Finding a Definition for Peace

July 12, 2012

What is peace? We are all familiar with the word, with the idea behind it. We use it all the time in a whole range of contexts and situations. It’s a part of common greetings during the holidays and at church. It’s seen on signs at various protests and spoken about in government debates.

You can buy it on jewelry or simply hold up two fingers to express it but if someone were to ask you what peace was, what would you say? It’s harder than it seems. Is it a feeling? A state of being? A foreign policy? Or an unattainable dream for the world? Whatever it is, dialogue between any people can expand the knowledge of it, enrich the meaning, and make the idea of it more attainable in the tangible world.

Eric Sirotkin is a human rights lawyer and peace advocate having done extensive work in South Africa, Korea, and the United States supporting peaceful movements and peace education. His time in South Africa in particular opened his eyes to the idea of “ubuntu” a philosophy of human connectedness. Ubuntu is the allegiance and relations between humans and the notion that every person belongs to a greater whole of one. Simply put by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is the essence of being human because “the only way we can be human is together.” Sirotkin has embraced this and created Ubuntu Works Peace Education Project. With this he travels the world educating people on peacemaking.

Some of Sirotkin’s efforts include delivering presentations on peaceful conflict resolution and peace education. At a 2004 event at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Sirotkin engaged the attendees in conversation about what peace really was. He began by explaining that the peace movement is commonly misunderstood because there is not a coherent/cohesive idea across the board for what peace really is when it is achieved. While it’s a universal principle that everyone can relate to, is it more than just a notion of non-violence? He encouraged the participants to think of a concrete idea of what peace was so that the goal of peace would have a more direct path to take. The process of achieving “peace” and the movement as a whole would become more effective if more people understood what the common ideas of it were. He further explains the difficulty of translating universal principals such as peace because the idea of it transcends across different times and contexts. To him, it is “always evolving” but opening dialogue about it will help others get a better grasp of what it really is.

Many people began by claiming that peace is the absence of war and the absence of fear. In today’s society war is a metaphor for everything. It is taught in schools, evident in daily language, and must be waged against all things bad in the world; terrorism, drugs, poverty, and even women. Everyone is taught to be scared even if they don’t know what they are afraid of. When they don’t know who their enemy is they will buy into violence.

Many discussed though that it is more than that. This idea of war is embedded in the American culture because of its focus on competition and intimidation. Some participants in the workshop noted that the way we treat our young people builds fear because intimidation is embedded in the curriculum and teaching techniques of our education system. While students may not be scared of their teachers, they certainly are afraid to get a bad grade, sometimes ask a wrong question or stand up in front of the class. With this comes the competitive attitude because from a young age students enter into sports and academia where the attitude and mindset is to win and be the best. There are many good lessons learned from being on a sports team or being pushed to excel in school such as team work, cooperation, hard work, determination, and responsibility but with the mind-set of winning, someone always has to lose. The concepts of helping one another is dramatically overshadowed when a student is punished and accused of cheating when they try to help an opponent or fellow classmate in need. There is a “dependency to build conflict” as one participant noted and “everything of value is to beat somebody.” Many of the participants concluded that the educational system needs to be reformed in order to create a space in the future where peace is possible even if it unclear what exactly that might be.

Coming off of the discussion on education many people began to explore what peace meant in the context of conflict. It was noted by many participants that conflict is always going to be there because it will never be possible to settle and resolve everything. What needs to be taught is how to deal with that conflict in a way that is not a reaction or competition but a response. One participant noted that “it’s not what we do but how we do it.” Peace is the process of how we deal with problems individually, nationally and internationally. Peace can come by listening, learning to negotiate, and working together to try to understand each other buy finding commonalities. It’s idealistic but it’s possible. Many people agreed that there is a need for this connection and cooperation amongst people across international borders even without conflict. There is a need to live with respect and compassion for others, putting all people on a more equal common ground. More importantly, these relationships need to be valued. One woman went as far to express her opinion on how we need to get over nationalism. She explained that peace cannot come when we have the power over model to fall back on. With nationalist tendencies there it will always be a back and forth struggle to resolve conflict than an effort to ensure lasting peace or justice.

