I spent Friday evening with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Michael Moore, Hurricane Carter, and my Republican buddy Mike. The event was called “Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012,” and was meant to remind folks that the Native American activist Leonard Peltier is still in jail for the murder of two federal agents, in spite of questions about his guilt.
More than 2000 audience members stood and cheered whenever speakers described Peltier as a “political prisoner,” or cried racism, or railed more generally against “our society” or “Wall Street.”
I remained seated. And now, I’m figuring out why.
First, I don’t think that I am stone-hearted or ironically aloof by nature. I was genuinely moved by Michael Moore’s eloquence and passion, which included his response to the shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut that morning. I was wowed by Native American singer/songwriter Bill Miller‘s big spirit, which reminded me of Richie Havens in his prime. Hearing Hurricane Carter tell the story of his wrongful conviction with humor, resignation, and pride, was moving.
So, why was I so skeptical and cold-blooded about most of the event? Why was I the wallflower at the protest rally?
As I think back on it, as I think of the more than three hours of speakers and singers railing that Leonard Peltier is a proud and pure-hearted Native American, railroaded by the vindictive and hasty FBI, I realize the answer: I instinctively bristle when I hear easy, broad-brush caricatures that take the place of careful, detailed argument. When a conclusion sounds too easy, my first instinct is to doubt it. I am, in short, a Mudgeon.
The speakers told us that Leonard Peltier was framed by the FBI for the murders of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975. Why? Well, that was not completely clear, but the words “racist” and “political prisoner” were used a lot.
I don’t know if Leonard Peltier shot those agents. The agents had entered the reservation in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for assaulting and robbing some local ranch workers. They were found dead in their cars, which had been sprayed with more than one hundred bullets. No eyewitness has ever identified the shooters. So, the evidence against Leonard Peltier was circumstantial.
Three witnesses said that Peltier was in the vicinity of the crime. Later, the three said that their statements had been coerced. Shell casings at the scene were said to match a rifle owned by Peltier. Later, a memo from the FBI ballistics expert was discovered, showing that the casings were not a match. When Peltier was extradited from Canada to stand trial, the basis was an affidavit from a woman who claimed that she was his girlfriend and knew that he had shot the agents. That affidavit turned out to be false.
Some evidence is more damning. After the murders, Peltier and two other suspects fled in a station wagon and an RV. When police stopped the RV, which was being driven by Peltier, he shot at the police and fled. One of the murdered agents’ guns was found under the driver’s seat, with Peltier’s fingerprint on it. The station wagon, filled with explosives and driven by one of the other suspects who had fled with Peltier, exploded accidentally on a Kansas highway. Police found the other FBI agent’s gun in it, as well as a rifle of the same type as Peltier’s. Peltier claimed several conflicting alibis at the time, but in his memoir published a quarter-century later, he admits that he shot at the agents, but denies murdering them.
So, while my fellow audience members are hooting about racism and political imprisonment, I’m thinking that, at least, there was plenty of evidence to prove that Peltier was one of the shooters (which he now doesn’t deny), and federal law considers an accomplice to murder to be just as guilty as the murderer. And, when speaker after speaker calls for the President to commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence I am thinking that Bill Clinton did not commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, and Barack Obama will never commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, because this was the murder of two FBI agents, by someone who admits shooting at them, and if you’re the president there’s no upside to pissing off the FBI. This is not like the story of Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for something that he never done.
Leonard Peltier isn’t the only too-easy argument that turns me into an instant skeptic. Opponents of hydrofracturing fret reflexively about fracking fluid “laden with industrial and toxic chemicals” that have caused “massive fish kills, sick children, dead livestock, and contaminated tap water.” When I hear this, I think, wouldn’t this be front-page news if it were true? And wouldn’t the EPA be all over it if there was a health risk? Anti-union business interests have been supporting the “right” of unionized employees to get the benefits of a union’s collective bargaining work without paying dues, by arguing that unions are corrupt and skim almost all of their dues for internal administrative costs and left-wing politicking. I think, if this were true, wouldn’t union members vote bums like that out of leadership? And, when the rapper Mos Def told us on Friday that rap had been the authentic voice of the community until “Wall Street” corrupted it, was I the only person who thought, “Huh? What does the banking industry have to do with rap music? And aren’t rap artists mostly promoted by rap moguls like Def Jam and Roc a Fella?”
It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” I’d like to think that Ernest, surely a Mudgeon in his own time, would also have sat on his hands at the Peltier rally, quietly asking himself “isn’t it too easy to think so?” Maybe Leonard Peltier is innocent; and maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters were all dangerous bums looking for free sandwiches; and maybe the EPA is corrupt and looking the other way as ‘frackers destroy the Marcellus shale bed, or cell phones and microwave ovens cause cancer. But, my Mudgeonly hide will always thicken when these things are presented as though they are beyond question, by partisans who believe because they have an interest in believing, and not because a convincing case has been made.