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Shane's Campaign to Free Leonard Peltier

Society & Culture  (tags: American Indians, Native Americans, Leonard Peltier, Genocide, cover-up, ethics, government, propaganda, culture, society, freedoms, politics, rights )

- 2661 days ago -
For years, Shane Gray has been on a singular quest to raise awareness of the jailed Indian activist. But now his ubiquitous signs are drawing the ire of local law enforcement.... By John Geluardi

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kat yazzie (400)
Friday February 4, 2011, 9:23 am
Shane's Campaign to Free Leonard Peltier
For years, Shane Gray has been on a singular quest to raise awareness of the jailed Indian activist. But now his ubiquitous signs are drawing the ire of local law enforcement.
By John Geluardi

Just past 5 p.m. on a widy January day, Shane Gray rides onto the Central Avenue catwalk that stretches across Interstate 80. He leans his battered bicycle against the fencing, puts a red-tailed hawk feather in his mouth, and begins waving a bright-red placard that reads "Free Leonard" at evening commuters.

Some drivers honk their horns in support even though many don't know that "Leonard" refers to imprisoned Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who was controversially sentenced to life in federal prison in 1977 for the shooting deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

"It's good when they honk," Gray says cheerfully as a chilly wind tosses his thinning blonde hair, "because then the people who don't know who Leonard is will take notice.... They'll ask, 'Who's this Leonard guy, anyway?'"

About twelve years ago, Gray's "Free Leonard" signs with their distinctive red lettering began appearing on freeway fences, abandoned billboards, neighborhood lampposts, and high in treetops. The signs, sometimes augmented with images of a medicine wheel and arrow, have become such a regular feature on the landscape that they have achieved a quasi-iconic status for the hundreds of thousands of people who have seen them as they drive the area bounded by Oakland, Richmond, and the Carquinez Strait.

While Gray's placards are instantly recognizable, Gray himself has remained little more than a hazy figure blurred by the gossamer of freeway safety fences. But in the past year, the Richmond resident has begun to gain recognition — and not all of it good. To some, Gray is a folk hero who risks arrest and personal injury to rail against the unsympathetic goliath of federal government. Supporters have even purchased his signs as folksy artwork. To others, Gray is a public nuisance who should be stopped from littering the landscape with his lost cause. He avoids posting the placards on private property, preferring fences, poles, and trees that are publicly owned and within view of freeways. Nonetheless, after years of friendly warnings, law enforcement has begun to take a hard line.
On a recent rainy afternoon, Gray sits at a table at the Catahoula Coffee Company in Richmond. At 42, he has an athletic build, and his face is tanned from working outdoors as a landscaper, laborer, and house painter. He wraps his calloused hands around a warm mug of coffee and his light-blue eyes brighten as he talks about his commitment to Peltier's case. "I'm not doing this for myself," Gray said. "I do it because Peltier's incarceration is wrong. It's unjust."

Gray committed to Peltier's cause in 1999 after he attended a powwow in Berkeley held in honor of the imprisoned activist. Gray was moved by the stories of poverty and violent oppression on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. He was also deeply moved by the persistent questions surrounding the evidence used to convict Peltier as the sole person responsible for killing two FBI agents during a shootout that at least forty Native Americans participated in, according to FBI documents.

The day after the powwow, Gray made his first placard from a discarded cardboard box and paint leftover at a job site. Now, twelve years later, he has painted and posted thousands of signs and says he continues to make each new sign with the same enthusiasm and determination as he did his first. The campaign has become the central theme of his life and he says he's not quite sure what he'd do without it. "I don't know why I got involved in the Leonard Peltier case," Gray said. "I have never been involved in any other activism before or since."

Occasionally, Gray borrows tree-climbing gear from a friend to post the signs high in treetops. They can be hard to see, but have a bigger impact once noticed. "People are surprised to see the signs sixty feet up a eucalyptus tree and that really gets their attention," Gray said.

His biggest coup, he says, was an abandoned billboard just off of Interstate 580 in Richmond. He painted the billboard white, and in his unique cursive painted "Free Leonard" in four-foot-high letters. Taggers would regularly spray paint over his message with their own. For months, Gray returned several times a week to re-paint until Caltrans finally tore the billboard down.

Gray also brings his placards to the scene of major media events in the hopes of getting his message serendipitously picked up by television cameras. He avoids events where there has been tragedy such as the loss of life or injury, but when a massive sinkhole opened up in Richmond last April, swallowing two cars and attracting a fleet of television news vans, Gray was in the background quietly holding one of his placards. During the 2010 World Series, Gray was a regular feature outside AT&T Park, even paddling a kayak covered with "Free Leonard" signs into the home-run waters of McCovey Cove just over the right-field wall.

