Expanding the Discussion of Race to the Nation's Indigenous Peoples
The Gates arrest and its aftermath proves that the discussion of race and its impact on life in the United States continues to stir emotion. The discussion is nonetheless important. It's too easy for members of one racial or ethnic group to ignore or remain ignorant of the perceptions commonly held by members of other races and ethnicities.
Too rarely does the discussion include the nation's indigenous peoples. Brenda Golden provides this brief account of the injustices Native Americans have endured from the days of conquest to the present. She reminds us that the native leaders who resisted conquest or mistreatment "were branded an enemy and thrown in prison if not killed in battle."
Many of these leaders were imprisoned for long periods of time; Geronimo died a prisoner of the US at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on February 17, 1909.
This reminder is particularly timely given that Leonard Peltier's "first full parole hearing in 15 years" was held today. The results should be known in about three weeks. [more ... including a new addendum to the original post]
Peltier has long maintained that he was framed for the murders of two FBI agents. Whether or not that's true, his position won't help him win the sympathy of the Parole Commission, which typically views remorse and acceptance of responsibility as essential preconditions to parole. The Parole Commission is also likely to give considerable weight to the FBI's insistence that Peltier die in prison. This is from an interview with Eric Seitz, who represents Peltier:
AMY GOODMAN: Will the FBI be weighing in, as well? I remember the pressure in the last days of President Clinton around the issue of granting executive clemency to Leonard Peltier, and the marches of the FBI.
ERIC SEITZ: Yeah, the FBI can’t let it go. They take the position that two FBI agents died, and somebody’s got to pay for that. And so, Leonard is the person to whom they look to for that purpose, and they want him to stay in prison until he dies. So we expect that there will be a letter from the director of the FBI. We expect the FBI will be represented there. A US attorney from Fargo, North Dakota, apparently, is coming and is prepared to give a litany of reasons why Leonard should remain in prison and should never be paroled. And that’s just a part of this case, which we have to expect.
The evidence against Peltier was far from overwhelming, but the Parole Commission isn't likely to relitigate his convictions.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the Parole Commission itself says it recognizes “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions”?
ERIC SEITZ: They have conceded that, and the US attorney himself has conceded that on several occasions. And as many of your listeners undoubtedly know, the only two people who were charged with the conduct which they say that Leonard is guilty of, those two people were acquitted in the separate jury trial. So the whole situation is one that is horrendous, in terms of the history of the case.
Despite the long odds against Peltier, Seitz told a crowd of supporters after the hearing's conclusion that he feels optimistic about his client's release. (The preceding link will take you to a website that provides a brief but comprehensive background to the Peltier case, as well as a detailed account of the facts, including links to the trial transcripts and other source documents.)
While controversy surrounds Peltier's guilt, a less controversial proposition, except perhaps within the ranks of the FBI, is that Peltier did not receive a fair trial. After Peltier's direct appeal ended with an affirmance of his conviction, it became clear that the government withheld crucial evidence from the defense that casts doubt upon Peltier's guilt. The Eighth Circuit acknowledged the "possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government's case," but affirmed his conviction because the legal standard for overturning a conviction in a collateral proceeding, as opposed to a direct appeal, is much more difficult to meet.
Circling back to the beginning of this post, Golden reminds us that Peltier is far from the only Native American to receive shabby treatment from the United States government.
According to a Department of Justice study, in some Native jails resources are so scarce that inmates do not have blankets, mattresses, or basic hygiene items, such as soap and toothpaste. Many Native Americans have lost faith in the criminal justice system in Indian Country, in part due to its inadequacy and in part due to a perceived bias. The Commission and its State Advisory Committees have held numerous meetings with Native communities over the years, and the sentiment remains unchanged: Native Americans face disparate treatment by law enforcement officials at every level.
When it comes to American Indians there is a systemic injustice in applying legal and penal rules. There is an injustice that is felt throughout Indian Country and reverberates down to our youth and children. Study after study has documented this lopsidedness when it comes to the American Indian in the “justice” system. But we see no movement to fix what needs to be fixed to treat American Indians equally with the whites of this land.
To "fix what needs to be fixed" so that the constitutional right to equal protection of the law and the American ideal that all persons are created equal are not just platitudes expressed in dusty documents, we need to move beyond quibbles about whether Prof. Gates or the officer who arrested him were more in the wrong. The discussion of race, ethnicity, and gender, and their impact on social justice, needs to become more productive and more inclusive.
Addendum: As Lincoln Mitchell observes, discussing race in the context of the Gates arrest (or the Rodney King beating or the O.J. Simpson trial) can impair meaningful discussion because the "specifics of the case often get in the way of addressing the broader and more significant problem of which the case is only one example." The same could be said of discussing the plight of Native Americans in the context of the Peltier case or the problem of gender discrimination in the context of the last Democratic primary. Specific incidents can provide a jumping-off point for deeper discussion, but they just as often (maybe more often) invite distracting disagreement about the incident. This point has occasionally been made in comments to TalkLeft posts, and it's worth keeping in mind as we think about how we can discuss these issues more usefully.
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