There is a deeper level to this idea of peaceful relations between and among people. Peace is very much a personal thing as well. It’s something that is acted on globally and nationally but very much so individually as well. One woman explained though that this strive for individual peace should not be for personal excellence and for yourself, you should do it for the betterment of society. We need to be virtuous in doing something constructive for your community and the world when making yourself a better person.

The question of which kind of peace comes first (individual or societal) supported Sirotkin’s initial belief that the idea of peace is always evolving. It can begin with one person. Mr. Sirotkin quoted Paul Hawkins in saying “You can blame people who knock over things in the dark, or you can begin to light the candles.” One woman said “excitement is a most contagious thing” which is true. All it can take is one person becoming at peace with themselves to inspire others to do the same. On the other hand though a societal peace individual people will be able to become inspired as well. Widespread social peace will enable peacemakers to be able to reach those who may be turned off by the idea of world peace. It’s a constant cycle, an ever changing evolution. There is no one place to start but as many participants pointed out the least they could do and the most they could work on was start with themselves. One participant in noting the importance of individual peace, nonviolent communication and conflict resolution claimed “Our privilege is being deconstructed” we are having the same problems as the rest of the world and are learning that we are not so isolated like we thought. Our problems and battles seem bigger than they are because of the globalized world we live in. Peace is not about loving your neighbor but loving yourself so find that something good in everyone, don’t fuel negativity with negativity, and focus on your own everyday behavior and we’ll be amazed at what we can accomplish.

Going back to the original focus of discussion on what peace was, participants collaborated ideas on what peace was aside from an absence of war and fear. It is equality, equilibrium, balance, and connectedness. Tranquility economically, socially, and culturally. It’s more than that though, it’s a state of being, a goal, and always a struggle to strive to maintain that state but it’s also an opportunity. It’s a commitment to resolve conflict with civility moving away from the urge to dominate and becoming comfortable with differing points of view; adding diversity and tolerance into our lives. Peace is a place in the middle of conflict where one can really hear what the other is saying. Peace and the peace movement come off soft, gentle, and passive in appearance but many participants saw it quite differently. Peace is fierce and aggressive. If you think about it Martin Luther King Jr. or even Jesus were not mild or passive men. They were radical, taking action that involved the risk of getting hurt or having consequences. It is more than signing a petition and standing in the streets. They reached out and mobilized people encouraging them to take a stand and use their daily actions to dislodge the current power structure. The current peace movement isn’t like this anymore though, many don’t want to be destructive but unfortunately that’s what is going to have to happen. One man brought up a very interesting point that peace was a negative concept in society. Not negative as a connotation of bad but negative as in it goes against the status quo, it’s an idea that is not inherent in our society. Because of this the peace movement today “demands self-examination, accountability, and responsibility” and the people involved have to be willing to make the same sacrifices as any other independent movement.

Sirotkin noted that it is easier to mobilize and organize people when you are for something than to organize people against something. There are many people around the nation and the world who want peace but one man brought up that not many excited over it. He used an example that Americans get excited over football and therefore many follow it. Peace isn’t exciting enough for many to follow it and this man suggested that we change that; make peace exciting, make people want to be involved. Many don’t realize that we don’t have to wait for a war to end to judge if there is peace. Sirotkin pointed out that peace can come to other realms of life and then can eventually make it to the conflicts of war. Simply put, you don’t have to end a war to spread peace. As many of the participants discussed, you don’t have to only focus on the big things to make a difference, start small, start with yourself and the rest will fall into place. There is violence everywhere in the world. It doesn’t just happen in poor neighborhoods or war zones. One woman pointed out that the corporate world is a much more violent place and it is their behavior that influences the everyday person. Even Mr. Siortkin, a lawyer himself, claimed that the legal profession was one of the most violent with the constant ‘us versus them’ mentality. He also said that we tend to forget the good when times are so dismal and low with current events constantly reminding the public of the horrors around the world. Another woman pointed out that the everyday injustice that occurs in our communities is a form of violence as well. As discussed peace is more than non-violence, she said it’s the strength to love and dissipate these things.

