HEALING THE WOUNDS OF THE '60S Salim Muwakkis. Salim Muwakkis is a senior editor at In These Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org December 11, 2000 <http://chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/article/0,2669,SAV-0012110193,FF.html> As his presidential days dwindle down to a precious few, Bill Clinton is scrambling to produce a legacy he can leave to history. His frantic effort to push a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians has so far failed to bear fruit. His welfare-reform policy, once touted as an unqualified success, is being re-evaluated. Studies now find it has added tens of thousands of Americans to the rolls of the working poor without the kind of social safety net that would help them to get out of poverty. But it seems to me that the president is sitting on a legacy that, were it accentuated, would easily add distinction to his eight-year tenure. Almost single-handedly, Clinton has managed to sooth the ragged edges of the culture wars that erupted in the 1960s and 1970s. His canny triangulation strategies and personal charisma have served to calm the clash of tradition and innovation that polarized the nation during that tumultuous era. By doing so, he also managed to slow down the rightward backlash that had been gaining momentum until his 1992 election. To highlight that unheralded accomplishment, Clinton, with considerable fanfare, should grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist jailed 24 years ago for killing two FBI agents. The war between the FBI and political activists during that period was a violent expression of the country's polarization and a grant of clemency to one of its most celebrated victims would do much to focus history on Clinton's true legacy of reconciliation. Peltier was convicted of killing agents Ray Williams and Jack Coler during a shootout on June 26, 1975, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Wounded Knee, S.D. But information revealed subsequent to his 1977 trial seriously indicts the judicial process that convicted him and casts doubt about his guilt. In fact, the prosecution has conceded that it could not prove Peltier's role in the agents' deaths. Peter Matthiessen's 1983 book "In The Spirit of Crazy Horse" is an exhaustive account of the circumstances surrounding the 1975 shootout and makes a very credible case for Peltier's innocence. A growing international chorus, including Amnesty International, is calling for Peltier's freedom. According to the November 1992 ruling of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Peltier's trial and previous appeals were riddled with FBI misconduct and judicial impropriety, including: coercion of witnesses, perjury, fabrication of evidence and the suppression of exculpatory evidence. Those kinds of violations now sound familiar. The public first was alerted to that kind of illegal FBI activity during a 1975 Senate hearing that revealed the existence of a covert FBI operation known as COINTELPRO. The goal of COINTELPRO was to disrupt, discredit and neutralize black nationalist and radical movements, of which Peltier's American Indian Movement was one. Many activists imprisoned during this era later were found to be victims of overzealous law enforcement officials. Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, for example, recently settled a false imprisonment lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the FBI for keeping him locked up 27 years for a crime they knew he didn't commit. Because two of the victims in the Pine Ridge shootout were agents of the FBI, and because the agency actively opposes Peltier's release, the judicial system appears to have been reluctant to review his case. His appeals, meanwhile, have been exhausted. Peltier's supporters insist the FBI is withholding information that could acquit him, but he'll never get another hearing. Were Clinton to shortcircuit this unfair dynamic by freeing the 54-year-old Peltier, Clinton would make explicit his subtle role as the national conciliator. Those on the left criticize Clinton for his centrist policies, but the man from Hope, Ark., utilized a political Jiu-Jitsu to thwart the Republican ascendancy. By wooing enough "Reagan Democrats," he helped stem what had seemed an unstoppable GOP tide. It hasn't been easy, of course; Clinton's impeachment and the hatred he still inspires among some make it clear that the war continues. The president will never win over those who think of him as "Slick Willie." But, he can argue, that very quality of "slickness" has served the nation well by salving our national wounds. By freeing Leonard Peltier he would add substance to his slickness and firm up his legacy.
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