[Ppnews] Freeing Leonard Peltier

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 7 12:27:17 EDT 2009


http://www.counterpunch.org/armstrong05072009.html

May 7, 2009


What Would Warren Harding Do?

Freeing Leonard Peltier

By JEFF ARMSTRONG

Barack Obama plainly aspires to join the select ranks of United 
States presidents who led the nation through national crises with 
relative wisdom and resolve. Obama and his supporters often invoke 
Lincoln, Kennedy, and FDR as historical exemplars. But in one 
important respect, Obama need reach no higher than to emulate the 
precedent set by Republican president Warren Harding.

Rightly reviled as one of the worst presidents in American history 
for the corruption and mendacity of his cabinet (known, for good 
reason, as the Ohio Gang), Harding should nevertheless be 
acknowledged for freeing 24 political prisoners (excluding, of 
course, most IWW activists) in his first year of taking office in 
1921. Among the beneficiaries of Harding's conciliatory gesture was 
Eugene V. Debs, the socialist party candidate for president who 
polled nearly one million votes in the 1920 election from behind 
federal prison walls. Perhaps due to his unique status, Debs was 
granted special dispensation to leave prison unsupervised to meet 
with attorney general Harry Daugherty.

Debs, to his credit, spurned the attorney general's request that he 
renounce his revolutionary views in return for a full pardon Yet 
Harding commuted Debs' sentence and released him and other political 
prisoners less than one year into his term and two and one-half years 
into Debs' 10-year sentence, which he landed for speaking out against 
then-President Woodrow Wilson and the military draft at a socialist 
party convention shortly before the conclusion of what was then known 
as the Great War.

At first glance, Harding's call for a return to "normalcy" and 
Obama's ringing but amorphous promise of change would seem to have 
little in common. Yet both campaign slogans signified a sharp break 
from the immediate past, in the case of the former from the imperious 
and imperial presidency of Wilson and in the latter from the reckless 
and lawless regime of George Bush II. Like Harding before him, Obama 
has sought to reach out to his ideological opponents in the spirit of 
reconciliation and to bring the office of the presidency back down to 
earth. Harding went so far as to meet personally with Debs after 
liberating him from captivity to the cheers of his guards and fellow 
inmates alike.

Instead of extending his hand to the unresponsive GOP, however, Obama 
should be reaching out to Leonard Peltier and apologizing for two 
centuries of violence, oppression, and empty promises to the 
indigenous peoples of the United States.  If ever there was a sphere 
in which change, and one might even say a return to normality (in 
terms of normalized relations with Americans), is needed, it is in 
Indian Country.  Reservation Natives live in something of a parallel 
legal universe in which they are the only racial group victimized in 
a majority of criminal assaults by members of other races, yet tribal 
police are granted no criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives.

When it comes to civil rights, tribal governments, which again with 
limited exceptions have jurisdiction only over Indians, are virtually 
beyond the reach of not only the United States constitution but even 
their own tribal constitutions. With rare exceptions, tribal courts 
are subordinate arms of tribal councils, unable or unwilling to 
uphold any semblance of civil rights and liberties.  As if by cruel 
joke, that great guardian of civil liberties, the FBI, is responsible 
for upholding the civil rights of tribal members.

Likewise, individual voting rights on reservations have no protection 
under federal law, nor are there any reporting requirements on 
campaign contributions in tribal elections. This allows not only for 
electoral fraud and dictatorial governance, but also opens to door to 
external influence through unreported contributions to pliable 
candidates. Thus, while the U.S. has no qualms about critically 
evaluating elections throughout the world, even imposing sanctions on 
Haiti for failing to conduct runoff elections in two legislative 
races, it routinely turns a blind eye to vote fraud on reservations. 
Yet despite this elevated deference to tribal sovereignty, one of the 
unchallenged premises of federal Indian law is that Congress (in 
which indigenous nations have no formal or informal representation) 
has the unilateral authority to limit or obliterate tribal 
sovereignty without the consent of affected peoples. This happened 
most recently in the wake of World War II under Truman and 
Eisenhower, when the federal government embarked on the termination 
program, which sought to achieve the original American dream of 
extinguishing tribes as such and negating indigenous identity.

It is little wonder that Leonard Peltier's generation, which grew up 
in the shadow of termination in boarding schools, white foster homes, 
racist schools, and penal institutions, rose up in the turmoil of the 
Vietnam War and civil rights era to demand sovereignty and 
recognition under international law.  The American Indian Movement, 
led by urban Natives seeking to return to their traditional roots, 
came to the aid of tribal members against state and federal 
discrimination, but soon found to its chagrin that tribal government 
was more often than not part of the problem.

On Pine Ridge reservation in the 1970s, tribal chairman Dick Wilson 
was Richard Nixon's right hand man. Wilson denounced AIM after its 
takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington DC  at 
the culmination of the Trail of Tears march in November of 1972. He 
banned AIM members, including reservation enrollees, from meetings on 
the reservation and created with federal funds a private security 
force known to all as the goon squad. Led by officers of the official 
BIA reservation police, the goons terrorized Wilson's opponents, 
shooting up and burning down houses, beating, raping, and killing 
untold numbers of Oglala people with benefit of FBI ammunition, 
training, and protection. At the same time, the FBI was engaged in an 
intensive COINTELPRO operation against AIM tin an effort to create 
and exploit differences within the loosely-organized movement through 
various tactics, including infiltration and snitch-jacketing of activists.

Contrary to its media image, AIM did not respond with violence or 
retaliation. Its credo was armed self-defense of individuals and of 
tribal sovereignty, and it was never accused of shooting up houses or 
targeting goons or BIA police. Even the best-known FBI informant and 
provocateur, Douglass Durham, admitted publicly that AIM was 
non-violent and community oriented, though he later found profit by 
regurgitating the commie-terrorist hype on the John Birch Society 
lecture circuit. In the best tradition of guerilla resistance, AIM 
activists on Pine Ridge attempted to provide the space for people to 
develop community organizations that reflected their own traditions 
and served their needs. By no stretch of the imagination did a camp 
of a few dozen activists intend to engage in a shootout with the FBI 
on June 26, 1975, much less precipitate what was initially claimed as 
an ambush by the FBI. Unlike his codefendants, Bob Robideau and Dino 
Butler, Peltier was never allowed to present a self-defense argument, 
and the government withheld exculpatory evidence that only surfaced 
due to FOIA litigation that continues to this day. The 8th Circuit 
recently held that the F BI is allowed to suppress more than 10,000 
pages of documents relating to Peltier's case, which has never been 
retried despite ample evidence of investigative, prosecutorial, and 
judicial bias and misconduct.

Executive clemency for Leonard Peltier is but a small first step that 
the Obama administration might take toward repairing relations with 
indigenous peoples, but it is an essential one. Many anticipated some 
action on the Peltier case in his vaunted first 100 days, but Obama 
is evidently no modern-day FDR. He can, however, still aspire to the 
more modest historical stature of Warren G. Harding.

Jeff Armstrong is a longtime writer on Native affairs, a graduate 
student in history, and a volunteer with the 
<http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info>Leonard Peltier Defense Offense 
Committee. He can be reached at: 
<mailto:armstrong at plainsfolk.com>armstrong at plainsfolk.com




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