Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello on May Day 'Guitarmy' and the Occupy Spring

For Tom Morello, the activist and guitarist best known for his work with Rage Against the Machine, May Day was a busy day. First there was a "battalion" of guitarists to lead through the streets of New York, and then an award to receive from Harry Belafonte, the legendary performer and activist who put his career on the line in the 1960s, when he joined with Martin Luther King to march for civil rights.

After taking part in a day of protest actions that flooded the streets of Manhattan with thousands of people (reported here), Morello took the stage at Manhattan's TimesCenter to accept an award for public service bestowed by the officers of the Sidney Hillman Foundation at its annual Hillman Prizes awards ceremony for outstanding journalism. (This year's winners include Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, and Seth Frees Wessler of Colorlines.com, whose content is frequently featured at AlterNet.)

After telling the TimesCenter audience that his 88-year-old mother was "freaking out" (in a good way) to learn that none other than Belafonte -- a previous recipient of the same award -- would bestow the honor on her son, Morello confided that he actually wasn't sure he would make it to the ceremony.

"There was a moment today when I was marching in the streets with the Occupy Wall Street 'guitarmy,'" he said. "I was a commandante… But there was a minute when the tear gas was flying." Indeed, he was still dressed in his commandante get-up, which consisted of an olive-green military-style shirt, worn collar unbuttoned over a black tee. The look was finished off with black jeans and a black cap with a red bill.

Later, at a press availability with a small group of bloggers, I asked Morello to describe the guitarmy concept.

"I got a call a couple of weeks ago from my friends at Occupy Wall Street who asked me to lead a battalion of the Occupy Wall Street guitarmy on May Day, and I thought it would be great to be part of what we then dubbed the Million Guitar March, and then joining the larger May Day international workers holiday here, with song -- sort of galvanizing with song," he said. "And so, in the democratic way that things are done with Occupy Wall Street, four songs were nominated as ones that we would, as an enormous group, rehearse, from noon to two, and you have the little cheat sheet on the guitar, and we strummed them. We started as a mighty group to begin with, then we sort of infiltrated the larger march and got separated from one another."

"It must have been tough to tune up," offered another blogger.

"The tuning is a secondary matter -- as always," Morello said, laughing. "Tear gas and pulling the plug are the things you can almost always count on."

He went on to describe how, at "the epochal moment" of the guitarmy's rendition of Woody Guthrie's iconic "This Land is Your Land" at Bryant Park, the public address system was turned off "by our union sound man" because "we went over our allotted 11 minutes."

"But that's my dream come true," Morello said. "I'm ready…I'm a seasoned plug-pulled-on performer. There's a whole set of contingencies for that that makes everybody like it more…I'm not sure what the official police count is -- by my count it was tens of thousands of people were there doing an a cappella version of 'This Land is Your Land' and all jumping in unison like it was a huge festival show -- with no PA. I thought it was pretty cool."

Earlier in the evening, after receiving his award, Morello treated the audience in the TimesCenter to a solo rendition of what he called "America's alternative national anthem," strummed on a nylon-stringed classical guitar, adorned with a cutaway and an inscription apparently made with a Sharpie in big block letters: "Whatever It Takes."

"This is a song I learned in the third grade, and at the time I did not realize what a militant and class-war anthem it was, because they censored out all the verses that would indicate such," he said as he introduced the song, launching into all those censored verses about freedom and defiance of laws that barred ordinary people from partaking of the bounty of the land. Before he summoned the polite, well-dressed crowd to join him in the final chorus, Morello offered a spoken riff: "Now, Woody Guthrie knew that history is not made by presidents or popes, or kings or queens or generals, or CIA kingpins running dope, history's not made by nine rogue men, or billionaires or bankers…What our world will be like, and the world we will give to our children will depend on whether or not we put our hands on the wheel of history, and turn it in the direction that we would like."

A Lost Opportunity in Wisconsin?

Morello started his two-song set with "Union Town," an anthem he penned by culling images and impressions from the journal he kept while taking part in the Wisconsin uprising of February 2011 -- an endeavor he undertook in the days preceding the birth of his second child.

"I was sitting in bed with my wife, who was, at the time, nine-and-a-half months pregnant with our second son," he told the audience at the Hillman Prizes event. "We were watching the news and there were 100,000 people in Tahrir Square in Egypt. Cut to an incredible scene where there were 100,000 people [protesting] in the town of Madison, Wisconsin, protesting over some union legislation. I looked at my wife and I said, 'Honey, I'm afraid I gots to go.' And she looked at me and was very understanding and said, 'Our boys are gonna be union men. Yes, you have to go.'"

What moved him so about Wisconsin, Morello explained, was that the uprising was not just the work of the usual hippies and activists, but that of everyday people -- teachers, farmers and even cops charged with keeping the protesters in line, who he saw bring food to those filling the streets and the state capitol building in Madison.

