Conor Oberst Speaks out On Arizona Immigration law
The following letters were brought to my attention after I posted a video of Bright Eyes on the site. I can add very little to what it says therein, so I will simply copy and paste the full text of the letters.
The first is from Charlie Levy, a concert promoter in Arizona and New Mexico.
As a political activist and 15-year independent concert promoter in Arizona, I feel a deep obligation to speak out about the real-world effects of artists boycotting the state in protest of SB 1070, the recent anti-immigration bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by our (unelected) governor.
While I respect the intentions of the artists protesting what they find to be an unjust law, the practical effect of the boycott is resulting in exactly the opposite of their good-willed intentions.
By not performing in Arizona, artists are harming the very people and places that foster free speech and the open exchange of ideas that serve to counter the closed-mindedness recently displayed by the new law.
The people who will feel the negative effects of the boycott the deepest are local concert venues, including non-profit art-house theatres, independent promoters, fans and the people employed in the local music business. If the boycott continues, it is all but guaranteed that some of these venues will be forced to close their doors.
Think of it this way: What if otherwise outspoken and inspirational activists like Martin Luther King Jr. had turned their backs on the state of Alabama and its citizens because they didn’t agree with the discriminatory practices of its government during the critical years of the civil-rights movement? What would have happened if they had chosen to boycott Alabama rather than speak out, organize and effect change?
We are faced with a similar situation in Arizona today. The legislators currently in office don’t care if outspoken artists boycott the state. The people responsible for SB 1070 don’t want you here. They don’t want your voices heard. And as a result of the boycott, they are the only ones who benefit.
In effect, the decision to boycott is playing right into their hands. As Curtis McCrary, the general manager of the non-profit Rialto Theatre in Tucson, recently stated, “The individuals and organizations behind this bill are . . . more than likely delighted about the prospect of politically vocal artists canceling shows – silencing themselves rather than using the platform their status as artists gives them to speak out against SB 1070.”
The truth is, a boycott is an easy gesture that doesn’t require much more than a statement and removing a date from your tour schedule. However, if you truly care about the effects of the controversial immigration law that was passed, this is an opportunity to use your unique position as an artist with the ability to reach thousands of people to inspire, educate and motivate your fans to actively be a part of the change.
I have felt and seen the effects of what artists can do to change peoples’ lives individually and as a whole. In this important midterm election year, it is imperative that voters are organized and prepared to express their views about the recent law at the voting booths in November.
Every concert venue and promoter in the state would be happy to help coordinate voter-registration drives and set up information booths in connection with concerts. Many of us are already planning specific events, including rallies and concerts, designed to educate and encourage local music lovers to get involved at this crucial time.
This open letter is a call out to all artists to come take a stand and perform in Arizona. We need you now more than ever.
And here is the response from Conor Oberst.
I read your letter and I do understand where you are coming from. You bring up valid points. I personally regret any of the collateral damage the boycott is causing you, other like-minded arts promoters and the fans in Arizona. A boycott is, inherently, a blunt instrument. It is an imperfect weapon, a carpet bomb, when all involved would prefer a surgical strike. I agree with you in part, and the radio host you quoted, that the authors and supporters of SB1070 could give a shit whether or not my band, or any other Artist, ever plays Arizona again. The only thing, clearly, that these people care about is Money and Power, that and the creation and preservation of an Anglo-Centric Police State where every Immigrant and Non-White citizen is considered subhuman. They want them stripped of their basic human rights and reduced to slaves for Corporate America and the White Race. They are engaged in blatant class warfare. It is evil, pure and simple.
I have on many occasions spoken my mind from stage. I have offered organizations table space by the merch booth. I have donated a dollar-a-ticket, or the entire guarantee, to different causes. I have registered voters. I have played on behalf of political candidates. Sadly, this time, I fear none of that is enough. If I return to Arizona to pay lip service to a roomful of kids at the Marquee it will do absolutely no good for anyone. What I can do is to help organize, and play my small part in, what I hope is the largest and most effective boycott this country has seen in a long time. To work it will have to involve members from all sectors of society. The Sports Industry, the Entertainment Industry, the Tourism and Convention Industry, other State and City governments, private businesses and individuals from around the country and the world—all of whom, by the way, are already participating in the boycott. Much of the Artist end of the boycott is symbolic, I acknowledge, and no real threat to the economics of the State. But it is an important part none-the-less for awareness and messaging. The Boycott has to be so widespread and devastating that the Arizona State Legislature and Governor have no choice but to repeal their unconstitutional, immoral and hateful law. It has to hurt them in the only place they feel any pain, their pocketbooks.
What I would encourage you to do, if you haven’t already started, is to organize with all the local businesses you can to put as much pressure as possible on your State Government until the Law is repealed. An economic death rattle is the only cry of outrage they will hear.
I realize that the people of Arizona did not vote on SB1070 and I empathize with the anger and frustration you all must feel. I applaud what you are doing with Viva Arizona and do wonder if there might be a way to reconcile both our efforts while maintaining the integrity of each. After all, we are trying to achieve the same thing. But just as you may feel the boycott is an empty gesture, I fear that if we return to business as usual (under the guise of some civic movement) that this will all devolve into the typical grandstanding that is political activism in music. It might make us feel better but won’t do a damn thing to change the minds of the radical, racist minority that seem to have controlled Arizona politics for decades. In short, it will lose its teeth.
Just this past week, the little town of Fremont Nebraska passed a very similar, almost more radical, city ordinance. It was co-authored and championed by Kris Kobach of Kansas who helped write SB1070. I was outraged, saddened and embarrassed for their town and my state. I am already in the process of organizing a fund-raiser for the NE chapter of the ACLU who is suing the town of Fremont. Our situation requires immediate legal action and a campaign for public awareness (there has been very little press on this). Charlie, I promise you, if this Fremont law had been passed Statewide instead of in a rural town of 25,000 people, I would be the first to call for a boycott of my home state. This way of thinking and legislating is so dangerous, and such a threat to our basic ideals as Americans and Humans, that we cannot stand by and do nothing. We cannot play on as if nothing is wrong. This is not just about Arizona. I am not just skipping a tour date. This is not going to be easy for anyone.
Charlie, I consider you a friend and you have always been great to my bands and me. I have played for you many times and I hope to do so again soon in New Mexico or anywhere else. I sincerely look forward to the day when I can return to Arizona and this will all seem like a bad dream. But I can’t come back now. I’m sorry. I hope you will understand.