|Hipsters, hippies, suits, and sorority girls converged on 34th Street's Hammerstein Ballroom in eager anticipation of the "Bring 'Em Home Now!" concert, which featured an array of artists and activists, including Michael Stipe, Bright Eyes, Rufus Wainwright, Cindy Sheehan, Iraq veterans, Fischerspooner, and Steve Earle. The show marked the third anniversary of the Iraq War and kicked off the national "Bring 'Em Home Now!" speaking tour, with proceeds benefiting Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Gold Star Families for Peace.
To date, 2,320 U.S. soldiers have been killed and over 17,000 have been wounded in the Iraq War. Congress has appropriated over $250 billion to fund the war, although estimates of the true price tag hover closer to $2 trillion. These dry, depressing statistics were the impetus for the concert, which provided a forum for the packed lineup of artists to express anger and inspire activism. The show was scheduled to run three hours, and the laws of time and space (and undoubtedly some NYC noise ordinance) only allowed each act a small window to perform and promote peace, but the evening's collective energy left the over-capacity crowd empowered and entertained.
Steve Earle set the tone for the night with his raucous opening song, "F the CC," a rebuke against right-wing talk radio and government curtailment of free speech. "Been called a traitor and a patriot. Call me anything you want to, but just don’t forget your history." He encouraged the crowd to keep an open mind towards newcomers to the anti-war movement, referencing the growing number of once staunch Bush supporters who now oppose the war. "I opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning. The Vietnam War didn’t end because I opposed it. The Vietnam War ended when my dad came to oppose it," Earle explained before playing his final song, "Rich Man’s War."
Margaret Cho covered a lot of ground in her brief monologue: homophobia, xenophobia, oppression of reproductive rights, the hypocrisy of religious zealots, and blind loyalty to the Bush administration. Addressing the Christian right, she said "even Satanists are like: you’re really, really mean," before offering her suggestion for military withdrawal: "Why don’t we bring the troops home and send Dick Cheney to Iraq? He’s on a shooting spree anyway."
Fischerspooner had the most elaborately staged performance of the evening: elements of cabaret, Ziggy Stardust, performance art, and irresistible beats combined to shock and entertain. During the first song, "Sweetness," a male dancer rushed to the front of the stage wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with WE NEED WAR in large black block letters, blood spewing from his mouth. "The blood on this stage is fake," commented lead singer Casey Spooner, "but there’s a lot of real blood being spilled in Iraq." To conclude their set, Fischerspooner played the satiric "We Need a War," written by Susan Sontag. "Whenever we say we need a war/If we think we need a war, we need a war/A war to make us feel safe/A war to make 'em feel sorry."
Cindy Sheehan, grieving military mom turned galvanizing peace activist, spoke out against her recent arrest in New York City (on March 6, Sheehan and three other women were arrested in their attempt to deliver a petition to the United Nations). "If they try to arrest me again for walking down a public sidewalk, for petitioning the government for redress of wrongs, for not staying in a free speech zone, I'm going to tell them: This is America, and I'm standing in a free speech zone. Everywhere we stand in America is a free speech zone." She concluded by leading the crowd in a chant "Victory and occupation do not bring liberation! That’s bullshit! Get off it! This war is for profit!"
Speaking through a translator, Dr. Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, a Baghdad pharmacist and mother of five, described the terror and violence that has ravaged her country over the past three years: schools converted to military bases, midnight kidnappings and unexplained arrests, ceaseless destruction, and depletion of basic goods. "I came here to speak to you because I've seen the pain of the injured who die because there isn't enough medicine and supplies," she said, challenging Bush: "No democracy will take place with the presence of troops. You cannot exchange our blood for oil."
Iraq veteran and former National Guard sergeant Geoffrey Millard gave a rousing narrative of his experience in the military and his shift to progressive activism. "I signed up to be a civilian soldier. I signed up to help my community," he said. "I signed up to defend the constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. But my First Amendment rights aren't being trampled by Al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein never tapped my phone. Right now, the enemies of the constitution are domestic." Millard implored Bush to withdraw the troops: "We don’t need an exit strategy. Exit is not a strategy, it is an executive order."
Moby honored his anti-war upbringing by performing one of his mother’s favorite songs, "For What It’s Worth" with Laura Dawn, whose vocals added a stunning Delta blues richness to the Buffalo Springfield classic. (Dawn is MoveOn.org’s Cultural Director and the featured singer on Moby's album Hotel.) Devendra Banhart provided another throwback to decades gone by, delivering 60’s aesthetics and 70’s psychedelics with a Prince edge. Peaches stormed the stage wearing a gold sequined leotard, thigh highs, and frizzy freakadelic hair hollering "If I’m wrong, impeach my bush! Impeach my bush! Impeach Bush! Impeach Bush!" Chuck D followed, reprimanding the "village idiot at the top and all his gangsters" for "looting the planet with weapons of mass distraction." He encouraged the crowd to "get up and stand up for what’s right."
Rufus Wainwright performed "Liberty Cabbage," a song whose title refers to the preferred name for Sauerkraut during WWI. "The first freedom fries," Wainwright quipped, before singing "Sometimes I think you’re trying to kill me with your stars and strips. Sometimes I think you might succeed." The crowd erupted when Conor Oberst and his band Bright Eyes came on stage. Oberst tapped into the crowd's energy for an explosive performance of "When the President talks to God," which proved he deserves a place at Dylan's roundtable of lyrically outspoken, emotionally charged, politically astute folk-rock gods. Michael Stipe concluded the evening with a star studded ensemble, including Joseph Arthur, James Iha, Rain Phoenix, and Mark Mulcahy. Stipe said he wanted to honor his father, who'd served in Korea and Vietnam, and spoke of his admira
Fortunately, there are ample opportunities to engage in the anti-war movement and protest the Bush administration’s criminal disregard for life and liberty: attend a "Bring 'Em Home Now!" event in a town near you or join a protest. Crafty types can sew a quilt patch. Anyone who needs to mail a letter can buy a "Bring 'Em Home Now!" stamp. Options abound, as do inspirational quotes. Perhaps Conor Oberst said it best Monday night: "We know why we’re here. We know what we need to do. Now let’s do it."