Rock and refusal

Feb 3, 1999 at 12:00 am
Although a January 28 concert by Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys and Bad Religion to benefit famed death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal went off without a hitch, the controversy ignited by the event continues.

At a press conference the night of the show, Tom Morello, Rage’s lead guitarist, said their decision to organize the concert came following the October 30 denial by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of Jamal’s final state appeal on his conviction and death sentence for the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer.

The sold-out concert at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines arena was attended by 16,000 people and raised $375,000 for Jamal, who is expecting Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge to set an early execution date for him within weeks.

Opposition to the concert bordered on hysteria. A January 19, New York Post headline set the tone, screaming, "Concert Benefits a Cop-Killing Vermin." Right-wing morning show shock-jocks Howard Stern and Chicago’s "Mancow in the Morning" — both of whose shows are syndicated on Detroit’s 97.1 FM — picked up the tempo, calling for Jamal’s immediate execution. Mancow, whose show airs in the evening in Detroit, sarcastically offered a $7,000 fee to have Jamal "knifed in prison."

The general manager of WXRK-FM in New York, which initially promoted the concert, went on the air with a highly unusual apology, saying the station had made a "big-time mistake" and withdrew the station’s support. New Jersey governor Christine Whitman called the event "despicable" and urged concertgoers to boycott the show. The venue offered to refund the $25 ticket price to those who hadn’t realized where the money raised was going. According to officials at the state-owned arena close to New York City, 2,000 fans took advantage of the offer, although Rage lead singer, Zach de la Rocha, said the figure was closer to 600 and that all of the tickets were quickly resold.

On stage, Morello told the cheering audience, "Now we know for sure that everyone in the building tonight knows why they’re here."

Jamal’s supporters contend he is an innocent victim of a frame-up which includes witness tampering and suppression of evidence, and of a flawed justice system which discriminates against African-Americans in death penalty cases. "We are not here to support cop killing," Morello told the crowd. "Mumia did not get a fair trial."

Jamal’s defense also points to the fact that the judge in the 1982 trial, a lifelong member of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), also ruled on the appeal in 1998; and that Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castillo, who announced the final appeal denial, was financially supported in his election bid by the FOP, and was the city district attorney who wrote briefs opposing Jamal’s earlier appeals in 1988.

The concert, hosted by Brit-pop band Chumbawamba singers Dunstan Bruce and Norbert Nobacon, opened with a strong set from Bad Religion. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch told the crowd to "oppose the death penalty in general" during a 17-song set featuring Beastie hits "Time for Living," "Sabotage" and "Body Movin’."

The event was capped by Rage, which jammed through 13 songs including three new, untitled numbers and "Bulls on Parade," "A Bullet in Your Head" and "Freedom." The band was joined for an encore of "Killing in the Name Of…" by Public Enemy rapper Chuck D. who told the audience, "Music is more of a communicator than all the old rhetoric."

Morello said that several other groups had expressed interest in playing the event, including the Indigo Girls and Black Sabbath.

Jamal’s lead attorney, Leonard Weinglass, told the press conference that the next step is to take the case to federal appeals court. Jamal’s supporters plan "Millions for Mumia" protest marches in Philadelphia and San Francisco on April 24. More information is available at this Web site. Peter Werbe is a frequent contributor to the Metro Times and is in a rage against most machines. Send comments to [email protected]