Hollywood and recording artists made Peltier's case widely known through the 1980s and 1990s. His cause reached the apex of its popularity in 1992 with the release of the Robert Redford-produced documentary Incident at Oglala and the Michael Apted movie Thunderheart, which is based on the Pine Ridge shootout and stars Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard. Musicians such as U2, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, and Rage Against the Machine have recorded songs calling for Peltier's release. His case became an international controversy in the early-1990s when the Italian, Belgian, and European parliaments approved resolutions in support of a Peltier pardon.

But Peltier's cause began to lose momentum in 2000. Attorneys had exhausted all of his appeals, and despite expectations, President Bill Clinton refused to give Peltier a presidential pardon as he left office. Hollywood stopped making films and Peltier's name slowly began to disappear from the headlines. Peltier is now 66 and in declining health. In 2009, a parole commission turned him down in his first hearing in fifteen years, and hope that he might win his freedom diminishes with each passing year.

Gray is not politically savvy nor does he understand the intricacies of the United States Court of Appeals. But the disappointing nuances of Peltier's quest for parole have not lessened Gray's commitment. His signs have served as much needed motivation for Bay Area activists. Aaron "A-Ron" Mirmalek, who produced the 2010 Free Leonard Peltier album, a compilation of hip-hop tracks calling attention to Peltier's case, says Gray is an inspiration. "Shane was at the album release party and I gave him special recognition because he has worked so hard and his commitment over the years has had a huge positive effect," said Mirmalek, who is related to Peltier. "Seeing him on the freeways waving his signs always inspires me."

Supporters regularly offer Gray contributions for paint and other materials. Besides accepting one $20 donation from an acquaintance, he says he has always refused to accept money. But in the past year, there has been some interest in his signs as artwork. Richmond resident Scott Guitteau bought a "Free Leonard" placard for its artistic value. "It's like street-art-meets-folk-art," Guitteau said. "It's more simple as opposed to the urban street work of well-known artists like Banksy or Shepard Fairey. Gray's signs are rural, innocent."

But not everyone thinks so. In years past, Gray was on friendly terms with sheriff's deputies, local police, and CHP officers, many who know him by name. For years they had given him gentle warnings about posting signs in certain areas or waving placards when traffic is particularly heavy. Gray says he has always complied and there was never a serious problem. Typically, he uses any contact with the authorities to promote his cause. "Anytime the police stop me, I ask, 'Are you familiar with the most prominent political prisoner in the United States fraudulently convicted by the FBI?'" Gray said rotely. "And when they say, 'no,' I say, 'Well, that's the reason he's still in prison.'"

But lately, the authorities have not been so friendly. Last summer, the California Highway Patrol arrested Gray near an Interstate 80 onramp, and the evening before Thanksgiving, two Contra Costa County sheriff's deputies showed up at his Richmond apartment and booked him into the county jail in Martinez. He was released with no charges at 1 a.m. though he was twenty miles from his home with no transportation and buses had long stopped running. Contra Costa County Sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee says Gray was arrested because of a citizen complaint, and if he doesn't stop putting up placards, he will eventually face charges.

The arrests have given Gray some pause. Since Thanksgiving he has thought more about retiring, though discussing the idea visibly unsettles him. He gets quiet and looks out the cafe window for a long time. "Or I could expand my territory .... I bet the signs would get a good response in Marin. People there know about Leonard," he said, his eyes brightening. "What I really want to do is find the perfect location for a really big sign. It will be really high ... higher than I've ever put anything before."

Posted by Friends of Leonard Peltier -

Carole Sarcinello (338)
Friday February 4, 2011, 9:48 am

I have such admiration for people who dedicate themselves to a singular cause. I've often thought it's something I should consider . . . but I keep seeing so many other problems that need to be addressed and cannot ignore them.

Thanks for posting this inspirational piece, Kat -- deserving of being read by all who are devoted to battling injustice.


Sheryl G (363)
Friday February 4, 2011, 10:03 am
I hear you Carole, I feel like a comet, swooping past doing as much to enlighten as I can on each situation and then moving along. Bless his heart and for his keeping Leonards situation in the forefront of peoples' atttention.

"I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do." ~Edward Everett Hale

Pat B (356)
Friday February 4, 2011, 10:47 am
GREAT comments, Ladies. I echo your feelings on this. Thank you, Kat, for getting this out here.

Jae A (316)
Friday February 4, 2011, 10:56 am
Wonderful read Kat. Gray is one honorable and dedicated deserving of all the respect and the support that we can all give him....for his constant efforts to help Leonard. How we not but admire someone like him.

John C (75)
Friday February 4, 2011, 10:56 am
It is long past time to allow Leonard to go home.
The reports of the incident cover evry detail laying fault at the feet of AIM, except why the government felt they had to enforce, provoke, and imprison people on Indian land. If your lands holdings grew smaller each year while hardships increased, and commercial interests cheat your people out of land and compensation at the same time, what would you do?
Only sick hearts infected with greed will make a proud and honorable people sick and destitute and then blame them for it.
If you can live with that then you can live with a little grace as well and let Leonard go home.

