Michael Franti Does the Middle East

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Having just completed 'Songs from the Front Porch: An Acoustic Collection,' you'd think that Spearhead frontman Michael Franti would be content to spend his summer, well, relaxing on his front porch.

Not quite.

In an attempt to "ward off the frustration that comes as I read about war each day," Franti made the incredible decision to join a delegation of peace workers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers on a trip to Iraq, Israel, and the Occupied Territories.

The delegates were determined to experience the situation on the ground for themselves, an they plan to release a documentary of these experiences later this summer. WAV spoke with Michael Franti upon his return home. Here is his perspective...in his own words:

"Ever since September 11, I've been very concerned about the direction the Bush administration has been taking the world, and as I've been following along in newspapers and on television I realize we're only hearing about what's happening in the Middle East through the mouths of politicians and never through the voices of everyday people on the street. So my intention of going to the Middle East was to talk to people in the street. As a musician I felt the best way of doing it wa story open myself to people through song."

"We flew from Amman, Jordan in a 60-passenger plane, and as soon as we get over Baghdad, the pilot said we were going to drop into a 45 degree angle and corkscrew our way down to the ground. That way, the plane would move away from heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles faster than they could lock on.

We screamed all the way down.

Then, as we were driving out of the airport, a car had run over a landmine and blown up on the incoming lane on the other side. U.S. troops were all standing around it in full lock and load position ready to shoot anyone. It was a very sobering welcome to our trip, and set the tone for the whole time we were there."

"Baghdad is a very frightening place for anyone that lives there. We have 170,000 U.S. troops in all of Iraq. About 60,000 are stationed in Baghdad, trying to control 4.5 million people that don't have fresh running water, that don't have electricity, 90% unemployment, and everyone has a gun.

The people go back indoors around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. No one stays out at night. They're afraid of being shot by other Iraqis who don't have any food or money, or by U.S. forces who are so scared and jumpy because everyone has a gun. So while people are very happy that Saddam is going, they're also very angry that after a year of occupation, their lives are more difficult than they were under Saddam.

Every civilian that gets killed only adds to anti-U.S. sentiment. There was no forethought of how we were going to win the people's minds, only how we're going to low the country to bits, and now that we've done that, people are upset."

"Nevertheless, they all differentiate between the leaders and the American people. They all do. I came as a musician with my guitar strapped around me, and I sang songs everywhere I went, so people looked at me as someone who's bringing joy into their lives.

The Iraqis are such welcoming people, such loving people.

I can't tell you how many people I met that never knew me, just saw me in the streets and said please come into our house, please talk to us, please sit down, we want to share our food with you, share our story with you.

Every person I talked to doesn't want the occupation. They don't understand why this operation was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, but 'we have yet to vote for our president, we have yet to vote for our administrators, we have yet to see any money.'

All these American corporations are getting money to rebuild Iraq, and none of the Iraqi corporations are receiving any of that money, so they all feel angry. It's just a mess."

"I visited hospitals where there were children whose legs had been blown off. I sang songs to a guy that was about to go in and have his legs amputated. I sang in restaurants, I'd eat, then afterwards I'd play my guitar. I played for U.S. troops on the streets at a checkpoint and in the bar that they hang out at when off duty. I sang 'Bomb the World' to them."

"I talked to about 40 soldiers in person, intimately speaking to them one by one. About 10% of them believed they were doing the right thing, and glad we got involved. Another 50% felt like it was a good start but now they felt like they were fighting a losing battle. They're there over there trying to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people gaining the trust of the Iraqi people which is really what the conflict is about today. The other 40% thought this thing was bullshit to begin with. That we never should've gone in under the conditions that we went in without UN approval, without a multilateral force of nations and they felt like they were sitting ducks. Out of all those people, there was not a single one, no matter what political contingency, that said "I want to stay here". Every single one said "I want to go home right now". And most of the cats I talked to had only been there for three months.

One of the sad thing is, as they wear these very intense bulletproof, shrapnel proof high tech flak jackets to protect their internal organs, so there's a lot of them that aren't dying from bomb blasts, but are having their limbs blown off. There are a lot of soldiers that are seriously maimed.

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Israel & The Occupied Territories
"Israel is another sad place. We drove into Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza strip to see what was happening. There's such a diverse population of people in Israel. About 40%, maybe 45%, are Palestinian, and the rest are Israeli, mostly Jewish. Then we have the occupying forces, the IDF. Is really defense forces, who are seizing land locking down buildings with civilians, and putting up a 30 foot wall around all these towns.

It's an apartheid wall.

It has nothing to do with defense, it has everything to do with locking people up.

When you build a wall around the whole city of Bethlehem and punish the people of Bethlehem, tell people you're not allowed to leave your home, your city, because there's been a suicide attack, that's communal punishment, and it's not right.

It's like saying we're going to lock up everyone into make based town because Tim McVeigh did a bombing. It doesn't create stability. It creates fear. It should be a simple thing to realize after Berlin...walls don't help."

Everyone that's Palestinian has to have an ID card that says where they're from. Some can travel to see their grandparents to live 15 minutes away. It's just a terrible terrible things happening there. One day we were walking down the street and I was playing music for kids in the city of Hebron, and Israeli Defense forces came around the corner and started firing M-16s at us. No one was hit, but later that day, two people were shot. It's just a horrible thing. The Palestinian people are being so persecuted that it's difficult for anyone that's not there to understand.

One of the unfortunate things of the situation is the sense of hopelessness in both Israel and Palestine, so people who can leave Palestine are leaving in droves, and people who are physically resisting the Israeli government toward Jews are leaving in droves. They're leaving the country with a lot of very poor Palestinians in Palestine and a lot of religious leader inspired Israelis from the right wing in Israel and it's a bad situation. There's not much resistance to it politically. There's some that really support occupation, they really believe in the sinus principles, and then there's a lot of people to just go along with it and do their time, but don't really believe in it. We also spoke to some who were really resistant to it. There are some who refuse to go into the military and are serving time in prison." [Editor note: All Israeli citizens are required to serve two years in the military after high school].

Michael Franti Concludes
I believe the occupation in Iraq should end. If you really want to create Iraqi freedom you have to let the Iraqi people rule their own country, and if they make mistakes, let them be their own mistakes. The same thing has to happen in Palestine - the occupation needs to end and they immediately need to move onto the process of creating peace on a one-to-one basis. The ongoing occupation of both places is just going to lead us down the path that's going to divide the 22 Arab nations from the rest of the world even further. I don't want to see that happen.

On an international level, we need to begin to think differently about oil. We need to think about the alternative forms of energy like the sun, the wind, and vegetable fuel. We need to think about human rights and justice for the Arab nations, for the Arab people, who were so oppressed by Saddam, by Israeli defense forces, all the people of the Arab nations are so pushed down and left out of the equation.

The best thing is to find out as much information as you can, then voice yourself politically by voting.

We need a different direction.

We need to vote the Bush administration out."

(This was originally published in WAV Magazine, which gave birth to Kotori Magazine, in the Summer of 2004. Click here for a PDF of the full print magazine, which also includes interviews with Ozomatli, Dillinger Escape Plan, Shepard Fairey, the Mars Volta's Ikey Owens, Congressman Henry Waxman, and much more.)