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Taken from JamBase (September 16, 2001)
A Rally for peace featuring Michael Franti and Spearhead

Precita Park, San Francisco, CA, 9/16/01
by Dewey Hammond

Michael Franti A few hundred people mingled in Precita Park an hour before the day's events were slated to begin. People anxiously awaited the peaceful proceedings, unsure of anything except that Michael Franti and Spearhead were headlining the musical coalition for peace. By mid-afternoon, thousands had gathered, filling the park to capacity. People danced in the streets and on top of dumpsters. Anti-war demonstrators waved signs. People circulated petitions for causes too numerous to list. The stage was back-dropped by audience members' fifteen-foot, homemade, puppet-like "creatures." Signs attached to the creatures begged for peace and justice, and an end to both racism and war. At times, they stopped awe-struck local traffic as they paraded through the streets.

Michael Franti of Spearhead met with friends for dinner on the Thursday evening following the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. They met to cry, pray, reflect and meditate. Along with millions, they still struggle to come to grips with the horror. Feeling "scared, isolated and worried," Franti and friends wanted to involve the community in their healing process while at the same time stressing the importance of a peaceful response. With the help and support of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization committed to social justice, Michael Franti and Spearhead held a peace rally Sunday afternoon in Precita Park, San Francisco.

Franti and Spearhead shared the stage with numerous musicians, poets and peace advocates from throughout the Bay Area community. Thousands of people turned out for the event. Performers and speakers alike begged for a prudent judicial response in front of an international court. Everyone in attendance prayed for peace while being graciously reminded of the beautiful unifying force that is music and culture.

"The only politics we are trying to preach is peace," said Franti. "We shouldn't be ralying around the flag and the spirit of galvanizing our anger against the enemy. We should be rallying around the globe. I'm tired of hearing all of the politicization that is going on. As soon as the crash took place people on both sides were shouting out, 'The chickens are coming home to roost. The U.S. deserved it.' People on the other side are saying, 'America should stand firm. We should nuke the crap out of whoever did this.' Amongst my friends we were all saying that we haven't even stopped to grieve yet; we haven't even stopped to honor the dead and celebrate the loss of life and give thanks to God for what we have. Out of that, I feel like if we stopped and took the time to feel the emotions that we're feeling rather than suck in all of the information and try to process it, and if we allow ourselves that time to feel it from a human perspective, then whatever follows from that will be right."

Franti likened President Bush to "a shifty-eyed high school football coach," ready to attack as part of a "desperate" administration. Sentiments also echoed fear that Bush may exploit the current situation to further his political agenda. After receiving $40 billion in emergency funds from the House and the Senate, Franti specifically mentioned increased surveillance as a concern. "Who are they going to be surveilling? They're going to be surveilling us. Hippies, peace activists, environmentalists, pot advocates - there's no end to their list of people that they are going to be surveilling once they have the money to do it. Where is that $40 billion coming out of? It's coming out of education, it's coming out of healthcare, and its coming out of social security."

Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange and recent Green Party candidate for Senate in California, expressed similar fears over the potential and likely suspension of civil liberties. "People think there is a tradeoff between individual freedom and protecting ourselves as a nation. I say in a sense the more we are free as individuals, the freer our nation will be. We can't use this as a time to take away civil liberties, and we can't use this as a time to increase problems like racial profiling that have been so insidious already in our society. We can't take everybody that looks like an Arab-American and make him or her into a suspicious character. We've got to really build on the idea that we are in the end one world, that we are a nation that is made up of diverse communities, and we are a world that has to recognize the need to stop the gross inequalities that exist. You can't have a super rich nation like the United States and have two billion people that live on less than a dollar a day and think that is going to be a stable world. So I say, commit ourselves to civil liberties, commit ourselves to peace and justice, and recognize that that is the only thing that is going to bring peace."

"No matter who was responsible for this terrible crime which no cause or ideology could possible justify, Arab-Americans and Muslims all over the country mourn along with the rest of the country," said Global Exchange's Eman Desouky. Reports of senseless backlash against the Arab-American and Muslim communities worldwide are already rampant. Cab drivers beaten. Mosques under attack. Arab-American school children afraid - of both teachers and peers. Death threats levied. On stage, Benjamin mindfully quoted Gandhi: "An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind." Throughout the day, the crowd was repeatedly reminded of the futility of such violence.

