The people’s struggle will free Leonard Peltier

Peoples Dispatch speaks to Gloria La Riva, who has spent decades in the movement to free the longest-held political prisoner in the United States

June 21, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Photo: Jeffry Scott

Earlier this month, Leonard Peltier, world-renowned Indigenous freedom fighter and the longest-held political prisoner in the United States, had his first parole hearing in over a decade

The movement to free Peltier now awaits the decision resulting from that hearing, on whether or not Peltier will receive parole and be able to go home after almost half a century behind bars.

For more perspective on Peltier’s case, Peoples Dispatch spoke to Gloria La Riva, who for decades has been a part of Peltier’s struggle. In 2020, La Riva ran for President of the United States with Peltier as Vice President, under the ticket of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Due to health reasons, Peltier later had to withdraw from the ticket in August of 2020. La Riva herself has been an integral part of the struggle for freedom for political prisoners, as well as the struggle to fight for socialism in the United States.

“Ultimately, it will take a people’s struggle to free [Leonard]. It’s been a people’s struggle for all these years,” she told Peoples Dispatch.

Read the full interview below:

Peoples Dispatch: How long have you been involved in the struggle to free Leonard Peltier? What led you into that struggle?

Gloria La Riva: I’ve been involved in supporting Leonard in different actions over the years, beginning in 1985, when I was involved in a national tour demanding the freedom of Leonard Peltier and Nelson Mandela.

In 1985, Nelson Mandela was isolated in a prison in South Africa, and most people did not know who he was in the US. Neither did they know who Leonard Peltier was. We held a national tour to garner support for both men. 

Gloria La Riva with Leonard Peltier (Photo via Liberation News)

PD: Leonard’s first parole hearing in over a decade was recently. What can we expect to come out of this latest hearing? 

GLR: Leonard has gone through several parole hearings over the years. A big block in being able to be considered for parole generally in US prison is that you have to confess to the crime and express regret for having committed it.

Leonard Peltier didn’t commit the crime. He didn’t kill the FBI agents and therefore he’s wrongly convicted. So he’s not going to plead guilty to something he didn’t do. 

Regarding his appeal that took place last Monday, you would have to conclude that it was a setup against him. There were four witnesses who were prepared to speak on his behalf. The parole board reduced it to one. They only allowed one of his several attorneys to speak, but the FBI brought several family members of the two FBI agents who were killed, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, to speak.

What those family members said was basically, Leonard should never get out of prison. He needs to die in prison. That has heavy weight in a parole board, when the FBI is organizing it. 

And so we’re waiting. July 11 is the deadline when he’s supposed to get a decision by the parole board. 

PD: Can you talk more about the FBI’s internal organizing against Leonard, in order to keep him behind bars? 

GLR: The FBI is notorious, especially as it was shaped under J. Edgar Hoover, for carrying out a war against the Black Panthers, against the American Indian Movement and even against Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. 

The FBI was intent on destroying the popular movements of the United States for social and economic justice. This holds true for AIM.

Before Clinton finished his presidency, during the time when presidents typically consider pardons or clemency for people in prison. Clinton openly stated that he was looking at Leonard Peltier’s case, and the FBI mobilized a protest of 500 agents, who had their weapons and signs demanding that Leonard not be freed.

In addition, they organized a petition. Up to 8,000 FBI agents, current and former, had signed a petition demanding no clemency for Leonard. That’s an enormous threat, and Clinton succumbed to it. I wrote extensively on the FBI’s role in keeping Leonard behind bars last year for Liberation News.

Bush also refused to pardon him, as did Barack Obama, and as did Trump. As you can imagine, every four years when he’s waiting for the last moments until midnight to see if he’s going to get freed, what a torture it is for Leonard. It’s been so disappointing for him every time. 

PD: Can you speak more to Leonard’s health, and how that is playing into the movement for his release right now?

GLR: Leonard is going to be 80 years old on September 12 this year, and has been in prison for almost 50 years. Prison always has elements that for any average person would be extremely detrimental. Leonard is confined in a small cell, most of the time being on lockdown, where he can’t even walk properly and have circulation and sunshine and proper food.

Imagine a man, 80 years old, in a cell with a roommate. He has a cellmate, someone his age. He should have his own cell. And he’s in a small eight by ten cell, bunk bed, with another man. That is ridiculous. They can’t even both walk on their cell floor together. One has to be in the bed while the other walks. 

And like I said, most of the time he’s on lockdown. Coleman Penitentiary has been virtually on total lockdown for several years since COVID started. And what this does is, when they end the lockdown, it just creates more violence, because the men are penned up, and whatever unresolved issue happens has still been festering, and the guards don’t promote peace.

