Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Chad Stokes, Saul Hernandez Kick Off AGM

March 19, 2011

Tears are an occupational hazard of working a large human rights conference, perhaps never more so than Amnesty International USA’s 50th anniversary annual general meeting. More than 1,000 activists from around the United States have gathered in San Francisco this week for three days of intensive organizing, as well as the opportunity to hear from several of the courageous human rights defenders whom we work to protect and support.

I spent the most of today interviewing people who reminded me in stark terms how grassroots activism saves lives. Thanks to the gracious efforts of documentary director Joe Gantz (of HBO’s The Defenders), who had volunteered to cover the conference with his incredible crew, we began the day by recording the testimonies of Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, co-founders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). They, along with the other founding members of WOZA, first took to the streets in 2003 to demand social justice—and as a result they have endured years of arbitrary detentions, police beatings, death threats, harassment and harsh conditions in jail.

During a recent arrest, they said, fellow WOZA members jumped into the police van in solidarity. Soon the van was packed with women.  “The police decided not to take us to the main jail, since the last time they took us there,” said Jenni, “the jail had received so many faxes, emails and phone calls from Amnesty activists.” They took the women to another jail outside of town but were again turned away by jailers who did not want the international attention. By the end of the day, they had been turned away from four jails because authorities did not want to be in Amnesty International’s spotlight.

After WOZA, we interviewed Bishop Reynolds Thomas and Vera Thomas, who have been fighting for twenty years to keep their son Reggie Clemons from being executed by the state of Missouri. They have been living the ultimate nightmare since Reggie, then a suburban teenage inventor with no criminal history, was arrested for the murder of two white women and sentenced to death in 1993. A presumption of guilt drove the case inexorably forward, a presumption that persisted despite strong claims of innocence, clear evidence of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct that was described by four federal judges as “abusive and boorish.” Reynolds and Vera described feeling “alone in the wilderness” until community organizations got involved, and when Amnesty International published a report on the case last year it was like a “shot in the arm,” said Vera.

Steve Earle at right, with Magdaleno Rose-Avila, founder of Homies Unidos, UFW organizer and longtime Amnesty International activist.

Death penalty abolitionist Steve Earle came up to the taping room for a brief interview with longtime organizer and Amnesty activist Magdaleno Rose-Avila. Upon meeting Steve face-to-face, I had a serious fan-geek moment. Being a country music ignoramus, I never knew what Steve Earle looked like, although I knew social justice and death penalty abolition were strong themes in his music. When he walked in the door and we shook hands, he seemed so familiar to me, as if we had met many times before. The moment he opened his mouth to speak, I realized that he had appeared in HBO series The Wire as Walon, Bubs’ 12-step sponsor. As Steve spoke about his decades of death penalty abolition work, he wore Walon’s compassionate, thoughtful countenance like a comfortable old sweater.

My Steve Earle fascination only grew during the course of the evening. After our executive director, Larry Cox, delivered a rousing keynote address to a ballroom packed with more than a thousand activists, after moving performances by State Radio lead singer Chad Stokes and Jaguares’ lead singer Saul Hernandez, after a tear-jerker of a ceremony honoring Joan Baez for her lifetime of human rights work, Steve Earle came onstage.

Strumming gently on his guitar, he took his time telling the story of the first time he heard Joan Baez. It was 1969, and his father had taken him and his four siblings to the drive-in. But by the time he had rounded up the kids and arrived the movie was sold out. “He would have had a mutiny on his hands, so he decided to take us to see whatever was on the other screen, which turned out to be Woodstock.” Earle then proceeded to sing Joe Hill, the song Baez sang at the close of the first day of Woodstock in her now legendary performance, a song that changed Steve Earle’s life.

Joan herself came back onstage, and together they sang a couple of Steve wrote for her, including a gorgeous rendition of “Jerusalem.” After the performance, hundreds of activists lingered in the ballroom, reluctant to break the spell. Although they may all collapse with exhaustion tonight, tomorrow they, like us, will roll up their sleeves and get to work.