On Winning Victories

It’s almost a truism of organizing that to be successful, groups need to win victories. Most people are not going to stay with an organization over the long haul unless they see and experience some tangible, positive results from their involvement. With certain reservations, this “truism” squares with my experience as an organizer.

Saul Alinsky was a well-known community organizer who particularly emphasized this point. His basic approach to building popular organizations was that, to begin with, a relatively simple but winnable issue needed to be chosen, an issue of concern to people in the particular area being targeted by organizers. Getting a stop sign or stop light put at a dangerous intersection, getting a government agency to come and meet and set up procedures for input on a regular basis-it didn’t matter much what the issue was. What mattered was WINNING.

Those of us who believe that we need a national political alternative to the Democrat/Republican corporate duopoly have a very real potential of winning a much, much bigger victory in early November. If the Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke ticket gets at least 5% of the national popular vote, the Green party and its allies will be assured of $12-15 million in federal funds come 2004. These resources, combined with other steps that would need to be taken between now and then, would mean that a Green Party-based, third party alliance could have a realistic, if long shot, chance of winning the race for the Presidency in that year.

There’s another victory that the progressive movement, indeed, that all people who believe in justice could win in the next few months: freedom for Leonard Peltier. President Bill Clinton is currently considering the granting of Executive Clemency before he leaves office for this innocent political prisoner. A petition for clemency has been on his desk for almost seven years. Now is the time, the best hope for winning Peltier’s freedom, after the election and with no chance of political damage to Clinton from the vindictive, inhuman reactionaries who literally want Peltier to die in prison

I am writing this column on the eighth day of an annual 12-day fast which I and a number of other people around the country undertake each October. We make this small sacrifice and take other actions during this time to call for the renaming of October 12th Indigenous Peoples Day and to draw attention to the incredible injustice of Peltier’s imprisonment, now in its 25th year. He was convicted by an all-white jury in North Dakota in a tragic joke of a fair trial for the death in 1975 of two FBI agents on Indian land, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He remains in prison despite the statement by one of the government’s own prosecutors in 1985 that, “we do not know who shot the agents” (!!)

Leonard Peltier is much, much more than another person who has suffered at the hands of an often-unjust legal system. He is a symbol for the continuing resistance of Indian people, the only people truly native to the Americas, in response to the well-known history of genocide begun by the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean 508 years ago.

We’ve just been witness to the summer Olympics in Sidney, Australia. There is a strong movement in that country for “truth and reconciliation” with the aboriginal people of that land. All of Australia cheered mightily as Kathy Freeman won the gold medal in the 400 meter race. The opening ceremony included large numbers of aboriginal people performing their dances and songs as part of an overview of Australian history. While this movement still has a long way to go before true reconciliation and justice is done, it is far ahead of our reality in the United States.

“Truth and reconciliation for Indigenous people begins with the freedom of Leonard Peltier.” So reads a sentence on a leaflet put out by the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee for a massive demonstration planned for Sunday, December 10th in New York City demanding Executive Clemency for Peltier. Yes, this is true. Or rather, it can become true. It can become true if many of the tens of thousands of young people and others who have demonstrated in Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and/or Boston over the past 10 months get on board for this winnable campaign. It can become true if a significant chunk of the millions of people who will be voting for Nader and LaDuke get on board, if others who don’t vote or who vote for Gore and even Bush, believing in justice and seeing the injustice of Peltier’s continued imprisonment, get on board. Indeed, this campaign to free Leonard Peltier must become, over the next two-three months, a priority for all of us who say we believe in justice.

Just as we should vote our hopes and not our fears on election day, let’s dare to dream about what a victory it would be when Leonard Peltier walks out of that prison. Think of the impact this will have upon people all over this country, particularly upon indigenous people, and all over the world! But it may not happen unless we all do whatever we can over this coming period of time.

Let’s celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day the way it should be celebrated: reflecting on the 508 years of oppression and genocide and dedicating ourselves to the essential struggle for truth and reconciliation in this land. Free Leonard Peltier!