Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 7, 1999
Left-wing groups have had some trouble finding causes to excite their souls since the Cold War's closure. The Puerto Rican terrorists whom President Clinton freed had provided some sparks for the last five or more years. So too has the campaign to shut down the U.S. Army's School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, which is supposedly an instrument for U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
But Leonard Peltier is a rare case that dates back well into the Cold War, when the old Soviet Union insisted the imprisoned Indian activist was a political prisoner. Never mind that he was serving time for the murders of two FBI agents.
The Soviet Union can no longer defend Peltier. But the usual list of secular and religious left-wing activists, with help from a slew of Hollywood celebrities, continues to see Peltier as a political prisoner who was framed by the FBI. Their cause could be dismissed, except the campaign insisting on Peltier's release is nearly identical to that which eventually attained presidential clemency for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists. Despite their history of violence, they too had been portrayed as political prisoners.
Peltier was convicted in 1977 for the 1975 shooting of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. He does not deny shooting at them. But despite an initial confession of guilt, has for over 20 years insisted that somebody else delivered the final coup de grace to the wounded officers. They were shot execution-style while lying prostrate on the ground after a shoot-out with possibly dozens of American Indian Movement (AIM) militants.
This month, the Free Leonard Peltier Committee is rallying in the nation's capital. Using the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill as their headquarters, they are demonstrating in front of the White House and lobbying congressional officers on behalf of their imprisoned hero. Groups like the National Council of Churches and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society have joined the campaign. And even Amnesty International endorses Peltier's release, although it falls short of declaring his innocence. These crusaders see Peltier as one of the most recent victims of U.S. misdeeds against Native Americans.
"Leonard Peltier is typical of the abuse of other native people," said Jennifer Harbury at a November demonstration outside the White House. She directs a "human rights" group in California and waged a long battle to implicate the Guatemalan government in the death of her husband, who was a leftist guerrilla in Guatemala. "He [Peltier] is a symbol of the campaigns of oppression," she said, drawing parallels between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments.
"It seems the federal government is using this as an example of what could happen to us if we are out of line," added Coki Tree Spirit, another pro-Peltier activist at the same rally.
Peltier himself addressed the White House rally with a recorded message. "I still cannot understand that with the millions of people around the world demanding my freedom the government can still ignore it." His defenders portray Peltier as a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the early 1970's who was targeted by the U.S. Government for destruction.
Celebrities buying into the Peltier mythology include Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Redford spotlighted Peltier in a highly sympathetic 1992 documentary called "Incident at Oglala."
FBI Director Louis Freeh disagrees and, most unusually, has publicly opposed any possibility of clemency for Peltier. "Leonard Peltier was convicted of a grave crime," he said in 1994. "And there should be no commutation of his two consecutive terms of life in prison." So too has the FBI Agents Association, which has called Peltier a "vicious, violent and cowardly criminal who hides behind the Native American Community."
In 1975 the two murdered FBI agents, 28-year-old Jack Coler and 27-year-old Ronald Williams, followed a van carrying several men with rifles onto a ranch where Peltier was residing. The van stopped and its passengers came out shooting. The agents were trapped by their car in an open field. Armed only with service revolvers and one shotgun, they got off only five shots and were nearly defenseless against long-range rifles, semiautomatics, and an AR-15 assault rifle. Their car was shot at least 125 times.
After shooting only once, Coler's arm was nearly severed by return fire. Williams, already shot in his side, attempted to apply a tourniquet to his colleague. Coler was unconscious and Williams, realizing further resistance was futile, apparently attempted to surrender. They both were instead executed. Williams held up his hand in front of his executioner's gun before the bullet smashed into his face. Coler was then shot in the head and throat.
Dozens of Peltier's militant colleagues may have been present at the ranch and participated in the gun fight. An FBI rescue party killed one and captured another, but Peltier and the rest escaped. Later an Oregon State Trooper stopped a vehicle that Peltier was driving. Peltier responded with gunfire and escaped into the woods. He left behind in his vehicle Agent Coler's revolver with Peltier's thumbprint, along with eight other guns, a collection of hand grenades and 350 pounds of dynamite.
Peltier later escaped to Canada, where he was captured by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1976. After a lengthy appeals process, he was extradited to the U.S. to face trial. He admitted to Canadian police that he thought the FBI had been pursuing him to serve a warrant for his arrest in the 1972 attempted shooting of a Milwaukee police officer.
During Peltier's 1977 trial, the prosecution produced three witnesses who said they saw Peltier walk towards the wounded FBI agents with the AR-15 rifle moments before the fatal shots. A jury in Fargo, North Dakota, took ten hours to convict Peltier on two counts of murder, for which he would be legally guilty even if he had not shot the actual bullets that killed the FBI agents. He was given two consecutive life sentences.
A 1983 book called "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" argued that a vast conspiracy involving the FBI, judges, prosecutors, coroners and Canadian Mounties had contrived to frame to Peltier because he threatened white corporate America. The book was later withdrawn from circulation for several years in the face of libel suits. But it helped to spark the free Peltier movement. And Oliver Stone has purchased the film rights to the book.
Peltier's defenders portray him as a significant American Indian Movement leader, but Peltier was only a "bodyguard" for AIM. He performed "security" for AIM when its leaders ransacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972. The defenders also ignore Peltier's long history of violence. He was implicated, but not convicted, of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee policeman in 1972, for which he jumped bail. And in 1973 he was linked to shootings at two policemen at the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota. He also jumped bail on an illegal weapons charge in Washington State.
Peltier himself has never expressed any regrets. "I was there that day," he says of the murders for which he was convicted. "I've never denied that. But we were attacked, and we had a right to defend ourselves, and so I fired back." He sees himself a martyr and gladly accepts the mythology that has grown up around him. He signs his signature "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."
The FBI Agents Association suggests that Peltier's victims and their families are the rightful recipients of sympathy, rather than Peltier. There are plenty of wrongful deeds in the sorrowful history of the U.S. Government's relations with American Indians without the need to falsely transform Peltier into a martyr. With the controversy over the recently released Puerto Rican terrorists still swirling, President Clinton should pause before freeing Peltier.