Northern Star IV: A Murder-Mystery Fiction Series - Chapter 7: Signs of Protest

Sheriff Bob Johnson and three of his deputies meet with Northern Star personnel at the coop’s Pottawatomie branch elevator to go over plans for the next day’s demonstration.

The event will be held at Lions Park, across the street from the elevator.

The sheriff’s department will have about half of its force on hand, in case the protest gets out of hand, but the sheriff assures Gil Maier and his employees that he isn’t expecting trouble and to leave it to his deputies if anything does happen.

After the law enforcement personnel leave, Superintendent Johnny Littlefeather tells Gil about a surreptitious visit to the protestors’ campsite up near Clear Lake. There were very few people he would recognize as Native American.

Instead, he heard that Congressman Ashton Carson had organized the event but did not get support from major Native activists in the Dakotas.

Instead, Carson turned to activists on college campuses and paid for transportation to Iowa and a significant amount of beer to keep everyone happy.

Before leaving the site, Johnny spotted someone who looked like his estranged brother, Willie, who disappeared into the crowd.


Gil left Pottawatomie and returned to the company office in Monrovia to take care of any pressing business there. There wasn’t much. Gil knocked off right at closing time and went home.

He did make a point to watch the evening news on his cable service, the big station out of Des Moines. The story about the protest still was being aired, with no changes except a comment that the station would have a reporter and camera operator on hand to cover the event. Feeling uneasy, Gil drank a beer before turning in early. He wanted an early start, and he did manage to get a few hours sleep.

Gil woke up in time to catch a syndicated farm report show on TV over morning coffee. Then he emailed the Monrovia office that he would be skipping a stop there to go right to Pottawatomie. He headed out, grabbing a breakfast burrito from Ethyl’s downtown and eating it as he sped along the two-lane. He lucked out; none of it spilled on his shirt on the way.

Gil arrived at the branch office around the same time as Chris Aschermann. Chris looked a little nervous and subdued, as if he were anticipating a very bad day with nothing he could do about it. Or be allowed to do about it, anyway.

“Morning, Chris,” Gil said.

Chris just nodded and unlocked the door. Gil headed straight into the break room and made some coffee – he was in the habit of doing so when he was the first to arrive, so no one would feel as if he or she were stuck with the job all the time.

He heard some car engine noises and stuck his head out the door. Four or five cars from the sheriff’s department were pulling up near Lions Park across the street or into the elevator parking lot. Gil walked out toward the park to see the preparations.

About halfway there, he saw a van from the Des Moines TV station pull up near the park. A deputy walked over and had the driver back up about 50 yards for a parking spot. Several people got out of the van; a young woman Gil recognized as a reporter he’d seen on the evening news spotted him and gestured for him to come over. She grabbed a microphone out of the van, and a short, bearded man grabbed a video camera.

“You’re the elevator manager who helped solve the Marcus Grover murder case,” she said.

Gil didn’t like to play up his role in that, but he replied, “Yes, that’s me, but I’m not authorized to give you any information today.”

The reporter raised an eyebrow. Gil glanced over at the park. “Sheriff Johnson asked that all questions go through his media spokesperson. That would be Deputy Mary Beth McCumber.” He gestured toward the park. “That would be the tall blonde woman on the front sidewalk.”

“Thanks,” the reporter said, and her group headed in that direction. In the meantime, more television vans pulled up from Mason City, Waterloo, and, a long way from home, a CNN truck with Minnesota plates, probably from a bureau in the Twin Cities. There probably would be a number of print journalists here, too, Gil reasoned. This had the potential to get way out of hand, he thought.

He looked over the scene. Lions Park was a relatively small park, rectangular in shape, extending back from the street. There were a few small trees and three or four picnic tables. In the northeast corner was a small playground – a swing set, slide, and a jungle gym, with the ground covered with black rubber “gravel,” probably from recycled truck tires, like the insurance companies required from municipalities these days. In the southeast corner, someone, probably from Congressman Carson’s entourage, had set up a small raised podium. Electricity wasn’t available right there, but a megaphone was sitting on the speakers’ platform.

Gil glanced across the street toward the elevator structure. The corrugated steel tanks were set back some distance from the street, fortunately more than a stone’s throw away from the park. A patch of bare dirt marked the spot of the excavation; the snow fencing was down and lying in a pile next to the spot. Northern Star should be okay liability-wise, Gil thought.

“Looking to join in?”

Gil started, then turned to see Sheriff Bob Johnson slightly behind him.

“Just seeing if there’s anything I can do to help,” the manager responded. “Apparently not much.”

“No, there shouldn’t be,” the sheriff said. “Let’s head back to the office. There really isn’t anything I should be doing out here, either.”

Gil and Bob were halfway back when there appeared to be a little commotion back at the park. The two men looked to the north, where a county blacktop turns into a city street, and spotted four charter buses in procession, rounding the bend and pulling up across the street from the park.

