Since the demonstrations at Standing Rock, we’ve followed the case of Red Fawn Fallis, a member of Denver’s indigenous community who was arrested on October 27, 2016, and accused of firing a gun at police officers. In a now infamous video, Fallis is seen tackled to the ground and surrounded by dozens of police officers during a protest against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As she’s being arrested, at least three gunshots ring out, though the video does not clearly show who fired the shots.
Federal prosecutors claimed Fallis was at fault, and that she intended to harm the officers. At one point, she faced the possibility of life in prison. The case sparked outrage in Denver’s indigenous community, which rallied around one of its own. Fallis's situation not only spawned benefit concerts and support rallies in Denver, but took on a life of its own and spawned a national #FreeRedFawn Movement.
After her arrest, Fallis was incarcerated in Morton County, North Dakota, then moved to a halfway house in Fargo. The possibility of a dramatic federal trial loomed, but in January this year, Fallis took a plea bargain, accepting two felony convictions — civil disorder and possession of ammunition by a previously convicted felon — in return for having a more serious weapons charge dropped that carried a minimum prison sentence of ten years.
On July 11, she was sentenced. In consideration of her plea bargain, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland determined that the 39-year-old Fallis be sentenced to 57 months in prison — though Fallis will likely serve less than that since the time she’s been incarcerated since October 2016 counts toward her sentence.
Fallis already has plans for her eventual release. In the meantime, her case has galvanized activists in Denver.
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To explain what the #FreeRedFawn movement has meant in Denver, why supporters believe Fallis was framed and then wrongly accused, and what Fallis has planned for the future, we spoke with her uncle, Glenn Morris, who is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado Denver and a longtime organizer with the American Indian Movement of Colorado.
Westword: Throughout Red Fawn’s whole case — awaiting trial, her plea bargain, sentencing — what has the organizing around her been like in Denver?
Glenn Morris: Even before Red Fawn was arrested, there was significant and constant organizing around support for Standing Rock and resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. So it was relatively easy to move into support for those who were being arrested as a result of the resistance to the pipeline and the assertion of treaty rights. We would meet every week at Four Winds [American Indian Council], and sometimes there would be hundreds of people. We were able to start organizing a legal defense fund and financial support for water protectors.
Then, on October 27, 2016, when there was the huge attack on what was called the 1851 Treaty Camp — the camp that was right on the pipeline path — Red Fawn was arrested. She became the most seriously charged water protector. When that happened, the sentiment was that this probably wasn't accidental. It was pretty well known to police and intelligence agencies who she was, who her family was, where she came from. And so, again, it was relatively easy to mobilize support for her.
When Fallis was arrested and, as you pointed out, became the most seriously charged water protector, what message did that send to people in Denver thinking about going to Standing Rock? Was it scary for community members in Denver to see one of their own arrested, or did it have the effect of galvanizing the community here?
I think the latter. Maybe non-indigenous people thought it was scary. But this is nothing new to Native people. Many in the Denver Native community have had either family members involved or direct involvement in treaty rights, natural resource protection and religious-freedom activism all the way back to the 1970s. So the capacity of both governmental police agencies and private police agencies to engage in aggressive and violent repression was not new or surprising.
By October 27, 2016, there had already been significant violence toward the water protectors at Standing Rock. So even though Red Fawn was the most seriously charged, there had been people who'd already been seriously injured, been arrested, incarcerated in bad conditions, things like that. So Red Fawn being arrested in and of itself was not intimidating. In fact, it motivated more people to go.
As I understand it, supporters of Red Fawn believe she was framed, that there was an undercover operative, potentially with the FBI, that infiltrated the Standing Rock camp, got to know her and set her up. What can you tell me about the man suspected of doing this, Heath Harmon?
Red Fawn met Heath Harmon in camp. I also met him and had several conversations with him. On the surface he seemed like a nice enough Native young man. He seemed to be genuinely interested and affectionate toward Red Fawn. He went through all the right motions, had all the right vocabulary in terms of ingratiating himself to her relatives and her friends, and would give gifts to the right people. And she seemed happy with him and the relationship. So I think a lot of people took it at face value as a bona fide relationship. I was also happy for her.
Then the incident happened, and shortly thereafter, it was revealed through an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) interview that Harmon was an operative for the FBI. And the gun that they alleged Red Fawn had with her was actually registered to [Harmon]. So all of this began to seem very suspicious to those of us who knew Red Fawn and knew of the relationship.
No one was surprised that there was police infiltration of the camp. But to use an intimate relationship to effectuate that kind of infiltration is going over a line. To use a sexual relationship to solicit intelligence information was beyond the pale.
Are there any theories as to why this alleged FBI informant, Heath Harmon, would have targeted Red Fawn specifically, rather than anyone else at Standing Rock?
