"When it happened to my brother, it was like everything changed"
February 22, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
Gabriel Black Elk came to Los Angeles from Denver to participate in the recent Regional Conference of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. Gabriel became active in the struggle to stop murder by police after his brother, Paul Castaway, 35, was killed by Denver police on July 12, 2015.
Paul was holding a knife to his own throat, obviously in need of compassion, care and people who would help deescalate the situation. Instead, he was shot four times by the Denver police. One hundred people protested after the killing. Since losing his brother, Gabriel has been reaching out to Native American families throughout the country who have also lost loved ones to police murder. And, he and others in Denver have been forging unity among different people and groups, to expose and stop murders by police that have been happening in Denver. In 2015, seven people died at the hands of law enforcement in the Denver area, including six people who were shot by Denver area police. The seventh person died in custody at the Downtown Detention Center, a death that has been ruled a homicide. The following is an interview with Gabriel Black Elk by a Revolution/revcom.us reader.
Q: Tell us what happened to your brother, Paul Castaway?
Gabriel Black Elk: The cops didn't have to shoot him. In Denver they have a rule, a 21-foot rule. If the suspect comes within 21 feet of the police officer, the police officer has the right to shoot. In my brother's case, they forced themselves to be within 21 feet after they trapped him so they'd have an excuse to shoot him. It wasn't like he was coming at them. They trapped him and he turned around, and he was within 21 feet. His last words after they shot him were, "What's wrong with you guys?"
Q: Since your brother was killed in July, what's been revealed to you about the breadth of this epidemic of murders by police?
Gabriel Black Elk: When it happened to my brother it was like everything changed. Everything changed. Everything. Now it's like, to me it was like, when my brother died, it was replaced with revolution. When my brother died, it was just coming all at once, everything. We've been protesting left and right, not only for my brother, but for other families in Denver, for other situations, for things that's happening outside.
The way I see it, police brutality is only a part of the big revolution. I just see it as a big wide open space, so it's like light bulbs are clicking on in the minds of millions of people, being awoken a little bit more to what's going on. That's what I think about the bigger revolution and my brother, what happened to my brother, it brought me up to the level of what's really going on in the bigger life.
Q: What do you think of the plans that came out of the Regional Conference of SMIN, the No More Stolen Lives tour and the vision of a national strike by thousands of college students this spring semester? What difference do you think it will make to bring Stop Police Terror--Which Side Are You On? to college campuses--challenging students to rise up and not go along with "business as usual" while police are murdering people?
Gabriel Black Elk: I'm glad I was invited to the conference. I think it's a good idea because we need to reach college students when their minds are expanding at that age. We have to tell them this is really happening! Murder by cops! And that it needs to stop! I've spoken with a number of families about participating and helping the No More Stolen Lives tour in Northern California at San Jose State, and up in Seattle, too, and a family with connections at Portland State. In Denver, when I get back from my trip, we'll be approaching students at UC Boulder and a number of other colleges. We have work to do on this.
Q: After your brother was killed, you started reaching out to Native American families all over the country. What made you do that?
Gabriel Black Elk: Just to tell them, you know, we're praying for you, you're not alone, because seeing my mom saying that she felt like she was alone, and then I started meeting all these other families and they felt the same way. I was like, well, let's get together so we don't have to feel alone. A lot of these families, when I talked to them, there was nobody that would help them. There's no protest, there's no nothing. No lawyers, there's no legal help for them, they're just sitting there wishing that something would happen. A lot of people are living in small towns with no media. So what I'm doing is I'm using what happened to my brother, I'm using the fame of my brother to help other families.
Q: Other Native American families?
Gabriel Black Elk: Like Terrance Circle Bear. Sarah Lee Circle Bear was killed in the Rapid City, South Dakota Jail, July 5, 2015. She was 24. She was pregnant and had two children. She was having a lot of pain, she was telling the cops, "I need help." That's when they told her to "quit faking." Melissa Goodblanket, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, her son, was having an episode. He was schizophrenic. He broke a window. He was acting out, so the cops came. As the cops came in, I guess one of them cut his hand on the glass in the window, and so the others flipped out about it, they ran into the house. The family specifically told the cops don't shoot my son. They shot him seven times, the last time in the back of the head at close range, execution-style. Christina Tahhahwah, who died in the Lawton, Oklahoma jail in November 2014 after being tasered for refusing to stop singing Comanche hymns. Leanne Estrada, her son Richie was killed by the California Highway Patrol in December 2014. Montano Northwind, his brother Jack was killed by Seattle police. The latest one is Phil Quinn killed in St. Paul, Minnesota, December 17. And Benjamin Whiteshield, I haven't heard much about him, but we're trying to get more info on that. He was killed in Oklahoma in 2012, and the family settled out of court.
