Her nametag says "Grandma Hazel," and with her gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses and plump face, Hazel Bonner looks like she was sent straight from central casting for her role as a foster grandparent at North Middle School.

But the grandmotherly tutor also has a reputation as a bulldog who won't let go of a cause she sinks her teeth into.

"I think she can be both. I think I've seen both sides of her," said Larry Mintzlaff, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at North. "When she sees injustice and nothing being done about it, she can be a bulldog."

Bonner has a "soft spot" in her heart for people in tough situations, and she isn't afraid to fight for what she believes is right, Mintzlaff said.

Depending on your perspective, Hazel Bonner is either a passionate advocate for the poor or a misguided malcontent who sees racism wherever she looks. But Bonner insists that her cantankerous reputation is undeserved.

"I'm Grandma Hazel. I'm a nice, good, kind person," she said. "But I'm also so critical of the Rapid City Police Department that I'm really hated by them."

At first glance, Bonner's interest in racial justice and civil rights seems to date back to 1965, when the Sturgis native met and married a black football player when they were both students at Huron College.

State laws that made interracial marriage illegal had not yet been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the couple experienced racism in Arkansas, Virginia and Canada while her ex-husband tried to pursue a professional football career, she said. That short-lived marriage ended before the birth of their third child, but "it influenced me greatly about racism … and got me involved in civil rights."

Others attribute Bonner's advocacy on behalf of minorities to her three biracial children. Her oldest daughter is a registered nurse, and her youngest is studying pharmacy at the University of Wyoming.

Her son, Richard Bonner, is serving a 32-year sentence for the first-degree robbery of a Rapid City casino in 2004, plus an 8-year sentence for escape in conjunction with that arrest when he attempted to elude police. In 1992, Richard Bonner was convicted of third-degree burglary in Pennington County and sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary.

His mother is adamant that Richard Bonner is innocent, and she continues to work to overturn the conviction.

"The robber on the video was taller, and he was white. Richard is black," she said. "He's doing 40 years for the robbery of a casino that he had absolutely nothing to do with."

Bonner believes many poor minorities who are incarcerated in America are guilty only of having bad legal representation. "The problem with most attorneys is that they don't investigate enough," she said.

For her part, Bonner believes her passion for racial equality goes even further back in her family history, to her grandfather, William Donahey.

Donahey used to tell his granddaughter about watching the 7th Cavalry come through Hot Springs on its way to what would become the Wounded Knee Massacre. As a child, she remembers her grandfather commenting about segregation and other civil rights abuses. "He'd say to me: 'That's not right, girl. That's just not right.'"

As one of the founders of People Against Racism, an organization that advocates for minorities in Rapid City, Bonner has a long track record of accusing law enforcement and other government institutions of racism. People Against Racism formed in response to racial issues at Central High School, and Bonner never hesitates to place herself on the front lines of race relations in the area.

"I'm not frightened of power, and I don't get scared easily," she said.

And she traces her concern for the underprivileged to her own economic struggles.

"I've struggled all my life, as a single parent," she said. "I've been there. I've been poor."

A former school teacher before she went to law school at age 50, Bonner also taught at Oglala Lakota College and Western Dakota Technical Institute. Never financially secure, she lives now on Social Security and a small stipend from the Foster Grandparent program. Open heart surgery in 2006 left her with about $80,000 in unpaid medical bills. Today, she lives in a two-bedroom motel suite and uses the city bus for transportation, having lost her house and her car while she was hospitalized.

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