Last night I went to some of the best church I’ve ever experienced. Except it was in a Music Hall with 2500 other people and led by a handful of famous people. I was at a rally/rockshow in support of the West Memphis 3.
The West Memphis 3 are Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin, a group of young men arrested and convicted as teenagers for the murder of three children in West Memphis, AR. Many people, including myself, believe the West Memphis 3 are innocent and wrongly imprisoned. One of them, Damien Echols, is on death row. I encourage you to read about their case and decide for yourself. It blows my mind that we can have people on death row on such shaky evidence. There is no DNA evidence tying any of the Three to the crime scene, although DNA evidence of one of the victims’ stepfather was found at the scene. Instead, the case relied on what was a most-likely coerced and later recanted confession from one of the Three, Jessie Misskelly, who is mentally handicapped and, though he was a teenager, was questioned without a lawyer or a parent present. In addition, the way the investigation was handled, the way the story was told to the public and the media, and notes recovered from the jurors all point to the fact that these three men are wrongly imprisoned and have been for 17 years.
In those 17 years, the Three have found support for their cause all over the state and all over the world. Thanks to a pair of HBO documentaries, they even gained the support of some major celebrities: Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Johnny Depp. With Damien Echols’ oral arguments before the State Supreme Court coming up on September 30, their local and celebrity supporters decided it was time to hold a rally to both raise money for the WM3 legal defense fund and to get active in contacting state leaders in support of new trials for the WM3. That led to last night’s Voices for Justice rally.
Of course a rally featuring Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Patti Smith, Ben Harper, Dhanni Harrison, Joseph Arthur, and Bill Carter drew a large crowd– where else are you going to see Eddie Vedder letting Johnny Depp take lead guitar, or both of them playing backup for Patti Smith? Still, I was really disappointed to see that Bobby Ampezzan’s review in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette focused primarily on suggesting that people packed out Robinson for a rock show, not because they care about a cause. To that I ask, Bobby, did you SEE how amped people were when Rev. Thompson Murray from Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church gave a stirring min-sermon about the cause of justice as something Jesus would have supported? The way people cheered during the videos highlighting the miscarriage of justice in this case? The way people gave money as buckets were passed, offering style, around the music hall to collect money for the WM3 legal defense fund? But what does Bobby know? He describes Natalie Maines as having “a shaved head” (she was sporting a cute, short pixie) and rags on her for “[using] cue cards held aloft in the pit for one of her numbers” despite the fact that she barely talked the entire show because she said she was too emotional about a cause she has long-supported for words. It really disappointed me to see that write-up, and I felt like it had an agenda to downplay the real experience of the rally.
Like I said before, the entire experience, to me, was most akin to some really good church. We started with a sermon and a preacher telling the crowd that Jesus is always on the side of justice, quoting Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” We had some congregational singing, along with Eddie Vedder as he performed Tom Waits’ “It Rains on Me” and with the entire assembled “band” as they performed “People Have the Power.” We heard the personal testimony of Eddie Vedder, as he described spending a recent evening around a campfire in his back yard with Fistful of Mercy (Ben Harper, Dhanni Harrison, Joseph Arthur), when they stood in a circle saying a kind of prayer that the WM3 could one day join them there, and realized that the answer to their prayer was to get down to Little Rock for the rally. Isn’t that how prayer so often works? Instead of using it to magically give us things, God uses it to remind us that we need to take action. That’s how it usually goes for me.
For me, some of the most powerful moments of the evening were while Natalie Maines was singing. While she has one of the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard, I think I was most stuck by her fiery spirit. I like a woman who refuses to be shut up. She sang a traditional gospel song called “Death’s Got a Warrant,” previously recorded by another favorite of mine, Patty Griffin. The song was obviously aimed at the true murderers, and said “you can’t hide, God’s got your number and he knows where you live. Death’s got a warrant for you.”
To me, the best song of the evening was Maines’ performance of Dan Wilson’s (best known as the lead singer of Semisonic) “Free Life.” The song was very stirring, as it seemed to be about Damien Echols reuniting as a free man with his wife Lorri Davis. Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:
Let’s take a little trip down where we used to go
It’s way beyond the strip, a place they call your soul
We’ll sit down for a while and let the evening roll
Don’t worry about the time; we’ll find a place to stay
The people round here seem familiar in some way
Look kind of like we did before we got so cold
And in the air the questions hang
Will we get to do something?
Who we gonna end up being?
How we gonna end up feeling?
What you gonna spend your free life on? Free life.
It was a good question for all of us. I hope the people in attendance won’t take for granted that we are blessed to have our freedom. I hope that they are moved to support the cause of justice, because when someone can sit on death row for a crime no one can be certain they committed, we are all a little less free.
And you know what? I have enough faith in people, enough faith in what I experienced with 2500 other people last night, to believe that it wasn’t just about Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp. It was also about three innocent men in prison. It was about justice. And there are many ways to help between now and September 30th.