“Freeze! Ex-FBI!” Would you obey that command? Several State of Washington officials did. In November 2015 they removed four paintings by American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier from a state-sponsored exhibition of Native American art, primarily due to the complaints of two private groups of retired FBI Agents.
Then, in March 2017, Leonard Peltier, who is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for murder after a highly controversial conviction in 1977, filed suit in federal court along with his son Chauncey against leaders of the two groups as well as several State of Washington officials, including Governor Jay Inslee, for violating Peltier’s first amendment rights.
Leonard Peltier’s Paintings Removed by a “Heckler’s Veto”
The four paintings were originally included in a small lobby exhibition intended to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. The paintings, along with work by other Native artists, were on display in the lobby of Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries headquarters in Tumwater, Washington. None of the artwork by any of the artists was political or controversial.
The lawsuit contends on November 15, 2015, Labor and Industries Director Joel Sacks, his Public Affairs Manager Timothy Church, and Governor Jay Inslee caved-in to the protests of two retired FBI agents, Edward P. Woods, founder of the No Parole Peltier Association, and Larry Langberg, director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. On that date Sacks, Church and Inslee unceremoniously had Peltier’s paintings removed from the exhibition due to “knowingly false statements and slurs” from the former FBI agents intended “to induce [state officials] to remove Leonard Peltier’s artwork and expression from the exhibition.”
Although, according to the lawsuit, the state only received four negative comments regarding Peltier’s paintings and hundreds, “if not thousands,” of positive comments supporting their inclusion, Sacks, Church and Inslee removed the paintings anyway simply because Leonard Peltier himself is “too controversial” and the controversy “detracted from the message of the exhibit’ which was unspecified.” The lawsuit calls this a “heckler’s veto,” where the government bans protected speech because it fears a violent response.
Personal Thoughts: Who Are Those Guys?
Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being pursued by the super posse, I found myself asking “Who are those guys?” when I first became involved in this story. In November 2015, I’d seen a report on Seattle’s King 5 nightly news about the removal of Peltier’s paintings from the exhibit. The story called Leonard Peltier a “cop killer” and featured an interview with retired FBI agent Ray Lauer in which he referred to Leonard as a “thug.” My friends and I staged a small rally outside the King 5 studios on Thanksgiving of that year, protesting the ex-FBI agent’s and King 5’s blatant slurring of Leonard’s character.
As part of a story I wrote, I contacted Edward Woods of the No Parole Peltier Association to get his side of it. The response I got was both polite and scathing and went on for pages. And pages. I wanted to put down my iPad and step away from it as I read his email. To me, Woods was more of a junkyard dog than a former law enforcement official. I understood why state officials were afraid of Woods and his fellow ex-FBI agent Larry Langberg.
They seemed organized and savvy enough to monitor the Internet for any news about Leonard
Peltier and ready to send representatives at a moment’s notice to attack any attempt to give him publicity. It appeared to me they even contacted King 5 and fed them the story about their success at getting the paintings removed. But there was one thing they hadn’t counted on: the good people at the Olympia Food Co-op.
Meanwhile, Back on Planet Earth
A year and a half after the paintings were removed, I sat in the state capital of Olympia having coffee at the Eastside Olympia Food Co-op with mural artist Ira Coyne. Coyne has long been a supporter of Leonard’s, having grown up listening to alternative radio programs with his father. One day while at the co-op he overheard Brian Frisina, also known as Raven Redbone, the moderator of a Native radio program called “No Bones About It” on KAOS, a community radio station in Olympia. The two began talking and Frisina told Coyne about the removal of Leonard’s paintings. Coyne suggested they make a mural of one of Leonard’s paintings as a way to inform the community of the country’s longest-held political prisoner.
With the help of Lucas Anderson, a co-op committee member, he received permission to paint two murals based on Leonard’s paintings. An anonymous donor paid for the project and soon two super-sized versions of Leonard Peltier paintings went up, one on each of the co-op’s two locations.
“The murals are more enduring than just a meeting or a rally. They’re always there, keeping the spirit alive,” Coyne said.
As he created the murals, he invited the public to help. Anyone walking by could help fill in the outline Coyne had created, similar to a giant paint-by-numbers set, and volunteers were told who Leonard Peltier is and why his story is important. Since then, Coyne created three additional Peltier murals in Minneapolis and one more by Olympia’s Artesian Well, bringing the total to six.
At the opening of the mural on the Eastside branch of the Olympia Food Co-op, a strange man appeared and began taking pictures of the mural with a telephoto lens. He stayed back at first and then became bolder, snapping pictures out in front of the mural. He never spoke to anyone and finally got in his car and drove away.
“I asked Chauncey about it,” Ira recalled, speaking of Leonard’s son who was there attending the opening. “Chauncey said, ‘Oh, those guys are always following me around.’"
But no amount of surveillance or bullying can stop the healing brought about by Leonard Peltier’s art. Ironically, the barking of the ex-FBI junkyard dogs has resulted in six separate murals in two different cities and countless lives being touched by them. The medicine of an old warrior applying color to a canvas in a maximum-security prison reverberates out into the hearts of communities across the country, creating much more awareness of Leonard Peltier and of our nation’s true history than the original exhibition ever would have.