Editor’s Note: Wednesday evening, Leonard Peltier’s attorney, Martin Garbus, received notice from the Department of Justice that Peltier’s petition for clemency had been denied. “The application for commutation of sentence of your client, Mr. Leonard Peltier, was carefully considered,” the letter claimed, “in this Department and the White House, and the decision was reached that favorable action is not warranted. Your client’s application was therefore denied by the President on January 18, 2017. Please advise your client accordingly.”
“I am everyone who ever died without a voice or a prayer or a hope or a chance.” —Leonard Peltier
Tuesday was a day of great joy and celebration for those who have rallied for the freedom of political prisoners Oscar López Rivera and Chelsea Manning. With longstanding campaigns demanding the freedom of López Rivera, who fought for Puerto Rican independence, and Manning, a US soldier-turned-whistleblower, these were both important victories, for the prisoners, their loved ones and supporters around the world. In addition to Rivera and Manning, 207 other commutations were also granted on Tuesday. But among those left behind in this end-game round of clemency was another activist whose longtime campaign for clemency may well hinge on Obama’s last moves in office: Leonard Peltier.
In 1977, Peltier, an activist with the American Indian Movement (AIM), was convicted of murdering two FBI agents. For decades, advocates and human rights organizations have condemned the trial as a political witch hunt, during which evidence that could have exonerated Peltier was concealed by the state. After decades in prison, Peltier has become gravely ill. To say Peltier has received substandard care in the federal prison system would be a gross understatement, and behind prison walls, he likely won’t survive to see another administration that might set him free.
Peltier’s case has been summarized many times and I will lean on the voices of those who have explained Peltier’s case, how he was framed by the government for killing two FBI agents, and why. I will let their explanations, and Peltier’s own words, fill in the blanks for those in need of details, because what I want to say here is personal, and the plea I am about to make is as personal as it is political.
First, I want to explain that simply learning Peltier’s story, as a young girl, helped shape my future politics. My father’s belief in the necessity of assimilation limited my access to Native culture and history. He never used words like “assimilation,” of course, but his mentality was definitely colored by the white supremacy that had been inflicted upon him. He carried many harmful attitudes, about himself and others, and was trying to raise my sister and I to love and respect our country — which unbeknownst to him, would bring about a great deal of pain for me, as I came to grips with the realities of our people’s history.
But, when I was still very young, I met a woman who helped me learn how to love being Native. The woman, who taught my sister and me to dance the way our people danced, who told us stories about AIM, and her front-line work in the ’70s — amid the brutality of the FBI — made me understand that Native history didn’t end over a hundred years ago. It never went away, just as we never went away.
That dear woman, who I am choosing not to name here, told my sister and me about people like Leonard Peltier, and how we have to carry the history of our heroes and our people. She taught us that if we don’t demand to be seen, take up space and shout our stories from the rooftops, all our truths will be erased, because this society’s intention toward us was always erasure. It was a good while before I found my voice, or figured out how to fight for my people. But I stand on the shoulders of freedom fighters, like my first mentor, who remained free and raised children in spite of the state — and like Peltier, who we must never give up on.
In this moment, as a Native person, and a human being who believes in freedom, I ask that my friends and allies use these last days of Obama’s presidency to fight for Leonard Peltier. Take up space with Peltier’s story. Shout it from the rooftops. Fight until the last moment of Obama’s presidency and even after, if necessary, because Peltier deserves that. All our stolen loved ones do, but this moment is a chance for all of us to join in one final push to free a man who was unjustly convicted, who has suffered horribly at the hands of the state, and who has inspired many with his words and courage.
Nelson Mandela’s attorney has decried what Peltier has suffered, saying it is actually worse than what Mandela endured (and I hope we can all understand the severity of that statement). Even the prosecutor in Peltier’s case supports clemency, saying it’s in the best interest of justice. Bill Clinton seemed poised to pardon Peltier in 2001, but backed off after the FBI staged protests outside the White House.
As we stare down the days ahead, under a regime that will surely rob many of their freedom and restore the freedom of very few, solidarity has never been more necessary. And while there will be many opportunities to join together at the intersections of our oppressions — and beyond, into injustices that do not affect us personally, but shouldn’t be allowed to stand — this is a moment we can all join in. We can join across movements and great distances to demand Obama make freeing Peltier part of his legacy.
If Obama does not grant clemency in the next two days, Trump’s inauguration will likely be Peltier’s death sentence. We have to make it clear that leaving Peltier to die in a cage would be a stain on Obama’s presidency — and one not easily forgiven.
Whether you are a fan of our outgoing president or not, please help create an eleventh hour crisis around this issue. It may be the last hope of a man who deserves both mercy and justice.