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Agents of Repression: withstanding the test of time.

NEARLY 15 YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE JIM VANDER WALL AND I WROTE AGENTS of Repression. Of course, many things have happened during the intervening period that reflect upon the book's content and might thus be considered worth including in a South End Classics Edition. Incorporating such material would, however, have necessitated a substantial reworking of the book, and thus have detracted from the idea of a classic edition, per se. Moreover, none of the additional information would have altered any of the basic arguments and conclusions originally advanced. Rather, it would serve only to reinforce, amplify, and in a few cases clarify lingering ambiguities with respect to what we had already said. Brief summaries of some of the more significant developments since 1988 should prove sufficient to make the point.

In some respects, most important is the fact that Leonard Peltier, whose blatant frame-up forms one of the central themes discussed, remains entombed within the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas (27 years and counting). That this is so despite his prosecutor's open admission before the Eighth Circuit Court that the government had "no idea" who had actually committed the acts for which Peltier was convicted (see pp. 324-325), as well as the court's consequent determination that much of the "evidence" resulting in Peltier's conviction had been false (p. 325), results not least from the FBI having taken the historically unprecedented step of dispatching several hundred agents to conduct a public protest outside the White House at a time when it seemed likely Bill Clinton might commute Peltier's sentence to time served. (1) More or less simultaneously, it seems certain that ranking FBI officials put Clinton on notice that a pardon for Peltier would translate into a concerted investigation of the president himself once he had left office in January 2001 (allegations included everything from perjury in conjunction with the Lewinsky affair, to profiteering from Whitewater and related scams, to criminal abuses of authority committed amid the myriad cover-ups attending everything else). (2)

These maneuvers were coupled with an attempt by the FBI to rewrite the broader narrative of its counterinsurgency operations on Pine Ridge during the mid-1970s. That rewriting centered upon a pamphlet prepared and distributed at taxpayer expense in which the Bureau purportedly rebutted on a case-by-case basis the roster of fatalities among American Indian Movement (AIM) members and its supporters compiled by Vander Wall and me and attributed to the FBI's "reign of terror" on the reservation (see pp. 199-218). (3) In almost every instance, and all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the pamphlet asserted that each death had been investigated "whenever [it was] appropriate" for the FBI to do so, that all resulting cases had long since been satisfactorily resolved, and that, for the most part, there had been no indication of murder in the first place (e.g., several victims allegedly died from "shooting accidents" or "hit and run" incidents involving "unidentified perpetrators"). (4)

Apart from the obvious utility of its doing so vis-a-vis the Peltier case, there are additional motives prompting the Bureau's renewed desire to confuse or distort popular appreciations of what transpired on Pine Ridge and why. It seems, for example, that the FBI retains a strong institutional interest in obscuring the truth of what actually happened to Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, an AIM activist from Canada killed execution-style on the reservation in late 1975 or early 1976. Given that Aquash was demonstrably bad-jacketed by FBI provocateur Douglass Durham in the months before her death, it has always been generally understood that she had fallen victim to this most well-refined and insidious of the Bureau's many "political neutralization" tactics (see pp. 211-217). Suspicions have remained rife in AIM circles, moreover, that the role of FBI personnel was far more direct than merely setting the victim up to be murdered. (5)

Such views were bestowed with a peculiar but substantial appearance of confirmation on September 16, 1999, when Aquash's cousin, Robert Pictou-Branscombe, convened a press conference in Ottawa to announce the results of what he described as "an intensive five-year personal investigation of the circumstances surrounding Anna Mae's death." Aquash, Pictou-Branscombe said, had been abducted from the Denver apartment of a friend with whom she had been staying in December 1975 by an "AIM security crew" dispatched from South Dakota for that purpose. Taken first to an apartment in Rapid City and then to a house on the Rosebud Reservation, she was interrogated at length concerning rumors planted by Durham that she was an FBI informant. After several days, a report on the results of the questioning was made by phone to a "prominent AIM leader," who thereupon instructed the callers that Aquash should be "eliminated." She was then driven by her kidnappers to a remote location on Pine Ridge, shot in the head, and her body dumped into the ravine in which it was eventually found. (6)

