activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: american indian movement

breaking: mistrial declared for american indian movement co-founder clyde bellecourt

Clyde Bellecourt co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) on July 28, 1968. Chapters of AIM subsequently formed around the U.S. As Steve Hendricks wrote in The Unquiet Grave,

[AIM] got its start policing the Minneapolis police… They told Indians who were being arrested of their rights, and they photographed police at work. … AIM’s work expanded into quieter services, like finding decent housing and jobs for urban Indians, who had long had neither, and founding “survival schools” for Indian children who had left or been rejected by white schools.

On December 24, 2012, Bellecourt attended an unpermitted ceremony at an indoor urban park in Minneapolis in support of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, who had begun a fast roughly two weeks earlier, and Idle No More, a grassroots movement to draw attention to the plight of First Nations people in Canada. The ceremony involved 40 to 50 people who danced, beat drums, or sang healing songs. Bellecourt distributed flyers for an annual New Year’s Eve sobriety pow-wow.

A police officer asked Bellecourt to help disperse the participants, but Bellecourt declined. Bellecourt then went upstairs for coffee. When he returned, the ceremony was over.

Bellecourt sat on a bench, but a security guard told him to leave. Bellecourt said he would leave once he finished his coffee. Police subsequently took him into custody, making him the first and only person from the ceremony to be arrested.

Bellecourt’s trespassing case went to trial last week. On Thursday and Friday he testified in his own defense. Today the judge declared a mistrial, because the jury couldn’t reach a verdict after deliberating for almost nine and a half hours over three days. (The final vote was apparently five to one in favor of acquittal.) The prosecutor, however, allegedly intends to retry the case.

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judge who presided over wounded knee trials will step down from the bench in april

On Thursday, Judge Warren Urbom announced that he will retire in April. Urbom managed cases against more than 130 defendants arising from the 71-day American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. He dismissed charges against the majority of the activists and found 6 guilty. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned 4 of those convictions.

On August 14, 1974, Judge Urbom acquitted the defendants in U.S. v. Jaramillo, because military equipment and officers were used at Wounded Knee contrary to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. That Act limits the military’s role in domestic law enforcement activities to situations involving congressional authorization or a presidential declaration that a civil disorder exists. As Army personnel at Wounded Knee influenced decisions and serviced and maintained equipment on loan to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Marshals, Urbom concluded that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether law enforcement officers were lawfully engaged in the performance of their official duties.

Urbom gained the trust of the defense committee, because his acquittals saved many defendants from being tried by South Dakota juries. Yet some legal workers and defendants subsequently felt betrayed, such as when Urbom found activists guilty or concluded that Indian tribes didn’t have complete sovereignty. As John William Sayer wrote in Ghost Dancing the Law,

It is true that the rule of law, particularly as enforced by judges like Nichol and Urbom, offered the Wounded Knee defendants some protection from excessive government abuse. But the defendants and their attorneys, including those who give credit to Nichol and Urbom, quickly point out that without their well-organized and very public campaign around the trials, the rules might not have provided protection or allowed alternative voices to be heard in the courtroom.

judge denies freedom of information act request by attorney with leonard peltier’s defense team

A federal judge last Friday refused a request by Michael Kuzma, an attorney with Leonard Peltier’s defense team, to review more than 900 pages of FBI documents related to Frank Blackhorse. Blackhorse was among the roughly 24 American Indian Movement members or supporters the FBI identified as having participated, on June 26, 1975, in a fatal shootout with two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. More than seven months later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Peltier, Blackhorse, and Ronald Blackman approximately 160 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta.

After Peltier’s arrest and extradition to the U.S., he was convicted – following an unfair trial in 1977 – of killing both FBI agents during the June 1975 firefight. (Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were tried for the same crime and acquitted, having been allowed to present a political defense, while Peltier was fighting extradition.) Blackhorse faced no extradition effort, even though he was apparently sought for questioning as to the shootout and under indictment for non-fatally shooting a federal agent at Wounded Knee during the 71-day occupation in 1973. As a result, Kuzma suspects Blackhorse may have provided information to law enforcement officials.

Whether or not Kuzma’s suspicion is correct, the judge’s denial of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is troublesome. Such requests are one of a limited range of options for activists or their attorneys to attempt to discover or verify FBI misdeeds. They have been used, for example, in the successful cases following the false prosecution of Geronimo Pratt and the police assassination of Fred Hampton.

Indeed, after a FOIA suit in 1981, Peltier’s defense team received roughly 12,000 pages of documents, including exculpatory material not provided to Peltier before or during his trial. Due to the judge’s decision on Friday, Kuzma has been forced to file new FOIA requests, which can languish for years before the government might have to produce anything. According to a Buffalo News article in February, the FOIA request on which the judge ruled last Friday “dates back to 2004 and is the latest in a series of court actions designed to pry loose secret government documents.”

a postulate: those with whom society disagrees frequently wind up in court

According to John William Sayer,

Debates over the rule of law too often seem to focus on whether the law went astray. Yet a body of law designed to protect property and political power need not stray very far in its application, if at all, to discredit and destroy those who seek to voice alternatives to the assumptions that underlie the prevailing social order. Few, if any, who have even come remotely close to having an audience for such change have escaped the courtroom.

Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials (1997), page 230.