Benjamin gladly addressed those who support a sustained military response to wipe out terrorism. "The question is, what does eradicating terrorism at its roots mean? I think that, one, that means taking the perpetrators of this crime and bringing them before a court of justice, hopefully an international court of justice like the U.S. has been trying to stop from coming into being. It shows how we need international courts for these types of crimes. But the other, I think, the more profound [solution] is to not think that there is a military answer to this. Certainly, Star Wars, which cost us tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars would be no deterrent to the type of crime that we saw committed on September 11th. So when we say get to the root of what makes people hate the United States, I say let's have a really hard look at our foreign policy and see how we can change it. How can we be more fair-minded in the Middle East for example, in supporting the rights of Palestinians to a homeland? How can we be fairer in not supporting repressive regimes like those in Saudi Arabia because they have a lot of oil that we want? How can we be more part of an international community that stands for peace and justice and supports the environment? Let's not walk away from the [United Nations] conference on racism. Let's not walk away from the Kyoto protocol to stop the devastation of global warming. Let's not walk away from things like an international criminal court. Let's really be strong players for peace and justice around the world."

Franti said: "The only way to bring about peace is to use the opposite of war and that's compassion. So we need to define what compassion means and then think about what that means on a large scale. What does it mean economically, what does it mean environmentally, what does it mean socially, in terms of education, in terms of a drug war, in terms of prison industry, [in terms of] schools? If we took that point of view, I feel like we'd really have a chance of not just eradicating a group of mysterious terrorists but eradicating hunger, eradicating illiteracy, eradicating people who don't have healthcare. So that's our goal. We want music to become what it has been in the past, which is a voice for that. That's why we called on musicians from the Bay Area. I haven't even heard them. It's just people who volunteered and we're going to put them all up on stage. I just called out on the radio and said, 'Who wants to play?' and the first four people that called, I said, 'Hey, you're on.'"

Benjamin, Franti and others have been working with the San Francisco city council to declare San Francisco an official "Hate-Free Zone." "We need to build a hate-free zone in the Bay Area and spread it throughout the United States," said Benjamin. The campaign is picking up momentum, and Washington Congressman Jim McDermott has now declared the State of Washington a hate-free state as a result of these efforts. "We have another very grave responsibility and that is to stop the war," added Benjamin.

An additional local peace advocate making international waves to prevent the war is Congresswoman Barbara Lee of the ninth district of California, who was repeatedly lauded throughout the peace festival. During last Friday's House and Senate hearings to grant President Bush the authority to use "all necessary and appropriate force," Congresswoman Lee was the lone dissenter in the House (420-1) while the vote was unanimous in the Senate (98-0). Congresswoman Lee has already received numerous threats as a result of her symbolic dissent.

Benjamin is currently running for a seat on the Municipal Utility District Board (Ward 4) and desires to again run for a larger political post in the future. She sees strength within the Green Party, a party she described as the "political arm" of Global Exchange. When discussing likely Green Party Presidential candidates for the next election, Benjamin mentioned 2000 nominee Ralph Nader, Cornell West or even a progressive Democrat who is sick of the current system, as possibilities.

While Green Party politics remain close to her heart, she realizes the gravity of the situation at hand. She labeled it as "a new, historic peace movement. This is the kind of grass roots movement that needs to take off very quickly before George Bush starts us on a very vicious and long campaign of retaliation. With the people out here and the kind of spirit, it gives you a chance to get out of the depths of despair that many of us have been feeling in the last week and turn that despair into something much more positive - which is a global movement for justice and peace."

Additional Information: <UL><LI>For additional peace rallies and/or vigils in the Bay Area, visit http://www.craigslist.org/. <LI>Global Exchange accepts no corporate or government money. They remain solely dependant on individual donors. To learn more, call 800-497-1994 or visit http://www.globalexchange.org/. <LI>Michael Franti and Spearhead are hosting their 3rd annual 911 Prison Awareness Rally and Free Concert in Dolores Park, San Francisco, on Saturday, October 6 from noon until 7pm. </LI></UL>

Author's note:
The rhetoric involved can be downright frightening. Some Americans want to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan, whose innocent civilians are currently living in fear of the ruling Taliban. Others call for what may be perceived as a reckless abandon of American ideals. At least one member of the crowd wore a sticker saying, "Flag flying is low-level terrorism." When firefighters in NYC hoisted an American flag on the World Trade Center rubble in honor of their fallen brethren, I'm hard pressed to believe that that heroism was, is or ever will be terrorism, on any level, in any sense of the word. Regardless, the message today from the stage was loud and clear. America needs to remain a hate-free environment and peace needs to remain the global goal.

Much thanks and love to both Michael Franti and Medea Benjamin for taking the time to speak with me, but more importantly, for taking the time to organize such a beautiful event.

[Published on 9/17/2001]


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