He has other issues as well. He suffered lockjaw as a child. He’s basically blind in one eye. He has untreated kidney disease. The doctors at the prison have told him they cannot treat him, he needs special treatment, which they can’t provide at the prison.

He has an aortic aneurysm in his abdomen. He has diabetes. He has high blood pressure. Any one of these comorbidities would be enough to put someone in critical condition, but he has several. 

He got COVID in prison in January of 2022, and they didn’t give him any treatment. They threw him into isolation in a cell. He didn’t have water for the longest time. They didn’t even give him ibuprofen for a headache. And yet he came out after 15 days, and he survived it.

He has a strong constitution, but he suffers a lot. The last time I saw him a couple of months ago at Coleman [Penitentiary], he said, my back is killing me. It hurts me all the time. What’s the cause of it? Who knows? He doesn’t get proper treatment. 

But this is true for prisoners in general. It’s not unique to Leonard. And Leonard is unjustly in prison. He should be out, and he should be getting care while he’s in. He has asked several times, his lawyers have appealed for him to get transferred to a prison closer to his family in South Dakota or in Minnesota, where he can get visits, but where he can also be treated, whether at Mayo Clinic, or at another hospital that can treat him properly. 

The last time that he was talking to his supporters and writing to us, he said, I’m going blind, I can’t see, and I need to see a special doctor. 

And then in another moment, a couple of days later, he said that a prison official had come in and said, we’re going to get you the care. But he never did. He never got it.

I imagine anybody who thinks about Leonard wonders how does someone survive this? How do you live through this for 49 years? That’s what the US government does to political prisoners. Whether it’s Mumia Abu-Jamal, or Mutulu Shakur, or Sundiata Acoli, who spend 40, 50 years in prison. It’s called political vengeance. It’s telling them, you will pay a price for your political activism. 

It’s hard to keep up the knowledge in the population of his case because the media does a very good job of hiding the existence of political prisoners in US prisons. 

When Leonard got COVID, we held an emergency press conference. A number of us flew to Tampa near his prison, and we had a press conference there. NBC did a major story on him, and other media as well. ABC, the New York Times has written about him. But it’s not enough coverage. There has to be far more light shed on his case. 

PD: In today’s context of the global movement for Palestinian liberation, how does the movement for Leonard’s release relate to the struggle in Palestine?

GLR: There are definite links between the Indigenous struggle in the United States and the struggle of the Palestinian people.

Both peoples had their lands stolen outright by settler colonialism, and by denying their very existence. The world now knows of the project of trying to wipe out the existence of the Palestinian people, denying their land, expelling them, which goes on today and in an actual attempt at extermination. It’s the same thing that the Native people of the US went through, the outright extermination of many tribal peoples from California, to the Plains, all the way to the Eastern seaboard.

When Leonard Peltier was a child, in the early 1950s, the Eisenhower administration tried to engage in a policy of what they called “termination”. It was the idea of expelling Native people off their lands, off of what were reservations and forcing them into the cities, ostensibly to have employment, but really in order to steal the land again, the little land that remains.

Leonard’s people were also targeted along with the Menominee people. As a child, he told me that he would go to meetings with his father and his uncles where his people fought and successfully stopped the termination. That policy was ended by the struggle of Native people across the country. But still, they were forced at one point to move to the cities. And it’s why at one point in his life he ended up in Seattle.

PD: How can people support the movement to free Leonard Peltier?

GLR: Leonard Peltier is embraced by many Indigenous nations of the United States. The National Congress of American Indians has passed resolutions on his behalf, calling for his freedom. The tribal chief of Pine Ridge is calling for his freedom and so many others.

We’re calling on people to write letters to Leonard Peltier, to sign petitions on his behalf, to contact NDN Collective, which is a non-government entity that has taken up his cause. They actually bought him a house, on his reservation in North Dakota, where he’s hoping to come home, to retire, to be with his family, to be with his people.

There’s a lot people can do to add their grain of sand before July 11. As Leonard himself said, if he’s denied parole, then the lawyers will appeal the decision. But ultimately, it will take a people’s struggle to free him. It’s been a people’s struggle for all these years. 

I have visited Leonard several times. And it’s truly an experience. He is very humble, very kind hearted, and very progressive. He’s always thinking about other causes and issues. He talks about his family. 

One time he told me about his great grandchild who was four years old at the time, she’s nine years old now. And he was talking about how she did a backflip for him in the prison visiting room. He was so thrilled. The last time I saw him, he talked about how she’s so very smart. Her teachers have told her mother that she really needs to be in a special school because she needs more than just a regular education. She’s a brilliant child. But there’s no money for them. Leonard wants to get out so he can help his grandkids and his great grandchildren. He says, “I need to help my people.” That’s his dream.