There are plenty of theories. Interviews with Harmon that have been released show that the ATF and FBI knew who Red Fawn was. They knew where she came from. They knew about the American Indian Movement in Denver. And so some of that information leads us to believe that they were going to use Harmon to obtain certain information from someone they considered to be important in the Oceti camp. I'm still convinced of that personally.
We hope that over time, whether it will be through Freedom of Information Act requests or other kinds of information being revealed, that we’ll learn more.
Did you have a chance to attend any of Red Fawn's hearings where they were held in Bismarck, North Dakota?
I attended a suppression hearing last December — to suppress certain kinds of evidence — and I testified at the sentencing hearing last week.
Did Heath Harmon and his relationship to Red Fawn come up during the sentencing hearing? If so, did it seem to have any sway on the judge?
There were references made to Heath Harmon and the fact that she had been targeted. But at the December suppression hearing, Federal Judge Hovland made it clear what the trial was and wasn't going to be about.
Red Fawn's decision — and I want to be clear it was her decision; she was not coerced to take the plea agreement or persuaded by her attorneys to do so — happened after all the facts were laid out before her about how the trial would proceed.
During the suppression hearing, the judge had made a statement to the effect of, “This trial is not going to be about broken treaties, it's not going to be about stolen Indian land, it's not going to be about FBI informants; it's going to be about several minutes of videotape from the time Red Fawn was seized from behind to the time she was put in a van and transported to Morton County Jail."
It was also clear to me, sitting in court during the suppression hearing, that there were going to be dozens of cops who were going to take the stand and, I dare say, not tell the truth. The judge was going to let all of that testimony in.
So you’re saying that whatever happened between Fallis and Harmon before October 27 was decided to be outside the scope of the case?
And at the same time, Judge Hovland was not going to suppress certain things that the cops claimed Red Fawn said. Like, at least one of the cops claimed that Red Fawn said, "You're lucky I didn't kill all of you motherfuckers."
I've known Red Fawn most of her life, and that's not something she'd say to the cops. Nevertheless, Hovland was going to allow that in. Then there were all kinds of other problems with evidence — like no one did a paraffin test on her hands to see if there was any gunpowder residue. The prosecutors don't have a gun with her fingerprints on it.
When the survey of the jury pools started coming in, both in Bismarck and Fargo, it was incredibly clear that the jury pool was heavily slanted against any of the water protectors. When you add the dimension of the allegation that she fired a gun at police officers, things were stacked even more against her. Regardless of how expert her defense team might have been, the jury pool is the jury pool. So while there are all kinds of things that could have been exploited at trial for her defense, in weighing all of the other things the judge was going to let in and the narrowness of the scope of the trial, it was going to be problematic.
Some people second-guessed her decision to take the plea, but those people second-guessing weren't looking at potential life imprisonment.
Given that Fallis did decide to go with a plea bargain, what do you make of Judge Hovland's sentencing decision?
She received 57 months, officially, but she's already served over twenty months, so she gets credit for that time. And then she gets 85 percent credit for her time already served in a federal facility. So it really comes down to about 25 months left before she's eligible for release to a halfway house or to community corrections. So in essence, she's already done about half of her sentence.
But more important than the time is the way in which Red Fawn herself has matured and transformed and has committed herself now to a whole project that she's going to be working on through her sentence. When she gets out, she wants to begin a youth and elder mentoring program in the community.
As in a nonprofit? Will it be based in Denver?
Yes, both of those are the intention. And there may be spurs of it — connections — between Denver and different reservations, like Pine Ridge and Rosebud. But the intention is to begin in Denver.
Now that sentencing has been determined, what’s next? Are people still rallying around her in Denver — even helping with this new mentoring program she's launching upon release?
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Yes, there are already academic institutions and committed people who are working with her to design and outline this mentorship program. There's also her support website, standwithredfawn.org. There's a support network there.
But it's important to know that support isn't solely for Red Fawn. We're not singling out Red Fawn as being the only one who merits attention. There are still dozens of water protectors who are facing state or federal charges, so the effort is to support all of them. Red Fawn was just so seriously charged that we were paying particular attention to her case.
Also, we want to remind people that even though the Oceti camp at Standing Rock no longer exists, there are other efforts to extend and prolong this struggle. The Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia is in full swing, and there are water protectors up there who are being arrested and prosecuted. There is still a divestment project for cities like Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver to divest public funds from corporations that are engaged in funding pipelines across indigenous people's territories. And then the Keystone XL pipeline is ramping up. If the Keystone XL begins to be built across the Dakotas and Nebraska, every inch of that pipeline is across stolen treaty territory. And there have already been statements made by different constituent nations of the Great Sioux Nation that there's going to be active and vigorous resistance to the Keystone XL progress.
So it's not as though this movement stopped with the dismantling of the Oceti camp. It's continuing, and people can go to Red Fawn's website to get updates about those other struggles.