Taking the Stage for Mumia: The Concert and the Controversy

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #993, February 7, 1999

Beginning one morning a couple weeks ago, national shock-jock Howard Stern decided to turn his attention away from women's body parts for a few moments to spew some ignorant rants against the benefit concert in New Jersey that was being advertised on his radio station. In the days following, a tsunami wave of crude threats against the concert hit the airwaves from reactionary tabloid columnists, the Fraternal Order of Police, the New Jersey state troopers, numerous politicians and even the N.J. Governor herself, Christine Todd Whitman. How dare these musicians hold a concert for Mumia Abu-Jamal?

I knew then that, to paraphrase Mao Tsetung, the people had accomplished a great deal in our work. Most especially, Rage Against the Machine, a band who has long supported death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, had managed this time to break Mumia's story into national headlines--as they gathered round other courageous artists to take their place on this stage to stop Mumia's execution. Over the next two weeks, in the face of open intimidation by law enforcement and politicians, the musicians persevered in staying the course and got out the truth about the political railroad of Mumia.

And on January 28, they gave us an unforgettable evening of music which was itself a transforming experience for many of the 16,000 people who dared to show up.

One cool episode in this tit-for-tat battle to hold the event occurred at 8 a.m. a few days before the concert when Tom Morello, the guitarist from Rage, along with Mumia's lead attorney Leonard Weinglass, appeared on Stern's show. On air they debated Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the cop who Mumia is accused of killing, and Hugh Burns from the Philadelphia DA's office. It was actually 2 against 4, counting Stern and his sidekick Robin ("We're a pro-cop show!"). Faulkner, who was to turn up in the days following on countless bottom-feeder TV tabloid shows like "Extra" and "Hard Copy," performed in split-personality style the role of both weeping widow and rabid political operative. The Philly DA simply lied with abandon.

When the smoke cleared, Tom and Leonard had won in the opinion of most rational listeners. One interesting exchange with Stern: "Why not just take your own money and finance this? Why use the fans and the concert to raise funds?" Tom: "Well, that's something that we have done in the past, Howard. But one of the reasons why we're doing this is to raise awareness about the case and to get to people who are interested in the United States government not executing political dissidents who speak up. For example, in 1975, Bob Dylan did a concert for Ruben Hurricane Carter, who was accused of murder and later released because the trial was found faulty." Tom put the dividing line pretty clearly: "Tell me this, if these people are so sure of Mumia's guilt, then why not have a new trial?" When Stern started yakking about how he was sure this would be denied to Mumia, Tom replied, "Well, that's the thing that we're struggling against--a real lynching mentality."

Ever the master of revealing comparisons, Tom was later quoted in the New York Times: "It's not the first time that Rage Against the Machine has opened up a can of worms by standing up for what we believed in. We've had the Ku Klux Klan protest our shows, but I didn't expect this from the Governor of New Jersey's office."

The concert sold out within hours, which was not surprising: along with Rage, who are hugely popular, the show featured the progressive multi-platinum rappers Beastie Boys, along with the icon-breaking punk rock band Bad Religion and one of the most exciting new Brooklyn hip hop crews, Black Star.

The politicians and cops called for canceling the concert, but they ran up against a recent court ruling involving this very same venue and rocker Marilyn Manson. Manson had won on the grounds that it was a First Amendment violation to ban their concert in this public venue. That twist was another reminder to me that, especially in these lock-down times, it's foolish to be indifferent to the censoring of art that might not be on-point politically, or just not your cup of tea. (Although there's something to be said for a band whose T-shirts read "American by birth, Anti-Christ by choice.")

When the authorities couldn't shut down the concert, the N.J. Governor called on people to refuse to attend, and Ticketmaster made the unprecedented move of offering customers their money back. Two days later, the media reported that 2,000 people had demanded their money back, but all those tickets were quickly snapped up again.

Tom reported that no bands turned down Rage's invitation to play and many others from Indigo Girls to Black Sabbath offered to play. In the face of all the controversy the L.A. band Ozomatli sent a statement of support to the artists, and actor Ed Asner publicly came out for the band: "Howard Stern's ratings must really be suffering. Why else would he be laboring so heavily to kill Mumia. Sad to say, Howard's got a lot of imitators. He and they must feel very brave calling for the killing of an improperly tried man. God bless Rage Against the Machine and all who fight for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal."


