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Ohio v. Vernon Bellecourt, et al.

"Cleveland Indians Protest Trial"

Baseball has been "America's Favorite Pastime" among sports fans for nearly a century, and the Cleveland Indians franchise has been a part of that legacy.
Ohio v. Bellecourt
The Cleveland Indians' logo.
But to at least three Native Americans in Ohio and many other organizations nationwide, the Cleveland Indians, its mascot, and team logo represented denigrating racial stereotypes of the true original Americans.

On October 23, 1997, during the World Series, Vernon Bellecourt, Juan Reyna and Juanita Helphrey were among the members of a small group of Native American protesters who gathered at the Indians' stadium Jacobs Field to protest the allegedly racist depiction of Native Americans by the baseball franchise. But an initially peaceful protest escalated into ruckus when Bellecourt reportedly set a stuff doll of the Indians' mascot, "Chief Wahoo," on fire. Bellecourt, Reyna, and Helphrey all faced trial for various misdemeanor charges. Bellecourt was charged with criminal endangerment and resisting arrest; both Reyna and Helphrey were each charged with criminal trespass and aggravated disorderly conduct. If convicted of the charges, all the defendants faced a fine of up to $750 and /or 90 days in jail.
Ohio v. Bellecourt
From the left: Defendants Vernon Bellecourt, Juan Reyna, Juanita Helphrey.

Cleveland officials, however, felt that the incident had nothing to do with protesting stereotypical team logos. They said that when Bellacourt ignited the stuffed Chief Wahoo, he created a dangerous situation to himself and those around him. (In addition to the protesters, the grassy knoll where the doll burned also hosted a display of several Pepsi helium balloons and canisters of gas.) Officials also claimed the burning Chief Wahoo damaged private property -- the tree from which the doll was hung. And Bellecourt, Reyna, and Helphrey actively resisted arrest by police. When the protest became unruly, police had every right to end the demonstration.

The defendants denied that their protests were unruly in any way. They claimed their anti-Cleveland Indians demonstrations are sanctioned under the Constitutional rights of free speech and assembly and that the police were the ones who were out of line the day of the incident. Bellecourt, Reyna, and Helphrey also pointed out that a previous federal court order allowed them to protest at Cleveland Indian games. In addition, citing the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court approved flag burning, Bellecourt claimed that the burning of Chief Wahoo was an appropriate form of protest. Bellecourt also denied that he resisted arrest. He said that he voluntarily put his hands behind his back and offered them to police when they rushed the protesters.

"No Justice, No Peace" at the World Series

At the time of the incident, protests were nothing new to the Cleveland Indians. Protesters had often targeted Chief Wahoo and labeled the mascot a stereotypical caricature of Native Americans. A 1995 federal court order had given demonstrators the right to peacefully protest at Jacobs Field four times a month. However, because the Cleveland Indians were the 1997 American League Champions and in the World Series, more protests occurred during October 1997. The October 23 protest was ninth at Jacobs Field that month, but stadium officials allowed additional demonstrations in designated areas.
Ohio v. Bellecourt
An excerpt from the Cleveland Indians' statement regarding the team logo controversy.

At first, the protesters gathered directly in front of one of the stadium's entrances, which was next to a statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, a non-designated protest area. Police officers asked the demonstrators to move to adjacent grassy area, and they complied. There, they displayed anti-Cleveland Indians posters and chanted "no justice, no peace." However, the protesters were mostly ignored by baseball fans on their way to the ballgame.

It was on the "grassy knoll" that Bellencourt doused a stuffed Chief Wahoo with lighter fluid and set it on fire. As the burning doll hung from a tree, police officer rushed the protesters and attempted to extinguish the fire. (A ground sprinkling system was ultimately used to put out the fire.) Bellecourt was arrested and taken to a holding facility underneath Jacobs Field while the other protesters were told to leave.

However, instead of leaving Jacobs Field entirely, the protesters only moved to the other side of the stadium. After several warnings police decided to make arrests, and among those taken into custody was Juan Reyna and Juanita Helphrey.

The Opposing Views on a Moniker

In its early years, the team now known as the Cleveland Indians had been known by several different names: the "Spiders", the "Naps", the "Blues", and the "Bronchos." The team received its final name in 1915 in a contest to determine its moniker. According to the Cleveland Indians' management, Chief Wahoo is meant to be a tribute to Louis Francis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe who was the first Native American to play professional baseball. Team officials have insisted that Chief Wahoo is only a caricature not meant to demean Native Americans and that they have gone through great lengths not to associate the mascot with insensitive images such as tomahawks, teepees, and horsebacked warriors.

Many Native Americans, however, have a different view. They claim that the use of the name "Indians" and the Chief Wahoo logo continues to promote stereotypical images of Native Americans. The protests against the Cleveland Indians are part of a national campaign to rid the sports industry of symbols, logos, and names that are degrading to indigenous people. Native American protesters claim that the use and denigration of their symbols strips them of their identity and reject the notion that Chief Wahoo is a tribute to Sockalexis. They pointed out that Sockalexis played only three seasons with the franchise and was the victim of racism by both his own team and outside Cleveland.

Was it a case of protesters who were out of control? Or was the Cleveland police force overzealous in its desire to control a demonstration? Whatever the outcome, the debate over the Cleveland Indians' name and mascot will continue to go on -- and the protests will continue.

Case Dismissed

Following the completion of the state's case, lawyers for the defendants made a motion to have all the charges against their clients dismissed. Regarding the charges against Juan Reyna, the state pointed out that a videotape of the arrests shown during trial showed that he was only sitting down at the time of the arrests; he was not violently resisting arrest as prosecutors charged. In addition, none of the state's evidence pointed toward Juanita Helphrey.

Vernon Bellecourt, the defense said, also did not aggressively resist arrest, and the protest onlookers were not panicked but merely observing the scene. The defense repeated its assertion that Bellecourt's burning the stuffed Chief Wahoo doll was as legal as burning the American flag.

Prosecutors countered the defense's motion by saying that the protest escalated the way it did only because of the actions of the defendants. And the fact that Bellecourt ignited the doll near compressed air cannisters was enough evidence that he was placing others in danger.

After considering both sides' arguments the judge dismissed the charges against Bellecourt, Reyna, and Helphrey. Bellecourt praised the decision as a victory for freedom of expression. Three days after the judge's decision, during the Cleveland Indians' opening home game on April 10, 1998, Bellecourt and Reyna returned to Jacobs Field with other demonstrators and resumed their protest of the team logo. After burning effigies of Chief Wahoo and Cleveland Mayor Michael White, Bellecourt and Reyna were arrested and taken into custody. Charges against them are still pending.

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