Monday, April 9, 2012

Beating drums, marchers honor imprisoned Leonard Peltier

Sun Sentinel - April 8, 2012

DELRAY BEACH—The Easter Sunday brunch crowds were just beginning to thicken on Atlantic Avenue when two dozen human-rights activists, some beating drums and singing American Indian chants, marched through in single file.

Weaving their way through diners and shoppers, they passed out leaflets and held their banners high to remind the crowds that Leonard Peltier, an American Indian convicted of shooting two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge, S.D., Indian Reservation in 1975, is still in prison, serving two consecutive life terms for first-degree murder.

Many people have questioned Peltier's guilt since his 1977 sentencing. Some believe he was set up by the FBI and an unjust legal system. Books, documentaries, posters and works of art have been created to recount Peltier's story, and several celebrities and human rights groups have taken up his cause, saying he received an unfair trial.

"We want him freed," said Dorothy Ninham, an Oneida Indian from Wisconsin who has known Peltier since the early 1970s and still visits him in prison. "This is one of many injustices that have happened to red people and all races. We're not talking about one day and two agents. We're talking about all the years of oppression our peoples have suffered."

Ninham and a group of activists have been walking across the United States to share Peltier's plight. They began their trek at Alcatraz, the former prison in California, on Dec. 18, and plan to end it on May 20 inWashington, D.C.

Peltier's story is familiar to many who remember the American Indian civil rights protests of the 1970s. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, came under heavy gunfire as they searched for a American Indian man who had been accused of stealing. Peltier, who had been a member of the activist American Indian Movement, admitted to firing at the agents in a 1999 memoir, but denied firing the fatal shots.

Peltier's most recent application for parole was denied in 2009. Peltier, 67, is in the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in North Florida, but Ninham said the marchers do not plan to stop there on their way to Washington.

The Delray Beach march attracted an assortment of former hippies who remember the American Indian protest movement and young activists who said they identify with human-rights causes and police brutality victims.

"The genocide of these great peoples is still going on," said Dona Knapp, of North Naples.

"At any moment, any of us could be Leonard Peltier," said Brenda McCabe, of Delray Beach. "Any of us could be targeted."

John Wulf, of Delray Beach, said the case altered his thinking about the American justice system.

"You have a legal system working to hold someone for whom the evidence is questionable," Wulf said. "It created doubt for me about our system and how it operates."

The group is staying at the Duncan Center, an Episcopal retreat in Delray Beach. After Sunday's march, they watched "Incident at Oglala," a 1992 documentary about the case, and had a potluck dinner and drumming celebration. or 561-243-6536

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