Throughout his statement, and soon repeated at a press conference in Denver during which he was joined by AIM leader Russell Means, Pictou-Branscombe consistently named names, identifying the killers as one-time AIM members John Boy Patten and Arlo Looking Cloud, and the man who ordered the execution as AIM's once self-proclaimed "Executive Director," Vernon Bellecourt. (7) PictouBranscombe followed up by demanding to know why the FBI, for all its vaunted legions of professional investigators, had been unable to do in a quarter-century what he had accomplished, acting alone and with very limited funds, during a few months of amateur sleuthing: ferret out the essential facts. Without responding to the query directly, the Bureau quickly indicated that the Aquash case remained "pending" and that "new evidence" would soon be put before a grand jury (the third to have considered the matter over the years). (8)

In practice, however, all that happened was that veteran Denver police detective Abe Alonzo, who had been assigned Aquash's unsolved case file in 1994, reassigned abruptly and without explanation. Alonzo seems to have reached many of the same conclusions as Pictou-Branscombe and his findings and the local investigation itself were quietly shelved after his departure. (9) To date, although it has long been axiomatic that a grand jury "would indict a ham sandwich" if asked to do so by a federal prosecutor, nobody has been charged in the Aquash murder. The situation plainly exhibits all the characteristics of a high-level Bureau coverup. Less obvious, perhaps, is why the FBI might be so bent upon protecting from prosecution a group of what its officials have openly referred to as "AIM thugs." Historically, the Bureau has adopted such a posture only in instances where one or more of the accused have turned out to be federal operatives. (10)

In this connection, Pictou-Branscombe's naming of Vernon Bellecourt as having ordered the Aquash murder may be the decisive ingredient. An internal investigation undertaken by the Confederation of Autonomous AIM Chapters during the early 1990s concluded for a variety of reasons that Bellecourt had in all probability functioned as an agent provocateur since the day he had joined the movement in 1970. It was thoroughly documented that he had been at the heart of virtually every significant factional dispute that had disrupted AIM since at least as early as 1973, routinely sowing rumors that other AIM members were police infiltrators and otherwise conducting himself in a manner guaranteed to foment discord and distrust. Instructively, he and his younger brother Clyde were also the only AIM "notables" never convicted of an offense during the period of maximal FBI repression. (11)

Considerable evidence was also developed, although the charge was never entirely proven, that Vernon in particular pocketed substantial amounts of money donated to further AIM's political and legal defense efforts. (12) In any event, by the early 1990s it was a matter of public record that the Bellecourts were conducting what they called "National AIM operations" out of their Minneapolis headquarters with regular and rather large infusions of cash from federal and major corporate sources, reputedly augmenting their finances with profits derived from shakedowns and extortion, as well as drug sales in the Twin Cities Indian ghettoes. (13) In 1993, the enterprise was incorporated under the laws of the State of Minnesota as "National AIM, Inc.," with the location of its annual membership meeting listed as Vernon's home address. (14)

From the mid- 1980s onward, AIM members anywhere in North America who questioned the propriety of the brothers' activities were summarily and ostentatiously "expelled" by what was initially dubbed the "Central Committee." Later, in an attempt to sound more "Indian," it was retitled the "Central Council," then the "Grand Council," and is now the "Grand Governing Council." Its contact number has invariably turned out to be Vernon's home phone. (15) Most of those expelled had never been part of Bellecourts' essentially localized organization, and even fewer had accepted assertions that it held the least authority over them. Pretexts used to justify this bizarre purge ranged from the shopworn slur that those targeted were one or another brand of cop to the slightly more innovative claim that they were "ethnic imposters," guilty of "ethnic fraud" (i.e., that they were "really" blacks, sometimes Asians, or, most usually, whites "masquerading" as Indians). (16)

The confusion such tactics have engendered within North America's indigenous communities and among allied non-Indians has, predictably enough, taken a tremendous toll in terms of lost organizational cohesion and dissipated political energy among opponents of the U.S. internal colonial status quo. (17) On balance, the Bellecourts' performance has been strikingly similar to that of Huey P. Newton and Elaine Brown in their deliberate and highly destructive depoliticization/ dismantlement of the Black Panther Party and wholesale gangsterization of its residue during the early-to-mid 1970s. (18) In form and function, moreover, "National AIM" conforms all but perfectly to the model of the "pseudo-gangs" British counterinsurgency specialist Frank Kitson once recommended his FBI colleagues create as an instrument with which to destroy the inter/intragroup relationships of national liberation movements within the United States. (19)

