This month, we remember poet, teacher, activist and organizer Dennis Banks. Born April 12, 1937, he would be 82 years old had he not succumbed to pneumonia following heart surgery, October 29, 2017.
Rather than mourn, however, let’s celebrate Dennis’s lifelong commitment to struggles waged by oppressed and working-class people, locally and internationally.
As a young man, he fought to end apartheid in South Africa, defended the Cuban revolution, and worked relentlessly to end domestic violence, hunger and homelessness. He always went to where the peoples’ struggles were. During the last year of his life he literally stood in solidarity alongside Water Protectors at Standing Rock, defending and supporting their struggle.
Hopefully, a recounting of a few great moments in Dennis’s long active life will inspire a new generation of organizers to follow his example. For those of us already in the struggle, we’ll be motivated to re-double our commitment to organize, unite and win together.
Growing up poor in Montana in 1937, Banks experienced firsthand the violent racism and repression of indigenous people living under occupation inside the United States.
Beginning at the age of five, U.S. agencies forcibly removed Banks from his family. He was held, under terrible conditions, for the next eleven years in what the federal government called “Indian schools”. In reality, these were little better than children’s prisons. With no further contact with their families, Native children were regularly beaten and mistreated for simply speaking their first language or for attempting to celebrate their culture, rituals, ceremonies or customs.
From the 1800s to the middle of the 20th century, tens of thousands of Native children were trapped in over 300 of these institutions nationwide, under a government program of “forced indoctrination.” With a stated, racist goal to “Kill the Indian; save the man”, Native children’s hair was cut, and they were forbidden to use their given names or even wear their own clothes. They spent their childhood kidnapped, corralled and brainwashed by a foreign, occupying military force.
Not surprisingly, Banks, as a child, repeatedly attempted to break free from these brutal conditions. Each time he was able to escape and tried to reunite with his family, however, the government re-captured and re-imprisoned him.
After more than a decade, Banks, frustrated, finally considered an option offered many unemployed teenagers faced with a future they see offering them no economic or educational opportunities: he enlisted in the Army.
At age 17, he was shipped to Japan. There he again witnessed deplorable conditions people living under U.S. military occupation were forced to endure. Banks identified with the Japanese resistance, and within a few years, Banks began a family there.
When he attempted to marry, however, the U.S. government once again intervened and attempt to permanently separate Banks from his wife and child. As a result, he went AWOL, attempting to escape with his family, but was caught, court-martialed and sent back to the U.S. without them.
At this time, the atmosphere in the U.S. combined revolutionary organizing with anti-Vietnam war protest and social uprisings. Banks was inspired by the upsurge in “fight back” spirit, to build a liberation/resistance movement of indigenous/Native people.
In 1968, he founded A.I.M, the American Indian Movement, to win sovereignty for indigenous people as well as to resist anti-Native racism and oppression.
Organizers and activists today can draw inspiration from the history-making accomplishments of AIM organizers. A year after forming, for example, AIM activists joined with other Native organizations and successfully seized and occupied San Francisco’s Alcatraz island for 19 months!
While the government, eventually (and violently) ended the occupation, AIM and other Native organizers had accomplished their goals. By adapting and adopting tactics from the revolutionary movements taking place around them, Native people – in a very public way – lead a direct action and won. Other Native American organizers were electrified, and the movement grew nationally.
In 1972, AIM again called an action which kept worldwide attention focused on the violence the U.S. waged daily against indigenous people. Banks helped organize a cross-country march, from the West Coast to Washington, D.C., called "the Trail of Broken Treaties". Upon reaching the nation’s capital, AIM members and others immediately occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. During the following days it became the country’s largest gathering of Native Americans in history. Their commitment and dedication raised public awareness of the deplorable living conditions on reservations, centuries of broken treaties, and violence Native people regularly faced. Another success.
In 1973, AIM had thousands of members and 79 chapters. That same year, its boldest move evolved into a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
For indigenous people, Wounded Knee still resonates with deep historical and cultural significance. There, in 1890, hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were shot dead by the U.S. military in a short, violent, one-sided gun battle. In response to this war crime, the government did not jail its perpetrators, but instead awarded twenty of them with the Army’s highest commendation, the Medal of Honor, awards the military has never revoked.
Repeating this dishonorable history, less than a century later the government again shot and killed Native Americans at Wounded Knee, rather than negotiate with AIM members to honor long-broken treaties and end the suffering of Native people.
This time, however, rather than use the army directly, then-President Nixon sent in armed National Guardsmen, FBI agents and state troopers. The result nonetheless was the same. The government was there to escalate the violence, not negotiate and honor centuries-old treaties. As it did in 1890, government forces surrounded the Pine Ridge Reservation and opened fire.
As the situation unfolded, world attention increased and remained unflinchingly focused on the plight of Native Americans who were clearly organized and ready to confront their oppressors.
True to form, the government responded by escalating a local standoff into full U.S. military intervention. Prior to Pine Ridge, a similar escalation by the state resulted in the 1969 execution of Black Panther Fred Hampton at the hands of the Chicago police, who unleashed a hail of bullets into his home while he slept. Then, most infamously, again after Pine Ridge in 1985, when Philadelphia police dropped a military-style bomb from a helicopter onto the roof of MOVE headquarters, killing most of its inhabitants, including women and children.
In spite of the government firing thousands of rounds at them over 71 days, AIM members stayed strong and steadfast. Supporters sent them food and supplies in solidarity.
Following the Pine Ridge standoff, Banks and other members were arrested, imprisoned and eventually won their release. Banks was paroled in 1985, but like other political organizers, remained under FBI investigation. This never slowed or inhibited his organizing, however. He devoted the rest of his life to winning the freedom of Leonard Peltier, who was falsely accused and convicted of the death of a FBI agent shot during the Pine Ridge standoff.
Like Banks, we continue to demand Peltier’s immediate release, along with freedom for all political prisoners held in U.S. jails. After over four decades in prison, Leonard is in poor health and has frequently been denied adequate medical care.
Following Pine Ridge, Banks organized events for indigenous people worldwide, mentored Native youth, opposed the U.S. imperialist wars, and ran as the Peace and Freedom Party’s 2016 Vice-presidential candidate.
Banks ran on a platform of abolishing the death penalty, ending fracking, and providing education and housing as a basic human right, among other issues. Click here for related articles about Banks’s Peace and Freedom Party Vice-Presidential campaign of 2016.
Last year, the 2018 Southwest Socialism Conference hosted an overflow crowd in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first day’s events were concluded with a special commemoration of the heroic life of Dennis Banks to introduce a new generation to the example of a life spent organizing and uniting the struggles. To this we say, “Dennis Banks, Presente!”