Peace is an abstraction. It is difficult to define yet easy to understand. In striving for safety and security to live one’s life it is thought that we have to make people fear us so we have the security that they will not attack us and jeopardize our safety. People utilize violence for fearful purposes but that is because they do not know the means of nonviolence. If the methods of nonviolence were known, Sirotkin and many other peacemakers are certain that they would chose to utilize those over violence. As discussed and concluded in this workshop nearly 8 years ago, the peace movement can very easily start with the individual. What needs to happen though is all these people need to come together not only to support one another in their efforts for peace but to encourage young people as well. One of the problems with the peace movement that was pointed out repeatedly was that it consists of the same group of people. What is wrong with it? Why are people so turned off by it? There are very few young people who are active in the peace movement and one of the thoughts behind why this is is because of the way young people are raised today. So think about what peace means to you. Discuss it with another, expand your knowledge, and inspire each other. Take that and share it with others, especially young people. Act together, connect with others and you’ll be amazed with what you can accomplish.

Please feel free to share your personal ideas of peace and what it means to you.

MPT Intern – Shannon Riley

Please visit Eric Sirotkin’s website to learn more about the Ubuntu Peace Education Projects at http://uwpep.org/Index/UWPEP.html

A copy of the transcript for this conference can be found at http://uwpep.org/Index/Reframing_Peace_files/Peace%20transcript-1.pdf


I AM The Documentary | Official Site

January 10, 2012

I AM The Documentary | Official Site.

Don’t miss this!  It really could be life-changing.


Michigan Peace Team in D.C.

October 9, 2011
Nighttime view of Capital

Nighttime view of Capital from Freedom Plaza

During last summer’s U.S. Social Forum, MPT team had the good fortune to meet and work with Elliott Adams, the current president of Veterans for Peace (VFP).  We were honored to learn that, after his having joined us on Peace Teams at that forum and his subsequent attendance at our Training for Trainers the following Fall, he had recommended us to the Veterans For Peace group organizing the October 2011 Movement events in Washington D.C.   At VFP’s invitation – and with the financial support of many of you – five of us made the drive to D.C. to come and facilitate nonviolence and peace team trainings here for VFP members and others dedicated to keeping Occupy D.C. a nonviolent, well-coordinated demonstration.

It has been an amazing experience and we have been both welcomed and very well received.  Our trainings have been witness to a wealth of diversity, with folks coming from nearly everywhere across this country….from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine; from Alaska to Hawaii.  We even had a young woman from Sweden!  For many in the group, this is their first political “action” ever…yet there were equally as many “movement veterans.”  Experience ranged from having had no nonviolence training before attending our workshops, to folks who can honestly profess to being professional nonviolence skills trainers and facilitators.

Participants seemed to especially appreciate the ideas of centering as part of preparing for peace team work, utilizing “I-messages”,  and the time spent mastering the CLARA technique (which was a new tool for even some of the most seasoned participants).   Afterwards, attendees expressed a new feeling of preparedness in helping defuse any potential violence.  One young constituent approached us afterward to say he found us to be “wicked knowledgeable”- – high praise in the Generation Y vernacular.  Another participant relayed, “You are clearly in love with the work you do. It shows and makes the training really engaging.”

Folks brought stories from the Occupy N.Y. and Occupy Wall Street events that they had just come from, as did other participants from the many other “occupy” events around the country:  a nation-wide movement called Occupy Together.  One of the most consistent and inspiring things was the deep dedication to nonviolence we saw in these groups, crossing all age, race, and educational boundaries.   People are emphasizing the importance of seeing the humanity in all of us: young and old; Republican, Communist, Democrat and Tea Party members; military veterans and college students;  dedicated peace activists and seasoned police officers.

