Ending Whiteclay beer sales a ‘human life issue’ to social conservatives

August 28, 2017

It was a stunning moment of near-unanimity at the Capitol.

When state Sens. Patty Pansing Brooks and Tom Brewer jointly announced to their fellow lawmakers that Whiteclay’s beer stores would lose their liquor licenses, nearly everyone in the legislative chamber stood to applaud.

The closings, furiously opposed by many people in Whiteclay’s surrounding area, united conservatives and liberals in Lincoln in a way few controversial issues have.

“Whiteclay is not a political issue, and it shouldn’t be,” said Nate Grasz, policy director at the socially conservative group Nebraska Family Alliance. “It’s a human life issue.”

The four beer stores in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village with nine permanent residents, sold millions of cans of beer each year for decades, most of it to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

On Tuesday, the state’s high court will consider whether the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission acted correctly when it decided not to renew the stores’ licenses for another year, citing concerns about law enforcement. A final ruling should come this fall.

Not about stopping alcoholism

Closing the stores hasn’t stopped alcoholism on Pine Ridge, but Whiteclay’s opponents say they never believed it would.

“That wasn’t ever the purpose,” said Alan Jacobsen, a Lincoln roofing company owner who ran for governor as a Republican in 1994 and describes himself as a pro-life Orthodox Christian.

Instead, anti-Whiteclay activists argue their goal was to end exploitation of the reservation’s Oglala Lakota people and fight the public drunkenness, violence and sexual assault taking place in Whiteclay itself.

It’s also “morally unacceptable” for those businesses to have knowingly fed addictions that make people unable to provide for themselves, Jacobsen said.

“I saw this as a pro-life issue. Pro-life is not just about the child in the womb. It’s about the quality of life for all people.”

Before the Whiteclay beer stores closed, Jacobsen reached out to about 20 churches in the Sheridan County area, trying to rally local religious opposition to the stores. It was a tough sell: Those pastors and parishioners know the beer store owners, and were reluctant to go against them.

While Jacobsen was meeting with churches in Sheridan County, Grasz was talking about Whiteclay on the radio.

Grasz’s daily radio show, recorded at Nebraska Family Alliance’s office in Lincoln, airs on 20 Christian stations across the state. He also has a weekly Sunday show on a conservative talk station in Omaha.

“We think it’s wrong to prey on people’s addictions, especially at the expense of innocent women and children,” Grasz told the Journal Star this month.

Issue reached tipping point

Nebraska Family Alliance has been involved in efforts to end Whiteclay beer sales before, but the issue reached a tipping point in the past year when “key players” began to act, Grasz said.

State Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office went beyond defending the Liquor Commission’s decision to close the stores, pursuing its own legal case against them. Gov. Pete Ricketts also called together a task force on Whiteclay issues, which has since disbanded.

Now South Dakota needs to step up, Grasz said.

“We really see closing the beer stores as a starting point and not the finish line,” he said.

One of Grasz’s aunts is an Oglala Lakota woman, born on Pine Ridge. At a wedding earlier this month, she hugged him and thanked him.

“Nate Grasz’s Sunday radio program, along with his testimony before a legislative committee last spring, allowed us to reach Nebraskans that we might not have otherwise reached,” said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma liquor regulator who filmed a documentary critical of Whiteclay alcohol sales.

And the attorney general, who drove to Omaha in summer 2016 to watch a screening of Maisch’s documentary, appeared “genuinely moved,” Maisch said, particularly by the story of Nora Bosem, a South Dakota woman who has fostered more than 160 children with fetal alcohol-spectrum disorder.

“I think it speaks to how important the decision was not to let one organization or one political party own the issue of Whiteclay, at least since I got involved four years ago,” Maisch said.

“Today, everyone seems to want to take credit for closing Whiteclay’s beer stores, but the fact is that it was really a handful of people, along with the prayers of many, that closed the stores.”

Usually Nebraska Family Alliance and Pansing Brooks are at odds, sparring over issues such as abortion access and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“When there are issues that we do agree on, a lot can be done,” Grasz said.