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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: California | Government & Elections | Police State and Prisons | Racial Justice
Leonard Peltier for President
Leonard Peltier is the Presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party in California. This article gives an overview and update of his case and his campaign for a presidential pardon.
The Case for Peltier for President
By Paul Burton
When California voters go to the polls on election day they will see a candidate listed for president whose name is vaguely familiar but unmentioned in any media coverage of the 2004 campaign. As the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party, Leonard Peltier may be the first presidential candidate since Eugene Debs in 1920 to be locked in a jail cell while running for president.
Some will recall that Peltier has been serving a double-life sentence in federal prison since his conviction in 1976 for the murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June of 1975. A Chippewa/Lakota activist with the American Indian Movement, Peltier is one of many political prisoners still doing time as a result of the U.S. government's notorious Counter Intelligence Program of the 1960s and1970s that spied on and disrupted the Black Panther Party, AIM, and other groups fighting for justice. While some who were wrongfully convicted as a result of official misconduct, like Panther Geronimo Pratt, have been released after decades of legal lobbying by supporters, Peltier remains locked up in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary as one of America's longest held political prisoners. He turned 60 September 12.
A Political Prisoner for President
Peltier's nomination by the Peace and Freedom Party was hoped to shine new light on his case and his campaign for Executive Clemency-a presidential pardon. The P&F Party's Sate Chair, Kevin Aiken of Riverside, said that party leaders had discussed running a political prisoner for President last year. "We have been frustrated by the difficulty of getting traction on this issue, and with the difficulty in getting fair hearings in the courts for people who spend decades in prison for 'crimes' they did not commit because they are effective enemies of the corrupt rulers of our country," said Aiken.
But so far, little has been written about Peltier's nomination for president and the media continues to black out, with a few rare exceptions, any coverage of his case. He received a brief flash of coverage after the 2000 election when then-President Clinton was rumored to be considering granting Peltier a pardon at the end of his term. More on that matter later in this article.
Peltier bested Socialist Party candidate Walt Brown in the P&F primary in March and officially became the P&F nominee at their convention at the end of July after the party rejected a request by the Green Party's Peter Camejo to run Ralph Nader and Camejo as the P&F presidential ticket. In rejecting Nader and affirming Peltier, the party stuck with its commitment to put the cause of Peltier's freedom before voters, at least in California.
Peltier's running mate, Janice Jordan, said the Peace and Freedom Party also will continue to challenge the policies of the two major parties. "The current situation of international violence and occupation could have been avoided through dialogue and diplomacy, approaches that Leonard Peltier and I take pride in as social justice and human rights advocates," said Jordan, a San Diego activist. "There is only one political party in power (the Republicans and the Democrats) in the United States, and unfortunately diplomacy, justice, civil rights and human rights take a backstage to unregulated military spending, unchecked human rights violations and police crime. The United States is not a leader in democracy or freedom; it has alienated itself from the rest of the world and from many of its own people."
In his candidate statement Peltier says, "I am a Native American, deprived of my language, culture, and traditions; yet, I have survived the genocidal government policies against Indigenous Peoples. I will ensure equal rights to liberty, education, employment, housing, and health care, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I will work towards conflict resolution without the use of violence and ensure self-determination for all peoples.
"I live with injustice every day. Caged for over 28 years for a crime I did not commit, I am a political prisoner wrongfully convicted by a government that indisputably withheld and fabricated evidence, as well as coerced witnesses. No branch of the government will correct this injustice. At the root of this injustice are the oppressive policies of the U.S. government against people of color and those with dissenting opinions."
While Peltier's chances of becoming President are slimmer than Ralph Nader's, his supporters have tried to use the electoral arena over the years to lobby for his release through a presidential pardon. After the Supreme Court refused to consider overturning a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1988 that upheld Peltier's conviction, only three avenues of action remain for winning freedom for Peltier: a re-opening of his case because of new evidence, a presidential pardon, or parole.
Even though he remains in prison, Peltier has been an advocate for his people and has kept active through a national support group network. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year and has been recognized by human rights groups internationally for speaking out about conditions still suffered by indigenous peoples around the world. He sponsors an annual holiday food and clothing drive for Native American children on Pine Ridge.
