'Into the fire’: New AIM leaders face pivotal time
Special to Indian Country Today
MINNEAPOLIS — When Frank Paro and Lisa Bellanger took the helm of the American Indian Movement from Clyde Bellecourt this spring, they became the first nonfounders at the head of the half-century-old grassroots Native advocacy organization.
Their ascension marked a generational shift for the social justice group and came on the eve — literally — of what some see as a generational shift in the broader social justice landscape.
Paro and Bellanger were tapped as co-chairs of the movement’s Grand Governing Council in late May on the night before George Floyd died in the hands of Minneapolis police officers, prompting local, national and international uprisings against racial imbalances in law enforcement.
“We got thrown into the fire,” said the 68-year-old Paro, Grand Portage Chippewa. “Actually into the flames. In nine days, I had 24 hours of sleep.”
As protests turned violent in and around Minneapolis’ Franklin Avenue Urban Indian District, Paro and Bellanger reactivated the AIM Patrols that began in 1968 in response to police practices. They helped orchestrate 312 volunteers who largely protected Native businesses and organizations in the district from the looting and burning that hit hundreds of businesses in the city.
Sitting outside the Pow Wow Grounds coffee shop on Franklin Avenue recently, Paro thought back to AIM’s roots on the block.
“Police would come along the avenue ... and pick up all the drunks,” he said. “They used to beat us up.”
But the AIM patrols, which Paro joined in 1973 when volunteers used CB radios to report police movements, eventually brought changes in law enforcement behavior.
“We finally got their attention,” he said, taking a drag on a cigarette and looking up and down Franklin Avenue, where some storefronts remained boarded up following the unrest. “Now we’re right back where we started.”
Bellanger, Ojibwe/Dakota, who also recently took over as AIM executive director, agreed.
“It’s sad to see that 52 years later we’re having to do AIM patrols,” she said.
Bellanger grew up in the movement and travelled to AIM protests and occupations as a child.
“One of the things that has kept me in the movement is its spiritual roots,” she said. “It’s behind most of AIM’s work over the years. Protecting Mother Earth.”
But while some AIM tenets remain constant, others have morphed.
Born in fierce opposition to the Minneapolis police, AIM now has a more collaborative relationship with the department.
The group rejects calls in the community — and a vote by the Minneapolis City Council — to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. “But we want reform,” Paro said.
He said AIM backs Chief Medaria Arradondo, the first African American to lead the Minneapolis Police Department, and meets with him and Spike Moss, leader of the African American advocacy group Soul Patrol, every fortnight to discuss community and police relations.
“We support the leadership, but the cops have to change. We’re still fighting for our rights,” Paro said.
Albeit with tactics that are evolving, in part due to personality.
Paro is a quiet presence compared to the late AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks or to Bellecourt, a famous orator and immovable presence with whom Paro traveled for 30 years.
“I’ve been to thousands of meetings with Clyde, and all I had to do was listen,” Paro said. “I’ve always been in the background. Now I have to step up to the cameras.”
But don’t let any comparison to Bellecourt lull you into thinking there’s any less fire, said Moss.
“I’ve fought side by side with Frank and Clyde for decades,” he said. “Frank has the courage and the determination and the will to be effective. AIM is in better than good hands.”
Bellecourt, White Earth Nation, said he decided to step aside as, at 84, he’s experiencing some medical issues. He said he was happy that Paro, Bellanger and others were around to continue the advocacy that has been his life’s work.
“There’s still stuff to do yet,” he said.
Other tactical shifts are born of age — “It used to be I had to tell my parole officer when I went on an action,” said Paro. “Now I have to tell my doctor” — and experience.
Paro and Bellanger want to see a family-first ethos take root in the movement that, over the years, has often seen activists jump from hearth and home to join a protest. They have the backing of Dave Ortiz, who assumed Paro’s previous job as AIM national organization coordinator when Paro moved up.
“My daughter told me sometimes she hated AIM,” said Ortiz, Southern Cheyenne and Lipan Apache, from his home in San Antonio, Texas. “‘When I needed you most, AIM took you away,’ she told me. That broke my heart.”
But if some of the tactics are changing, the central goals remain.
“We still have major problems with housing issues and education,” said Paro. And AIM is still, at its core, a spiritual movement.
“That’s the foundation,” said Bellanger.
Ortiz agreed. “We have to walk the Red Road,” he said.
And the ambitions of the older generations live.
Paro, Bellanger and Oriiz want to see the movement grow from its current roster of 14 chapters to include one in every state. And they want to see the expansion done right.
“First a group becomes a ‘support’ group, and then it can become a sanctioned chapter,” said Ortiz who is in talks with a group in Alaska about opening a support group there. “It’s a process.”
That is sometimes difficult to manage.
“There are people all over the internet claiming to be AIM members who aren’t,” said Paro, who recently ran into challenges patrolling AIM membership in his own backyard.
Mike Forcia, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, was charged last week with a felony for his alleged role in the June 10 toppling of a Christopher Columbus statue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some media reports connected the act to AIM.
Forcia was once a chapter leader, but the “tearing down of the statue was not an AIM action,” Paro said. “I’m glad it is down but not happy about how it came down. I want to see these statues taken down but in a good way. A way that includes education and the youth.”
Which keeps an eye on the future. Something that is the bedrock of any succession plan in any organization.
“When it’s our turn to pass it down, we hope to pass down something this strong or stronger,” said Ortiz. “And we got off to a good start. Frank was put to the test right away. He did a great job.”
Paro said he’s still learning but has received some sage advice from another of the old guard AIM leaders, Bill Means.
“Bill told me to keep doing what I’m doing,” Paro said. “But no more golf.”
Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the last five years covering Western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.
This story has been updated to clarify Paro's remarks about AIM's stance on the Minneapolis Police Department.
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