While we have been here, we have connected with former MPT International peace team member Beth Wichman-Beusher (now based here in Washington D.C.) and former MPT staff member Sayrah Namaste (who flew in from Albuquerque, New Mexico).  We’ve been making new friends with each passing hour and, together, we look forward to gathering early tomorrow, Day 1 of this convergence in Freedom Plaza, to remind our politicians that – together, in one voice – we want people over profits, an end to the war machine, health care for all, the termination of corporate welfare, and sweeping environmental protections for our wounded planet.

Our deep appreciation to all who made it possible for us to be here, to train so many in the ways of nonviolence, and help empower the voice of the people to be heard.

– Peter Dougherty, Mary L. Hanna, Martha Larsen, Jasiu Milanowski, and Sheri Wander: MPT’s  NV Training Team to D.C.

Please stay posted on all that is happening in Freedom Plaza and around the nation:  This is indeed the voice of the people.

Stand With Me

MPT Stands With the Majority of Americans: Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed

August 29, 2011

Watch this brief video clip for a synopsis of what OCTOBER 2011 is all about:



The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

July 12, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a 2003 documentary film that records the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The film also documents the events leading up to the coup.  The Revolution Will Not Be Televised uses first hand documentary footage and interviews shot by filmmakers between 2001 and 2002.  Though critics accuse the film’s pro-Chávez bias of distorting facts, the film provides a remarkable first-hand account of the April 2002 coup.

Two Irish filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain, arrived in Venezuela in 2001, intending to make a documentary about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who they saw as an intriguing figure.  One feature that makes Chávez so captivating is his impassioned oratory, and one of his speeches proclaiming the evils of neo-liberalism, and the U.S.’s role in its promotion, is featured in the film.  Chávez’s self-presentation as a defender of the people and as a staunch of opponent of international business interests makes him the target of both extreme loyalty and hatred.  The early part of the film focuses on the manner in which Chávez governs the country.  In many ways, he is far removed from the stereotypical modern leader; he goes to great lengths to talk in person to Venezuelan citizens, and also hosts a weekly TV show where any citizen can speak with him on-air.  His personal manner is also quite informal, demonstrated by his habitual greeting of supporters, and his attention to everyone around him, regardless of their status or rank.

While the early parts of the film show the successes of Chávez, they also foreshadow the coup by showing the private media’s campaign against Chávez, which becomes a major focus of the film.  The film pieces together several news reports from Venezuela critical of Chávez.  Also included is an ominous statement from George Tenet, the then-director of the CIA, “Obviously Venezuela is important, because it is the world’s third largest supplier of petroleum.  I would say that Mr. Chavez… probably doesn’t have the interest of the United States at heart.”  The film’s narrator, along with several of those interviewed for the film, accuses the United States of playing an active role in fomenting dissent and eventually supporting the coup plotters in their attempt to overthrow Hugo Chávez.

A few days before the coup, a leading general in the Venezuelan armed forces appeared across every private TV station and gave a statement that, while ambiguous, suggested that a coup was imminent.  Soon after, on April 11th, opposition leaders organized a march to the headquarters of the state oil company in protest of the Chávez regime, while crowds loyal to Chávez gathered around the Presidential Palace, Miraflores.  Leaders of the opposition protest than urged the crowds to march toward Miraflores, hoping for a confrontation (protest leaders acted if it was a spontaneous action, but the decision had been made long before, and was part of a larger plan).  The scenes that follow play like a thriller.  The makers of the documentary were in the crowd of Chávez supporters (Chávistas) when snipers began firing at the Chávistas.  The film includes several close-up, graphic shots of bleeding protestors lying on the street.  The camera shakes, and you can feel the fear and confusion of everyone in the crowd.

A main focus of the film is the private media’s role in the coup attempt.  The film shows appeals from private TV stations urging Venezuelans to support the coup.  The film also includes several manipulated clips shown by private TV channels that seemingly showed brutality perpetrated by Chávez supporters, and these clips became a major source of legitimacy for the coup plotters.  Throughout the coup, private TV stations reported extensively (and often falsely) on violence by Chávistas, but refused to air evidence of popular support for the ousted President.

