Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine reads a prepared statement at a press conference defending his band's decision to perform at the Mumia Abu-Jamal defense fund benefit.
Rage Against the Machine's January 28 benefit for the Mumia Abu-Jamal defense fund--at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey with the Beastie Boys, Bad Religion and Black Star--may have been the most controversial rock'n'roll show in recent history. Police and state officials condemned the concert, and urged ticketholders to demand refunds. Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio reporter in Philadelphia, is on Death Row for the killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
HIGH TIMES editors Steve Bloom and Steven Wishnia spoke with Rage guitarist Tom Morello the day before the show. Wishnia's story on the event will appear in the May 1999 HT.
HIGH TIMES: When did you first become aware of the case? Tom Morello: We became actively involved in the case in 1995--the last time they tried to kill Mumia, the last time a death warrant was signed. At that time Mumia was ten days away from execution when he received a stay, in large part because of the huge international protest about his impending execution--hundreds of thousands marched both at home and abroad to try to stop that travesty of justice from happening. That's what we're shooting for this time as well--just to raise awareness to the kind of level where people aren't willing to stand to see a political dissident be executed, when he did not receive a fair trial and there's a great likelihood that he's innocent.
What made you specifically get involved in this case?
When we heard the news item about Mumia we began doing some research into it. When one even probes the surface of the case and what went on at the original trial, it's so shocking. What initially caught my eye was that Amnesty International was calling for a new trial for this guy. I started looking at the case. It's really un-believable. The core of this case I believe is simple, straightforward and unambiguous, and that is Mumia Abu-Jamal did not receive a fair trial--period. In the United States of America you can't execute political dissidents who haven't been tried fairly.
You think there's a strong chance he's innocent, but whichever way it is, he didn't get a fair trial?
I believe that Mumia Abu-Jamal is innocent. Regardless of what one thinks of his innocence or guilt or regardless of what one thinks of the death penalty, that is secondary to the fact that you just can't go lynching people legally. Clearly, there was gross prosecutorial misconduct. There was the intimidation of witnesses. The main prosecution's witnesses changed their story several times--they were threatened and then rewarded for changing their story.
That would be Cynthia White...
Yeah, Cynthia White and that fellow Chobert.
The cab driver.
Yeah. There was an un-believable manufactured confession where 25 cops were standing in the emergency room with the attending physician. No one heard Mumia say anything, then two months later, after Mumia had filed police-brutality charges and after a prosecutor's strategy meeting, all of a sudden the prosecutor says to the cops who were in the emergency room: OK now, did any of you happen to hear a confession? Hint, hint. There was a mass amnesia for two months and all of a sudden three of them decided they had heard a confession. That's absolutely ridiculous.
The judge was hostile and biased throughout the proceedings. The jury was illegally purged of African-Americans. As you may have heard, the Philly DA's office had a training video on how to get blacks off a jury. The amount of evidence that was withheld is incredible and very significant. One fact that didn't come to light until thirteen years after the initial trial was that on the body of the dead officer was the driver's-license application of another man. In all, there were ten witnesses who claimed to have seen some or part of the whole incident. Five of those witnesses saw one or more men running away from the scene. The prosecution has absolutely denied this, despite five eyewitnesses.
The only one of those who testified at the original trial was Dessie Hightower.
There was this woman who was living in a hotel down the block, and there's the gas-station owner.
Right, right. The thing that's significant about the one piece of withheld evidence was that the dead officer had a third party's driver's-license application. Who was that third party? They hid that from the defense in the initial trial. Since then, one of Mumia's current attorneys, Leonard Weinglass, has tracked down who that person was, the person whose picture was on the ID. He claims to not have been in the car that night, but that he loaned his driver's-license application to a friend of his during that period of time. It turns out that that friend of his was the business partner of Mumia's brother--they ran a little newsstand together. It makes perfect sense that that person would be in the car and that person generally matches the description of the man one witness saw shoot the officer--it matches the description of several of the witnesses, one of the men that was running away. It's incredible that the jury didn't get to hear that.