Q: So, the way you see it, murder by police targets Black, Latino, poor white people, Native Americans... how do you see this?
Gabriel Black Elk: When I first went out to the native families it was just the natives, then there was Michael Marshall, who was Black, killed in the Denver jail, then I went to a Mexican family, and then it just grew. After that, it was just like, man, the cops don't care where you come from. I read the story of what happened to Patrick Wetter, who was white. It was horrible, it was something that shouldn't have happened. He was sitting in a park and the cops were chasing somebody and the cops came across him, he was sitting in the park, just broke up with his girlfriend--his girlfriend was blocks away and she heard the gunshots.
If it's not race, then what is it? Is it where you're from, where you're at the moment? The cops don't even care no more, they're going after everybody they feel that's a threat to them. So, yeah, that's the way I see it. When all that hit, I could see that it's a bigger problem. And what I started thinking, you know, it's not just the cops--the strong arm is the cops, but it's the people above them that are giving them the ok to do it, and then that person has a person on top of him, telling him what to do. So then that's when I started seeing, it's not just the cops ... it's the cops, it's the DA, it's the federal judge that makes the last decision not to indict the cops, and they all sit at the same table. And then I started thinking man, we going to have to go after the federal judge, we're going to have to tell him to step down or something, change the laws or something, something has to happen so we feel the change out here.
Q: Do you want to make more sweeping comments about the historic extermination campaign the U.S. has waged against Native Americans, and your personal family history?
Gabriel Black Elk: I was born to two revolutionaries of the American Indian Movement (AIM), my mom and my dad. My mom wasn't in Wounded Knee when it happened in the '70s but my dad was. My grandpa was, and all my aunts and all my uncles. So, yeah, say about 100 years ago, 120 years ago, they started bringing my people in, they started bringing them into the rez, forcing them into the rez, after the soldiers came. They started killing our warriors off, so a lot of them went to the rez, the prison encampment. Pine Ridge is considered Prison Encampment 1535. It's not even called a reservation, it's called prison encampment. That's how they have it written down, when I saw the orders from the president, that's how they had it.
Some of the first people to die from police violence were Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse, he was the one that all the young warriors want to be, they want to be him, he's the superman. He's the leader of all of us, today, even now today, because he was a warrior for the people, he put the people's needs before his. So when he was taken into custody, he was stabbed in the back, by a bayonet, and they threw him in a jail cell, and let him die. And then the same thing with Sitting Bull, they shot him, and just left him to die. He died a slow death. So police violence has kept going after that. Even after my people gave up and were forced on the rez, they were still getting harassed. The president made laws against us. We couldn't have long hair, we couldn't speak our tongue, we couldn't do sweat lodge ceremonies, we had to fully convert or suffer pain.
From my mom's side, I come from Eagle Feathers, Bill Eagle Feather, I can only go back to late 1800s because we don't have written records. On my dad's side I come from Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks, the book, is about my grandfather's grandfather. I come from a couple hundred years--both sides of my family come from medicine men. A lot of other people, they come down from lines of warriors, great warriors. But I come down lines from medicine men. So that's the way I see it. It's an ongoing fight, keep on. So, yeah, that's what I been doing. I've been busy.
Since this interview, Gabriel Black Elk's cousin, Raymond Gassman, 22, was shot and killed by a Sioux tribal policeman on February 3 on the Rosebud Reservation in Rapid City, South Dakota. A witness said the officer had come to arrest Raymond and shot him at point blank range after a scuffle. A six-year-old was present in the house at the time of the shooting. The witness said: "They didn't get Ray medical attention! He died and nobody has done anything about it.... We need justice! Ray was shot. He was unarmed. The cop used a weapon in a house with a child!"