Making a point in songs and chants Protest: Thousands gathered at the Capitol to send a message to Congress and the president: 'Free Tibet.'

June 16, 1998|By Anne Miller | Anne Miller,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- When Richard Gere arrived backstage at the rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol yesterday, he found an unusual contingent amid his typical gaggle of groupies. Jockeying for position alongside the reporters, photographers and autograph-seekers were several Tibetan monks -- strikingly separate with their shaven heads and long, maroon robes, but just as eagerly trying to snap a few shots of the outspoken actor.

Such were the contrasts on the steps of the Capitol as musicians known for lyrics such as "That's me in the spotlight, losing my religion" mingled with Buddhists who otherwise try to lead a quiet, peaceful life, all in the name of tossing off the mantle of Chinese rule over an area few in the audience knew much about before last weekend's Tibetan Freedom Concert brought the issue to their attention.

Yesterday's National Day of Action rally was billed by one of its chief organizers, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, as the largest ever held in support of freeing Tibet. But the several thousand people who turned out for the midday event were but a fraction of the nearly 120,000 who rocked away two days at RFK Stadium to the music of Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other chart-topping bands.

Still, the rally -- taking place just two weeks before President Clinton is scheduled to make the first formal American visit to China in a decade -- was pronounced a success by the musicians who donated their services in support of the Tibetan cause, including one notable veteran of protest music.

"This makes me feel great," said '60s icon David Crosby. "They didn't ask for any instruction from us," he said, when asked how he felt about a protest involving so many of the younger generation. "It's great that they just stood up for what they believe in. That's inherent in human beings."

The purpose of the rally, the rock concerts and the years-long lobbying by Gere and others is to convince Chinese leaders to grant Tibet its sovereignty -- or at least allow the region freedom of religion and expression.

The crowd ranged from Hill staffers in suits on lunch breaks to multi-pierced and tattooed members of the national group Students for a Free Tibet, who left the rally to lobby individual members of Congress.

Many in the crowd came to town for the weekend's concert, but stayed for the rally.

"I'm not all that well-versed in Tibet, but a few months ago I started reading more," said Eric Staples, 21, from Canada. Staples, with bright turquoise hair and several beaded necklaces around his neck, drove 10 hours from Montreal for the concert. After all the encouragement from the stage to speak out for Tibet, he decided to be part of the rally, too.

"I'm supposed to be at work today," he said with a shrug.

During the rally, Michael Stipe took the stage along with the remaining two members of R.E.M., which recently lost its drummer, to play the group's hit, "Losing my Religion." Dressed in blue cargo pants and blinking despite his dark sunglasses, the bald singer declared, "I'm not used to being up this early in the day."

As he sang, berobed monks with no more hair than Stipe stood by the stage holding signs that read "Human rights for Tibetan People" and waving blue, red and yellow Tibetan flags. Friends Iris Chadab and Carmel Maddox, from northern Virginia, sat on a ledge after the rally, rehashing the weekend's events.

"I think a lot of people came for the music but by the end I think a lot understand what was going on," Chadab said.

"I'm reading a lot and want to get more involved," said Maddox. She said she first read about the plight of Tibetans under Chinese rule when the original Tibetan Freedom Concert was staged in San Francisco in 1996.

Dressed in red robes and a turban, Perry Farrell, lead singer for Porno for Pyros and Jane's Addiction, led the crowd in chants of: "We will free Tibet."

Later Farrell offered his prescription for how Clinton ought to handle the issue when he meets with Chinese leaders.

"I'd like to see President Clinton and the officials from Tibet and China break bread and have a glass of wine together and laugh together," he said in an interview. "Then, everything will start to be repaired."

Englishman Thom Yorke, the short, spikey-haired lead singer for Radiohead, took the stage yesterday with only an acoustic guitar and launched right into song.

He was less concerned about what Clinton says in China as long as he raises the issue of Tibet.

"I remember watching the guy standing before the tank," referring to the famous scene during the Tiananmen Square protest in China, Yorke said later. "If Clinton goes there and says nothing, doesn't raise the issues, I think that sends the wrong signals" to the world.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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