Ed. note: The following is an edited version of a speech given at the Leonare Peltier rally in Tacoma, Washington on May 18, 2013.
Leonard is an inspiration for his strength and integrity for over 40 years as a member of the American Indian Movement, as a defender of the people and resources at the Pine Ridge Reservation, and for 37 long years as a political prisoner. He is in prison for us, for all people committed to environmental justice, to economic and social justice and for the right to self-determination for Native peoples.
The 60’s and early 70’s were a period of mass movements and hope that another world was possible. It was also a period of intense government repression: breaks-in into houses, fostering divisions among people and groups, false arrests, infiltration of progressive and revolutionary groups, attempted and actual assassinations. The most intense repression was against Black, Latinos and Native activists, and groups such as AIM and the Black Panther Party. Much of the repression was organized and carried out under the FBI’s counterintelligence or Cointelpro program, which officially ended in 1971 but never actually stopped. For Leonard Peltier’s membership and leadership in the American Indian Movement (AIM), he was targeted by the FBI and sentenced to life imprisonment in a trial marked by judicial misconduct.
There are as many issues of injustice and oppression today as they were in the 60’s and 70’s. We are living in a period today of high unemployment—over 20 million are unemployed. One-eighth of the white population is below the official and inadequate poverty line while the rate for Latinos, African-Americans, and Native people in is more than twice that—on many reservations, such as Pine Ridge, 50% are below the poverty line.
More than two million people in the US are in prison. Blacks and Native Americans are more than five times as likely to be in prison than whites and we are supposed to believe that racism has ended. Who are they kidding? Hundreds of thousands of immigrants are deported from the United State or locked up at private prisons such as the Northwest detention Center at 16th and J Street in Tacoma for the “crime” of crossing the border to work. Let us demand that in the immigrant reform policy that is being legislated right now that all immigrants have full rights and an end to deportations.
Health care and public education are being gutted by state governments. The federal government refuses to tax the wealthy but has money for the military and prisons but not for human needs. In Washington State, higher education is being privatized as tuition, rather than public money, now covers the large majority of the costs. Corporations have rights, but not poor and working people. The US is involved in even more wars today than they were in the 60’s and 70’s. There is an environmental crisis as climate change and environmental destruction are happening as we are gathered.
At the Evergreen State College, where I teach, 55 student support staff have formed a union. They are demanding to be treated with respect and to not be fired without cause. Unless their demands are met, they are about to go on strike. Let us support them before and if they strike as their struggle is an important one for all of us. It is part of the struggle for all workers to be treated with respect. Their victory would be a step towards a revitalized, combative, and democratic labor movement in Washington state.
Our society cannot go on as it has with a capitalist economic system that views human beings and the earth as things to be exploited—a system based on war that is more and more dysfunctional for the great majority of people of the globe; where inequality of income and wealth is growing daily under Republicans and Democrats; a system unsustainable for the earth and its people.
We need to build social movements that connect the issues of racism, budget cutbacks, mass incarceration, climate injustice, and war and militarism, Movements that connects women’s rights with immigrant’s rights, supports gay and lesbian and transgender liberation, struggles against poverty and housing foreclosures, and stops people from being displaced from their land. Let us target capitalism as the cause of these interrelated forms of oppression. Let us fight the power and struggle in ways small and big for a different society—what I call participatory socialism—where human needs are put at the center, where everyone has meaningful and fulfilling work, wholesome food, free education, quality medical care, and housing. Let’s create a society where cultural diversity, equality, and self-determination are the reality and not meaningless rhetoric. It is not that complicated. We can do it.
In struggling for liberation and revolutionary change and in building bold social movements, we must never forget our political prisoners. Leonard’s health is not good. I urge you to demand his clemency and get groups you know to support this righteous request and to also ask your friends, neighbors, fellow students, and co-workers to write letters to President Obama demanding clemency.
The word, solidarity, is meaningless unless we make as part of our daily lives and organizations, supporting political prisoners and working for their freedom, both well known ones and less well known ones such as Lumumba Ford, a Muslim grad student from Portland who was sentenced to 18 years in 2003 as part of the infamous war on terror. He has committed no crime. To this day, many thousands are targeted for being Arab, for being Muslim. Check out the Jericho movement (oregonjericho.wordpress.com) to learn about other political prisoners and their campaigns for freedom and amnesty.
End the incarceration of immigrants and most prisoners. Close the special housing units and end solitary confinement and other inhumane conditions of prisoners. Free Leonard Peltier, Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, Free all political prisoners.
Peter Bohmer been active since 1967 in movements in solidarity with revolutionary struggles around the world and in anti-racist and economic justice movements in the US. Since 1987, he has taught economics and political economy at Evergreen.