There was a hiss of air brakes, and passengers – mostly young people it seemed to Gil – poured out of the buses, many of them carrying signs. They headed straight into Lions Park, many of them pressing up as close to the podium as they could. A few started playing on the swings or climbing up onto the jungle gym to get a better view of the proceedings. Gil could make out a few of the signs.

“STUDENTS FOR NATIVE RIGHTS.”

“RESPECT OUR ANCESTORS!”

“HONOR THE EARTH. END FACTORY FARMING!”

What the local ag community had to do with Native American burial grounds was a bit beyond Gil, but then, two young men unfurled a wide banner held up on wooden poles. “BONES NOT BINS!” it read.

That seemed a little more directed at Northern Star cooperative, Gil thought. Chris, if he’s watching this (and Gil couldn’t imagine him not), was probably starting to have fits. He can have all the fits he wants, Gil mused, as long as he doesn’t interfere with the show across the street.

Johnny Littlefeather came outside and stood next to Gil and the sheriff. “I’m counting maybe 250,” he said.

It wasn’t the kind of numbers you would get in Washington or even Des Moines, Gil thought. At the same time, 250 was nearly half the population of Pottawatomie. Gil thought about how this would spin out in the media. Supporters of the demonstration probably would say it numbered 50,000 or 100,000. Detractors would probably characterize the crowd as half a dozen malcontents and a wino.

Well, there were plenty of cameras here, and they wouldn’t lie.

There was a loud crackling noise that was startling, even coming from the park. Then a voice: “Testing ... testing ...”

After a few seconds, there appeared a young man with a scraggly beard and thick glasses held together by Scotch tape. “Good morning to everyone. I’m Clark Schoonover from the Student Progressive Alliance at South Dakota State University, and I want to thank you for coming out all the way to Iowa to support our brothers and sisters of the original nations of North America in taking a stand against the desecration of their sacred burial grounds.”

Clark continued on in this vein for a while, attempting to tie the desecration of graves to multinational corporate capitalism. Gil chuckled to himself, imagining a bunch of directors in a corporate boardroom deciding which tribe’s burial grounds to desecrate this week. From the crowd and from the rhetoric, this clearly was not a Native American-sponsored event.

It had been quite a few years since Gil had experienced a demonstration. That had been back at Iowa State University, and now he couldn’t remember what that protest had been about. True to form, though, the event featured speaker after speaker, just to make sure that no interest group was left out. Following Clark, a woman claiming to be part Cherokee (blonde hair, blue eyes, so it must have been some recessive genes) recited a history of American genocide against native peoples. (If she really was part Cherokee, she at least had a point – in the 1800s, they were the victims of the infamous Trail of Tears march from the southeastern states to the Oklahoma Territory. Thousands died.)

The next speaker was 6 foot 3 and weighed maybe 130 pounds with a bad complexion. He argued that the best way to support Native Americans and, not incidentally, save the planet was for everyone to adopt a vegan diet. Gil thought from the speaker’s appearance that he was a serious argument for why you shouldn’t.

The next speaker introduced himself as a member of the Socialist Workers Party and proceeded into a harangue against Wall Street. Gil throught back to his college days but couldn’t remember if the Socialist Workers were Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyite. Gil couldn’t tell the difference between the two, but that was important, because if you got it wrong, you were asking for a fight.

Gil turned his head toward Johnny. “I think I’m going to go take a closer look,” he said. “I think I’d like you with me.”

“Sure thing,” the superintendent said. The two them had watched each others’ backs on more than one occasion.

As Gil and Johnny were crossing the street, Clark Schoonover returned to the podium appearing to introduce the main speaker. Gil already knew who that would be.

“... Our next speaker has a long record of fighting for the rights of Native Americans on Capitol Hill. He is the one man in the House of Representatives who gives a voice to the voiceless! I give to you ... Congressman Ashton Carson!”

Enthusiastic cheers, whoops, and clapping erupted from the protestors. A few guys in the front walked back and forth, gesturing for more volume. Anyone in Pottawatomie needing sleep to work night shift wouldn’t be getting any today.

Ed Zdrojewski, editor

- From the March/April 2021 GRAIN JOURNAL


Northern Star IV: A Murder-Mystery Fiction Series

Chapter 1: A Time for Expansion (From Jan/Feb 2020 Grain Journal)

Chapter 2: Sacred Ground (From March/April 2020 Grain Journal)

Chapter 3: Old Animosities (From May/June 2020 Grain Journal)

Chapter 4: Trouble Brewing (From July/August 2020 Grain Journal)

Chapter 5: A Congressman Comes Calling (From Sept./Oct. 2020 Grain Journal)

Chapter 6: Prepping for Protesters (From Nov/Dec. 2020 Grain Journal)

Podcast: Northern Star I

'Northern Star' Podcast: A Grain Elevator Murder-Mystery ... Sponsored by M&M Specialty Services and PerkinElmer