By the time Rage Against the Machine took the stage Wednesday, August 27, at the Denver Coliseum, the crowd was frenzied and ready to do more than listen to music. Rage's blend of politics and poetry just fueled the crowd's desire for action.
There was no mistaking the purpose of the show for Rage front man Zack de la Rocha, or for anyone else; it was a lead-up to what would become the largest successful protest action of 2008's Democratic National Convention. In the week before Rage's dramatic performance, Iraq Veterans Against the War members gave up sleep to compose an open letter to Senator Barack Obama. It highlighted the organization's three main goals: unconditional withdrawal from Iraq, restitution for the Iraqi people, and the assurance of reasonable health care and respect for returning veterans. And it asked Senator Obama to respond by 3 p.m. Wednesday — the exact time of Rage's encore.
Senator Obama did not reply, so IVAW members would march to the doors of the convention and present it to him in person, or be arrested trying.
The concert started at 11 a.m., and also featured State Radio, that sly hip-hop collective the Coup, Denver's own Flobots, and spoken word by the sardonic Biafra. When Rage took the stage, they brought out Wayne Kramer, the former guitarist of proto-punk act MC5. Kramer played at a previous DNC — the infamous 1968 convention, where rioting between protestors and police escalated to full-on conflict, and in the wake of Robert Kennedy's assassination, eventual nominee Hubert H. Humphrey went on to lose the election to Richard Nixon.
IVAW members, Tent State University volunteers, and every band who got on stage asked the audience to remain non-violent. But with members of Recreate '68 in the audience, and ghosts of the Vietnam protests on stage, even some of the veterans wondered if the audience of 12,000 could keep it together for the three-and-a-half miles to the Pepsi Center.
Out of those 12,000, a conservative estimate suggested that 8,000 stuck around to march, including the members of Rage Against the Machine, who sweated with the veterans just like everyone else. It took hours for the crowd to make it from the Coliseum to the Pepsi Center, and by the time they arrived, the sun was setting and an army of police awaited them.
The veterans, dressed in fatigues or full-dress regalia, came to attention 50 feet away from the police. In between was a small army of tired but rabid journalists, ready to jump at the smell of tear gas. One misstep on either side could have brought the event to violence. But as the sun set, it became increasingly obvious that the IVAW would not advance, but would hold their ground, and no cop wanted to be the first to arrest an ex-Marine in dress blues. So the stand-off was broken by the police, who allowed two IVAW members inside the DNC.
Liam Madden, former Marine communications electronics specialist, and Jeff Key, former Marine lance corporal, stepped forward, and were admitted to the convention while the rest of the members broke ranks and cheered and sobbed. They did not get to present their letter to Senator Obama that day, although he promised to meet with them before the election. But the IVAW feels they won the battle, even if they've still got a war. At the biggest march at a DNC, expected to turn more violent than even 1968, there were no outbreaks and not one arrest. And two of the protestors were welcomed as guests through the front door.