15,000 Help Nader 'Rock the Garden'

News & Politics

NEW YORK -- The only empty seats in the house, ironically, were in the darkened corporate skyboxes lining the third tier of Madison Square Garden. The one special effect was a modest blast of red, white and blue confetti that shot from the ceiling when the presidential candidate appeared. There was no canned music to ease the transition between speakers, no photo-op handshakes with the audience, and no TelePrompters to cue scripted lines.

But 15,000 people -- almost all in their late teens, twenties and thirties -- shelled out $20 apiece for an event that was certainly more rock concert than political rally. "Nader Rocks the Garden" it was rather dramatically titled, the latest in a string of successful "super-rallies" to benefit Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

"It blew the roof off this place," gushed a Nader campaign staffer.

The sheer size of the event, which was announced, planned and publicized in a week, astounded even its own planners. Greg Kafoury, a close friend and colleague of Nader's who was involved in efforts to get him on the ballot in 1992 and 1996, stood onstage while the candidate spread his message of civic rather than corporate globalization, and basked in the stadium's glow.

"We were all blown away," he said. "This was the Democratic Party's beating heart, and tonight we liberated it."

Kafoury said he pitched the idea of a "super-rally" to Nader's campaign organizers in Portland, and they responded with skepticism, imagining being publicly humiliated and financially devastated by a small turnout. Kafoury went ahead anyway and planned the first arena rally, packing in 10,500 people in Portland. He has since helped plan every subsequent super-rally, pulling in over ten thousand people in Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. He called Friday night's showing in Madison Square Garden "the crown jewel of American politics."

Unlike the other super-rallies, New York's event was a virtual celebrity pageant as emcee Phil Donahue introduced one star after another. Actress Susan Sarandon strutted onstage in black leather pants, and urged the audience to fill out voter registration cards being passed around by volunteers. She announced it was the last day to register in New York state, and that after the rally a marching band would lead everyone to the 24-hour main post office across the street to get their registration cards postmarked before midnight.

Sarandon's husband, actor Tim Robbins, came out draped in an American flag in a wheelchair playing Bob Roberts, a fictional right-wing politician from his movie of the same name, and sang a satirical song called "Drugs Stink." Comedian Bill Murray stood at the podium delivering what he called "the biggest political speech of my life," and surprised many in the audience who had never known him as a politically-inclined celebrity.

"When you think about this job, the president of the United States, you have to think, who would want this job anyway? You have half the people hating you and thinking you're a loser," he joked. Murray went on to say, in earnest, "I'm proud that you're here and I'm proud to be here with you, it feels good."

Singer Ani DiFranco played what she called "a little ditty about the drug war," and Ben Harper raised eyebrows with his somewhat out-of-place cover of "Sexual Healing." Veteran rocker Patti Smith called New York the "emerald city of the future," before singing a haunting, pensive version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that transformed the song into one of political struggle.

"Each one of us has an individual voice which is worthy and which can do things," Smith said, holding her fist out to the crowd. "But our collective voice can move mountains, our collective voice can make change."

Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder sang a haunting, emotional cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," noting to tumultuous applause that he did so with the permission of the author. Vedder has been generous with his support of Nader, having performed at the Seattle and Chicago super rallies, and called Friday night's event "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

"All these other rallies with 10,000 people that Ralph has done haven't gotten any [media] attention," Vedder said, "and it's going to stop tonight. They can't ignore this."

The "media blackout" that Nader's campaign and supporters have repeatedly claimed is excluding them from the mainstream press was somewhat penetrated by the rally. The New York Times, which Nader has consistently slammed for covering his campaign as a feature story every few weeks, ran an Associated Press report on the event.

Kafoury speculated that the celebrity presence "helped get the attention of some people who might be harder to reach when you're being blacked out."

Nader began his keynote address by invoking the history of social change movements in America, including the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage and civil rights.

"All these moments had one things in common," Nader said. "They had civil courage with people who were willing to lift the standards of justice up and be an example to the world." And he roused the crowd with an assurance that they too were participating in a movement which was in its earliest grassroots stage, but which would eventually change history.

The crowd responded enthusiastically as Nader detailed a litany of social and political problems -- spending much less of his speech suggesting solutions. He pointed to a 20 percent child poverty rate, 47 million workers who are employed for less than ten dollars an hour and a climbing number of Americans without health insurance as evidence of a failed administration. To huge applause, he indicted corporations for misbehavior and argued that the U.S. government is complicit in their crimes.

Although the youthful crowd electrified the hall, some took it as a sign that Nader's campaign is attracting only young idealists whose reforming spirit will wither with time, as it did for their parents' generation. Sharone David, 28, of Queens said she felt unsettled at the lack of age diversity in the crowd.

"If older people show that they trust Nader, that would give me a little more confidence," said David.

But Eliza Pryor-Nagle, 27, believed that support among the young for Nader could not be explained away as youthful idealism, because the problems his campaign addresses are more entrenched now than ever before.

"It's true that there were not that many middle-aged people here," she said. "But I think that as the social and economic situations worsen in this country and around the world, the effects will be more immediate, and as everyone becomes personally affected, they will understand what we're saying."

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