Star. “No matter how educated, no matter how nice our homes and how good we live. We could be some of the haves, of have-nots, and still be affected by it.”

The Pine Ridge reservation abuts Sheridan County and bears much of the burden of Whiteclay-related alcohol harm, but the price tag is high for the county, too. The Associated Press estimated 1/3 of Sheridan County’s $5.2 million budget goes to costs incurred by alcohol use in Whiteclay. With no local police force, the town is also entirely reliant on the Sheriff’s Department, which has five officers to patrol an area the size of Delaware. This, critics say, makes the region un-policeable, further warranting a revocation of liquor licenses.

Proponents of the liquor stores argued that the responsibility for stopping alcohol harm lies with Pine Ridge and the residents who drink. They also maintained that the police presence, though paltry, was normal for a rural area. The Sheridan County Board concurred, and recommended the licenses be renewed.

The decision was slammed by the editorial staff of the Journal-Star, who called it “reprehensible” and asserted that it “ignored indisputable evidence that adequate law enforcement is absent in Whiteclay.”

The case will come before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission on March 7, 2017. The three commissioners—Robert Batt, Janice Wiebusch, and Bruce Bailey—will make the final determination as to whether to honor the needs of the residents of Pine Ridge and Sheridan County, or to maintain the cycle of intoxication, exploitation, illness, and waste.

TAKE ACTION: stand with the people of Pine Ridge to shut down the Whiteclay liquor stores.