Wrongfully Convicted, Fighting for Justice: Peltier's Case
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota remains today the poorest county in the United States. Conditions that have existed for decades remain: unemployment rates of up to 75%, rampant alcoholism, teenage suicide, and a sense of desperation among the disenfranchised native peoples, the Oglala Lakota-despite the mineral wealth of the land and the perception that modern Native Americans have all benefited from the expansion of casino gambling on Indian reservations.
Indeed, since the treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 which guaranteed the Lakota ownership and control of the Black Hills, outsiders have exploited the wealth of the land, beginning with the discovery of gold which brought settlers to the area, and into the mid 1970's when corrupt tribal leaders sold off large sections of Lakota territory to the U.S. Government and multinational corporations. On June 25, 1975, the same day that then-Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson negotiated the transfer of 133,000 acres of Lakota territory to the U.S. Interior Department, the FBI sent two agents onto the reservation, ostensibly to pick up an Indian boy suspected of stealing a pair of cowboy boots.
When agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams approached the Jumping Bull Ranch, where AIM members were camped, a shootout ensued which resulted in the death of the two agents and one Native American, Joe Stunz. Although the death of Stunz was never investigated, the FBI launched a massive manhunt for the murderers of the agents, finally capturing four members of the American Indian Movement.
AIM had been called to the reservation by traditional tribal elders who had been threatened and shot at because of their resistance to selling off Lakota land for mineral exploitation. In what many locals described as a "reign of terror" during the mid 1970's, Pine Ridge became the murder capital of the U.S., with more killings per capita than Detroit. Most of the victims were members or supporters of AIM. And in a documentary aired on PBS several years ago, one member of a paramilitary group on the reservation set up to counter AIM admitted that his group got their weapons from federal law enforcement agents. The FBI refuses to release several thousand pages of documents that could shine light on their role in fomenting the violence.
After the firefight, Peltier fled to Canada, fearing he would be prosecuted and not receive a fair trial. Two other AIM members, Bob Robideaux and Dino Butler, were arrested after a massive manhunt by the FBI and Tribal Police but were acquitted by a jury on the basis of self-defense.
Peltier was subsequently captured in Canada and extradited back to the U.S. on the basis of false statements made by an Indian woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed that Peltier had told her he had killed the agents. When Poor Bear later tried to recant her testimony, saying that she had been threatened by the FBI and coerced into testifying against Peltier, she was ruled incompetent and not allowed to appear before the court. Several members of the Canadian Parliament have called for Peltier's release over the years and launched official inquiries into the U.S. government's falsified evidence that led to the illegal extradition.
Peltier's conviction was largely based on the testimony of an FBI firearms expert who claimed that the agents were killed by shots fired from Peltier's rifle. In fact, the FBI had conducted ballistics tests and found that Peltier's rifle could not have fired the fatal shots.
But the test results were withheld from Peltier's defense team and did not come to light until 1981, four years after Peltier's conviction. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act also confirmed that Peltier was a target of the FBI's notorious Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) which targeted AIM members as well as anti-war activists and Black Panthers.
Nonetheless Peltier's conviction was upheld in three different appeals, including a 1986 decision that found the U.S. government admitting they "do not know who killed the agents." Prosecutors in essence changed their theory that Peltier was the shooter, stating that he was guilty of "aiding and abetting."
While the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Peltier's conviction, it stated there was "clear abuse of the investigative process" which "casts strong doubts on the government's case." Judge Gerald Heaney would later write to Senator Daniel Inouye of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs that Peltier deserved a new, fair trial and that "the FBI and the American Indians were equally responsible" for the murders at the Jumping Bull Ranch.
In the summer of 1990 Inouye urged President George H.W. Bush to meet with him to discuss granting Peltier Executive Clemency, Peltier's only hope for freedom after exhausting his appeals through the courts. Although Bush was not receptive, Peltier's supporters held out hope that a new Democratic President would be.
The Campaign for Clemency
In 1993 the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee launched an Executive Clemency campaign, targeting President Bill Clinton with letters, faxes and calls for Peltier's freedom. Lisa Faruolo, a spokesperson for the LPDC at the time, told this writer in 1997 that the committee had hoped that their efforts would have paid off sooner. "We hoped we would get something after Clinton's re-election last year  because it would be a safe time for him to grant clemency," she said. Those hopes were dashed again when Clinton failed to act at the end of his second term.
