Steven Van Zandt Tried To Get Trump To Release Leonard Peltier From Prison

“I started, you know, getting close to various people. And they kept going to jail,” said the musician and advocate for freeing the Indigenous rights activist.
Steven "Little Steven" Van Zandt at his Rebel Nation headquarters in New York City on March 4.
Steven "Little Steven" Van Zandt at his Rebel Nation headquarters in New York City on March 4.
Per Ole Hagen via Getty Images

On Monday, for the 45th time, Leonard Peltier celebrated his birthday in a federal prison.

The Native American rights activist, now 78, has spent most of his life behind bars. He was convicted by the U.S. government of aiding and abetting in the murder of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

There are so many problems with Peltier’s imprisonment that it’s hard to know where to begin. There was no evidence that he committed a crime. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying during his trial. The prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. His two co-defendants were acquitted based on self-defense. A juror admitted she was biased against Native Americans on the second day of the trial but was allowed to stay on anyway.

In the decades since, some of the same U.S. government officials who helped put Peltier in prison in the first place ― including a federal judge and a U.S. attorney ― have admitted how flawed his trial and treatment have been and have pleaded for his clemency. His prolonged imprisonment has sparked outcry from federal lawmakers, leaders in Indigenous communities, celebrities and international human rights leaders, including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Coretta Scott King and Amnesty International USA.

As recently as July, United Nations legal experts took the extraordinary step of calling on President Joe Biden to release him immediately.

So why is Peltier still in prison? Because the FBI continues to oppose releasing him, leaning on arguments that are wildly outdated, misleading or flat-out wrong. To many, Peltier is now simply America’s longest-serving political prisoner.

In anticipation of Peltier’s birthday, HuffPost last week talked to one of his most visible and dedicated advocates: Steven Van Zandt. Most people know Van Zandt as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist, a mobster actor on “The Sopranos” or through his various artistic accomplishments. But he has also been publicly calling for Peltier’s freedom for decades. He wrote a song about Peltier, he regularly talks about him on Twitter and, it turns out, Van Zandt thought he had a real shot at convincing former President Donald Trump to grant him clemency, except… everyone he was working with on Trump’s team kept going to jail.

Here’s a transcript of our interview, during which Van Zandt urged Biden to release Peltier and said he previously asked Springsteen to also be an advocate with former President Barack Obama. Van Zandt also called on Biden to embrace the edgy, lasers-shooting-out-of-his-eyes, super-genius ”Dark Brandon” meme that progressives are clamoring for and even offered Biden a speech to deliver to the nation about why everyone should vote for Democrats, because, as he put it, ”we’re in the middle of a fucking war. A war, OK?”

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Hi, Steven. Thanks for making the time.

Yeah, no, for Leonard, we’d do anything. You know? It’s insane. We’re running out of time. I’m like six, what, seven presidents into this?

You’ve been following his situation for so long, and I’m wondering how this all started for you. Were you following this in the news when the shootout happened?

No, no, I came to it fairly late, actually. I didn’t learn about it until 10 years later. I was doing research for one of my records, and it had a Native American theme. I ended up starting a foundation at the time that dealt with nothing but Native America. I noticed that the South African apartheid system was basically based on what we did with our Native Americans, and the whole homeland policy kind of came from our basic reservation thing.

So that connection was made, and I started doing lots of research and we ended up, at the time, the Solidarity Foundation ended up with more information about Native America than the [Bureau of Indian Affairs]. [Laughs.] I mean, they used to come to us for information. So, yeah, I started to fight the good fight for Native America back then. I was trying to make that my next big issue. And, honestly, it was impossible. I did not succeed. [Laughs.] And I realized, this is how we took over the country in the first place. [Laughs.] The same problems still exist, you know?

So it was quite a frustrating couple of years, but I learned a lot. I was spending a lot of time out there, at Pine Ridge, so I learned about Leonard, and, of course, I was outraged back then. I just couldn’t believe how obvious this was.

The closest I came [to helping to get Peltier out of prison], to be honest with you, was Trump.

What happened?

Well, I started, you know, getting close to various people. And they kept going to jail.

The Trump people you were talking to kept going to jail?

Yeah. And every time I was just on the verge of making the move, they go to jail.

How many times did that happen?

That happened twice. And another two or three that were, you know, that should be in jail. [Laughs.] So it was just like, it was just so frustrating.

Leonard Peltier's prolonged imprisonment is “arbitrary," and the U.S. government should release him immediately, United Nations legal experts recently wrote.
Leonard Peltier's prolonged imprisonment is “arbitrary," and the U.S. government should release him immediately, United Nations legal experts recently wrote.
Associated Press

Do you know if, before those people went to jail, that the message had gotten through to Trump that this was something that he should do?

