When Stevie Wonder backed out of a planned appearance at a Dec. 6 gala to benefit the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), the reasons given for his decision were varied.
Many news articles focused on the thousands of signatures on a letter and online petitions urging Wonder not to appear at the event. As has been reported previously on this blog, the FIDF’s initial explanation for Wonder’s cancellation mentioned that some individuals associated with the United Nations had pushed Wonder, who was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009, to drop out.
But in addition to these efforts, voices from within the African American community in Los Angeles and beyond also put significant pressure on Wonder to abandon his planned appearance.
“The first level, which has been popularized, is the petition campaigns,” said Dedon Kamathi, a producer of Freedom Now, a radio show about “pan-African political and cultural” subjects that airs weekly on KPFK. “I think that the real, within-the-family pressure came from a number of black community organizations.”
Kamathi, who first heard about Wonder’s planned appearance from Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Atlanta, said that leaders within the black community told Wonder’s staff that if he didn’t drop the FIDF benefit appearance, they would picket in front of KJLH, the Los Angeles-based R&B and Gospel radio station owned by Wonder, as well as at Wonder’s annual House Full of Toys benefit concert, set to take place at the Nokia Theater in L.A. later this month.
“They said they would protest at KJLH because we take personal responsibility for people like Bob Marley, people like B.B. King, people like Stevie Wonder, people like Public Enemy,” Kamathi said, standing on the sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel on Thursday evening, about an hour before the FIDF gala was scheduled to start. “We gave them life, they live in our communities.”
For the approximately 130 protesters who gathered along with Kamathi outside the hotel in Century City on Thursday afternoon, the fact that Wonder would not be playing inside made the moment not just one for protest, but also for celebration.
“We are here to celebrate our brother Stevie Wonder for standing up on a principle, the principle that the Palestinians of today are the South Africans of yesterday,” said Shakeel Syed, a member of the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. “He had the courage and principle to defy the oppressors and defend the oppressed.”
Although the protesters were quick to claim Wonder as a fellow activist for their cause -- one man held a sign with Stevie Wonder’s face and the words, “Thank You!” painted on it – in a statement posted on the KJLH Web site, Wonder did not choose sides.
"Given the current and very delicate situation in the Middle East, and with a heart that has always cried out for world unity, I will not be performing at the FIDF Gala on December 6th,” Wonder said in the statement. “I am respectfully withdrawing my participation from this year's event to avoid the appearance of partiality. As a Messenger of Peace, I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere. In consistently keeping with my spirit of giving, I will make a personal contribution to organizations that support Israeli and Palestinian children with disabilities.”
The protest started at 4:30, an hour and a half before the FIDF dinner was set to begin in the hotel’s ballroom. During a brief press conference, a number of speakers denounced Israel, the IDF, and the FIDF.
“I am here to admit that I was a member of the terrorist organization,” said Miko Peled, an Israeli activist on behalf of Palestinian rights, referring to his time in the IDF. “Yes, they have tanks, commanders and fancy fundraisers and this hotel, but it is no more than a brutal terrorist organization."
The son of an Israeli general, Peled, who lives in San Diego, has written a book about his becoming a pro-Palestinian activist. His own son, Eitan Peled, was at the protest as well, a Palestinian flag draped like a cape over his shoulders.
“I grew up with friends in Palestine before I knew I was supposed to be enemies with them,” the 18-year-old UCLA freshman said.
After a few speeches, the smaller-than-expected crowd waved Palestinian flags and conducted a candle-lit funereal march along the pavement, complete with a tiny flag-draped casket.
An online invitation for the protest on Facebook had garnered more than 1,000 positive RSVPs, and the Los Angeles Police Department had come ready for a crowd of that size. According to the commanding officer on the scene, Commander Dennis Kato, 60 officers had been mobilized from two different bureaus.
At about 5:40, around two dozen of those officers could be seen still standing by their cars at a remote staging location behind the hotel.
“Now that we’ve seen the crowd, we’ve released a number of units already,” Kato said just as the first of the cars of people arriving for the dinner began arriving on Thursday evening, around 5:45 p.m.
While the cars, most of them luxury imported European models, drove past, the protesters shouted slogans -- “Shame on you!” “Stop killing children!” “Israel is a Racist state!” – and waved their flags.
“These groups have been very cooperative, which makes it easier for all involved,” Kato said. “We don’t want to disrupt either side. It’s America, they get a chance to exercise their rights and say what they want to and we’ll let them have that opportunity as long as they abide by rules.”