Afterward, he held court among the bloggers crowded into his green room. When Jamil Smith, producer and blogger for MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry Show, asked about the recall race against Gov. Scott Walker, Morello talked more about the impact of the  Wisconsin uprising. While he found the experience inspiring and catalyzing, it could have gone better, he said.

"I thought that we perhaps missed a golden opportunity…" Morello said. "The idea of a general strike was brought up, but both the Democratic Party and some of the more conservative union leaders didn't know what to do with it. It's a city of 200,000 people, and there were 100,000 people in the street… Why not make a workers' bill of rights, and we demand the governor resign, and here are the 10 things which must happen by Monday, or no one goes back to work? That was my humble suggestion, which was shouted down over cocktails before I played." (Morello headlined an impromptu concert/rally during the Wisconsin protests.)

"I think that it's important for working-class people and for union people in particular not just to fight bad legislation, but to put forward our own agenda of how we want to see our country and our world," he explained. "I mean, I'm very blessed that I'm able to do what I think I was meant to do. That opportunity is denied not to millions, but to billions of people on the planet due to gross economic inequality. How many discoverers of the cure for cancer, or [the next] Mozart are slaving away in the maquiladoras along the Mexican border, or in Indonesian sweatshops. The reason that they are not allowed to be the people that they were meant to be is due to this horrific economic inequality that is just -- I think it's just -- those that are socially conscious and believe in social justice need to keep fighting until that's rectified."

Of Walker, he simply said, "My hope is that we get that son of a bitch out of there."

Occupy's Valley Forge

Asked by another blogger to ponder the future of the Occupy movement, Morello acknowledged the difficult winter the occupiers endured.

"I think this last winter was our Valley Forge," he said. "And then we've gone through some of the under-the-radar spring training, and this was the re-emergence of the Occupy movement today, in New York City and around the globe. And, you know, with the recall of the Wisconsin governor and with the heightened political atmosphere around the elections--the one thing that the Occupy movement has done which has changed the dialogue irrevocably in the United States, is it's put the dirty, five-letter word 'class' on the front page of the paper. In my lifetime, not as an activist, but as a human, that has not been the case where grotesque economic inequality is something that is discussed. When can you remember there being a Republican candidate whose feet are being held to the fire because he's too rich? That's due to the Occupy movement, and the shifting of perspective -- instead of, 'Let's all just high-five at the Super Bowl' -- to: 'There's something fundamentally wrong with a system that allows such gross economic inequality on a global scale.'"

"The biggest challenge [is] the unbridled force of repression that is used when people in large numbers stand up and protest economic inequality," Morello said in response to a question by blogger Marcia Stepanek. "And it's the people wielding the batons and the tear gas are members of the 99 percent, as well. That's an ongoing historical tragedy -- that gains have been made, but I think we have to continue to demand the impossible."

Asked by Stepanek what impact Morello expects the 2012 election to have on the Occupy movement, the guitarist replied, "There's a more heightened political atmosphere, and it gives an opportunity for ideas to come to the fore."

He scoffed at comparisons between the Tea Party movement and Occupy. "The Tea Party is not much of a party, because it ain't no fun. It's super-mean," he said, laughing, "whereas the Occupy movement really does very much feel like a party in the streets….And that's one of the things that I do; music does not just steel the backbones of people who are fighting for social justice, but also to make protest an enjoyable endeavor. It tends to cast the nets wider."

Freedom of Choice

For Morello, becoming an artist wasn't an option, as he explained in his acceptance speech. His choices are made in the space where his art meets his activism.

"I didn't really choose to be a guitar player," Morello said. "It was like a calling -- something that chose me. And so for my entire career, it's been a challenge to meld my ideas and my passion for social activism with my vocation as a guitar player. And that's led down many winding roads, including performing today for Occupy Wall Street in Union Square, and then accepting this beautiful award from you nice people here tonight.

"The thing that has really pushed me out of the nest into the world of social activism is the double-edged sword of American democracy, which is freedom of choice. You look at it, and some people are free to chose between Rolls Royce and Lamborghini, while others are free to chose which dumpster they're going to get their next meal out of tonight. Some people are free to chose whether they'll spend the evening at their Hamptons estate, their penthouse apartment, while others are choosing which bridge they're going to sleep under tonight. Some people are choosing which homes and farms to foreclose on, and which drone missile to kill which civilians with, while others choose to march in the streets and raise their voices for a more just society. So this award is for them."

As he performed for the eminences of the New York labor movement scene in the TimesCenter, Morello lightly teased his prize-givers as "people in suits," who took his instruction for hand-clapping politely and in unison. "Some of my Occupy friends -- they will not clap rhythmically and in time."

When Harry Belafonte, in his own words, "pass[ed] the torch" of his own Hillman award to Morello, he observed, "To be an activist and an artist is not always the most comfortable thing one can do. There's a price to be paid."

But, truth be told, Tom Morello appears to revel in his role of rabblerousing troubadour. If that mantle causes him discomfort, you'd never know to look at him.

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