I’ll never be sure. And then we tried to get to his kids and Jared [Kushner] and, I mean, I honestly thought in a bizarre way that Trump was our best shot. I’m sure he would do it today, wouldn’t he. [Laughs.] I’m thinking, you know, it’s got to be somebody not afraid of insulting the FBI. I think he probably would not have a problem with this today. [Laughs.] But even the FBI, I mean, I’ve got friends in the FBI, and everybody feels the same way about it.

What do your friends say over there?

That they’re not going to fight on his behalf, but they know it’s wrong.

Have you had any contact with Biden’s White House about Leonard?

You know, I played it smart with Trump because I had Leonard on my mind the entire time, and right up until near the end I didn’t say one single critical thing about him, OK? And that was not easy. I really was like, I’m going to try and be cool because I got bigger things on my mind.

With Biden, you know, I love the man, but I’ve been just sick ever since he got in. It’s just been so frustrating. Every move he’s made has been the wrong move. This week he’s finally waking up, and I hope he wakes up. But, you know, I’ve been calling Merrick Garland “Barney Fife” for two years. I’ve been very critical of them because, you know, I’m not mad at the Republicans. They’re all criminals, you know what I mean? Criminals do what criminals do. But where are the tough good guys? Where are the good guys that are supposed to be defending us? And arresting these creeps? It’s just not happening. I’m like, enough with this bipartisanship nonsense.

So finally this week, I am thrilled, he finally is fighting back a little bit.

Do you know about the Dark Brandon memes?

Yeah. Let’s hope he stays. But, I mean, I’ll be happier when the “semi” part of the “semi-fascist” goes away.

So you haven’t reached out to Biden folks about Leonard.

No, I’ve been very critical of them. So I have been reluctant to do that. I’ve been doing it through third parties, of course, constantly. But I don’t really know them. I mean, I talked to [White House chief of staff] Ron Klain once. I talked to several others.

Did you talk to him about Leonard?

No, it was a general thing, just trying to get them to wake up, you know? Fight this war, you know? What they don’t seem to understand is his approval rating is not just about the economy. That’s part of it. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of taking credit for these inflations, which he had nothing to do with…. America likes strength, OK? If he came across as strong as he’s now sounding this week, believe me, his approval rating is going to jump up because it’s not just about inflation. If he explains, first of all, if the original [“Build Back Better”] deal had gone through, the $4 trillion one, there wouldn’t have been inflation. OK?

It’s a little more complicated than that. And the truth is, if it had passed, because of the creep traitors [Sens. Kyrsten] Sinema and [Joe] Manchin, if they had actually been real Democrats and didn’t want to kill the Democratic Party and kill this administration, and had gone along with it, that would’ve completely wiped out the inflation problem, I’m telling you right now. But instead, he takes this, “Well, can’t we all get all along” attitude when we’re in the middle of a fucking war. A war, OK?

It is pretty appalling that some of the bad things happening around here in plain view don’t seem to have consequences.

You know, this starts with [special counsel Robert] Mueller. I hate to say it, but that was our last best hope. Here’s a guy who spent his whole life, a legitimate hero, doing nothing but service for the country and ends his career a sniveling coward ― outsmarted by Rudy Giuliani standing by a fictitious protocol that does not exist. You can’t indict a sitting president. Where is it written? Show me. It doesn’t exist. And if the guy was going to follow that fictitious protocol, he shouldn’t have took the gig in the first place.

And, of course, the Congress doesn’t do one thing about it. And then DOJ does nothing about it. And now the seven-year thing has passed, the opportunity to indict on that.

What are we waiting for here? You know, Trump is guilty of treason in like 10 different ways. But maybe they’re getting smart finally.

What is it with Leonard’s situation that has kept you so focused on it for literally decades? What is behind the staying power there?

I hate injustice. I hate injustice, and I hate bullies. I just can’t tolerate it. Injustice that is this outrageous, he’s now become a symbol of the general injustice against Native Americans since the beginning. He’s literally our domestic political prisoner, you know? I appreciate us getting prisoners out of other places.

You mean like Brittney Griner.

Yeah, you know, and I’m all for that obviously. I thought that should’ve happened a lot sooner, to be honest. But this is like, we have one of these. We have an absolute domestic political prisoner, and we should be embarrassed about that. I don’t know what it’s going to take. I mean seven fucking presidents, man. Come on.

"We have an absolute domestic political prisoner, and we should be embarrassed about that," Steven Van Zandt says of Leonard Peltier. He is pictured with Bruce Springsteen at the 2018 New Jersey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Asbury Park.
"We have an absolute domestic political prisoner, and we should be embarrassed about that," Steven Van Zandt says of Leonard Peltier. He is pictured with Bruce Springsteen at the 2018 New Jersey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Asbury Park.
Bobby Bank via Getty Images

So if you had five minutes alone with Biden, what would you say?

