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American University Removes Statue of Activist Leonard Peltier after Receiving Threats

American University in Washington, DC, has removed a statue of Native American activist Leonard Peltier––who is currently incarcerated for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents––after the work prompted backlash from an organization representing federal officers as well as anonymous threats of violence, Erick Lyle of Art in America reports.

Artist Rigo 23 created the privately funded nine-foot statue carved from a California Redwood to help muster support for Peltier and encourage people to appeal to former president Barack Obama to grant him clemency. Accused of fatally shooting Jack Coler and Ron Williams in a standoff at Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, Peltier, who is now seventy-two and suffering from several health issues, has maintained his innocence throughout the forty-one years he’s been behind bars. Following his conviction, officials determined that his trial was flawed and that there was insufficient evidence. Amnesty International considers him a political prisoner and thousands have rallied for his release over the years.

The work was installed outside the school’s Katzen Arts Center on December 9, days after the Obama administration denied the permit needed to complete the last stretch of nearly 1,200 miles of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Midwest, a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and for protesters who have been fighting against the $3.8 billion project for months.

Two days before the work’s dedication, Jack Rasmussen, director of the Katzen Arts Center, was approached by a man who introduced himself as John Trimbach, the son of special agent Joseph Trimbach, who was the head of operations at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, at the time when Peltier was arrested. John Trimbach also coauthored American Indian Mafia (2007), which chronicles Peltier’s case. Rasmussen said that Trimbach told him not to install the work and then asked if he received federal funding to commission the piece. Trimbach later e-mailed the director and wrote: “You really stuck your foot in it this time.” A complaint was sent to the school by the FBI Agents Association three weeks later and articles about the university raising a statue to honor a “cop killer” began to circulate on right-wing media outlets. When the university began receiving anonymous threats, it decided to remove the work.

A statement issued by American University reads: “The subject matter and placement of the piece improperly suggested that American University has assumed an advocacy position of clemency for Mr. Peltier, when no such institutional position has been taken. Further, the nature and location of the piece called into question our ability to honor our responsibilities to ensure the security of the art and the safety of our community.”

Board members of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, an organization representing nearly six hundred curators and arts administrators from eighty-five countries, wrote a letter to the president of American University urging the school to “reverse its decision to remove the work” and to “honor its declared commitment to ‘support thought-provoking art that informs and educates.’”