Following the shooting, the camera crew finds refuge in the Presidential Palace.  This is certainly the tensest part of the film, as ministers, palace guards, and other staff all shuffle through crowded hallways hoping for news, with no one knowing any more than anyone else.  The viewer learns of developments elsewhere in the country through constant chatter and rumors being passed around the hallways, with the narrator occasionally stepping in to explain.  It becomes clear the Chávez government had lost the support of most of the leaders in the armed forces, and many government institutions had been taken over by the Army.  Coup leaders come in and negotiate with Chávez, who refuses to resign, but agrees to allow himself to be taken away in the early hours of April 12th to prevent the bombing of Miraflores.  Chávez is taken by the military to an island military base off Venezuela’s coast, but at the time, no one knew where he had been taken.

Following the removal of Chávez, coup leaders established a new government, headed by businessman Pedro Carmona.  The new government eliminated many government institutions (including the National Assembly) and instituted free-market policies, with at least the partial blessing of the Bush administration.

Though most international news outlets reported that Chávez had lost all of his support within the country, the reports were false.  Beginning on the morning of the 12th, Venezuelans, especially in and around Caracas (many of Chávez’s supporters come from the shantytowns surrounding the capital), poured out onto the streets in support of Chávez.  Protestors were met with heavy-handed police tactics.  Though it had appeared the armed forces had been united in their opposition to Chávez, this was also false.  Many high level army generals had in fact participated in the coup, but there were still several who supported Chávez.  Perhaps more importantly, many low ranking soldiers remained loyal to Chávez, including the Presidential Guard, who cooperated with the Carmona government reluctantly.

Crowds began to gather outside of Miraflores in support of Chávez on the 13th, and that number quickly rose into the hundreds of thousands, effectively cutting off the Palace from the rest of the country.  A dissident general advised the Presidential Guard of the situation, who decided to retake the Palace, which they completed successfully.  In the confusion, however, Carmona, and a handful of other coup leaders, escaped.  Palace Guards arrested the remaining coup leaders, and slowly, Chávez ministers, who had been in hiding, were greeted by cheering crowds as they were triumphantly escorted back into Miraflores.  The film documents the initial euphoria of those returning to Miraflores, as well as the confusion and disorganization that results.  The handful of ministers within Miraflores attempt to contact other Venezuelan leaders, but have major difficulties because they can’t get their message out through the private media.  Eventually, they regain access to State Television and swear in the Vice-President to exercise power in the absence of Hugo Chávez.  Chávez’s ministers continue negotiations with coup and military leaders, which eventually secure the release of Chávez.  He arrives early in the morning on the 14th to hundreds of thousands of cheering fans, and gives a TV address appealing for calm.  This is where the film ends.

The film does a truly wonderful job of documenting the events of April 11th– April 14th, 2002.  Unlike so many other documentaries that feel distant, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised provides an intimate depiction of Chávez, and a few other key figures, while also providing a first-hand, on-the-ground account of the coup.  This approach produces the side effect that in many parts of the film, the viewer feels just as much in the dark as those on screen, increasing both the tension and the personal attachment the viewer feels to the events depicted in the film.  The many short, impromptu interviews and the perpetually shaking camera add to these feelings.  While scenes of regular Venezuelans participating in the protests and speaking to the camera provide the most enthralling portions of the film, the news clips provide context, and the film does an excellent job of framing small actions within the broader situation.

The film, while not directly about peace or nonviolent change, certainly contains several examples of both.  While the coup largely used military force (and if there was not actual violence, the threat of violence certainly loomed over any who resisted), the restoration of Chávez was largely peaceful, and was precipitated by a massive, nonviolent protest.  Unquestionably, though, both sides used violence to achieve their aims, but perhaps it is something not shown in the film that demonstrates Chávez’s partiality towards nonviolence and reconciliation.  Following his restoration, he avoided a major crackdown on the opposition, and in 2007, Chávez issued an amnesty for sixty people charged with participating in the coup.  In his speech at the end of the film, he acknowledged his opposition, and said that while they may not agree with him, constitutional processes had to be followed.  His plea that both sides remain calm was in stark contrast to the crackdown ordered by Carmona’s government on April 12th.