A 1997 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General that the FBI crime lab produced scientifically flawed reports and inaccurate testimony in several major federal cases sent shock waves through the legal system. Peltier's supporters hoped then that evidence of the lab's slipshod performance on high profile cases like the Unabomber trial and the bombings of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City would shine new light on many older cases that have relied on the FBI's forensic expertise.
"We've been screaming this for 20 years," said Faruolo. "This isn't recent news to us." The LPDC renewed its call for a Congressional investigation into the role of the FBI in the Peltier case and others involving members of the American Indian Movement. Amnesty International and dozens of members of Congress have supported that call over the years. Others who have called for a new trial or a pardon for Peltier include Nobel Peace Prize winners including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama; Bishop Desmond Tutu; the European Parliament; former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson; the Green Party USA; former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev; and dozens of artists, musicians, writers, and celebrities.
The call for clemency for Peltier reached a critical point during the 2000 election when President Clinton made an Election Day phone call to Pacifica Radio's Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now. Goodman asked Clinton if he would pardon Peltier and Clinton said that it was among the cases he was considering.
Clinton had delayed acting on the request for Executive Clemency and claimed he hadn't heard about it, despite having been lobbied by Peltier's supporters during the 1992 election campaign. During the 2000 Democratic Primary, support groups in New England spoke out at events in New Hampshire, urging candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore to take a stand. Bradley was somewhat supportive, Gore was non-committal.
But after Clinton mentioned the possibility of a pardon, the FBI stepped up its campaign to lobby against Peltier's release. They organized a small vigil at the White House in December 2000. The media gave the FBI's event prominent coverage but totally ignored the much larger rally in New York City on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, by Peltier's supporters. When Peltier's name was not on the list of those given pardons at Christmas time, many hoped he would be offered a pardon at the last minute. The waiting and the false hope Clinton offered amounted to torture for those of us hoping against hope that he would for once do the right thing. Instead Clinton pardoned a host of political allies and his own brother, and would have pardoned himself if not for the deal that saved his own skin.
Vernon Bellecourt of AIM blamed South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle as one of the people who persuaded Clinton to deny Peltier a pardon. Clinton was also pressured by the FBI and by William Janklow, the Republican Congressmember from South Dakota who served as state Attorney General in the 1970s despite accusations that he had raped an Indian woman while working as the tribal attorney for the Rosebud Sioux. Janklow was convicted last December of second-degree manslaughter, reckless driving, running a stop sign and speeding for a crash that killed motorcyclist Randy Scott in South Dakota.
Time to Set Him Free
In June of 2001, Peltier supporters lobbied Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to look at the FBI's role in the Peltier case as part of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the agency's mishandling of several high profile cases. Leahy said he intended to hold "very serious hearings" into the "egregious problems" within the FBI. "I think it is time that Republicans and Democrats, using the Judiciary Committee, do an overall look at the FBI, an in-depth look," he said on CBS' "Face The Nation" news program.
"The bureau lives sometimes as an isolated area where they forget that they're responsible to the attorney general and they're responsible to the Congress," Leahy said. But the Democrats lost control of the Senate after the 2002 election and Peltier's case was never brought up. The FBI failed again on September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks Peltier's Attorney, Bruce Ellison, warned that the kinds of measures being proposed by the PATRIOT Act had already resulted in wrongful convictions of political activists and dissenters like Peltier. The precedents set in his case, even the kinds of government misconduct condemned by Congress and the Courts, would be codified as official policy under Attorney General Ashcroft. It is in the name of "national security," that the U.S. government still holds Peltier in captivity.
As part of their ongoing campaign to uncover new evidence that could lead to a new trial, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has fought for the release of documents that the FBI has kept from Peltier's defense. The Buffalo Times reported on September 14 that Peltier's attorney Michael Kuzma was in court arguing for the release of a 1975 teletype sent from the FBI's Buffalo office to FBI headquarters that showed that the agency was trying to infiltrate AIM's defense team. Then-FBI Director Clarence Kelley admitted that the government used informants against the American Indian Movement.
"If we can show that had a destructive role or impact on the defense or the attorney-client relationship, it could blow the case open," Kuzma told the newspaper.
Barry Bachrach, Peltier's lead attorney, said the new information "would be grounds for a new trial, one which we'd relish because we know they couldn't prove Leonard did it. It could even be grounds for an outright reversal."