By late afternoon on January 28, crowds were gathering outside the venue. A crew of 25 from the Youth Network of Refuse & Resist! traveled by public bus out there. By the end of the ride they had gathered a number of other passengers to march with them and their Mumia banner over to the lines forming at the chain link fence. Loads of media who had just emerged from a packed press conference with the bands were hanging out. Jana Astrea from the Youth Network told me: "We marched up chanting `Mumia's fearless, so are we, We won't stop until he's free.' The reporters were immediately all over us--at one point I counted 13 of us speaking to media. They kept saying, `Don't you think you people are pretty different from all the other kids who are just here for the music?' We said, `No, we're here for the music too, and for Mumia. And, look at us, the only difference between us and everyone else here is we already know the truth about Mumia, and they just don't know YET."'

"They really don't want all these people to hear the story of Mumia," Jana told the AP reporter, "They don't want to connect a radical youth culture with radical politics."

And, in fact, extraordinary measures were taken to prevent pieces of paper with facts on the case from finding their way into the hands of fans. In the parking lot people were forbidden to openly leaflet and many had their flyers confiscated. A couple of the youth asked reporters to follow them into the venue, ("Watch what happens") and sure enough their backpacks were searched and all flyers tossed in the garbage. While the cameras were trained on this outrageous operation, other youth used the distraction to get their flyers inside without a search.

Rage themselves had been instructed by arena management that they would not be allowed to distribute any literature, either inside or outside the venue. Imagine--a concert where the artists are not even allowed to hand out their own program! The band's management brought in 20,000 copies of their leaflet anyhow--which listed 10 things to do about Mumia's case and reprinted "Who is Mumia Abu-Jamal?" from the Refuse & Resist! Resource Guide. They fought and won the right to have the flyer on tables staffed by International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia, Amnesty International and other support groups. Arena security would not allow any buttons, R&R! Resource Guides or any political literature to be sold.

Even finding the lit tables was a challenge reminiscent of the police lines at the Million Youth March. Radical youth reported escorting numerous interested kids around endless metal barricades manned by hostile cops in three different uniforms (the N.J. state troopers sported Royal Mountie-style outfits) just to sneak a look at the outlawed Resource Book under the table.

Who came to this concert? Mainly white kids, the majority were guys, many from New Jersey suburbs. Any concert crowd in America that looks like this will contain plenty of unenlightened individuals. But Rage fans are always a more contradictory group. And tonight, many people came with an open mind, seeking answers. Why was their favorite band in the world trying to stop the execution of a man who was so incessantly villified in the press?

Jana: "My favorite kid was the one who hung on the edges for a long time. He loved Rage and Beastie Boys and Black Star, but he wanted to know why we thought there was so much controversy about Mumia. We talked about what Mumia's stand meant to us, how his life was counting for something, fighting for justice. Suddenly he began to pour his heart out: `I want to go to school to make a difference, and if I can't do that there, I'll leave to do it. I want to change this world...'

"We met these three high school students from New Jersey who had been checking out both websites, Faulkner's and Mumia's, in their sociology class. Two white women and a guy. The women both bought buttons saying they felt that Mumia didn't have a fair trial. The guy then looked hard at me and said, `Mumia unloaded his gun into that cop's head!' We got into it, and it was his two women friends who mainly debated him. By the end, he was convinced the trial was messed up. He bought one of our Resource Books and a button."

I was also told about a group of "6 or 7 huge white jocks" who appeared to be a quasi-professional crew all wearing "Death Penalty for Mumia" T-shirts. They roamed the concert halls barking threats at anyone who dared question Mumia's guilt. The level of debate in this neck of the woods: "I don't care if he did it or not, he should die because he's a cop killer." You can't make this stuff up.

All 16,000 people who came to the concert did so in face of scare rumors perpetrated by the authorities and the media--that there would be 1000 cops there who plan to beat people down on the way in, that the bands would start a riot, that one of the bands was backing out. One crew of three said they couldn't find a single kid in their high school (which was filled with Rage and Beastie fans) who had the nerve to buy their fourth ticket. A lot of people in the lines were outraged at the tabloid's treatment of Mumia, a human being referred to as a vermin and a bastard.

Zack de la Rocha, the lead singer of Rage, put the authorities' threats into perspective at the press conference. A reporter asked, "In doing a benefit like this, does it make you a marked band in terms of law enforcement?" He answered, "I found it very surprising that the attorney general and the governor of N.J. would denounce musicians who are doing a benefit for someone we consider an innocent man. To me, it rung of them trying to create a climate in which they would try to scare kids from coming to the show and getting the information. The case against Mumia that they're presenting is so thin that now they have to come after the musicians, they're coming after radio stations who play those musicians."


