Nick Cooper is perhaps Houston's most politically committed musician. This dedication is reflected in his band name, the Free Radicals, which in addition to its scientific connotation also describes Cooper's political philosophy.
He has written on the Internet and in print about many issues dear to the left: defenses of Ralph Nader, assaults on big tobacco, attacks on California lumber giants. One or another of his freewheeling world/jazz/funk bands is a sure bet to be on the bill at Bayou City leftist rallies, and November 18 was no exception.
This rally was organized by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (A.N.S.W.E.R.), and Cooper's side project Pretentious Percussion was invited to provide musical entertainment. The group met in the Value Village parking lot across Hillcroft from the lively Gulfton Fiesta. The activists, who numbered somewhere between 100 and 300 (depending on who's counting), then marched down a partially blocked-off Hillcroft chanting slogans like "Hey, hey, USA, how many kids did you kill today!" and "The real terrorists in the world today are the Pentagon and the CIA!" En route, they were jeered by ten to 20 counterprotesters from the Free Republic Internet newsgroup, who call themselves Freepers. The march terminated in Bayland Park, where Travis Morales of the Revolutionary Communist Party, pacifist Vietnam vet Michael Sykes and "Tristan," a spokesman for the American Indian Movement, took the stump to denounce the war. Tristan brought a moment of levity to the proceedings when he responded to counterprotesters' chants of "Go home" with the retort "I am home, this is our land. Why don't you go home?" (No doubt none of the leftists took this as being directed at them, too.)
In a sense, this was a battle brought into the flesh from cyberspace. The leftists rally around the Houston Indymedia site (www.houston.indymedia.org), just as the Freepers flock to www.freerepublic.com. Ditto-head-style rehashings of that Sunday's events proliferated on the Freepers' message boards. Anonymous Freepers gloated that they were toting more U.S. flags than the leftists, and threatened at some future date to burn a UN flag in front of them. One local poster -- a Magnolia resident self-identified as "Humidston" -- called Cooper and his cohorts "sick mfs," "creeps," "smelly nasty anarchists" and "maggot-infested leftists."
The lefties for their part were astonished at the Freepers' frank bloodlust, especially that represented by the banner saying "Bomb Iraq Next!" and another one showing the Statue of Liberty brandishing the severed head of Osama bin Laden.
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Cooper came face-to-face with some of the Freepers and was less surprised by what they had to say than by who was saying it. These weren't camo-wearing Soldier of Fortune readers but suburban, middle-aged women. Cooper was loading out after the concert when three Freepers approached him. "They were asking me: If I thought that bombing innocent civilians was wrong, then why didn't I think that the bombing of the World Trade Center was wrong?" he says. "We got to talking and they said [puts on heated voice], 'Well, what do you do?' So I said, 'I am a musician and I work in a recording studio.' And then they said [more heatedly], 'No! What do you do about terrorism?' So I said, 'It's kinda complicated. If you'll take a few minutes and stop interrupting me, I'll give you my answer.' Basically that was as far as I got before they starting shouting, 'Communist!' Then a bunch of other people started dragging me away from them, because the cops didn't want us interacting with them. Somebody had shoved somebody earlier. But I was just talking to these middle-aged ladies who weren't very threatening."
Though tempers flared, the rally ended without bloodshed or arrest. Both sides claim to have carried the day. Both claim that the majority of passersby in the largely immigrant neighborhood were on their side. The leftists were pleased that their loose-knit coalition of "Greens, anarchists, death penalty opponents, immigrant-rights organizations and peace activists" came together for a common cause. The Freepers, or at least Humidston, rejoiced, "We did good. We stood up for freedom. We stood for our beloved country and our awesome President. We sang patriotic songs, we chanted 'NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE and USA USA USA!' They won't forget us Of course not, we're FREEPERS."
On a related note, we've all seen numerous businesses cash in on post-September 11 patriotic fervor, as if there were no better way for you to show your love of country than to go out and shovel a pile of money to the first slick-talking salesman with a heartfelt "God bless America" on his lips. As Samuel Johnson said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Racket proposes the following corollary for the music world: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a hack." That hack would be Lee Greenwood, whose dreadful "God Bless the U.S.A." unaccountably became the theme music for several mid-'80s Republican campaigns, the Gulf War and, for some, September 11. Ever since that awful day, Greenwood has been avenging patriotic gore nightly, and it seems he won't stop until Congress anoints his doggerel as the national anthem. (Greenwood is said to seriously believe that aside from the Star-Spangled Banner, his blather is the greatest song ever written.) Now, evidently not content with the royalties no doubt streaming into his coffers from Fox, CNN and MSNBC's loop of his tawdry jingle, Greenwood has wrapped the dreck in pictures of Old Glory and turned it into a slim hardback book titled, of course, God Bless the U.S.A. The book tugs at all the usual American heartstrings with images of the marines on Iwo Jima, the Declaration of Independence, the Statue of Liberty (albeit sans Osama's severed head), a mini-gallery of Rockwells, and flags, lots and lots of flags. In 68 pages, there are no fewer than 51 pictures of flags. Quotations from the likes of Andrew Jackson and Patrick Henry form the bulk of the text, aside from a message from Greenwood himself, who wants us to know that although we have our differences, America is still great and getting better all the time, and that we will defend ourselves, etc., etc. But finally emotion overcomes him and he lapses into song, "'Cause there ain't no doubt that I love this land. God bless the U.S.A." So do we, Lee, so do we. But we are too proud to make a career out of telling people so. And anyway, Ray Charles's "America the Beautiful" and Billy Joe Shaver's "In the Good Ol' U.S.A." both did it better than you could in your most star-spangled dreams. When Chubby Checker attempts to milk "The Twist" time and time again, it is merely pathetic. But to use a gargantuan national calamity as the catalyst for a career comeback is so slimy it borders on evil. (In the interest of fairness: A portion, though not all, of the proceeds from the sale of Greenwood's tome is earmarked for the all-purpose charity AmeriCares.)