Hence, in March 1994, upon intensive review of the accumulated evidence against them--and after entertaining a vociferous defense mounted by Clyde--a panel representing 23 autonomous AIM chapters entered a unanimous decree permanently banning both brothers from further association of their names/ activities with the American Indian Movement. (20) For their part, the Bellecourts, Vernon in particular, have responded by announcing that they had to all intents and purposes expelled the rest of the movement from itself, maintaining an ongoing Internet campaign in a concerted effort to discredit those they perceive as having been the key "instigators" of the tribunal. (21) The demoralization and consequent fragmentation of what was once the most promising indigenous liberation movement in North America has therefore in many respects continued into the new century. (22)

Viewing it through the lens of his subsequent performance thus affords a marked degree of traction to the theory that Vernon Bellecourt ordered the murder of Anna Mae Aquash to prevent her from sharing her discovery of his identity, if not as an FBI infiltrator, then as the individual who lifted some $100,000 from AIM's legal defense coffers in late 1974 (a theft long attributed to Douglass Durham). (23) It would also go far towards explaining Durham's own strange behavior in immediately confirming that he was working for the FBI when confronted with such allegations by the AIM leadership on March 7, 1975. He thereafter accompanied Vernon to Chicago, where they held a press conference to publicize the "revelation" as quickly and widely as possible. (24) Russell Means has all along suspected that, since AIM was well aware that it had been infiltrated at a fairly high level by early 1975, Durham's remarkable eagerness to blow his cover was a ploy designed to cover the fact that the Bureau had installed an even more highly placed infiltrator, someone positioned to do far more damage than Durham possibly could have. (25)

At the very least, the FBI's ongoing conduct with respect to Peltier, as well as the Aquash murder and many other still-unresolved homicides on Pine Ridge, clearly indicate the extent to which the mentality and operational priorities of America's political police have remained constant despite the supposed "reforms" it underwent during the late 1970s. (26) In light of the recently effected Homeland Security Act (otherwise known as the "Patriot Act"), (27) a measure that formally sanctions many of the worst abuses the Bureau engaged in a generation ago, the situation is one with which every activist in the country should become intimately acquainted. In this sense, Agents" of Repression is timelier than ever.


(1.) "FBI Agents Protest Clemency Request for Peltier," News From Indian Country, late December 2000.

(2.) Leonard Peltier, "Letter to Supporters: Clinton Traded His Freedom for Mine," February 2001.

(3.) Report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Minneapolis Division." Accounting for Native American Deaths, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, May 2000). In his forward, at p. 1, SAC Minneapolis Douglas J. Domin "explains" the belatedness of the Bureau's response to its critics on such matters as resulting from its not having been made privy to the names of the dead at issue until "December 1999." Concerning the degree of falsity embodied in this statement, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 1990: 393-394). It should be noted that the names included on the list in our book are identical to those addressed in the report Domin forwards, and that the FBI had secured the very first three copies of The COINTELPRO Papers upon its release. The Bureau was thus in possession of the complete list at least nine years earlier than Domin indicates.

(4.) For a point-by-point rejoinder to the FBI report, see Ward Churchill, "The FBI's 'Accounting' of AIM Fatalities on Pine Ridge, 1973-1976: Analysis and Refutation," prepared for and available from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, Lawrence, Kansas.

(5.) For the view from Canada at about the same time Agents was originally released, see Charlie McKenzie, "Who Killed Anna Mae? A Murder Case That Won't Die," Montreal Daily News, May 2, 1988.

(6.) Joseph Geshick, "Ottawa Press Conference, re: Anna Mae," September 19, 1999; Jamie Monastyrski, "Aquash Family Accuses AIM of Murder," Indian Country Today, October 1, 1999.