Richard Zane Smith (81)
Friday February 4, 2011, 11:05 am
"sign ,sign, everywhere a this, don't do that, can't ya read the sign"
I admire personal dedication and i'm sure it must feel good to put up signs,
i guess its a sign of the times, when every slogan has to be waved as a sign.
i guess it maybe shows I'm not very political...just kinda sick of signs


Nancy Welch (68)
Friday February 4, 2011, 11:11 am
Kudos to this young man for his dedication! It is waaaay past due for our Leonard to be freed as he should never have been where he is in the first place. God Bless you Shane for all you are doing!!

Penelope Ryan (178)
Friday February 4, 2011, 11:24 am
Kudos and good karma to this man who has dedicated himself to Leonards Cause. he sees a wrong and want to right it, the heart of a true giver and altruist. In my world a real 60's kinda guy! Thank you Kat for this article as I have been on Leonards side since tI first heard about it back in the 80's . Wish I could help.

Mandi T (379)
Friday February 4, 2011, 12:03 pm
What a great man and a great post Thank you Kat once again!

Alicia V (181)
Friday February 4, 2011, 12:49 pm
It is incredible the way they made this honorable man to go to jail long ago, and incredibly enough, he is still in prison, now an old man needing medical attention long ago. I think it is obscene the situation in which they put him into. Let's get him out.

Bette M (91)
Friday February 4, 2011, 1:44 pm
I do hope this man suceeds where others have not
or even tried.
Leonard........Needs to be freeeeeeeeee!!

Plant & protect Danny'd trees for life in 2011..........

Henriette M (154)
Friday February 4, 2011, 4:59 pm
Thanks Kat for keeping this alive for Leonard's freedom to surface soon! The squeaky wheel gets the grease so we just keep it up! Thanks to Shane Gray's persistence to not give up on an innocent man & giving of himself where others are just learning about Leonard who already has put 35 years of his life on hold! Sooner then later we will win & Leonard will be free, I truly believe God will see this come to light!

Bruce Eyster (62)
Friday February 4, 2011, 6:15 pm
Noted , with thanks for keeping this info. and updates ongoing in this unjust and infurriating case of Leonard Peltier .

Deborah B (61)
Friday February 4, 2011, 7:41 pm
The UNITED STATES Government should be so ashamed of the disgrace they have commited against.Leonard Peltier. FOR ALL THE SINS from the USA GOVERNMENT against Native Americans Leonard Peltier will be and has been my life long battle for his freedom. Child molesters serve a few years and are back on the streets. Leonard Peltier is another disgrace that the Government could correct..... LET HIM GO HOME.

Debbie Hogan (115)
Friday February 4, 2011, 7:53 pm
I live in the California East Bay...Have seen this dedicated man waving his sign...and have been surprised to see how much support Mr. Peltier has here...Fantastic...Inspiring...but for the police to arrest a man waving a sign in support of such a predominant political prisoner as Peltier in such a notorious town as Richmond well known for its crime...well, that is just so far beyond my comprehension...

Caitlin M (104)
Friday February 4, 2011, 8:52 pm
I must echo Just C's comment; it fits my own thoughts perfectly. I think it is shameful that Mr. Peltier is still in jail. Thank goodness for this gentleman and people like Kat who keep the light shining for justice.

Past Member (0)
Friday February 4, 2011, 8:55 pm

Debbie Hogan (115)
Friday February 4, 2011, 9:01 pm
What I meant in my comment above is that it seems to me that, with so much crime, it would seem to me that the police in Richmond could and should refrain from punishing an innocent man for doing something positive and concentrate a bit more on their town's more pressing problems...

Little Star (56)
Friday February 4, 2011, 9:09 pm
One of two reasons I joined AIM, many years ago, was about Leonard...after a rifle butt to my forehead..I realized that Public Demonstration will always be shot down..sometimes literally. The best way is through judicial measures..but every attempt has been shunned...and every promise of action...Broken. I have no words to express my discouragement and disgust at the system. I thought when he had the Cancer scare, a few years ago, that they would let him out for proper treatment, but even that was denied. It is situations like this that make one realize we are all in a prison of sorts. I try daily...just to have HOPE. May you all carry on where my Soul has faltered....

Vinnie m (334)
Friday February 4, 2011, 9:53 pm
Thanks Kat for that story about that good white man, Shane Gray.. Now the Police are harressing him. I remember on the News all the Chaos at the Seige. Maybe the FBI shot their own guys with "friendly fire". Oh, oh now I'm probably being flagged by "you know who?". And how come Drunk Drivers kill people on purpose? Yes because they are driving drunk!!Then all they get is two years in jail? Smells like Cover-up to me. Peace out.

