Rocker Tom Morello brought the house down – and the crowd of 800 to their feet – with rollicking renditions of Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie songs at a Nov. 13 Los Angeles event celebrating the publication of the 10th anniversary edition of Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Seven Stories Press). Co-edited by the late Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, the hefty volume contains quotes by indigenous people, slaves, abolitionists, suffragettes, labor organizers, agitators, anarchists, communists, feminists, dissidents of many stripes representing the downtrodden, the dispossessed. In short, the wretched of the Earth.
This updated version of Voices adds passages from whistleblower Chelsea Manning, anti-surveillance Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, anti-globalization activist/author Naomi Klein, Dream Defenders, Undocumented Youth and other resistance figures. A host of Hollywood heavyweights, including Kerry Washington (star of ABC’s Scandal series and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) and Benjamin Bratt (Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic), read various quotations from Voices during the show at Downtown L.A.’s Japanese Cultural & Community Center.
Introducing the talents participating in the sold-out performance Arnove noted sadly that the occasion was “bittersweet” as this was the first edition since 2004 of Voices – a companion book to Zinn’s classic text A People’s History of the United States – to be released after the historian’s 2010 death at age 87. But Arnove – who co-produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars and compiled the additions for this third edition of Voices – asserted: “I have no doubt that he would want the struggles and voices that have continued in the last several years…to be documented and celebrated and to give expression to those voices…. So I am very confident that Howard is very much with us in spirit…and I also feel that Howard is with the strikers who are striking at the docks at L.A.’s port and with the Walmart workers who are sitting in today – and at Ferguson, Missouri.”
Singer/songwriter Joe Henry then proceeded to set the mood, kicking the event off with a moving performance of a 1971 Bob Dylan song about prison guards killing “Soledad Brother” George Jackson, a Black Panther linked to Angela Davis, singing, “Lord, Lord, They cut George Jackson down, Lord, Lord, They laid him in the ground.” Nuyorican actor Ramon Rodriguez (HBO’s The Wire) then read a passage from Voices by historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, extolling the virtues of the so-called “New World’s” Natives and decrying their brutal treatment and enslavement by Spanish colonizers.
Big and little screen actor John Krasinski (NBC’s sitcom The Office and co-writer and co-star with Matt Damon of the anti-fracking movie Promised Land) read the 1886 address to the court by anarchist August Spies, who was executed shortly afterwards because of his alleged ties to Chicago’s Haymarket Square protest, which led to the creation of May Day (in the USA, not Russia, Cuba or China!): “Here you will tread upon a spark…and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”
Broadway actress Christina Kirk (Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, NBC’s A to Z series) passionately delivered a stirring speech called “Wall Street Owns the Country,” as relevant today as it was circa 1890 when populist Mary Elizabeth Lease proclaimed: “We want the abolition of the National Banks…. We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out…. We will stand by our homes…by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the Government pays its debts to us. The people are at bay, [so] let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware.”
In a more lighthearted vein Marisa Tomei read Naomi Klein’s speech delivered via the “human microphone” to Occupy Wall Street demonstrators at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan: “I love you…. The One Percent loves a crisis…. [The] 99 percent is taking to the streets from Madison to Madrid to say, ‘No. We will not pay for your crisis.’… ‘Why are they protesting?’ ask the baffled pundits on TV. Meanwhile, the rest of the world asks: ‘What took you so long?’ ‘We’ve been wondering when you were going to show up.’ And most of all: ‘Welcome.'”
Kerry Washington – who portrayed the enslaved wife Jamie Foxx rescues in Django Unchained and stars in the hard hitting Scandal TV series about presidential hanky panky and intelligence agency covert actions – read testimony by civil rights activist and former cotton picker Fannie Lou Hamer about her efforts to register to vote in segregated Mississippi. Washington was the only actor to return for a sort of encore as Sojourner Truth, reenacting the ex-slave’s famous 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech to women’s rights advocates, debunking religious arguments against gender equality. With her finely etched features, the beautiful Washington wittily pointed out as Sojourner: “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.”
In what may have been the show’s canniest casting Hong Chau – a Vietnamese woman – delivered boxer and Muslim Muhammad Ali’s eloquent explanation why he was resisting the draft and refusing to fight in Vietnam, with defiant words as timely today as they were in 1966: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home to drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” Ali’s greatest fight was fought outside of the boxing ring.
Michael Ealy, the star of Think Like a Man and About Last Night, brought back to life an equally fiery statement by Malcolm X, reciting his 1963 “Message to the Grass Roots.” In another bit of clever casting, actress Alicia Witt repeated the 2013 courtroom statement of Chelsea Manning (the former U.S. soldier who exposed American war crimes in Iraq by revealing classified documents to WikiLeaks and is in the process of undergoing a gender transition): “I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others…. I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”
Manning also quoted Zinn’s excoriation of false patriotism: “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” Jesse Williams, who portrayed civil rights and peace activist Rev. James Lawson in The Butler and appeared on Grey’s Anatomy, poignantly read Zinn’s famed 1971 antiwar speech, riffing on the notion of civil disobedience: “Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.”
On a day when reports emerged that Obama might take sweeping executive action regarding immigration reform, Benjamin Bratt depicted undocumented immigrant Gustavo Madrigal-Pina, criticizing Obama and U.S. immigration policies. Actress Q’orianka Kilcher, 24, whose father is Peruvian and who has portrayed Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World and a Hawaiian royal in Princess Kaiulani, read the poem the low road by Marge Piercy.
Tom Morello – the grandnephew of Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta who co-founded Rage Against the Machine and whom Rolling Stone rated #26 on its 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All-Time list – provided a moving musical interlude, belting out “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” with its Steinbeckian lyrics by Bruce Springsteen. The acoustic guitar of Morello, who belongs to the Industrial Workers of the World, bore the words “Arm the Homeless” and a decal with a hammer and sickle. Morello dedicated the song to Iraq War veteran turned antiwar leader Tomas Young – star of Phil Donahue’s 2007 documentary Body of War – whose recent death from the injuries he suffered in Iraq greatly angered him, the singer said.
Backed by Carl Restivo and Joe Henry, Morello also closed the 90-minute Zinn-inspired event by performing a rocking version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” the unofficial alternative national anthem (and not just of the American Left). This rendition included Woody’s sometimes neglected lyrics dissing private property; Morello’s electric guitar pyrotechnics were positively Hendrix-like. The Wobbly guitar slinger directed the audience to get out of their seats, dance and jump upon his cue, which the onstage talents joined in on, especially an enthusiastic Washington. Toward the end Morello repeatedly sang, “Take it easy,” and then added, “But take it!” Concluding, the leftwing troubadour quipped, “That was pretty rhythmic clapping – for a progressive audience!”
Playwright Bianca Bagatourian, whose new experimental bio-play about Howard Zinn The Time of Our Lies was recently performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, exulted that the program “captured the spirit of Howard,” whom the dramatist knew. Indeed, a splendid time was had by all – one would have to be a “Zinn-fidel” to not have enjoyed the big show.
For those who missed the West Coast Zinn-palooza, another version celebrating the new book release took place at New York’s New School on Nov. 21 with Arnove, actors Viggo Mortensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly MacDonald, Aasif Mandvi, Jessica Pimentel, Wallace Shawn, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christina Kirk, Erin Cherry, Susan Pourfar, Brian Jones, and Jeff Zinn, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, poets Staceyann Chin, Idris Goodwin, and Kevin Coval, and other special guests, plus music by DJ Charlie Hustle.
The storied affinity between performing artists and the Left continues on without skipping a beat. Happy People’s Thanksgiving!
Photo: Seven Stories Press