LINCOLN — Frank LaMere finally got the decision he’s been waiting for.
For two decades, he’s called for an end to alcohol sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska, because of the dreadful consequences.
On Wednesday, a state liquor board voted 3-0 to end the long-controversial beer sales in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village known as the “Skid Row of the Plains” that sells millions of cans of beer each year to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“I think today that the Oglala Lakota people won. I think Nebraskans won. We’ll be better for it in this state,” said LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City.
The lawyer for the beer stores, Andy Snyder of Scottsbluff, said he was already working on a court appeal of Wednesday’s decision. He said commission members had misinterpreted state liquor laws.
“This is more proof that this is politically motivated and not based on the facts,” Snyder said of the vote.
Beer sales in Whiteclay have been blamed for numerous problems on the reservation, including rampant alcoholism, alcohol-related crimes and high levels of fetal alcohol syndrome that are estimated to affect one in four children.
Cheers and some tears, including some from LaMere, greeted the historic vote by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.
“A dark cloud has been lifted over the State of Nebraska,” said John Maisch, an Oklahoma attorney whose documentary film about Whiteclay in 2014 reignited the 20-year effort to shut down the stores.
Scott Weston, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said that many crimes go unsolved or unreported in Whiteclay and that ending beer sales will help the tribe address its alcohol problems and make it harder for bootleggers to obtain their product.
“This is a historic decision,” Weston said. “This is the first step in the direction of rebuilding our tribal nation.”
The vote will not immediately close down Whiteclay’s four beer-only liquor stores.
Typically, an action to close down a liquor store is put on hold awaiting the conclusion of a court appeal.
That could take a while: The last time the liquor commission sought to deny a liquor license in Whiteclay, court appeals took 20 months.
In that case, the State Supreme Court overturned the commission’s 2004 denial of a license for one of the stores, the Arrowhead Inn, saying not enough evidence had been produced to show that the store’s owner was unqualified to hold a license.
Bob Batt of Omaha, the chairman of the liquor commission, said Wednesday’s vote to deny a renewal of the licenses came down to “woefully inadequate” law enforcement in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of about nine residents that has no town government or police force yet sells the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year.
The closest law enforcement office, the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office, is more than 20 miles away, he said, and response times are slow. Because Whiteclay is so far away, ambulances from the Pine Ridge Reservation answer about 150 rescue calls a year in Whiteclay.
Batt and others on the commission said they were persuaded by testimony from members of a street ministry, Lakota Hope, who have regular contact with the 15 to 40 “street people” who beg for beer and money in Whiteclay. The street people openly drink, urinate and pass out on the streets.
Bruce and Marsha BonFleur and Abram Newman of Lakota Hope told commissioners that they regularly encountered street people who had been assaulted, including women who had been sexually assaulted. Newman said he doesn’t call 911 because it won’t do any good.
“We were appalled by some of the attitudes of Sheridan County officials that they don’t have a problem there. We found that to be bogus,” said Batt, whose family founded the Nebraska Furniture Mart.
Commissioner Bruce Bailey of Lincoln cited a number of provisions in state law that he felt were not being upheld in Whiteclay. He noted that four slayings in Whiteclay have gone unsolved and that there is virtually no cooperation between tribal and Sheridan County law enforcement agencies.
Testimony about sexual assaults of young girls in Whiteclay was a “driving force” behind the decision, Bailey said.
The third commissioner, Janice Wiebusch of Kearney, said it was clear to her that if law enforcement were adequate in Whiteclay, many crimes would not have occurred.
Adequate law enforcement, by law, is a condition for issuing a liquor license in a community or neighborhood.
But Snyder, the beer store owners’ attorney, said the adequate law enforcement standard is to be considered only when issuing a license, not when renewing a liquor license, as was the case Wednesday.
He said commissioners’ comments should bolster the beer stores’ case in court.
Dave Domina, an Omaha attorney representing those seeking to shut down the stores, disputed that.
Batt said the lack of law enforcement in Whiteclay was threatening public health and safety.
Shutting down the beer stores, he said, won’t solve all the liquor-related problems on the Pine Ridge Reservation, just across the state line in South Dakota, but it will make alcohol less accessible and remove “the catalyst” for a lot of the problems.
Batt grew impassioned as he called on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of the Interior and ultimately President Donald Trump to end the “benign neglect” that has been shown in the poverty, high unemployment and high rates of suicide and alcohol-related crime on the reservation.
“It’s almost like assisted suicide,” Batt said.
“If we can fix countries all over the world, we need to fix the poorest county in North America,” he said. “These are human beings. They are really suffering.”
Liquor license renewals are usually a formality, but this year, the liquor commission ordered the four stores to undergo a “long form” application process, which is essentially reapplying for their licenses.
The Sheridan County Board, after a public hearing in January, recommended that the liquor licenses be renewed, stating that patrols by the county sheriff and Nebraska State Patrol have remained the same for years.
Jack Andersen of Lakeside, the chairman of the County Board, said Wednesday that closing the beer stores would be a mistake that would force people to drive farther to purchase beer and would end up increasing deadly drunken-driving crashes.
“How do you define what’s adequate law enforcement?” Andersen asked. “If it’s not adequate in Whiteclay, it’s probably not adequate in hundreds of small town. Are they going to close down alcohol there, too?”
Whiteclay has had four liquor stores for many years, and some families have held licenses as far back as 1982. The current stores, which are restricted to selling only beer and malt beverages, are the Arrowhead Inn, the Jumping Eagle Inn, D&S Pioneer Service and State Line Liquor.
The liquor store owners have argued that they run legal businesses and that, if anything, law enforcement has improved in recent years.
They also maintain that closing down the stores will not solve liquor woes on the Pine Ridge Reservation, just push liquor purchases elsewhere.