(7.) Press release, "Russell Means and American Indian Movement Announce Who Murdered Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash," Denver, November 3, 1999; Minnie Two Shoes, Paul DeMain, and Richard LaCourse, "Richard Two Elk Interview: Oglala Says Brother, Arlo Looking Cloud, Was Involved in Orders That Led to Execution of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash," News from Indian Country, Special Edition II, 2000; Mike Mosedale, "Bury My Heart: A 24-Year-Old Murder Mystery Returns to Haunt the American Indian Movement," City Pages, February 16, 2000.

(8.) Mike Anton, "A Cry for Justice: The Search for the Killers of an Indian Acivist Symbolizes a Reservation's Tumultuous History," Rocky Mountain News, February 16, 2000.

(9.) Brian Hansen, "More Questions in AIM Murder Case: Removal of Denver Detective Draws Fire," Colorado Daily, November 8, 1999.

(10.) For example, this technique was employed with respect to the lethal Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the 1965 murder of civil rights worker Viola Luizzo, also in Alabama. Both instances involved FBI provocateur Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. Rowe infiltrated the state's Ku Klux Klan and was named early on by local authorities as a witness protection program (where, if still alive, he presumably remains). Maintaining "open" investigation files shields them from having to divulge information to Alabama officials. Prosecution of Rowe and of the bona fide klansmen involved in the Birmingham carnage was thus actively obstructed by the FBI for decades. See Howell Rains, "The Birnfingham Bombing Twenty Years Later: The Case That Won't Close," New York Times Magazine, July 24, 1983; Kenneth O'Reilly, "Racial Matters": The FBI's Secret Files on Black America, 19601972 (New York: Free Press, 1989: 217-223). Also see William C. Sullivan, with Bill Brown, The Bureau: My Thirty Years with Hoover's FBI (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975:131-133); Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., My Undercover Years' with the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Bantam, 1976).

(11.) By far the best summary of the evidence produced during the AIM tribunal is Faith Attaguille's "Why Do You Think We Call It Struggle'? An Essay on the Subversion of the American Indian Movement," which is accessible on various Autonomous AIM websites and in hardcopy from SET-AIM, Houston, Texas. Also see Shelly Davis, "AIM Members Face Charges," Tahlequah Daily Times Journal, December 30, 1993; Shelly Davis, "Split in AIM Leads to Charges," News from Indian Country, mid-January 1994; Joe Geshick, "Integrity of Bellecourt Brothers Called into Question Again," Ojibwe News, February 18, 1994; Joe Geshick, "Clyde Pressures His Employees to Support Him at the AIM Tribunal," Ojibwe News, March 11, 1994; Shelly Davis, "AIM Tribunal Convicts on Two Charges," Ojibwe News, April 1, 1994; Joe Geshick, "Geshick Reports on San Fransisco AIM Tribunal," Ojibwe News, April 1, 1994; "AIM Tribunal Finds Bellecourt Brothers Guilty of Subverting Movement" (press release; copy on file).

(12.) As Attaguille puts it at p. 16, "Vernon [has] consistently portrayed himself as a 'foremost AIM leader,' insinuating that he is a 'veteran' of the spectacular federal siege of AIM members at Wounded Knee in 1973, a misrepresentation he still cultivates. Vernon was not at Wounded Knee. During much of that confrontation he was touring Italy 'raising funds.' On his return, he claimed to have been arrested by federal agents at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and forced to post the $17,000 in proceeds as bond. It is on record that Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH posted the bond at Vernon's request, and that the funds were returned to them when Vernon wasn't prosecuted. The Italian donations, however, were never turned over to the movement." Vernon was also in charge of the more than $60,000 in travel funds--about half of which turned up missing--provided by White House officials in exchange for AIM's peaceful stand-down after its 1972 occupation of BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.; Russell Means, with Marvin J. Wolf, Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995: 235); depostition of Robert Free, February 28, 1994 (copy on file).

