The following commentary was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 14, 2009.
A missed chance for compassion
An American Indian activist is denied parole. The sad fact: Nobody notices.
By David Biddle
Saturday was Leonard Peltier's 65th birthday, and he has spent almost half his life in jail.
Peltier, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist, has been in prison since 1977, found guilty of executing two FBI agents during a shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
His case is marred by allegations of witness coercion, judicial fiat, FBI incompetence, and an anti-Indian vigilante mentality. Those of us who followed the militant days of AIM waited hopefully on July 28 for the parole commission to determine whether Peltier had finally paid his dues to society.
Federal parole eligibility for life sentence offenders does not mean freedom or exoneration; it means serving the remainder of a life sentence under supervision of one's community. Eric Seitz, Peltier's attorney, said that his client spoke for more than an hour with "great eloquence . . . we thought it went very well."
Peltier represents one of America's most complex and controversial face-offs between the law-and-order perspective and minority community rights. June 26, 1975, was the culmination of a three-year mini-war between traditionalist and assimilationist factions on the reservation. The assimilationists were using vigilante enforcers to terrorize the traditionalists. AIM, a nationally recognized Indian's rights group that used civil disobedience - and, in those days, weapons - was called in to protect the traditionalists.
The details of that day are twisted now in myth, legend, and distortion - on both sides. We know that two young FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, followed a truck in separate cars onto the Jumping Bull compound and that the truck's occupants eventually jumped out and opened fire on the agents from high ground. Both agents were wounded in this first volley. The truck occupants were joined by a number of AIM members staying in tents on the compound. All were armed, many with high-powered rifles.
Some time after wounding the agents, Peltier and two other AIM members went down to the cars. This is where the story gets twisted up. The government prosecuted Peltier using circumstantial evidence to prove he executed the agents at point-blank range. Peltier and others who were there that day say the agents had already been shot. An AIM member was also killed in the shootout. His death was never investigated. There is no question that this was a senseless, destructive scene arising out of a time of great frustration and fear.
On Aug. 21, we learned that Peltier had been denied parole. The Associated Press offered a brief synopsis of the decision, but few mainstream publications printed this. Most national broadcast outlets posted the AP story online, but offered no TV or radio coverage.
How could Peltier's parole hearing not stir the national media into at least a small frenzy? Forget which side is right. The outcome of that hearing was real news. Peltier's case is the most poignant and powerful reminder of what this society has done to Indian tribes for nearly half a millennium - also what Indians have done to themselves. And we choose, sadly, to ignore all of this.
To grant Peltier parole was an opportunity, albeit very small, for the United States to begin to turn the page on its history with Native America - to show mercy and compassion. Why was this opportunity not news?
But even the denial of parole was a story: law and order trumps human rights; punishment vs. rehabilitation; forgetting the FBI's dark record; one man's political prisoner is another's thug.
What does virtually ignoring this case say about the media? About us as a nation? Do we just not care? Is all that Indian stuff now just water under the bridge?
Media companies are very concerned about profits these days. Maybe if there were more concern about covering issues that no one knows about, rather than issues where everyone thinks he knows everything, people would buy more papers.
David Biddle writes the blog "The Formality of Occurrence" at www.formalityoccurrence.blogspot.com.