If you live in the east bay area, I wager you’ve seen this sign around area highways at some point:
The typography is rather distinctive and there are a lot of these signs, quite strategically placed near highways for maximum visibility and minimum legal encroachment. They do not come and go, they stick around consistently for years and years.
After seeing these signs regularly for the 5+ years since we moved here, my wife and I wondered who was behind them and why they were so persistent. Turns out they are all the work of one Shane Grey:
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.
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.”
You would assume this guy is a general activist but that’s not the case. A strangely singular focus.
Obviously I know who Leonard Peltier is, and I’m sure a lot of other people do, too – there were two high profile Hollywood movies about him, Incident at Oglala (1992, documentary) and Thunderheart (1992, drama).
Given that he is 68, and his next scheduled parole hearing is 2024, the odds are looking pretty grim for Peltier. From what I understand, the general consensus of most people who look at the facts of the Peltier case is that it’s mostly bullshit. I’ve heard “Free Leonard” from so many credible sources – including these signs we see almost everywhere we drive in the east bay – I just take it for granted that this poor sap got railroaded:
Peltier is considered by the AIM to be a political prisoner and has received support from individuals and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), Zack de la Rocha, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
So… why? Who exactly did Peltier piss off to get such a raw deal? Or did somebody just have to take a permanent fall for the death of two FBI agents, and Peltier was the best thing they could produce?