By 7:30 p.m. on Friday night, the sidewalk outside the Beacon Theatre in New York City was swarming with Indians and hippies and hipsters and scalpers. The marquee, lighted and static, read: "BRING LEONARD PELTIER HOME IN 2012 TONIGHT." Rows of eager fans of Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger and Common flooded the double doors of the theatre, while Peltier supporters kept the conversation going by the New York City street, some smoking cigarettes; others periodically jumping in place to stay warm.
Once inside, drinks were served to the right; merch sold to the left. And all around were familiar faces. Some faces had names, while others were just familiar. Then in walked a calm and quiet Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now! Someone nearby said a drum group had assembled onstage, coated by red, blue and green lights. Everyone, the hippies, the Natives, the music-lovers, each began to make their way into the darkened theatre with their drinks and merch and maybe even their snag -- Native nomenclature for one’s date.
Once the drum group finished its set and the crowd calmed after a roar of approbation, on came the organizers of the evening.
Harry Belafonte, the musician and activist, took the stage with Peter Coyote, an actor and friend of Leonard Peltier. Mr. Belafonte, gripping a cane, told the clamoring crowd of Leonard’s disposition: "I spoke with Leonard just before the show," he said in a whispered voice. "[Leonard] said, 'Harry, I know how hard it’s been to organize these concerts. … I hope this evening is not about raising funds, but let it be about raising consciousness. Consciousness about injustice is what we have to do.'"
Belafonte said that Peltier was more concerned with the victims of Hurricane Sandy than he was with raising funds to assist his release.
Rapper Mos Def takes to the stage during Common's performance at a benefit for Leonard Peltier on Friday night. Photo courtesy instagram.com/beacontheatre
The evening’s bill of performances and appearances, which included a 93-year-old Pete Seeger (who led the audience in a sing-along of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) as well as a performance by Native singer/songwriter Bill Miller, reached its musical climax when rapper and actor Common rushed onto the stage and began a performance that lasted roughly 20 minutes. Midway through his set, Common, a south Chicago native, began to freestyle. He rapped, in harmony, “Yo, you right there. We do this for Leonard Peltier! First Nations, I salute you!”
In a surprise appearance, rapper Mos Def suddenly joined Common onstage and engaged the crowd with a repetitive, “I want my people to be free! I want my people to be free!”
In between the night’s scheduled performances, numerous noted activists spoke about Peltier and his incarceration; these included filmmaker Michael Moore, actor Danny Glover, Amnesty International Director of the past 12 years Jack Healey, Vice President of the Oglala Nation Tom Poor Bear, and former middleweight boxer and, most recently, the executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
Moore's words elicited both approvals and scoffs.
Commenting on the inaction of President Barack Obama to release Leonard Peltier, Moore exclaimed, “If not you, Mr. Obama, then who?” The crowd cheered.
Moments later, Moore digressed and spoke of the NRA. “There’s one thing that the NRA and I agree on,” he said. “I agree. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But I’d take it a bit further: Guns don’t kill people. Americans kill people.”
Several audience members audibly disapproved of the blistering accusation while others fervently applauded.
Peter Coyote, returning to the stage, encouraged the audience to contact President Obama as well as their congressmen and -women to revitalize legislative efforts to release Leonard from his more than 30-year imprisonment.
The show concluded with a lengthy set in which Seeger was joined by classic rock legend Jackson Browne. A crowd of Leonard Peltier supporters, including Belafonte, Coyote and Poor Bear, joined the onstage sing-along.
One can only speculate as to what Obama will do in the next four years, but one goal of the event was to bang the drum hard and loud enough to get the President to take the action his predecessors never did -- not even Bill Clinton could muster the courage to release Peltier in the last days of his presidency. Natives can only hope that Obama will take action.