Strange coincidence: the type of gun used by Adam Lanza to kill 20 first graders and eight adults (if you count him and his mother) was the same model -- an AR15 -- linked to the killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux reservation in 1975, in the midst of an undeclared war in which dozens of native Americans had been killed, their deaths never investigated. (I guess it's not that surprising, since I just read a NYT article that that model -- manufactured by lots of companies -- is 55 years old and is currently the most popular semi-automatic on the market.)
I'm reminded of this because on Friday night I attended a concert at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan hosted by Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte and Peter Coyote entitled, "Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012." Peltier, through various illegal actions on the part of the U.S. government -- like withholding evidence, intimidating witnesses and lying to get him extradited from Canada, where he'd fled -- was convicted of those murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. When an appeals court pointed out that the government had not proved its case and that the most he'd probably be convicted of, if a new trial were held, is aiding and abetting, the prosecutor, Lynn Crooks (I swear I am not making this up), admitted the government doesn't know who killed the agents. So, in effect, he's serving two life sentences for aiding and abetting.
Every effort at a new trial, parole, or clemency has been thwarted by law enforcement, which wants to make sure somebody pays -- even, apparently, if it's the wrong man. I researched this case and wrote several stories back in the early-mid-1990s -- too far back to link to here. Leonard is now 68 years old and in poor health, after serving 37 years in various maximum security prisons. His friends are afraid he'll die in prison, which is why they initiated a campaign urging Obama to grant him clemency immediately. It will be a tough order, since Obama has so far granted fewer clemency petitions than almost all his predecessors.
There are too many issues to go into here, so I'll just quote the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, regarding Peltier's trial: "Much of the government's behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation and in its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed." You can read lots more at his defense committee's website, or by Googling Peter Matthiessen, who wrote the definitive account of the incident in his book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which was censored for several years before seeing the light of day.
As soon as I walked into the theatre, I did a couple of interviews, including with two brothers, Geronimo and Vincent Powless (pictured above), who later performed a beautiful prayer "for Leonard's healing and for the victims of the shooting in Connecticut" which had happened just hours earlier. The evening began with a powerful drum circle (can still feel the vibrations from where I was sitting in the upper balcony), then a couple of native performers, Bill Miller and Jennifer Kreisberg. Bruce Cockburn has written several songs about the "Indian wars," which he performed, featuring great guitar work. Common, a rapper whom Harry Belafonte said had renewed his faith in rap music, performed with a backing band that made it impossible to hear his lyrics, unfortunately. Jackson Browne followed, singing several songs written by others about native issues and then "Lives in the Balance," which he had written about U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America in the 1980s, but which he said he'd just realized was relevant to Leonard's struggle. That's one of my favorite songs, and he's one of my favorite performers.
You can listen here to a story I just filed for Workers Independent News, featuring the prayer the Powless brothers sang. And you can click here for an interview Amy Goodman did with Leonard the day after the concert. He sounded amazingly upbeat, while discussing decidedly depressing things.
On our way out, a supporter was handing out postcards to send to President Obama, quoting from the Tenth Circuit about the injustices of Leonard's trial and asking for immediate clemency. Also, urging people to call the White House with the same message. The number is 202.456.1111.