'Freedom Is Participation in Power'

Madison Square Garden was packed to the rafters for Nader's hour-long speech.
photo: Carla Spartos

October 14, 2000—The protest movement that has been growing on a grassroots level, as evidenced by the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle, reached its political coming-of-age last night. Before a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, the Green Party's Ralph Nader and a roster of celebrities called for an end to unchecked corporate power and a new era of fuller political participation, including voter registration and the inclusion of third-party candidates in national debates. And in response to criticism that the presidential candidate doesn't pay attention to issues of race, gender and gay rights, Nader and company talked all night about social justice.

The young audience of 15,000 was made to feel as if their political interests were being addressed for the first time. With its suggested minimum admission of $20 and a slate of rock stars and celebrities, "Nader Rocks" recognized the kids in the crowd for what they were: idealistic and politically savvy. There was no Clintonesque declaration of the superiority of boxers over briefs. Rather, MC Phil Donahue grabbed the mic and hammered away at "third-rail" issues left untouched by the mainstream candidates—public finance, single-payer health care, the war on drugs, capital punishment, labor unions.

Green party senate candidate Mark Dunau urged the audience to fight back against the "fist of tyranny" behind drug testing, racial profiling, and the mushrooming prison-industrial complex.

Filmmaker Michael Moore spoke on "lesser evilism"—the notion that people should back Democrat Al Gore because he's not quite as bad as the GOP's George W. Bush. "To the young people out there, if you don't vote your conscience, when will you start?" Moore said. "If you vote for the lesser of two evils, you still wind up with evil."

Actress Susan Sarandon spoke about voter apathy. "Kids aren't voting because there's no one to vote for," she said.

The evening was rounded out by musical performances by Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, and Company Flow.

Defying the image of the youth movement as long on gripes and short on attention spans, the arena was packed to the rafters for Nader's hour-long speech, even after Eddie Vedder's short acoustic set.

The overwhelmingly young, white, and educated crowd was held rapt by speeches on such diverse issues as racial profiling, genetically modified foods, and environmental racism. According to Nader, all of these ills boil down to one single factor—the corporate hijacking of democracy. And answering critics on the oft-divided left, he made explicit that this corporate rule directly harms those most excluded from the political process, including immigrants, people of color, and the poor. Nader brought the crowd to its feet with what has become a signal theme of his campaign: "Freedom is participation in power."

In an election year when the debate has been limited to a love-in between a compassionate conservative and a pragmatic liberal, Nader's candidacy offered this urban crowd a reason to care.

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