Rhonda Maness (580)
Friday February 4, 2011, 11:29 pm
Thanks Kat!!

Vukan Simic (121)
Saturday February 5, 2011, 3:38 am
Even we in Serbia know about this case. Shame on US government, TY Kat.

Yanula P (50)
Saturday February 5, 2011, 4:23 am
Great man,great post.Thank you Kat

Valerie H (133)
Saturday February 5, 2011, 8:47 am
*Gold Stars* to Shane!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ewoud k (68)
Saturday February 5, 2011, 9:43 am
The government just has to let Leonard go, and Shane will stop putting up placards.

And the case will be slosed.

ewoud k (68)
Saturday February 5, 2011, 9:44 am
But for the time being, great work he does, this Shane!

Thanks for the story Kay!

Bill C (91)
Saturday February 5, 2011, 11:51 am
Thanks for posting, Kat. Nice to know there are still people out there who actually DO something other than talk.

Jeannette A (137)
Monday February 7, 2011, 10:27 am
Noted with thanks....

James Anderson (42)
Wednesday February 9, 2011, 2:57 am
thank you Kathy for the update

Tere M (75)
Wednesday February 9, 2011, 12:03 pm
Thank you for sharing Caitlin! Thank you for the update Kat! ~

Ian MacLeod (79)
Wednesday February 9, 2011, 10:34 pm
I graduated from high school in the San Francisco East Bay. Most of the people I knew had "Free Leonard Peltier" T-shirts. I did, and a bunch of us tried to get some funds up for legal help and PR. That was one of my very first encounters with the U.S. police state mentality in officialdumb and utter apathy in the general populace. The idea that the famous FBI would set someone up like that just blew me away when I finally realized exactly HOW they "always got their man." They framed an innocent and sent him to prison with the help of a compliant judge. Well, things have changed since then - they've gotten far WORSE, but are still moving in the same direction: dumber, more viciousness on the part of the government, and more apathy in the populace - and more willingness to be stampeded by propaganda. Anybody remember John Walker Lindh? Another political prisoner. And these two aren't the only ones. A few are in mental institutions; their "mental instability" was saying or writing things that put the government in a bad light maybe a tad too effectively.

This kind of things happens so often nowadays it's "ho hum" commonplace to most people - those who aren't right-wing brainwashed to believe the government actually lives up to its Constitutional responsibilities, and never, never lies to the people. Hell, there are close to 1,000 doctors in prison now for things that weren't actually crimes - they were railroaded. Though I suppose statistics alone would require that one or two actually might be guilty, though mostly they were falsely charged with things that should have been between the doctor an a medical board, not the Department of inJustice. It's just another industry now, I guess.

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."


Hannah H (98)
Saturday February 12, 2011, 6:44 pm
Noted; thank you Kat!

Paula L (17)
Sunday February 13, 2011, 7:58 pm
Thanks Kat for the post. Many blessing to this sign poster. I hope he gets the attention of enough people that in order to get rid of his signs they bury the feds with complaints to the point they set Leonard free, maybe we all need to start helping him out and posting signs the same way in our neighborhoods. Blessings to this Man and may he remain safe and continue the cause.

Krasimira B (175)
Saturday March 5, 2011, 6:41 am
Noted with great hope, thank you Kat for posting.

Please, take action!

Agnes H (144)
Monday March 7, 2011, 3:59 am
Noted and thank you Kat. I'm in the middle of deleting but couldn't let your articles go without a comment, and when I saw this one I just HAD to read it. I was in the middle of it when the bell rang and someone asked for an ambulance. Les got an angina attack and they were more concerned about him than the bloke we called them for. They said he's taken something and not just a little bit. Les said it was the pressure, anyway that's all over.
I'm going into tomorrow to see if there are any petitions on Leonard I haven't signed yet and sign them immediately. I haven't heard much news about him and I wonder whether that has something to do with me living in Oz? I'll try and do what I can, unfortunately I just can't always give money when they ask for it and that hurts me. I think what this young man does, to keep him in the light and remind people he is still here is what is really needed! We don't get much news from America at all! Not even when you had that ice storm and Pine Ridge was without any electricity or any kind of heating. I think that's disgusting! But then the Aboriginals don't get treated any different!

Sini K (113)
Wednesday March 9, 2011, 2:53 am
Noted, signed and Thank you.

Krasimira B (175)
Wednesday March 9, 2011, 5:18 am
You cannot currently send a star to Agnes because you have done so within the last week.

Barbara Erdman (63)
Wednesday March 9, 2011, 4:40 pm
thanx Kat

Cindy C (125)
Tuesday March 15, 2011, 12:57 pm
aww bless and thanks for the links
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