Author Harvey Arden, who edited a book of Peltier's prison writings, "My Life is a Sundance," as well as the recently published "Have You Thought of Leonard Peltier Lately?" called upon candidate John Kerry to openly support clemency for Leonard Peltier.
"Among the great tasks now facing you, I ask, I pray, that you consider the fate of one Native American man named Leonard Peltier-a symbol to millions around the world of America's continuing injustice toward its indigenous Peoples," Arden wrote. "Now that the dereliction of the FBI on 9/11 has been formally confirmed by the Kean Commission, I recall with a chill how, in December 2000-even as the terrorists were already in our cities fine-tuning their attacks against our Nation-some 500 FBI Agents found the leisure and spare time to spend a day staging an FBI march of intimidation in front of the White House, demanding that President Clinton NOT grant long-expected and well-deserved executive clemency to wrongfully imprisoned Native American Leonard Peltier.
"Leonard remains in prison, torn from his People and his grandchildren, recently refused by the courts even a hearing on parole until December 2008-even though he fulfilled all requirements for parole a dozen years ago.
"I am compelled to wonder if the efforts of those 500 FBI agents might not have been better spent that day on protecting our Country against our real enemies instead of continuing their 30-year unlawful vendetta against a Native American man they know to be innocent, but whose false imprisonment conceals the many, many crimes of Agency personnel on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1970's Reign of Terror authorized by the FBI's illegal COINTELPRO program. The Agency has spent countless thousands of hours over the decades constructing a Wall of Lies & Silence against Mr. Peltier. For the sake and safety of the American People, this shameful vendetta must cease.
"I ask you, I plead with you, President Kerry, as part of your coming re-organization of the FBI, that you immediately issue an order for an absolute end to the Agency's ongoing and self-serving vendetta and disinformation campaign against Leonard Peltier and other members of the American Indian Movement. I pray you will give him immediate executive clemency, or at least allow him a new-and this time fair and unstaged-trial, which would clearly reveal the FBI's own innumerable crimes against him and many others."
Peace and Freedom for Leonard Peltier
But while Peltier's case has slowly moved through the courts and languished on the desks of two presidents, the Peace and Freedom Party has decided to put Peltier at the top of their ticket as a way to remind Americans that Peltier is still in prison despite evidence that should free him, and that he represents a call for justice for all oppressed people.
On the eve of the 40th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, the Peace and Freedom Party re-released their original statement of principles, drafted by FSM leaders Mario Savio, Marvin Garson and Mike Parker, which says, in part: "The main task of the Peace and Freedom Movement is to organize people to begin to gain real and concrete power over the institutions which control their everyday lives. One important way to accomplish this is to project into the electoral arena the voices of people fighting for human dignity, to make it clear that the demand for human dignity is at root a demand for power and that the people will have this power only when we all can democratically assure that our economy works to fulfill human needs rather than to increase the power and profit of a small minority. The function of Peace and Freedom candidates is to act as the tribunes of Americans who have begun to fight back."
A warrior for his people who still hopes to be united with his children and grandchildren, an artist and writer with dreams of teaching oil painting, raising buffalo, and continuing to help Indian people, Peltier quotes Luther Standing Bear, a Sioux Chief, who stated: "Out of the Indian approach to life came a great freedom, an intense and absorbing love for nature; a respect for life... and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity, and brotherhood as a guard to mundane relations."
"These values will guide me as president," says Peltier.
Leonard Peltier's long struggle to fight back against the powers that be who wrongfully sent him to prison will continue after election day, but a vote for Leonard will surely show that he is not forgotten and deserves justice, peace, and freedom.
Paul Burton is a co-founder of the Indigenous Resistance Resource Network, which was part of the Leonard Peltier Support Group Network from 1985-1999, and a long-time active member of the Peace and Freedom Party. He was active with the Leonard Peltier Support Group of Greater New England in western Massachusetts as well as the Massachusetts Green Party from 1996 until 2003, where he actively campaigned for Ralph Nader. He currently lives in Oakland, California, and works as Managing Editor of San Mateo Labor, the newspaper of the San Mateo County Central Labor Council and Building & Construction Trades Council (who support John Kerry for President!). He will be voting for Leonard Peltier this year.
For information about Peltier's case, see http://www.freepeltier.org
For information on the Peace and Freedom Party, check http://www.peaceandfreedom.org