The list goes on. The inadequate defense. The defense attorney interviewed none of the defense witnesses before putting them on the stand. The defense investigator quit before the trial due to insufficient funds. This is a death-penalty case! It's a travesty of justice, this whole thing from beginning to end. What we find so appalling is if the other side is so sure of his guilt, then why are they so afraid of a new trial? Leonard Weinglass has offered to debate anyone from the Philadelphia DA's office or the Fraternal Order of Police in a public forum regarding this case and they've refused.
They have nothing to gain from it.
They have nothing to gain from it. And it begs the question if they're not willing to debate him in that sort of public forum, why not do it in front of a jury?
They're claiming that Cynthia White is dead, and she's their star witness.
What do you think of the whole controversy this has stirred up, with New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman telling people not to come to the show, and the Fraternal Order of Police leader saying he would stop at lights if he got a 911 call from it?
That's just incredible. It's sooooo clear that at least some police don't consider themselves public servants whatsoever. They're often an independent rogue organization who obviously choose when to enforce the law and when not to--so if some kid breaks his leg at the concert they're gonna take their time coming. That says a lot about where each of the parties stand on this. I would hope any decent cop would want there to be a new trial, would want there to be no ambiguity in regards to this man's innocence or guilt. That makes sense if you're truly in favor of law and order. If you have a new trial with an unbiased judge, an unbiased jury, then you're not gonna hear a peep from Rage Against the Machine, you're not gonna hear a peep from Nelson Mandela, from the European Parliament, from mayors across the US and the millions of people who've been supporting Mumia in large measure because it smacks of the same kind of political dissident railroading that goes on in China, that goes on in Iraq. We used this partially as an excuse for bombing Iraq. If the situation were reversed and this was a political dissident who had boldly stood up for his rights despite the railroading of police in a country like that, the attorney general for New Jersey would be handing out medals.
You've taken stances on sweatshops and the Zapatistas in the past. Why has this been elevated to the top of your political agenda?
It's one of the issues on our agenda. The reason why there's focus on it now is because on Oct. 30, 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Mumia's appeal, leaving the way open for the governor to sign a death warrant. That's why we organized the concert now, because we're trying to save a man's life. He's in mortal peril right now, that's why it's come to the surface.
How did this benefit come about? Was it your idea or were you sitting around with the Beasties?
When we heard the appeal was denied and the death warrant was imminent, Zach called me up and said, "It's time to do a show." We're actually in the middle of making a record right now. So we had to put that on hold for a minute and begin soliciting bands.
The goal is also to raise money for the court case?
Yes, we're raising funds for the federal appeal and trying to raise awareness as well to counteract the lies and propaganda of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police. Let me go back to the New Jersey Attorney General. She basically apologized to the people of New Jersey for the First Amendment. She said this concert is deplorable and we would love nothing more than to shut it down. Unfortunately, there's the constitutional guarantee of free speech. We apologize for that, so the concert's gonna have to go on.
Secondly, she seemed ignorant of her state's own judicial history. In 1966, "Hurricane" Carter was convicted of a triple murder. He was an outspoken critic of the police. There was a lot of shenanigans during his trial as well. In 1975 Bob Dylan did a sold-out benefit concert for Hurricane at Madison Square Garden. This helped to fund a federal appeal investigation. All of his state appeals had been denied. In 1985, almost 20 years after the conviction, a federal judge ordered him released due to the fact that racism had affected the trial, there were grave constitutional errors, there was concealment of evidence by the police. It's an exactly parallel case.
What do you have to say to Howard Stern?
I was on his show yesterday. I had only heard second-hand what he had said before. Yesterday, it was me, Leonard Weinglass, the deceased officer's wife and somebody from the Philadelphia DA's office--and then Howard and Robin. His two cents was basically: If, as Mrs. Faulkner claimed, there were five eyewitnesses that saw Mumia do it--which is simply untrue--and if the ballistics evidence supported guilt, then why were we even talking about this? Those two claims are unambivalently false.