I would say, listen, Joe. You want to run again? You want to win? You want to keep the House and Senate? I’ll give you a speech right now that will jump your approval rating up 10 points immediately.

And here’s the speech: “I have tried with all my heart to embrace bipartisanship. But unfortunately, the Republicans, they don’t want to hear it. They want to take away your Social Security. They want to take away your Medicare. They don’t want to care about your children in school. They’re trying to tell you, you know, what books to read, what you can read, what history you can know, what women can do with their bodies. They’re supposed to be representing freedom? How is that freedom? So it’s time to declare war on those who have obviously decided they’re not interested in being American anymore. They are anti-American. They are un-American, all right? Because we believe in diversity. We don’t believe in suppressing the vote, and we don’t believe in gerrymandering and cheating on voting, OK? So it’s time to actually face the facts. It’s time for everybody out there to become Democrats and vote Democrat and let’s get this thing done.”

And then my last 30 seconds would be, “By the way, Joe, let’s get Leonard Peltier out of jail, OK?” Because enough is enough.

And, by the way, Joe has been, you know, pretty terrific with getting Native Americans into his Cabinet. I think probably more than maybe anybody in history, I don’t know. So I’d say, OK, now let’s complete the job. And, by the way, on the side, I would say, politically it doesn’t hurt. It’s not going to hurt you in North Dakota and South Dakota and Arizona and places where they have a big Native American population, which you could use on your side. OK? Let’s do something that’s at least symbolic for them and maybe with real substance, I would hope also.

So that would be like my general conversation. I’d be like, it’s time to declare war, man. Show them you’re a fighter. You know? You’re not going to take this lying down. You’ve been trying and trying and trying, and believe me, everybody’s going to believe that because you’ve been like Mr. Rodney King here, ‘Can’t we all get along,’ while they beat the shit of you. You know? All due respect, you’re following the footsteps of Obama, who I love, I’m sorry, but who brought a knife to a gunfight. It’s time to fight back.

Speaking of Obama, did you reach out to his folks at all about Leonard?

Yes. And I even told Bruce [Springsteen] to mention it to him.

What happened?


Did Bruce mention it to Obama?

I don’t know. I think so.

Does Bruce share your feelings on this?

I’ve told him about it. I haven’t made a big deal out of it with him, but he knows what I do. He has his own things, I don’t want to impose on his own, you know, he has many, many things he’s fighting for as well.

Anything else you want to say about Leonard Peltier or politics generally?

I think if the midterms go the way they should, you know, if the goddamn DNC and DCCC and DLCC and all these campaign organizations wake the fuck up, OK, and explain to people, you’ve got to be insane to vote for Republicans, OK? What’s the matter with you, you know? I mean, they’re taking away Social Security and Medicare. Isn’t that enough?

We haven’t even talked about Jan. 6.

Oh fuh-get it. Fuh-get it. This is exactly the problem, OK? What are they doing with these people? They’re giving them fucking parking tickets. I mean, they should have been literally shot, OK? As they would’ve been had they been Black or had they been Muslim. Had they been anything except white supremacists, they would’ve been killed on the spot. Appropriately so. And what happens? You give them parking tickets. And guess what? That’s not scaring anybody into law and order. And this complete lawlessness, it starts at the top. It starts with a guy going on TV saying, “Overthrow the government,” and he’s playing golf every day.

[Fox News’ Sean] Hannity and [Tucker] Carlson, they should be arrested for murder after what they did with COVID. Trump should be arrested for murder, the biggest mass murderer in history, murdered a million people. People forgot about that? He didn’t believe in science. He didn’t believe his daily briefing. He didn’t read it 30 days in a row saying an emergency is coming, which he admitted to [Bob] Woodward in his book. He admitted it to him. A million people he murdered, not one person on Fifth Avenue. I mean, what does it take? He admits to obstruction of justice on NBC, saying “I fired [FBI Director James] Comey because he was investigating me.” Is there any better definition of obstruction of justice than that? I fired him because he was investigating me for a crime?

This is what’s been going on, and people see this. It filters down, and there’s this whole talk of violence, violence, violence. I mean, fucking Lindsey Graham. Yeah, Mr. Tough Guy, you know. He’s a real [laughs], he’s a real tough one, huh? There’s going to be violence in the streets? I’m sure you’re going to be right out there, Lindsey, you know, leading the rioters. [Laughs.] But that constant talk of violence, you know, this is what fascism is all about. That’s why I hope the “semi” part of Biden’s description starts to go away.

Anyway, I’m just venting. Do your thing.

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