About 200 people marched from south Minneapolis to the Basilica of St. Mary on International Human Rights Day on Sunday in support of Leonard Peltier, a convicted murderer asking for clemency from President Clinton.
Others marched for the same cause in New York City, Kansas City, Denver, Oklahoma City and San Francisco.
Peltier, a leader of the American Indian Movement, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 1977 for the deaths of two FBI agents. The incident occurred on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in in 1975.
Since his conviction, the fairness and adequacy of the evidence in his trial have been disputed by the American Indian community and Peltier supporters in scholarly, legal and civil rights communities. The FBI maintains Peltier was tried fairly.
Peltier supporters have since been campaigning for his release, and in 1991 a federal judge recommended executive clemency of his sentence.
Executive clemency refers to the constitutional power given exclusively to the president of the United States, allowing him to grant a pardon or commutation of a sentence.
A commutation would not forgive an individual, but would lessen or eliminate an individual’s sentence. A pardon forgives and releases a person from further punishment for his or her crime and is generally considered only after sentence completion.
In Minneapolis, AIM and other organizations held a four-day prayer vigil beginning December 6.
On Sunday morning, the Peacemaker Center held a pipe ceremony led by Naca Harry Charger from the Lakota Hohwoju tribe. Charger said Naca is a title meaning balanced and peaceful leader.
He commented on the importance of this appeal for clemency.
“We hope the people holding the key will know the truth and show compassion,” Charger said.
On Sunday, Peltier supporters gathered in below-freezing temperatures at the Elaine M. Statley Peacemaker Center to begin their march in a rally for Peltier.
Representatives from the American Indian Movement, Amnesty International, the National Lawyers Guild, Legal Rights Center and the Nation of Islam, among other organizations, attended the rally.
Chris Spotted Eagle, an organizer for the rally, said the march was not intended to cause a confrontation, but rather show respectful support for Peltier.
Using a megaphone to lead chanting among the marchers, Clyde Bellecourt, the founder of the Minnesota branch of AIM shouted to the marchers, “Who do we want freedom for?”
“Peltier!” the crowd responded.
“When do we want it?”
“Now! Free Peltier, free Peltier!”
Organizers of the march handed out flyers to pedestrians and motorists with a toll-free number for the White House.
President Clinton is expected to announce his decision on the clemency before he departs from office.
Drum beats from the Peltier drum accompanied the crowd’s singing throughout the march. Supporters held street-wide banners that read, “Clemency Now, Free Leonard Peltier.”
Before the march, Stephanie Autumn, lead coordinator of the event, said Peltier had called her more than three weeks ago asking her to organize an event in Minnesota.
She said Peltier told her to say to his supporters, “Tell them I love them for coming out. They’re my arms, legs, and voice.”
Students from the University and local elementary and high schools were encouraged to attend the event.
Teachers from the Heart of the Earth Survivor School, a K-12 school in Dinkytown, brought students to the event.
Heart of the Earth ninth-grader Christina Welch said she came out for the rights and freedom of Peltier, and for her nation.
Melissa Olson, University senior in American Indian Studies and English, said she recognized the urgency in Peltier’s cause.
“(Peltier) has a chance to be pardoned by the president. It is necessary to show support,” Olson said.
Once at the Basilica, marchers heard Bellecourt read an excerpt from Peltier’s book, “Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance.”
The Basilica continued the event by hosting a human rights program.
Anna Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]