There was one witness that said the police story verbatim, Cynthia White. She was probably the most dubious witness to ever take the stand. I'm sure you're familiar with Veronica Jones. She was a prostitute and had outstanding warrants for her arrest, like Cynthia White. She said she saw two men running away from the scene. During her trial testimony, she rescinded that statement and fell in line with the official police version. Later she came forward and admitted that the police threatened her with a long jail term and the legal removal of her children unless she played ball. She said the police offered a similar deal to Cynthia White. This is incredible. You pull any thread in the prosecution's story and the whole case unravels. And yet at every level Mumia's appeals have been denied.
Mumia did an article for us in a recent issue titled "A Real War in the Name of Drugs." Have you seen it?
Do you have a comment on the War on Drugs?
I read a recent quote from someone who was commenting on the truism that it's not inner-city blacks that are bringing these drugs into the United States [laughs]. With the dubious history of our international intelligence organizations, it's really like criminal. Our inner cities are becoming to a large extent camps, from Cabrini-Green in Chicago to South Central in L.A., which are monitored and patrolled by helicopter and squad car, where America's underclass, primarily the poor and minorities, are being put into the prisons of their own ghetto communities, or are being shuffled off to state prisons, where they work as slave lAboutrers for the airlines and different companies like that. It's really a travesty.
Are you in favor of legalizing drugs?
That's an issue I don't know that much about and really have no comment on. Personally I don't use drugs, but I don't have anything against people who do. Obviously when you've got the drugs of nicotine and alcohol legal, it seems bizarre that marijuana should be illegal. It just seems ridiculous.
Are you familiar with the Hempilation benefit series we've done for NORML?
Maybe you'd like to join us for the hip-hop Hempilation.
How about another Zapatistas benefit, like the Tibet Freedom concert?
We've done several of those before. We have a long list of worthy causes that are deserving of benefits of that sort of stature. The key thing, with the exception of this benefit, is finishing the next record, so that there's a new publicity push and a new interest in playing benefits like that. What I would love to do sometime in the future is to do benefits for some of our major causes across the United States, Europe and South America. Take Washington, DC to be one issue--we'll get a lot of bands to play that. Mexico City could be another. That's something I hope we can do.
If you're ever planning on another Zapatistas benefit, let us know.
I saw you last time in New Jersey with Wu-Tang Clan. What do you expect tonight?
Our audience in the NYC area has always been awesome and I expect no less from this. One good thing is, since there has been such controversy surrounding the show, there's not gonna be a single person in attendance that isn't gonna know what it's about. They like to say people are just coming for the music--well, no one's gonna be ignorant, with all the coverage, about what the subject matter is about.
We're all excited about the event.
I'd like to say one more thing: One of the things that gets obscured when mulling over the details of the sham trial and the NJ AG's statements is who Mumia Abu-Jamal is, why is so many people are interested in this guy. The other side has tried to portray him as this bloodthirsty criminal cop-killing menace. That simply is not true. He's an award-winning radio journalist. He's been a community activist since his mid-teens. He was the president of the National Association of Black Journalists in Philadelphia. He had a spotless police record at the time of the incident. The one thing he has always been guilty of is that he's been a leading critic of police violence against minority communities. His outspoken opposition to racism and police brutality is what we believe got him in trouble and made him a marked man. For 17 years on Death Row he continues to not beg for his life, but to courageously deliver scathing social criticism, like his book Live from Death Row and his commentaries on both domestic and international events. He's probably the most censored man in America.
Except in HIGH TIMES.
Except in HIGH TIMES, which is true. Like Mumia says, they don't want his death, they want his silence. That's why we're determined to see that the execution doesn't go through, that Mumia receives a new trial and he's eventually free.