The Liebert Cassidy Whitmore Film Series on “The Role of Law in American Society” continues at the Center on November 5th with screenings of the film Alcatraz Is Not an Island in honor of Native American Heritage Month. Screenings are at 6pm and 7:45pm. Admission is free, but seating is limited.
On November 20, 1969, a fleet of wooden sailboats holding 89 Native Americans attempted to land on Alcatraz, the “rock” in San Francisco Bay that had housed the notorious maximum-security federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. While most were prevented from entering the island by a Coast Guard blockade, fourteen people were initially able to land. For the next 19 months, this group, expanding at times to as many as 400 people, occupied Alcatraz, hoping to reclaim it “in the name of all American Indians.”
The protesters drew on the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed between the United States and the Lakota in 1868. In that document, the U.S. government promised that all retired or abandoned federal land would be returned to the Native people from whom it had been obtained. Following the closure of the prison, Alcatraz had become surplus federal property in a prime location for staging a symbolic occupation that would draw attention to the U.S.’s government’s long list of broken legal promises to Native Americans.
Members of the occupation received support from many civil rights and labor activists, both in the Bay Area and nationally, and explained the purpose of their protest through a newsletter and regular radio broadcasts. Although Federal Marshals eventually removed the protesters, and their demands – including title to the island and the construction of a Native American cultural and educational center – were not granted, scholars view the two-year protest as a springboard for modern-day Indian activism. Alcatraz Is Not an Island creates a powerful snapshot of this revolutionary incident and gives life to the words of Richard Oakes: “Alcatraz is not an island. It’s an idea. It’s the idea that you can recapture and be in control of your life and your destiny.”
The Riverside Community College District would like to thank the law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore for their generous sponsorship of this series.
This post was contributed by student worker Cynthia Mosely.