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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON |At a progressive-packed benefit at the Beacon Theater last Friday night, activists and entertainers including Michael Moore, Harry Belafonte, Peter Coyote, Pete Seeger and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter pleaded for President Obama to pardon jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier.
In 1977, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the first-degree murder of two F.B.I. agents during a shootout two years earlier at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. He entered prison at age 31 and is now 67, and reportedly in bad health. Peltier has admitted he shot at the agents. The question that has never been adequately answered, as one of the speakers at the benefit said, is whether “he finished them off.”
Folk legend Seeger, 93, led the crowd in a sing-along of the classic “Turn, Turn, Turn,” about the cycle of life.
Belafonte, 85, noted he lost his singing voice after suffering a stroke three years ago. But he could still speak eloquently about Peltier’s cause. He said he had talked on the phone with Peltier shortly before the Upper West Side benefit, and the jailed activist had told him that the event should be about raising consciousness of incarceration, not cash.
“He said he knows about the East and Sandy. ‘They need the money in New York,’ ” reported the calypso crooner.
Common rapped for Peltier’s pardon and had the willing crowd’s hands waving in the air, and Mos Def sang his hit “Shine Your Light.”
Native American performers Bill Miller and Jennifer Kreisberg brought down the house with their powerful and haunting singing. Jackson Browne made a cameo to strum and sing along with Bruce Cockburn on the tune “Indian War.”
Carter, the former middleweight boxer immortalized in song by Bob Dylan and on screen by Denzel Washington, served nearly 20 years in jail for a triple murder at a New Jersey bar. A federal court threw out the conviction in 1985, saying that Carter had been wrongfully convicted based on racial profiling.
Holding up his writ of habeas corpus that freed him, Carter said, “I never leave home without it.”
A film clip was shown of late radical lawyer Bill Kunstler arguing for Peltier’s innocence based on gun forensics.
Moore was a surprise speaker on the night’s lineup.
“Oh, my God!” someone in row I excitedly called out as the famously lefty filmmaker’s name was announced.
“President Obama, do the right thing and let Leonard Peltier out of jail,” Moore said. “If not you, President Obama — who? It’s got to be you.”
The “Bowling for Columbine” director then touched on last week’s massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, noting it’s just the latest tragedy in an issue he’s been “following for a while.”
Somewhat pessimistically, Moore said, “Yes, we need gun control. But there have been 61 mass shootings since Columbine in this country. There is just something about violence stuck in America’s craw.”
Riffing on the N.R.A.’s bumper sticker slogan, Moore said, “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.”
Circling back to wrongful imprisonment, Moore declared, “We’ve got to stop this phony drug war and using it as an excuse to lock up innocent black and Latino men.”
Referring to Wall St., he fumed, “We’re just blocks away from the biggest criminal operating in the country — and no one is arrested!”