RNC: Politically Charged Rage Show Ends with a Bang, then a Fizzle

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“I wasn’t sure for a minute if this show was going to happen tonight,” singer Zach de la Rocha told the frenzied crowd of Rage Against the Machine fans Wednesday night at Target Center. The people roared. Only a day before, the police had shut down the Ripple Effect Festival at the Minnesota State Capitol just as de la Rocha and his bandmates were arriving to make an all-but-surprise performance.

The resulting fracas put a heady spotlight on Wednesday night’s show–as if Rage weren’t already sufficiently politically charged. Following 9/11, Clear Channel banned every one of the rap-metal band’s numbers on the notorious list of “songs with questionable lyrics.” In 2000, the evening of a Rage performance across from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles ended in violent protesters/law enforcement conflict, soon after which the band split up–remaining disbanded for six-and-a-half years.

Last night, no rust was apparent. Alert sirens wailing, Rage took the stage in darkness. Fans screamed. Floodlights snapped on. Four figures stood in orange jumpsuits, black hoods over their heads. Even as the bass pounded, the sight of those iconic garments was chilling. Rage played a fever-pitched “Bomb Track” clad in that attire, recognizable only via de la Rocha’s inimitable voice and Tom Morello’s unmistakable finesse with the guitar.

Bassist Tim Commerford and guitarist Tom Morello jam during “Bomb Track.”

After the first number, Rage executed a quick-change off stage, re-emerging in street gear and belting out “Testify” to an ecstatic audience–many of whom, doubtlessly, were seeing Rage for the first time, having either missed the boat or been too young in the ’90s. At least, there has to be some explanation for the googly-eyed delight splashed across everyone’s faces. This wasn’t standard-issue rock star gawkerdom: It was as if Che Guevara himself had just burst out of Brad Wilk’s kick drum.

Rage cranked through an impressive set with seemingly boundless energy. (At one point I found myself wondering how any of the spry guys have knees left, after years of jumping, bouncing, stomping, and leaping. De la Rocha’s unrelenting vocal chords present an equally vivid mystery, although one perhaps enlightened by this detail: He sipped a mug of what looked to be hot tea between several songs.) Quite frankly, too, I’d be remiss if I didn’t harp on Morello’s fantastic guitar playing; his fingers looked like a piece of cloth fluttering in wind as he poured them over the frets.

At the end of the evening, after Rage closed with “Killing in the Name,” de la Rocha took the pitch down a notch, evenly entreating fans to demonstrate discipline when they momentarily flooded out into the riot-cop-lined streets of Minneapolis. It was a noble effort (and showed remarkable restraint) from the fiery frontman, although the message was somewhat diluted by his politically-stirring between-song commentary and a light display that read: RNC F*CK YOU. But his words clearly came from a place of genuine concern, and, really, there’s only so much you can do when you’re trying to convey nuanced approaches–such as “peaceful, but not passive”–to a stadium arena’s worth of people.

Which is why, almost inevitably, there were some people not content to leave it at that, and a portion of the crowd dispersing into First Avenue began a slow, somewhat disjointed protest that ended with 102 people being detained several blocks away for “blocking traffic.” Minneapolis law enforcement was clearly prepared for the worst: Riot-gear-clad officers were present on foot, bikes, and horseback, as well as in squad cars, motorcycles, and mini vans (plus a small vehicle that looked like offspring of a golf cart and a Hummer). Here are some photos from the post-Rage ruckus:

The aforementioned small vehicle, from which Minneapolis police chief Tim Dolan instructed the crowd–which was blocking the street–to disperse. The area was thick with curious onlookers, most of whom didn’t clear out, presumably because they didn’t consider themselves part of the protest action.

The Minnesota Peace Team, a squad of volunteers trained in de-escalation techniques put together especially for the RNC, was present, as were the Guardian Angels. The two Peace Team members pictured above successfully talked down a shirtless concert attendee, who stepped forward (alone) and danced ridiculously as the mounted police attempted to advance their line.

Eventually, a more organized group of people emerged, hoisting a banner made of four defaced American flags. A group of people collected behind the flag, which the bearers carried forward in a challenge to the police line.

Things seemed as though they would come to a head as the flag-bearers marched into a blockade on Seventh Street; all officers present, including bicycle and mounted police, pulled on their gas masks. If it was a scare tactic, it wasn’t apparently scary enough: The crowd of onlookers remained placidly stationed along the sidewalk. One gleeful fellow (was he protesting? gawking? did he even attend the show?) skipped past me and naively chipped: “We’re gonna get gassed! Something big is gonna happen now!”

When the police barricade dispersed, the protesters made an impromptu march down Seventh–where, eventually, police surrounded and detained them, a “tame” round-up, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  All but two individuals were given citations and released. “In a way, for most fans, it was the perfect end to a Rage concert: defiance of arbitrary authority without painful consequences, just enough real danger to get the juices going. (‘Fuck you, I will do what you tell me, but only after shouting at you for a while!’),” writes Peter Scholtes for the MinnesotaIndependent.

Images by Julie Hanus.

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