MPT Intern-Danny Hirschel-Burns


Think about Hiroshima ( A Review of Hiroshima 60th Anniversary)

July 8, 2011



You might feel scared a few months ago when CNN broadcasted about severe situations of Fukushima daiichi nuclear power plant following the Tohoku earthquake almost every day. Serious discussions about nuclear energy were suddenly exploded in the United States, and it gave us a chance to think about “nuclear” again. Since we encountered “nuclear” for the first time, it has been more than 60 years. Although politicians have manifested that nuclear is a clean energy, safety is not 100% assured once an accident happens. Indeed, people almost forget about the fact that nuclear power was originally invented for weaponry purpose but not for utility purpose.

It was people in Hiroshima/ Nagasaki who were the first human being ever exposed to nuclear radiation in history. In August in 1945, they were exposed to nuclear radiation without any physical protection. For others, the decision to bomb Hiroshima/ Nagasaki might seem right since Japan was persistent and stubborn to surrender. It might be right at that moment for the US and the world to end the war. Japanese might be the bad guys, and both the US and Japan sides might lose more lives without atomic bombs. But, the decision should never be justified. People who justify the decision and the event are those who have never understood pain of survivors. Hiroshima 60th Anniversary does not directly tell you how inhumane using nuclear weapons against human are; however, you will see intentions that led the US government to make the choice.

The Manhattan Project, which created the horrible weapons, started three years before Hiroshima/Nagasaki. The story begins when exiled European scientists suggested the US government to develop nuclear weapons in fear of Germany. Thus, the project was originally launched against Germany. The project involved not only a number of scientists, engineers, and politicians but also a huge investment. In history, “nuclear” is one of the great inventions judging from a purely scientific view, and the potential of its use is high despite its dangerous characteristics. In July, 1945, Nuclear weapons, which took USD 20 billion and three years, were completed. However, Germany had already lost the war. Now what? Only Japan was left, and the United States had a good reason to attack Japan with the phrase, Remember the Perl Harbor”. According to the 2009 Quinnipiac University National Poll, about 60% of American voters think bombing Hiroshima was the right thing to do. Can you really say so after you know the real situation behind?

In April, 1945, Japan started preparing to surrender and negotiating with the Soviet Union. Although the Japanese government was divided into two groups at that time, conditional surrender was the common goal. When the US government knew the fact, they immediately cut off all lines between the central government and embassies and councils outside. This operation was called “Magic Intercepts”. The US government did not have an intention to give Japan conditional surrender. In any case, Japan loses. To lead the next world, they needed to show their absolute power to the world. They did not want Soviet Union to be a co-occupier of Japan or a double leader of the world. To end the war, bombing Hiroshima/Nagasaki was not necessary. In the film, General Eisenhower testified so. But it was necessary for showing their capability to end the war and giving threats of nuclear weapons to the world.

Therefore, the selection of the cities was carefully made. Such as topography, the city size, and strength of the buildings were taken into account to know accurate power of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima and Ogura (Nagasaki) were selected in the end, and shell bombing for the cities was stopped for a while. Then, as you know, 6th and 9th of August became the X day. Do you know both bombing were done in the morning?  Especially, the time when atomic bomb was dropped the city of Hiroshima was 8:15am. Yes, this was the very time when people go to office or school. That is to say, a number of people got directly exposed to nuclear radiation, blast, and excessive heat released from the bomb.

I personally contacted a survivor from Hiroshima, Keiko Murakami. Her testimony (5 series) is on YouTube, and I highly recommend you to watch those if you understand Japanese. As she testifies, people who exposed to heat and radiation died off one after another. Some of you may say she is lucky because she survived. Then, you do not know how much survivors have suffered. Both mentally and physically, being survivors is by no means a lucky thing. After Hiroshima/Nagasaki, survivors were treated like a guinea pig.  ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission) was established in Hiroshima by the US government; however, ABCC never treated patient. Data, they took from the survivors, was used as a measurement of radiation effects, and the world today was built up on the research and Hiroshima/Nagasaki experiment.

