PINE RIDGE, S.D. – Activists on Wednesday gave up plans to seize beer from motorists driving into the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after a tribal police official said it would be illegal and dangerous and promised to help find a different way to fight alcoholism.
Supporters of the blockade had described it as their only option after failed efforts to get the courts and county and state officials to stop the flow of beer from tiny Whiteclay, Neb. Alcohol is banned on the 16,500-member reservation, but four Whiteclay stores sell an estimated 4 million of cans of beer every year, mostly to Indians.
The fewer than a dozen activists were outnumbered by journalists and law-enforcement officers from several jurisdictions as blockade organizer Duane Martin Sr. and James Twiss, the reservation's acting police chief, hashed things out at the state boundary, a few feet from the sign for South Dakota's Shannon County.
Blockade supporters had said they didn't plan to arrest anyone but would have confiscated any beer purchased in Whiteclay at checkpoints just inside the reservation. Volunteers in Whiteclay planned to use radios to tell checkpoint workers which vehicles should be stopped and searched.
Twiss said it was unclear whether the blockade would violate motorists' constitutional right against illegal searches and seizures. "A person's vehicle is their property," Twiss told Martin.
Allowing the blockade also would invite liability issues, Twiss said: "If someone decides not to stop, we're going to be responsible."
"Whose side are you guys on?" Martin told Twiss.
"Don't try to make me be the bad guy," Twiss said.
Twiss acknowledged his department has not done enough to go after bootleggers who buy large quantities of beer in Whiteclay and distribute it on the reservation, but said he doesn't have the money or manpower to do more.
Twiss vowed, however, to work with Martin and others to find some way to ease the problem. The two sides planned to meet, possibly as early as Thursday.
Mark Vasina of Nebraskans for Peace, an activist group that has tried to end alcohol sales in the border town, said he was pleased with the outcome.
"I think this is a success because we got a commitment from the new police chief to deal with the problems of illegal alcohol sales," Vasina said.
Sheridan County, Neb., Sheriff Terry Robbins had a different take: "Waste of time." The episode was intended to draw media attention, he said.