(13.) On National AIM's "legitimate" financing, see Francis Blake, Jr., "Reflections from the Anishinabe Nation," Ojibwe News, July 16, 1993: Laura Waterman Wittstock, "The Clear Vision of the American Indian Movement," handed out by Clyde Bellecourt at the AIM tribunal on March 26, 1994 (copy on file); Jack Hayes, "Blood Brothers," Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, March 1996. On shakedowns and extortion, see Edward T. Needaybway, "Is This Traditional Leadership?" The Circle, February 1992; Kathleen Messinger, "Messinger Announces 'Party's Over' for Bellecourt and Fairbanks," Ojibwe News, Febuary 19, 1993; Anthony Short, "Minneapolis Native Stands Up to Bellecourt," Ojibwe News, March 16, 1993. On drug dealing I to which Clyde Bellecourt pied guilty in 1987--see Gerald Vizenor. Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan, 1994: 155,162); Means with Wolf, White Men, pp. 180, 325.

(14.) The document of incorporation (copy on file) is stamped as having been submitted to the state on July 9, 1993. Its registered office is listed on the cover sheet as 3417 20th Ave. So., Minneapolis, Vernon Bellecourt's home address.

(15.) Attaguille, "Struggle," pp. 12-13.

(16.) See Steve Jackson, "Civil Wars," Westword, February 9, 1994; Attaguile, "Struggle," p. 11.

(17.) See the concluding chapter of Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The American Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: New Press, 1996); Attaguille, "Struggle," especially pp. 1-4; Jackson, "Civil Wars."

(18.) Ollie A. Johnson III, "Explaining the Demise of the Black Panther Party: The Role of Internal Factors," in Charles E. Jones (ed.), The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (Baltimore: Black Classics Press, 1998), especially pp. 406-409. Also see David Hilliard and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993:306-344).

(19.) For further information, see Frank Kitson, Low-Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, and Peace-Keeping (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1971), especially pp. 48,422 fn. 33, and 100; Ken Lawrence, The New State Repression (Chicago: International Network Against the New State Repression, 1985: 5-8).

(20.) Regina Brave, Donald A. Grinde, Jr., Joe Locust, Dian Million, and Sharon H. Venne, "Preliminary Statement on the Tribunal of the Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement," Marcia 27, 1994 (copy on file).

(21.) Joe Geshick, "Bellecourts up to Old Tricks in Trying to Snuff Out Tribunal Press Reports," Ojibwe News, April 8, 1994. The internet material is far too proliferate to cite here.

(22.) Among the brighter spots on the horizon has been Colorado AIM's reconstruction of a broad coalition of some 75 progressive Denver/Boulder organizations fragmented by Bellecourt smear tactics during the mid-1990s. Although the main function of this alliance to date has been to successfully shut down a resurgence of Columbus Day celebrations in the city, other, more substantive, agenda items have emerged and are presently being acted upon.

(23.) J.P. Adams, "AIM, the Church. and the FBI: The Douglass Durham Case," Christian Century, May 14, 1975, p. 221 ; Johauna Brand, The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash (Toronto: Lorimer, 1978: 98-99); Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: Viking, 1991: 123).

(24.) Rex Weyler, Blood of the Land: The U.S. Government and Corporate War Against the American Indian Movement (Philadelphia: New Society, 1992: 169). Also see "Anatomy of an Informer," Akwesasne Notes, Early Summer 1975; Paula Giese, Anatomy of an Informer (Minneapolis: American Indian Movement, 1976).

(25.) Interviews with Russell Means, April 14, 1994, and November 3, 1999 (notes on file).

(26.) Sanford J. Ungar, "An Agenda for Rebuilding the FBI," Washington Post, August 21, 1977: Jerry J. Berman, "FBI Charter Legislation: The Case for Prohibiting Domestic Intelligence Investigations," University of Detroit Journal of Urban Law, No. 55, 1978; Arnold Beichman, "Can Counterintelligence Come in from the Cold?" Policy, Review, No. 15, Winter 1981.

(27.) Office of Homeland Security Act of 2001 (H.R. 3026, October 4, 2001).

WARD CHURCHILL is Professor of American Indian Studies and communications at the University of Colorado (Boulder, CO 80309; e-mail: He is the author of numerous books and articles. His works include The COINTELPRO Papers; Acts of Rebellion, and Perversions of Justice: Indigenous Peoples and Anglo-American Law; and Agents of Repression, coauthored with Jim Vander Wall.
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Title Annotation:II. Internationalists and Anti-Imperialists
Author:Churchill, Ward
Publication:Social Justice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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