August 28, 2008
An Open Letter to Barack Obama
Symbolism Alone Will Not Bring Change
By LEONARD PELTIER
I have watched with keen interest and renewed hope as your campaign has mobilized millions of Americans behind your message of changing a political system that serves a small economic elite at the expense of the peoples of the United States and the world. Your election as president of the United States, where slaves and Indians were long considered less than human under the law, will undoubtedly constitute a historic moment in race relations in the United States.
Yet symbolism alone will not bring about change. Our young people, black and Native alike, suffer from police brutality and racial profiling, underfunded schools, and discrimination in employment and housing. I sincerely hope your campaign will inspire some hope among our youth to struggle for a better future. I am, however, concerned that your recent statement on the Sean Bell verdict, in which the New York police officers who fired 50 shots at a young man on the eve of his wedding were acquitted of criminal charges, displays a rather myopic view of the law. Until the law is harnessed to protect the victims of state violence and racism, it will serve as an instrument of repression, just as the slave codes functioned to sustain and legitimize an inhuman institution.
As I can testify from experience, the legal institutions of this nation are far from racial and political neutrality. When judges align with the repressive actions and policies of the executive branch, injustice is rationalized and cloaked in judicial platitudes. As you may know, I have now served more than three decades of my life as a political prisoner of the federal government for a crime I did not commit. I have served more time than the maximum sentence under the guidelines under which I was sentenced, yet my parole is continually denied (on the rare occasions when I am afforded a hearing) because I refuse to falsely confess. Amnesty International, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, my Guatemalan sister Rigoberta Menchu, and many of your friends and supporters have recognized me as a political prisoner and called for my immediate release. Millions of people around the world view me as a symbol of injustice against the indigenous peoples of this land,
and I have no doubt that I will go down in history as one of a long line of victims of U.S. government repression, along with Sacco and Vanzetti, the Haymarket Square martyrs, Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, and others targeted by for their political beliefs. But neither I nor my people can afford to wait for history to rectify the crimes of the past.
As a member of the American Indian Movement, I came to the Pine Ridge Oglala reservation to defend the traditional people there from human rights violations carried out by tribal police and goon squads backed by the FBI and the highest offices of the federal government. Our symbolic occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 inspired Indians across the Americas to struggle for their freedom and treaty rights, but it was also met by a fierce federal siege and a wave of violent repression on Pine Ridge. In 1974, AIM leader Russell Means campaigned for tribal chairman while being tried by the federal government for his role at Wounded Knee. Although Means was barred from the reservation by decree of the U.S.-client regime of Richard Wilson, he won the popular vote, only to be denied office by extensive vote fraud and control of the electoral mechanisms. Wilson’s goons proceeded to shoot up pro-Means villages such as Wanblee and terrorize traditional supporters throughout the reservation,
killing at least 60 people between 1973 and 1975.
It is long past time for a congressional investigation to examine the degree of federal complicity in the violent counterinsurgency that followed the occupation of Wounded Knee. The tragic shootout that led to the deaths of two FBI agents and one Native man also led not only to my false conviction, but also the termination of the Church Committee, which was investigating abuses by federal intelligence and law enforcement agents, before it could hold hearings on FBI infiltration of AIM. Despite decades of attempts by my attorneys to obtain government documents related to my case, the FBI continues to withhold thousands of documents that might tend to exonerate me or reveal compromising evidence of judicial collusion with the prosecution.
I truly believe the truth will set me free, but it will also signify a symbolic break from America’s undeclared war on indigenous peoples. I hope and pray that you possess the courage and integrity to seek out the truth and the wisdom to recognize the inherent right of all peoples to self-determination, as acknowledged by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While your statements on federal Indian policy sound promising, your vision of “one America” has an ominous ring for Native peoples struggling to define their own national visions. If freed from colonial constraints and external intervention, indigenous nations might well serve as functioning models of the freedom and democracy to which the United States aspires.
Yours in the struggle.
Until freedom is won,
P.O. Box 1000,
Lewisburg, PA USA 17837