During a phone call from a Florida prison minutes before Friday’s concert for Leonard Peltier, the activist jailed for the last 37 years pushed organizers at New York’s Beacon Theatre to refuse money pledged in his honor.
“I hope this evening is not about raising funds, but raising consciousness,” Peltier told event co-host Harry Belafonte, who with actor Peter Coyote introduced a lineup of Oglala Sioux Nation tribal leaders, human rights activists and musicians calling on President Obama to free the ailing American Indian prisoner before Christmas.
Throughout the event, titled Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012, grainy clips of news footage showcased the sprawling years of Peltier’s trial, conviction and doomed appeal. Jailed since 1976 on a conviction of murdering two FBI officers during an Indian Reservation shootout, Peltier, who is nearing 70, will serve time through 2040 unless the president commutes his sentence.
Folk tunes and Native American spirituals stretched over four hours, beginning with several never-performed verses of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” that 93-year-old Pete Seeger said he recently found in a batch of lyrics he’d written 60 years ago: “A time for dirt, a time for soap/A time for hurt, a time for hope,” he gently wavered while strumming his acoustic.
Fresh off a flight, Mohican guitarist Bill Miller tuned his guitar onstage before attacking it with lightning-fast picking through Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Fellow First Nations musicians, including Jennifer Kreisberg and Geronimo and Buddy Powless, stripped things down and used only their voices to fill the venue with traditional and contemporary songs.
Bruce Cockburn and Jackson Browne later shared the stage for “Indian Wars,” a song they recorded together in 1991. Browne followed with a tribute to his Native American friend, the late Floyd Westerman, with covers of “Boarding School Blues” and “Custer Died For Your Sins,” and ended with Steven Van Zandt’s singalong, “I Am A Patriot.”
Halfway through the evening, Common, the only performer backed by a band and DJ, injected 20 minutes of throbbing hip-hop into the event’s mostly acoustic setlist. Racing across the stage with his hand raised, he thundered through hits including “The People” and “The Light,” and stunned the audience with an unannounced appearance from Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, who emerged from the dark for “Umi Says.” “If you want peace, work for justice,” he said before departing as suddenly as he had arrived.
One man who dedicated his life to such justice was Rubin Carter, the former boxer whose story Bob Dylan memorialized in his song “Hurricane.” After serving almost 20 years in prison, Carter was eventually released after it was determined he had not committed murders at a New Jersey bar in 1966. “Our freedom account is being looted,” he said during the event, holding a worn piece of paper – a writ of habeas corpus –in his right hand. “I consider it to be absolutely sacred, and I never leave home without it.”
Global figures like Nelson Mandela and the late Mother Teresa have long lauded Peltier as a humanitarian and called for his release, based on judicial misconduct and lack of evidence proving that he killed the federal agents. From his prison cell during the 2004 presidential election, Peltier ran as the Peace and Freedom candidate in states that allowed the party on the ballot. In California, more than 27,000 voters favored him over George W. Bush and John Kerry.
Six presidents have held office since Peltier’s conviction.
“If not you, President Obama, who?” activist filmmaker Michael Moore asked as he addressed the crowd. “All the wrong people are in prison in this country. As an American, this is not how I want to be remembered. And so I think that we have a much larger job: We have to get Leonard out of prison immediately.”
Seeger returned to the stage and was joined by the night’s performers for the show closer, “Bring Him Home,” which Seeger adapted from his Vietnam War protest song, “Bring ’Em Home.”