We are the one who has created the today’s world. While declaring to create the world without nuclear, we cannot live without them. We should realize having treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is regrettable.  Today, the day when Hiroshima was bombed called “Peace Day” (August 6th), and 66th Peace Day is coming within a month. Although the day was a product from negative legacy, people have been fighting for peace. When will the world receive wish from Hiroshima/Nagasaki? Please think about Hiroshima again.


Works Cited

“Bombing Hiroshima Was Right, Amercian Voters Say 3-1, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds” 4 August  2009. Quinnipiac University. Web. 7 July 2011. <http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1295.xml?ReleaseID=1356>.

Hiroshima 60th Anniversary. The History Channel. 2005. DVD.

Related websites

 Itou, Akihiko. “Voice of survivors-from the shores of a river(1)/ Keiko Murakami” 02 October 2010. Online video clip. YouTube. Accessed on 8 July 2011.  ( This source in Japanese)

Hiroshima Speaks Out. http://h-s-o.net/eng/


MPT Intern-Mari Shibahara-


Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story

July 7, 2011

Robert Redford’s and Michael Apted’s film Incident at Oglala details the shooting of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and the subsequent trial and eventual conviction of Indian activist Leonard Peltier.  The film itself does not take sides on the issue of Peltier’s guilt; it instead uses recordings of interviews to shape the audience’s view of the event.

In February of 1973, activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Indian rights occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee (within the current borders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), the site of a massacre of between 150-300 Sioux Indians by the U.S. 7th Cavalry in 1890.  The 1973 occupation was in protest of living conditions on the reservation and the rule of tribal chairman Dick Wilson, whose impeachment trial had recently been closed.  A stand-off resulted between AIM members and police, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police.  The occupation lasted for 71 days, until both sides agreed to disarm in early May.  The on and off fighting resulted in the death of two AIM members, and a U.S. Marshal was paralyzed.

Following the Wounded Knee Incident, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation went through a very turbulent time (chronically, this is where the film begins).  At the time, there was significant conflict between supporters of AIM, who championed a return to traditional ways, and supporters of Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson, who was happy to work with the BIA.  This conflict led to significant violence, mostly perpetrated by Wilson’s supporters, known as GOONs (Guardians of the Ogala Nation).  GOON squad members repeatedly intimidated and murdered AIM activists and their families.  In 1974, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was 8.4 times higher than that of Detroit, which, at the time, was considered the murder capital of the U.S.  At least fifty opponents of Dick Wilson were murdered, and between 1973 and 1975, there were sixty unsolved murders on the reservation.  The level of violence created an atmosphere of fear among residents and a warzone-like atmosphere, meaning AIM supporters were constantly aware of the threat of attacks.

It was in the environment of terror and violence that the death of the two FBI agents happened.  Two FBI agents in unmarked cars followed a red pick-up truck (though this fact was later disputed by the prosecutors of Leonard Peltier), matching the description of the vehicle driven by Jimmy Eagle, a Native American wanted on petty theft charges, into a small compound.  Not long after the FBI agents entered the compound, shooting started, but it is unclear if it was the FBI agents, the occupants of the pick-up truck, or those at the compound that started the shooting.  Neither the occupants of the pick-up truck or the residents of the area were fully aware of the identity of the FBI agents.  Many of those interviewed in the film say they acted out of self-defense because they assumed the occupants of the unmarked cars were there to kill AIM activists.  Both FBI agents were wounded in the initial shooting, and then they were both executed at close range (an Indian was killed later).

