What Really Happened at Waco?

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

Directed by William Gazecki (1997)

Film Review

Waco is a long but well-made documentary about what was essentially an FBI coverup of an unlawful military assault on innocent civilians. What immediately struck me about the film are the obvious parallels between the military assault at Waco, the 1975 incident at Pine Ridge in which Leonard Peltier and other AIM activists were arrested for resisting an armed FBI assault and the FBI/Philadelphia police decision to bomb the MOVE compound in 1985 (see The Day Philadelphia Police Dropped a Bomb on 61 Families).

The documentary is anchored around a 1995 Congressional investigation which, unlike the whitewash of the JFK assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing and 9-11, successfully unearthed most of the sordid facts about the government’s illegal (and unconstitutional) military assault in Waco. Predictably the corporate media buried the investigation and its findings. Thus the systematic disinformation the Clinton administration disseminated about David, Koresh and the Branch Davidians is what remains uppermost in the public mind.

What surprised me most about the film was learning that the Branch Davidians weren’t a cult, that the Mount Carmel church where they lived wasn’t a bunker and that David Koresh himself wasn’t a deranged psychopath who buffaloed his followers into a virtual suicide pact.

The Branch Davidians were actually an old offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church which relocated from Los Angeles to the Mount Carmel center at Waco in the 1930s. Koresh (born Vernon Howell) was raised there and eventually selected as the group’s spiritual leader.

Testimony given during the Congressional hearings establishes quite clearly that the initial ATF assault (in which the Branch Davidians defended themselves and killed four ATF agents) was a public relations stunt aimed at influencing upcoming ATF appropriations hearings.

The supposed justification for the assault was the presence of illegal weapons on the premises. As good Texans, the Branch Davidians visited a lot of gun shows and bought and sold weapons as a source of revenue. The search warrant accused them of illegally modifying automatic weapons – which Koresh denied. He invited the ATF to come and inspect their guns in mid-1992. The ATF declined to do so.

Most of the media attention (and the search warrant itself) focused on the fact that Koresh had multiple wives, included several who were underage teenagers. While both polygamy and child rape are illegal under Texas law, they in no way justify a full scale military assault that kills innocent civilians, including the rape victims themselves.

The FBI would follow up the failed ATF operation with a full scale military siege (with tanks) that lasted 51 days.

The evidence presented during the hearings includes intriguing clips from a video camera FBI negotiators gave the Branch Davidians to talk about themselves and their beliefs and infrared footage showing the FBI, Janet Reno and Bill Clinton lied through their teeth about not firing on the Branch Davidians and David Koresh deliberately starting the fire that destroyed the compound.

It also comes out that the FBI deliberately destroyed the crime scene (as Bush would later do at Ground Zero), as well as systematically obstructing efforts by the local medical examiner and the Texas Rangers to conduct independent investigations.

The Poetry of Dispossession


Heather Roy (2005)

Film Review

Trudell is a documentary about the life and work of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist, poet and philosopher John Trudell. The film is made up of archival and performance footage, interviews with Trudell, family members and film and rock celebrities who have worked with him, and samples of his poetry.

Stop Thief: the Commons Enclosures and Resistance (see Forgotten History: the Theft of the Commons) has helped me understand the Indian Wars and the continuing oppression of Native Americans in a whole new light. As author Peter Linebaugh describes it, the Indian Wars boil down to a determination by Jefferson and other early US leaders to enclose (ie steal) Indian lands to fence them off as private property. And as Trudell emphasizes in this film, repeated treaty violations all revolve around US efforts to steal yet more Indian land and resources for profit.

Trudell’s Role in AIM

Trudell first became an activist in his early twenties, with the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1970-71. The federal government declared Alcatraz Island surplus property after closing the prison in 1973. Trudell and his fellow activists claimed it under provisions in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which promises Native Americans access to unused federal land.

He eventually became secretary of AIM in Minnesota and helped organize the Trail of Broken Treaties occupation of the DC Bureau of Indian Affairs office in 1972. He also helped organize the AIM defense against the FBI siege on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. The standoff at Wounded Knee related to yet another treaty violation, in which the federal government allowed mining companies to mine for uranium on tribal land. In one interview, Trudell reminds us that 50-70% of all US energy resources are on native lands. Their extraction nearly always violates US treaty commitments. Worse still, radioactive contamination from uranium mining is a major factor in the high mortality rate at Pine Ridge and other reservations.

When the residents of Pine Ridge tried to block the mining companies, the FBI sent in paramilitary units equipped with helicopters and tanks in addition to covert death squads. Between 1973-76, Pine Ridge had the highest murder rate in the country.

In 1975, following a fire fight that killed two FBI agents, AIMS members Bob Robideau, Darelle Butler and Leonard Pelletier were charged with murder. Robideau and Butler were tried in Cedar Rapids, where AIM enjoyed strong public support. They were acquitted on self-defense grounds. Pelletier, who was tried in Fargo, was prohibited from using their acquittal in his defense. He remains in prison to this day.

A Suspicious House Fire

In 1979, Trudell’s wife and two children were killed in a house fire he believes was started by the FBI. Between 1969-70, the FBI compiled a 17,000 page dossier on him. They also made a direct threat to go after his family.

He began writing poetry as a way of coping with the emotional turmoil of losing his family. His first albums were spoke word against a background of indigenous chants. He later worked with prominent rock artists who set his poems to music.