Indianz.Com > News > ‘Release Leonard Now’: Rally demands President Biden free imprisoned American Indian Movement activist
Indianz.Com Video: Fawn Sharp at White House Rally #LeonardPeltier
‘Release Leonard Now’
Rally demands President Biden free imprisoned American Indian Movement activist
Tuesday, September 12, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A large crowd rallied outside the White House here, calling on President Joe Biden to free imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier.

Peltier, who is Turtle Mountain Chippewa, has spent nearly five decades in federal prison for the murders of two United States government agents. Hundreds of supporters, allies and friends gathered in the nation’s capital on Tuesday — on the activist’s 79th birthday — to demand his freedom.

“I want to stand here today with you as we celebrate our elder, as we celebrate this sacred day in which he was called and born,” Fawn Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the U.S., said in front of the White House. “A warrior that was born to come together — and bring us together.”

Siqwil,” Sharp added, using an expression for gratitude in the language of her tribe, the Quinault Nation, where she serves as vice president. “That is a gift we have all received.”

Fawn Sharp
National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp participates in a rally in support of American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier in front of the White House on September 12, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Sharp reminded the crowd that Biden, a Democrat who took office with the support of American Indian and Alaska Native voters, has the power to release Peltier from the United States Penitentiary Coleman, a high security federal facility in Florida. She then turned to face the White House to address the president directly.

“Release Leonard,” Sharp repeatedly said to Biden. “Release Leonard now.”

Sharp and other speakers credited Peltier for helping usher in the modern era of self-determination and sovereignty that took began to flourish in Indian Country amid his imprisonment in 1977. He had been active in tribal advocacy efforts in South Dakota, Washington and Minnesota prior to his criminal indictment.

“He is one of our people. He’s my brother,” said Suzan Harjo, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

“He is our collective elder and friend, and we need to do everything in our power, in our way, that will get him out of prison now, while he’s still living — now,” asserted Harjo, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award.

Indianz.Com Video: ‘He’s my brother’: Suzan Harjo at White House #LeonardPeltier

Holly Cook Macarro, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation, spoke to Peltier by phone on Monday, a day before his birthday. Despite his age and his health troubles, she said he hs al

“He was, which always is remarkable to me, in good spirits and remains hopeful,” said Cook Macarro, who works in government relations for NDN Collective, one of the co-hosts of the rally. “And that hope after all these years is what has always struck me.”

Cook Macarro read a letter written by Peltier to the crowd. He connected his struggle to that of the ongoing movements to protect waters, lands and natural resources in Indian Country.

Indianz.Com Video: Holly Cook Macarro at White House Rally #LeonardPeltier

“I may leave this place in a box. That is a cold truth,” Peltier said in his message. “But I’ve put my heart and soul into making our world a better place, and there is a lot of work left to do. I would like to get out and join you in doing it.”

“I know that the Spirit Warriors coming up behind me have the heart and soul to fight racism and oppression, and to fight the greed that is poisoning our lands, waters and people,” Peltier continued. “We are still here.”

“Remember who you are — even if they come for your land, your water, your family. We are children of Mother Earth and we owe her and her other children our care,” the imprisoned activist said.

At the end of the rally, speakers and supporters unfurled a massive banner that nearly overshadowed the White House. It carried a message to Biden: “Free Leonard Peltier.” Dancers and drummers performed in front of the banner as it stood in front of the building for an extended period of time.

'Enough Is Enough - Free Leonard Peltier'
Holding a banner reading “Enough Is Enough – Free Leonard Peltier” supporters of the imprisoned American Indian Movement activist rally for his freedom in front of the White House on September 12, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

And as law enforcement from the U.S. Park Police and the U.S. Secret Service pushed most of the crowd away from the White House and onto the nearby Lafayette Park, a core group of Peltier’s advocates remained close to the fence of Biden’s residence and office, holding a banner that read in part “Enough is Enough.” Defying orders to leave, 35 people — including President Sharp of NCAI — were arrested.

“All arrestees have since been released,” NDN Collective said late in the afternoon on Tuesday.

Biden, who returned from an overseas trip to Vietnam late in the morning on Tuesday, has not spoken publicly about Peltier’s imprisonment. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he did not join other Democratic candidates who endorsed freedom for the activist.

White House Leonard Peltier Rally
With law enforcement on the scene, National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp kneels on the sidewalk in front of the White House as supporters of American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier call for his release from federal prison during a rally on September 12, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

“Does the president know who Leonard Peltier is?” the White House was asked during a press briefing back in February 2022. Since then, Biden has remained silent even as Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have supported Peltier’s release from prison.

Peltier is serving two life sentences for the murders of Jack Coler and Ronald William, who were working as agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time of their deaths. The crime occurred in June 1976 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose leaders have supported freedom for the activist.

Peltier has been denied parole repeatedly — in part due to his refusal to accept responsibility for a crime he insists he did not commit. When he was last denied in August 2009, federal authorities referred to him as a “cold-blooded murderer” who committed ” callous criminal acts.”

According to the letter read on Tuesday, Peltier has served over 60 years when “good time” calculations are factored into his sentences. Following his prior denial, he is eligible to go before the U.S. Parole Commission next year but supporters say Biden shouldn’t wait.

“It’s time — 48 years is long enough,” said Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who serves as chief executive officer of NDN Collective. “We are calling on the Biden administration — who has made it a choice, has made indigenous civil rights a priority for his administration — yet he allows, and continues to allow, the longest incarcerated political prisoner in the United States.”

“We need to see action now,” said Tilsen, who was later among those arrested.

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