ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. On the Pine Ridge Reservation at the southern edge of South Dakota, alcohol is banned. But just outside the reservation, the tiny border town of Whiteclay, Neb., sells as much as 5 million cans of beer a year. Most of the buyers are impoverished tribal residents. Earlier this week, the Oglala Sioux tribal president was arrested while taking part in a blockade of beer-delivery trucks in Whiteclay.
Activists have been clashing with liquor store owners and the conflict is escalating, as South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray reports.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: Just outside the town of Whiteclay, an upside-down American flag flies on a wooden pole, next to a teepee. A group of about 60 people is gathered here. A few hundred yards away, beer-truck drivers are unloading cases into a local liquor store. This group aims to march into town and block further deliveries. Oglala Sioux tribal president Bryan Brewer is among the protesters.
BRYAN BREWER: As leaders, we should be ahead of the people. And we need to support our activists who are stepping up and confronting this issue.
RAY: Alcoholism on Pine Ridge is rampant. The unemployment rate here can top 80 percent. Whiteclay, which borders the reservation, has one paved street and four liquor stores. Homeless Lakota who drink and sleep here can outnumber town residents. Activists are using blockades and marches like this, to try to curb beer sales.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Shouting) Go to Whiteclay and...
RAY: The line of protesters in the blockader is confronted by Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins. President Brewer steps up to square off with the sheriff.
BREWER: They're not going in today.
SHERIFF TERRY ROBBINS: Yes, they are.
BREWER: Any other day, but not today.
ROBBINS: Yes. they are.
BREWER: I'm sorry, but they're not. Don't argue with me.
RAY: Brewer is placed under arrest. The crowd resists. One officer puts a taser to a protester's neck, and the conflict quickly escalates into shouting and shoving.
(SOUNDBITE OF AGITATED VOICES)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hey, keep your hands to yourself!
RAY: President Brewer remained calm during his arrest, and tried to calm those around him. It turns out that Brewer was not charged for blocking traffic, but had an outstanding warrant on a bad check. The county prosecutor, Jamian Simmons, says the charges were dropped after he made good on that check.
This conflict passed without major violence, but Simmons says this wasn't the case last month. She accuses some protesters of attacking beer-delivery trucks during a similar blockage.
JAMIAN SIMMONS: They used axes and sledgehammers to smash up the trucks. There were threats made to the drivers that if they came back to Whiteclay, they would be killed. Individuals were flashing knives at the drivers.
RAY: Protesters deny that attacking a beer-delivery truck is an act of violence. They accuse a liquor store owner of arming local thugs with baseball bats, to intimidate them. Store owners and beer distributors refused to comment for this story. As the protest on the border continues, the tribal council approved a permanent checkpoint at the reservation border, to try and stem the flow of liquor onto Pine Ridge.The council is also putting prohibition itself up for a referendum vote. Council member Robin Tapio backs the effort to legalize alcohol here.
ROBIN TAPIO: Alcohol is a choice that we make, you know, so I did not support the walk up there because I just don't feel it's right.
RAY: But protesters like Olowan Martinez harshly criticize council members who want to allow alcohol on the reservation.
OLOWAN MARTINEZ: They're cannibals because they want to profit. They want to gain something off of the misery of their own. To me, that's a form of cannibalism.
RAY: Strong words that underscore the strong feelings here. Following president Brewer's arrest, Martinez and others held the blockade, and the beer trucks were turned away.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS, PROTESTERS CHEERING, CLAPPING)
RAY: Protesters may have won the battle this week, but the beer trucks are likely to soon roll into Whiteclay again, and this conflict shows few signs of ending soon. For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, S.D.