For many who came, the concert itself provided some answers in the magical way art can do. Each group presented through their words and choice of songs their own view of why they were there. Black Star which is two hip hoppers from Brooklyn, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, opened the night by saying: "In America there are two truths, the legal truth and the actual truth. Black Star is here tonight in support of the actual truth...They say Mumia killed a cop but that don't mean he did it..." They kicked hard with the track "(KOS)": "So many MCs focus in on Black people's extermination/ We keep in balance with knowledge of self-determination/We be in the house like Japanese in Japan, or Koreans in Korea/ Head to Philly free Mumia..."

Bad Religion introduced one of their songs by saying, "This song typifies why artists put together events like tonight....to exercise your art is to have a dream in your head, some ideal of what life should look like." The song was "Dream of Unity."

Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, announced to loud cheering: "We all stand in strong opposition to the death penalty! Killing somebody else is really not gonna solve anything...The death penalty has to be erased from the world." After a set that also included some amazingly rich and complex instrumental tracks, Yauch returned to say, "Mumia did not receive a fair trial...that's one of the things that gives us our freedom. If you can't receive a fair trial, it's a police state."

Right before Rage hit, the MC's for the night, Dunstan and Danbert from Chumbawamba (the English band who gave a shout out to Mumia on The David Letterman Show) brought Pam Africa from International Family and Friends to the stage. She gave props to the bands "for standing up to the most brutal force in America that there is.... This government is in a conspiracy to commit cold-blooded, premeditated murder and we are trying to stop them, we intend to stop them.... We are asking you to stand up!"

Rage came on and the hall exploded as they tore into their set. After six or seven songs, Zack looked out at us and said, "Acknowledge the power in this room...! Cause it's really only a few politicians and cops around the country who want to keep Mumia in jail and sentence him to death, and what can they do to [all these] crazy motherfuckers like ourselves?" He announced the next song, "There will be NO SHELTER HERE!"

As Rage left the stage, Chuck D from Public Enemy came on--"It'll take a nation of millions to hold us back..."--and the crowd went nuts. Someone who was standing in the mosh pit told me, "I think the people around me felt it was like an honor for Chuck to come to this event." Most of the kids were like eight years old when Public Enemy first hit, but they are a legend, and Chuck did not disappoint: "The jail cells in America have been a one-sided crime all the way back to slavery. Until everyone is truly represented in this land as one people, there's going to be a lot of fucking poison going on. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Free the mind. Use your independent thought and don't be a robot going into the 21st century!" Chuck made people know that by being here at this concert they had already accomplished something significant, maybe even historic.

It was at once exhilarating and moving to see Rage and Chuck jumping up and down together for the finale, "Killing in the Name of..." I'd say just about the whole arena was shouting along with them, "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me to!"

As the event ended, a hip hop song that came over the speaker system made people prick up their ears. It was a soon-to-be-released posse track called "MUMIA 911," featuring everyone from Zack and Chuck D to Poor Righteous Teachers, Pharcyde, Pharoah Monch, Freestyle Fellowship, Black Thought of the Roots, Dead Prez, Tragedy, and many other MC's. "Mumia 911" is also the name of the National Day of Art to Stop the Execution to be held on 9.11.99. The artists are beginning to move on Mumia's case, and this evening gave people a taste of the potential power which can be unleashed.

News of the concert traveled all the way across the country. MTV news ran a piece over the weekend which featured some beautiful concert footage and interviews with band members, including some fast cuts between the Philadelphia DA and Tom Morello--who blasted major holes through the DA's remarks. The L.A. Times published a substantial article on the concert and it was all over local TV news in L.A.

Despite all the dire predictions and threats, the whole episode put Mumia's name into the living rooms of America--which has effectively changed the terrain on which we fight for his life.

Mumia himself sent a special message to the concert which was read at the press conference: "Rasta rebel, the revered Bob Marley sings, `Get up, Stand up, Stand up for your rights.' It is in just such a spirit that I salute those who have not yet bent their will nor surrendered their rights to the state, they want to read what they want to read, say what they want to say, and support what they want to support."

There was certain shift in the mood of the crowd as they waited in long bus lines to go home. Excited, intense discussions erupted everywhere, and by this time anyone who shouted out "He's guilty!" was confronted by someone else, often their good friend, urging them to check the facts before they believed the media.

As me and my friend made our way home, I thought about some other folks I wish could've been there to hear this amazing music and hang with these artists who had refused to `surrender their rights to the state'...like the many Black and Latino youth on the subway trains that past weekend who had told the RW sellers about this concert when the subject of Mumia came up...or the crowd of hip hop kids at the copy shop earlier that day who had gathered round me when they saw Mumia's face. They had followed the whole thing minute by minute, they couldn't get tickets but they felt that somehow they had a stake in what went down at the Continental Arena that night. They were right.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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