Following the shooting, many of the Indians involved fled.  Two Indians, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, were captured and tried for the murder of the FBI agents, but to the surprise of the prosecutors, they were both acquitted.  Following their acquittal (and Peltier’s capture in Canada), the FBI stepped up his efforts to convict someone of the killings.  Peltier fought extradition to Canada, but a statement by a woman claiming to be Peltier’s girlfriend convinced the Canadian government to extradite him.  The state of the woman’s mental health seemed questionable, and she changed her story many times.  In the film, she appears and says she was intimidated by FBI agents in testifying and says she did not know Peltier at the time.  Peltier tells the same story.  The actual trial was quite one-sided, and Peltier was convicted of both murders and given a sentence of two life terms.

Many pieces of evidence used by the prosecution during the trial were either flimsy or completely false.  A piece of evidence was that a shell casing from the AR-15 supposedly used by Peltier during the shootout was found in the trunk of one of the agents’ cars, and a ballistics expert testified that the bullet came from Peltier’s gun.  There had been several AR-15’s at the scene, but the prosecution did not present any further bullets from the other AR-15’s, and it’s not even clear if Peltier had an AR-15 during the shoot-out.  A few years later, it was revealed that the ballistic expert had performed a further test, and had confirmed that the bullet found in the trunk did not come from the rifle associated with Peltier, but that evidence was withheld from the jury.

Another piece of questionable evidence that led to Peltier’s conviction was the vehicle that the agents followed into the compound.  Over the radio, one of the FBI agents had reported that they were following a ‘red pick-up truck’, the car driven by Jimmy Eagle.  Peltier, at the time of the shooting, drove a vehicle that was a bit of a cross between a van and a sedan.  The prosecutors presented the idea that the FBI agents had been referring to Peltier’s vehicle by the term ‘pick-up truck’, and therefore it had been Peltier’s car they had been following, giving the theory that he executed the agents more credence.  The film shows Peltier’s car, and also shows various individuals involved in the case sharing their views on the vehicle driven into the compound.  It seems that it is incredibly unlikely that the FBI agents mistook Peltier’s red and white van/sedan for a red pick-up truck.

There were not any direct witnesses of the killing of the two agents, but three, young Indians gave testimony placing Peltier at the scene of the crime.  Their statements, however, were somewhat contradictory, and also contradicted statements they had earlier made.  One of them was featured in the film stating that his affidavit in court was a lie and that he was coerced by the FBI into appearing as a witness for the prosecution.

In addition to faulty evidence, the jury was prejudiced by the intense security it received during the trial.  The jury was shuttled between the courthouse and the hotel every day in a school bus with curtains over the windows, and was always escorted by at least three SWAT teams.  Observers of the trial were told to be careful when they left the courtroom, and to always lock their cars.  All of these extra security measures prejudiced the jury against Peltier, because AIM activists, and Native Americans as a whole, were portrayed as dangerous and a real threat to the lives and property of those involved in the trial.

Ultimately, the prosecution did not have any reliable witnesses of the murders, nor did it have any physical evidence that Peltier, versus the many other Indians firing on the police cars, was the one who walked up to the two wounded agents and executed them at close range.  The prosecution also invented the mix-up about the vehicle the agents followed into the compound, leaving no substantial elements of Peltier’s guilt.  Regardless of the facts, Peltier was convicted and given two life terms.  He is still incarcerated and has had numerous appeals turned down.

His imprisonment has attracted significant attention from the international community, and many well-known organizations and individuals have come out in support of his release.  In 2000, Amnesty International issued a statement to the United States Congress declaring Peltier a political prisoner and called for his immediate release.  The Dalai Lama, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Michael Moore, Dustin Hoffman, Helen Mirren, Mikail Gorbachov, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the European Parliament, the Bundestag, the Italian Parliament, the Dutch Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, and many more have all come out in support of Leonard Peltier.    If you’d like to take action, you can visit this website http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/index1.htm, which has links to and instructions on how to contact your congressperson. If you’d like more information, you can visit the above website or this one http://www.aimovement.org/peltier/index.html.  You can also watch either Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story or the 1990 documentary The Spirit of Crazy Horse.  Peltier has also written a book entitled Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance.

MPT Intern-Danny Hirschel-Burns

%d bloggers like this: