BY NORTON SANDLER
LAWRENCE, Kansas -Entering a driveway leading to a few businesses here on the morning of October 27, we knew we were at the right place when we saw "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" lettered on the front of a small office. For the next hour, in between fielding phone calls, Lisa Faruolo talked to us about Peltier's case. She is a leader of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee and editor of the committee's bi-monthly newsletter.
Now 51, Native-American activist Peltier was convicted in 1977 and given two consecutive life sentences. He was framed up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges stemming from the death in 1975 of two FBI agents in a shoot-out near Oglala, a small community on the Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Indian reservation.
The siege at Oglala had been precipitated by a reign of terror directed at the American Indian Movement (AIM) by the FBI, South Dakota authorities, and goons organized by the Pine Ridge Tribal Council headed by Dick Wilson. This operation was part of the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter- Intelligence Program), which grew out of its attempts to disrupt the labor movement prior to World War II.
The particular program named COINTELPRO was initiated in 1956 and marked for disruption groups that protested Washington's policies at home and abroad. Objects of disruption programs during the next two decades included civil rights fighters, anti-Vietnam War protesters, socialists, and women's rights organizations, in addition to AIM. 1
The Pine Ridge reservation was at the center of the struggle between Indian activists and the U.S. government. For 71 days in 1973, the town of Wounded Knee became the battleground in the struggle between Native-American rights fighters and the U.S. government. A meeting of activists in the town, including several AIM members, called to address accumulated grievances, was surrounded by hundreds of cops, federal marshals, and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) thugs.
The government tried to defend its actions claiming that the activists were holding hostages in the encampment. At times during the siege, heavy gunfire was exchanged between government sharpshooters and the Wounded Knee fighters who were defending themselves.
The siege ended in May 1973 with several AIM leaders - including Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and Clyde Bellecourt - facing charges. Banks and Means were acquitted of the charges in 1974. The charges against Bellecourt were dropped.
FBI war on Indian movement
But the FBI's disruption operation against AIM intensified. In one weekend alone in 1975, 28 AIM leaders and activists were arrested in various parts of the United States.
FBI war on Indian movement
Several activists and others who refused to go along with the terror campaign of Tribal Council leader Wilson were murdered or beaten on the Pine Ridge reservation in the area near Oglala.
Native-American activist Della Star Comes Out explained this point in Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. "For a long time, every time we start having a bingo or something the goons and the BIA police would start coming around, and you know, start shooting around," she said.
"And they'd start some kind of trouble and we'd have to break up...They were even shooting at our houses, and there's a lot of kids, you know, in some of these homes. The goons really done a lot of harassing, but there was nothing that could be done; we couldn't go to the BIA police because they were right with them. So finally, the traditional, the elderly people, got together and asked, you know, that we'd have our own security around the Oglala area so we can have at least a little protection."
This was the context in which Leonard Peltier and others came to Oglala.
The shoot-out that led to the deaths of two FBI agents began on the morning of June 26. Using the pretext of looking for a man whom they accused of theft and assault, FBI, BIA, South Dakota cops, and federal marshals descended on Oglala and began firing. At the peak of the assault, more than 250 armed attackers surrounded the Oglala compound. Native-American activists explain that the bulk of this force was in place before the two agents who died came within the vicinity of Oglala.
The Indians in the compound, including Peltier, escaped, before the final siege took place.
Joseph Stuntz, a young Native man, was killed. No one was ever charged in his death though Peltier and two other Indian activists were charged in the deaths of the FBI agents. Dino Butler and Robert Robideau were acquitted.
Peltier was eventually arrested in Canada and extradited to the United States. He was tried separately from the other two and convicted. The presiding judge allowed the government wide latitude to present a circumstantial case that included many unsubstantiated innuendoes designed to present a portrait of Peltier as "violent." Among the evidence the presiding judge excluded, was the fact that two other activists had been acquitted of the murders in an earlier trial. Nor was any mention allowed of the FBI's COINTELPRO operation against the American Indian Movement.
Peltier has been incarcerated since 1985 in the Leavenworth Federal Prison, a short distance from Lawrence.
Faruolo explained that Peltier has had three appeals of his convictions rejected by the courts. His lead attorney is now Ramsey Clark. The Peltier defense committee and his attorneys are pressing for the release of FBI documents that have been withheld for nearly two decades and for U.S. president Bill Clinton to issue a executive pardon for Peltier. Retired FBI agents and other cops continue to campaign against the Peltier defense effort and against his release from prison.
Peltier's attorneys filed a Freedom of Information Act Petition (FOIA) in the early 1980s and another more recently, Faruolo said, because "thousands of pages" have been withheld by the government. "Under its guidelines, under the FOIA, the FBI is not supposed to be able to withhold documents if they don't concern national security," she said, "and this has nothing to do with national security."
Faruolo displayed some documents released recently to emphasize why the FBI and the U.S. attorney general want this material kept secret. "At Leonard's trial the government claimed that an FBI agent was killed at 12:15 p.m. In the trial transcript they said they didn't find out about the death until after 3:00 p.m.," she said.
"And for years," she continued, "the South Dakota attorney general denied that they had transcripts of radio reports from the day of the shooting. We now have one of those transcripts which shows that as early as 11:55 a.m. they were claiming on the radio that they had agents under fire, and at 11:59, they said they had an agent shot."
"We believe they have exculpatory evidence - that is material that will exonerate Leonard - in their possession. It may take a little while, but we are going to get these materials," she stated.
Citing widespread FBI doctoring of evidence against Peltier, columnist Jack Anderson recently wrote, "While Congress investigates governmental abuses in cases ranging from Waco to Randy Weaver, it is also time to reopen the 20- year-old case involving Leonard Peltier."
In 1993 Peltier filed a petition for commutation of his sentence with the Pardon's Attorney office in Washington, D.C. Faruolo explained that for nearly two years Leonard's clemency petition has been "sitting at the Justice Department." Faruolo said she doesn't expect anything to happen soon. "We're not going to see any real movement on this until after the U.S. presidential election," she said.
"Clinton has options on clemency," she continued. "He can say the sentence is finally commuted. Leonard has served 19 years and that's enough. Or he can say the sentences now run concurrently instead of consecutively. Either of these options could be a basis for a pardon or parole."
In 1993 Peltier went before Federal parole officials who told him that, because of his consecutive life sentences, it would be another 15 years before they would consider him for parole. He has another hearing scheduled for later this year. The Peltier committee is requesting that letters be sent to the United States Parole Commission requesting that he be granted parole (see accompanying box).
Amnesty International sent a letter to U.S. attorney general Janet Reno in June saying, "Amnesty International is not able to take a position regarding Leonard Peltier's guilt or innocence of the crime, and he has not been adopted as a prisoner of conscience. However, we continue to have serious concerns about the legal process which led to Leonard Peltier's conviction and sentence of two consecutive terms of life imprisonment."
The letter continues, "The fact remains, however, that Leonard Peltier's numerous appeals have failed to dispel substantial and lingering doubts about the fairness of his treatment." The Amnesty letter urges a special executive review of Peltier's case.
Cop agencies remain active in spreading misinformation about the case and campaigning against Peltier's release. According to Anderson, a 1992 article in the FBI's in-house newsletter states, "Keep the Vigil: Peltier is a Murderer." The article accuses Peltier of being guilty of "cold- blooded execution." Faruolo said that in 1994, just prior to activities in support of Peltier in Washington, D.C., a Virginia newspaper printed a story about Peltier that contained glaring factual inaccuracies.
When telephoned, Faruolo says the paper's editor told her that FBI agents had come by and given him information about Peltier and urged the man to write a story. Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) literature also explains that the FBI has been lobbying to have any action on Peltier's clemency petition delayed.
In October, the LPDC organized a vigil and rally in Leavenworth near the prison in support of Peltier. Similar actions were also held in several cities around the country. Next March, Faruolo said, Peltier supporters will be organizing civil disobedience protest activities in support of Peltier in Washington, D.C. and other cities.
Faruolo, 28, explained that she got active in Peltier's defense as a college student in New Jersey after reading Peter Matthiessen's book. She started a Peltier support group at Kean College. At Peltier's urging, she moved to Lawrence in 1991 and has worked in the Peltier defense committee office since then.
Stephen Bloodworth from Peoria, Illinois, contributed to this article.
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