- By Darren Thompson
Today, 35 people were arrested and cited for violations in Washington, D.C., during a planned demonstration near the White House advocating for the release of Leonard Peltier from federal prison.
The organized demonstration took place near Lafayette Square, a public park just north of the White House, bringing hundreds of supporters to push an organized message to President Biden to free Peltier from prison on his 79th birthday.
“For 79 years, this warrior, a relative, our elder, walked these lands with purpose, with a fire, and with a calling, a special calling upon his life, and he has galvanized a movement for justice in the United States,” said NCAI President Fawn Sharp at Tuesday’s rally in front of the White House. “I want to stand here with you, as we celebrate, our Elder, as we celebrate the sacred day he was born.”
Among those arrested were “Reservation Dogs” actor Dallas Goldtooth, NDN Collective CEO Nick Tilson, National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Paul O’Brien, Chris White Eagle, and Hermus Betteyoun for blocking a sidewalk. The arrests all came with a $50 citation and no one was taken to jail.
“Getting arrested today, I’m resisting; I’m dissenting against the 48 years that Leonard Peltier has been illegally incarcerated by the United States government,” Tilsen said in a statement. “I’m dissenting against the system, white supremacy, the police state and the system of incarceration and we’re doing it in solidarity with Leonard Peltier.”
NDN Collective and Amnesty International USA organized an event in Washington to increase awareness and pressure on releasing Peltier, 79, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa citizen from North Dakota.
Peltier was convicted for two counts of first-degree murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation officers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on June 26, 1975. In 1977, he was later sentenced after a trial, and other legal proceedings, including his extradition from Canada after the shootout, that supporters have said unjustly convicted and sentenced Peltier. He is serving two consecutive life sentences.
Peltier wrote a statement to be read in front of the White House saying that he hopes to breath free air before he dies. “There is a lot of work left to do,” Peltier wrote. “I’d like to get out there to join you in doing it.”
Peltier’s supporters have said that he has been unjustly incarcerated for nearly 50 years. He is currently being held at United States Penitentiary Coleman, a maximum-security prison in Coleman, Florida.
“We’re asking President Joe Biden for Executive Clemency,” Tilsen said. “We will keep coming back to the White House, and we’ll be pressuring all parts of the government until we see justice for Leonard Peltier and see him come back with his family, community and people.”
Amnesty International considers Peltier to be a political prisoner and many Indigenous leaders consider him to be the longest-serving Indigenous political prisoner in the U.S. Peltier has exhausted all post-conviction remedies available to him, including all parole requests, and former President Barack Obama denied a clemency request by Peltier in 2017.
Then, former FBI agent Ed Woods, a long-time opponent of Peltier, issued a statement thanking former President Obama, saying, “We are collectively grateful, and humbled, that you chose not to grant commutation to Leonard Peltier,” Woods said in a statement. “His brutal attack and murder of two young FBI Agents and his remorseless public statements support that justice should continue as he serves the remainder of his lawful conviction and sentence.”
The Washington, D.C., rally was the last stop of a caravan that began at the location of the 1975 shootout in Oglala, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and traveled through Rapid City, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.
Renowned Native American activist Suzan Harjo, who is the President of the Morning Star Institute, former leader of the National Congress of American Indians, a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, urged Biden to release Peltier in a letter on Tuesday.
“It is with deep appreciation for all you have done to uplift Native Peoples that I write to urge that you use your constitutional power to allow Leonard Peltier to live out his remaining years as a free man,” Harjo wrote. “Now in his 47th year of incarceration, he has served a longer sentence than most principals in murder convictions, nearly two-thirds of his life thus far. The gross injustice of Mr. Peltier’s long incarceration has been recognized by both federal prosecutors who handled his case and the most prominent human rights voices in the world.”
Although the Democratic National Committee unanimously approved a resolution in September 2022 asking President Biden to consider clemency for Peltier, the administration has been tight-lipped about any decisions regarding clemency. Deb Haaland, the current Secretary of the Interior, has previously advocated for Peltier’s release, but as a Congresswoman. She has not issued any statements regarding his release as the Secretary of the Interior.
This article has been updated to include an expert from a letter written to President Biden by Suzan Harjo.
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