Clarence Darrow, the greatest of all American criminal defense lawyers, admired more than one criminal. One he especially admired was John Brown, the radical, violent and possibly insane abolitionist whose deadly 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, Maryland was a terrorist act by any definition. Brown was hung for it, but he became a martyr for the anti-slavery movement, and his raid a rallying point for its cause. Darrow believed that some societal wrongs were so resistant to law and democracy that their grip could only be loosened by violence, and so he extolled men like Brown, whom he regularly eulogized in public with a fiery speech that concluded,
“The earth needs and will always need its Browns; these poor, sensitive, prophetic souls, feeling the suffering of the world, and taking its sorrows on their burdened backs. It sorely needs the prophets who look far out into the dark, and through the long and painful vigils of the night, wait for the coming day. They wait and watch, while slow and cold and halting, the morning dawns, the sun rises and waxes to the noon, and wanes to the twilight and another night comes on. The radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow, and other martyrs take up the work through other nights, and the dumb and stupid world plants its weary feet upon the slippery sand, soaked by their blood, and the world moves on.”
I immediately thought of Darrow’s words about Brown* when I learned that Russell Means had died this week at the age of 72. Clarence Darrow would have loved Russell Means.
Movie buffs know Means as the father of Daniel Day Lewis’s romantic hero Hawkeye (“Stay alive! I will find you!”) and the title character in “The Last of the Mohicans.” But acting was just a lark for Means. What he cared about was the status of his people, Native Americans, in United States politics and culture, and his method of acting on his anger and indignation was to stage spectacular and sometimes violent protests. Violence was not something Russell Means avoided or feared: he was arrested repeatedly for provoking or engaging in it himself, and also was on the receiving end more than once. He was tried for abetting a murder, and imprisoned for a year for his role in a riot. He was shot several times, and stabbed in prison.
Most of the violence occurred in connection with his passionate efforts to demand respect, reparations and power from the white society that had, in his view, stolen his people’s land and destroyed their culture and way of life. He told Reason Magazine in 1986,
“Self-sufficient people who plant their own food, who don’t depend on the monetary system, have a proud history, fish, harvest natural or wild crops, and hunt for a living are not a people who give up their land—for any reason. Understand? Self-sufficient people you don’t mess with. Anywhere in the world. Everyone knows this.”
Just in case the U.S. public had forgotten, Means took it upon himself to remind them. He became a leader of the American Indian Movement, and led a group of protesters to take over the replica of the Mayflower II ship docked at Plymouth, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day, 1970. His theatrical attack on the costumed “Pilgrims” at the tourist attraction was a media sensation, and immediately energized advocates for Native American rights, as well as making Means a celebrity. In another flamboyant protest, he held a tribal prayer vigil at Mount Rushmore to stake out Lakota claims to the Black Hills, and urinated on George Washington’s sculptured head to make his point.
In 1972, Means organized a march on Washington to protest the many broken treaties with Indian tribes that marginalized Native Americans and condemned them to poverty. He invaded the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and camped out there with a band of protesters. His John Brown moment, however, came in a 1973 protest that lasted for 71 days and launched a media circus. Russell Means led hundreds of Native American dissidents and white allies in an occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where the U.S. military murdered more than 350 Lakota men, women and children in an infamous act of outright genocide in 1890. Means demanded that the U.S. meet the promises of all of its broken Indian treaties. Means’ band exchanged heavy gunfire with federal agents, resulting in the deaths of two protesters and the serious wounding of an agent. He was arrested, and only avoided a long prison term (the charges were assault, larceny and conspiracy) because the prosecution botched the case, leading to the case’s dismissal.
There was much more to Means’ eclectic activities. He acted, he ran for office, he protested Native American sports logos and mascots, and he was a persistent critic of not only the U.S. government but tribal governments as well. A radical libertarian, he was too independent to last in any organized party or group for long, and he would temporarily ally himself with anyone, including unsavory figures like pornographer Larry Flynt, Louis Farakkhan and even Qaddafi if he believed it would advance his cause. This did not make him popular, but Russell Means was not interested in personal popularity.
I can’t justify calling Russell Means an ethics hero. He, like Clarence Darrow and John Brown, embraced the dangerous ethical fallacy of unlimited utilitarianism, holding that the ends justify the means. (I concede that when your name is Means, this may be fate.) Yet Darrow’s case for Brown and those like him has more than a grain of truth. There are and have always been Gordian knots of injustice and evil that resist conventional, legal and ethical attempts to untie them. Often they are just cut through, by determined activists who are willing to break the rules, violate the laws, and accept the consequences. Then civilized society condemns their methods and them, while accepting the benefits of their unethical, but useful, actions in embarrassed ingratitude. Calling Russell Means a hero is too dangerous, for it endorses the abandonment of ethical values, but calling him less than a hero seems unfair. He was a leader, he was courageous, and his cause was just, if quixotic. Like our society, I’m not certain how to think about people like Russell Means.
I do know this. In the final scene of “The Last of the Mohicans,” his character, Chingachgook, prays to The Great Spirit in sorrow at the death of his son, which has doomed his tribe to extinction. Means stands on a mountain top, and for a sublime moment of the kind that seldom occurs in any dramatic medium, the actor and the character are magically merged. Means’ anger and determination are one with Chingachgook’s pride and sorrow, and viewing the scene in the theater, I felt, for the first time, the magnitude of what the Native Americans lost, and what the land has lost as well. I wept, and viewing that scene affects me the same way today.
* Darrow’s whole speech is included in my book with historian Ed Larson, “The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow.” (Well, actually Clarence wrote most of it.) I’m sure it is online as well, but for some reason I couldn’t find it. Yes, this is a plug. If you can’t plug your book on your own blog, where can you plug it?
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