MANDELA, Presente! Free Leonard Peltier

Last night when news came of Nelson Mandela's death at age 95, I posted on Facebook my poem, "Mandela Appears in Montreal 1990," (see the text at the bottom of this post) about the incredible summer that Paul and I spent writing in a cabin in Quebec and we saw Mandela on his world tour after his release from prison. That Quebecois day had been such a celebration of Mandela's spirit in music (Oscar Peterson! children's choirs), chanting, shouting and speeches. We all expected it to be a celebration of him, but Mandela was not going to rest in his release. He used the dais as a way to speak of all the people in South Africa, in the world, who still did not have freedom, not even the freedom to vote. My poem quotes Mandela's final question to the crowd, "Who will stand with us to the end?"

So here we are: is this it? Is this the end? Oh no, there is still much work to do, right here in the United States in achieving freedom for all. I'd like to suggest that one way to honor Mandela's spirit here in the U.S. is to free the one man imprisoned for being Native American, Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier may seem a more controversial figure than Mandela. He's not seen as the saint by some that Mandela is. That Mandela is today. Last night, the Cleveland TV-news interviewed a Shaker Heights couple originally from South Africa. They said they were raised to believe that Mandela was a monster, a very evil man, and that it wasn't until his release and his famous soccer game appearance that they saw he was, in fact, a man, and a good one, who would go on to lead their country into positive changes that were generations in not coming until he led. 

So imprisoning people on trumped-up charges is not a new game, nor a passé game, nor a South African game only, and if the person is a person of color, he has a greater chance of drawing a "get trumped-up" card.   

KSU parking space where one of the
four students was slain.
I don't know that anyone in reading my poem has wondered about my reference to Louis Riel, who was  hanged in Canada in 1885 on charges of leading a Rebellion for Native American rights, a rebellion in which he never carried arms. Like Peltier, he was a controversial figure to some (I mean, whew! he had his days!), but the jury of six English-speaking Protestants who found him guilty also recommended mercy-- which is to say, not the death penalty-- and the judge overruled their decision. The place where he was hanged was later blocked on three sides and turned into a parking lot (shades of the Kent State massacre site). There was a lot of care taken in choosing the Mandela Celebration site, with all its political symbolism. For decades before and after Riel's hanging, it was a site of protests, over French Canadian and Catholic rights, over the draft, and the government had finally managed to stop those by blocking the square off and up, making it difficult to gather in the stark concrete expanse of space. But those who chose the site persisted. They set up viewing stands, they hauled sod in for the day, and for that one glorious warm (in Montreal!) day, people sat in the grass with their children. "Oh listen, darling," one mother gasped, "Oscar Peterson," as he sat down to the piano.

So today we are all feeling the sorrow in the death and the joy in the life of this great leader. And I do mean there is joy in my heart today along with the sorrow because I feel he is still with us. I am reminded that when I lived in Nicaragua, there was a tradition that never failed to bring tears to my eyes. When the name of a person who had died in the Revolution was called out, someone would answer"Presente," present, reminding us that the person's spirit was with us. So today, I say "Nelson Mandela. Presente."

And if the spirit of Mandela is indeed with us as I believe it is, I hope it works through us, and especially through President Obama who has the power, to free Leonard Peltier. 



          Your personal world echoes
          in ways common enough,
          a parking lot....
                                      --Robert Creeley

Although it is a drizzly day
in June in Champs de Mars,
thousands can more easily stand it
than they stood it a century ago
in November cold as only
Montreal after Louis Riel hanged.

Then City Hall went up
with its back to the site,
but still the people gathered here
against conscription..
A new court house rose
so high its shadow cast a pall
over the promenade, finally fit
for only a parking lot.
For this day, the lot’s  been paved,
sodded, painted, and set with a stage,
bannered MANDELA, as though
the title of a new musical.

For hours the musicians sound-checked,
dress rehearsed, then did their work
for hours past the set hour, right up to
a choir that started Nkosi Siekli
Afrika--then stopped
then began again as Mandela appeared
to shouts of Amandla!
his native Xhosa, “power!”
that surged in his voice, reverberated
against the lot’s three walls.

          “Twenty-seven years ago
          when I went to prison
          I had no vote....”
                   (no vote,  no vote, no vote--)

That first echo stopped
the applause and silence
held out for a right to more.      

          “Today I still have no vote....”

                   (no vote, no vote, no vote....)

Seventy-two years old, POW-thin,
having withstood so much, still standing,
far-reaching, far-hearkening.

          “Our people continue to be killed....”
                   (be killed, be killed, be killed....)

Montreal echoed, the world’s walls echoed,
the backs of the leaders
he would have to see all week
had to face the millions
that stood in the rain to hear
words that reverberate
years later, though the hasty sod
has buckled and died and cars
pack the space again
The words reverberate:

          “Injustice continues....”
                   (continues, continues, continues....)

to the millions who stood
in Toronto, Montreal,
and New York; Boston, then
Oakland, and London--

          “Who will stand with us to the end?”
(From The Places We Find Ourselves: Poems. Diane Kendig copyright 2009.)