Protest Music for the New Millenium

(Todd Smith already wrote this article)

On stage, Steve Earle led the crowd in a sing-a-long of "Steve’s Hammer (for Pete)" – a song that picks up on that parenthetical Pete (Seeger)’s "If I Had a Hammer," from 1949.

"I’m gonna say a line, and you’re gonna repeat it back to me," Earle said. "And none of the just-mouthin’-the-words stuff. I grew up in a Methodist church, and I know all about that shit."

The audience, in attendance for the 1st Annual Take Back Labor Day Festival at Harriet Island, acquiesced to Earle’s demands. Hippies and hipsters, whole families and lone children, organizers in support of workers’ rights and apolitical groupies who came just to see their favorite bands – everyone yelled the musician’s lyrics back at him. Though there were fourteen-year-olds in the front row who’ve probably never even had a job yet, everyone was eager to add their own energy to the day’s momentum.

Later, just across the Mississippi River, more than 280 protestors would be arrested for varying degrees of felonies, and a faint stench of tear gas would linger in the city’s grass. There would be a bomb threat on the Roberts Street Bridge. A man in the center of downtown St. Paul’s labyrinth-like riot gates would stand in a spotlight, preaching salvation, though no one would listen. Hidden speakers would blare "Danger Zone" throughout the metropolis.

Now, though, at the concert, people sat cross-legged in the sun, and others kicked around a hackey-sack, and Steve Earle alternately played songs and lamented Woody Guthrie’s absence.

The quietest presences were those backstage. During Earle’s set, a number of Iraq Veterans Against the War milled about, partaking of the festival’s various fried foods and texting friends on their cell phones. Some listened to the music, but none sang along. Certainly they seemed to be enjoying themselves, but they were distanced somehow from the celebration.

"We came as part of a group of veterans to the DNC and RNC, to address issues affecting vets," said Eddie Falcon, who served four tours – two in Iraq, two in Afghanistan – as well as helping out in post-Katrina New Orleans. He was dressed in a black tank top, silver dog tags hanging loosely over the cloth. "We want all occupying forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan – you know, just, ‘troops home now’ – and we want full benefits for veterans. There are a lot of things that happen back home: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), suicide, depression, alcoholism…and a lot of veterans aren’t getting the help they need."

It’s strange and disturbing to think that of all the people gathered under the aegis of Taking Back Labor Day, the people enlisted by our government to protect our country are some of the most mistreated by their employers.

In about forty-five minutes, when Tom Morello would be finishing his set with a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land" (subversive lyrics reinstated), Falcon and his twenty or so peers on stage would pump their fists during the chorus and jump like they were listening to Kris Kross. Backstage, though, they were subdued, maybe accustomed to explaining their difficult positions to the media. Low-key as they seemed, though, they were very aware that they were under threat of arrest.

Last week at the DNC in Denver, the group – then reportedly comprised of more than sixty vets – enacted Operation First Casualty, which, Falcon explained, was a piece of guerrilla-style theater.

"With that we were bringing the war home," he said. "We dressed in our full fatigues, and had planted allies throughout the city, and we would detain them, handcuffing them and masking them in the middle of the crowd, to simulate what happens every day in Iraq."

Then a group of veterans composed a letter listing demands they wanted to present to Obama’s campaign. They marched, Morello explained during his set, through the streets of Denver, and as they got closer and closer to the convention’s headquarters, a group of policemen in full riot gear began to block their path.

That’s the absurd thing, isn’t it? That war veterans could get arrested during what really was a peaceful, even pacifist event – back home in the U.S.

But the vets were undeterred. Eventually their letter was delivered and, Morello said, the dialogue with the Democratic Party will continue.
In St. Paul the vets drafted a similar missive for the McCain camp. "Our First Sergeant got an escort through St. Paul to see McCain and bring him the letter," Falcon said. "But McCain declined to come out."

During the latter half of the show, when the music shifted from Steve Earle-style folk rock to rap, the veterans began congregating on the wings of the stage. They danced along to Atmosphere, Mos Def, and The Pharcyde. The terms ‘PTSD’ and depression resounded in the mind – diseases that by definition set one apart form larger society. The vets had backstage passes, were touring with the musicians, and jamming on the set, but one wonders when, if ever, they’ll be able to re-join the larger crowd.






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