The statue of Leonard Peltier was meant to raise awareness of his Native American activism, his artistry and his decades spent in prison for killing two FBI agents, a crime he says he didn’t commit. But just as a federal prosecutor in the case against him wrote to President Obama supporting Peltier’s request for clemency, the sculpture has sparked outrage at American University.
Anger over the sculpture, which some critics say glorifies a cop killer at a time when police officers have been targeted for violent attacks across the country, led the university to remove it Tuesday, less than a month after it was installed. That decision in turn upset proponents of free speech, who said the university had violated its own principles of open inquiry, political discourse and debate.
The sculpture, with a six-by-nine-foot rectangular base modeled after the size of a typical prison cell, is carved out of redwood and is based on a self-portrait that Peltier painted, said the sculptor, who goes by Rigo 23. Peltier was convicted of killing two FBI officers in the 1970s but has maintained his innocence, saying that he shot at the agents, but in self-defense. Many high-profile advocates have questioned the case against him, some alleging that the FBI fabricated evidence.
American University dedicated the sculpture of an introspective-looking Peltier on campus December 9 with a ceremony that included remarks by his son, Chauncey Peltier. The sculpture’s artist has written that the project aims to honor Peltier “as both a symbol of Native struggle for self-determination in North America and as a persevering artist.”
Rigo 23 said he has dedicated much of his life to listening to descendants of people brought to the country as slaves and descendants of those who were originally here, and to creating art focused on social justice. “The suffering of native people is a no-go zone for the consciousness of U.S. citizens,” he said. “You can think about many things, but you cannot think about that.”
Conservative media outlets took note of the sculpture at AU, and so did an American University student, who commented on Twitter: “A 9-ft cop killer is right in front of my dorm.”
Thomas O’Connor, president of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association wrote to AU’s president, Neil Kerwin, at the end of December, decrying the decision to “proudly display” the statue of a convicted murderer and perpetuating “slanted and misleading claims” about Peltier.
“On June 26, 1975, Leonard Peltier was involved in an unprovoked attack on FBI Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams while they were searching for a fugitive on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota,” O’Connor wrote, noting that in more than a dozen appeals, “every aspect of Peltier’s trial has been reviewed in minute detail and his conviction and sentence has been upheld in every instance.”
He wrote that Peltier “would never be considered a candidate for clemency but for his status as a political celebrity,” because he has been punished numerous times for violating prison rules, including an armed escape in the 1970s, which included shots fired at prison guards.
O’Connor wrote that the association is committed to protecting the right to free expression, but that that right comes with a responsibility. He asked the university to remove the statue, and to provide a more accurate and balanced account of the legal case.
O’Connor said Wednesday that in his many years with the association, he had never gotten as strong a response as he did from members to this issue. He applauded the university for acting quickly to remove the statue.
“This is a fresh wound,” he said, not only because of the number of law enforcement officers ambushed and killed in 2016. He described evidence of Williams trying to tie a tourniquet on Coler’s arm, all but torn off by rifle fire, when they were “executed” with point-blank shots that mutilated their faces.
“There’s no statues to Jack Coler and Ron Williams on college campuses, explaining how they were murdered in cold blood for doing their jobs,” O’Connor said.
A university spokesman said in a written statement that the university “strongly supports the mission of museums to present thought-provoking art to inform and educate. Within the AU Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, we have hosted numerous exhibits of political and sometimes controversial art. The decision to host the Peltier statue required a more thorough assessment of the implications of placing the piece in a prominent, public space outside the museum.”
After a fuller review, AU officials decided to remove it.
“The subject matter and placement of the piece improperly suggested that American University has assumed an advocacy position of clemency for Mr. Peltier, when no such institutional position has been taken,” the statement said. There were safety concerns, as well, with credible threats against the art and the campus community.
Kelly Alexander, a spokeswoman for the university, added later that she has no evidence that the sculpture was related to a symposium held at AU’s Washington College of Law about Peltier’s case. She said the university is required to protect the art from damage.
The artist said that when he learned the sculpture would be removed he tried to reach every person he had met and talked with at the university, but so far he has gotten no response. “I have become a ghost,” he said. He was distressed to see photos on social media of pieces of the nine-foot-tall sculpture being lifted by crane, which he likened to decapitation and dismemberment.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a constitutional lawyer who sent a letter to AU on the artist’s behalf Tuesday afternoon, said “the removal of this political work of art is an extreme and particularly shameful example of censorship of political expression. American University is supposed to be a bastion of academic freedom.” Political art is a critical element of American democracy, said Verheyden-Hilliard, who is executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.
“What American University is saying is that the moment that a political opponent of a form of political expression condemns it they will just genuflect and take it down,” she said. “That’s what happened here.”
She said the university’s contract with the artist stipulated that the work would remain on display through the end of April, and that any prior removal required 30 days’ notice.
Rigo 23 said he had raised money from supporters of the cause, built a special studio to fit the sculpture as he created it, and rented a truck to drive part of it from Los Angeles to Washington, while a friend drove the feet — symbolizing for him Peltier’s journey — from California by way of Pine Ridge and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, the epicenter of intense protests in recent months. He used the feet as a platform for people to stand with Peltier in solidarity, he said.
“For me the sculpture is like a silent scream,” he said.
When the university originally announced the sculpture — on a Web page that no longer appears to be active — it included a description that explained that Peltier’s supporters believe that he was wrongfully convicted of the shooting deaths of two FBI agents: “Imprisoned for over 40 years . . . Peltier has been designated a political prisoner by Amnesty International.” It said more than 50 members of Congress and others have called for his immediate release, and described the 72-year-old as an accomplished author and painter with serious medical problems.
“This is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice,” Peter Clark, co-director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, said Wednesday. The group is pushing especially hard now because members believe this is Peltier’s last, best chance at getting out of prison alive.
The unveiling of the statue was listed as one of the events in a week-long series of events advocating for Peltier’s clemency petition in early December in Washington.
James H. Reynolds, a former U.S. attorney who was involved in the case against Peltier and subsequent appeals, wrote a letter to Obama last month. Reynolds said Wednesday that he has concerns about the cost of paying for so many years of incarceration and medical care for Peltier, and that he told the president, “considering all the facts, I’d recommend clemency.”
Here are some of the letters exchanged about the sculpture: