Amnesty International’s Concerts “Released!”

Global concert series out on DVD

Oct. 24, 2013
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When Britain’s Peter Benenson founded Amnesty International in 1961, he was confronted not only by the reality that human dignity was routinely abused in most of the world, but by apologists for human rights abuse in the West. They fell in two camps: the mindless leftists willing to give the Soviet Bloc and Mao’s China a pass; and the feckless supporters of U.S. foreign policy willing to prop up any pro-American dictator. Amnesty International established a reputation for honesty and even-handedness, calling out abuses in any nation, regardless of their flag or alliances. But the movement didn’t connect on a mass level until the entertainers got involved.

As shown in the documentary “Light a Candle,” one small segment of the doorstopper DVD set Released! The Human Fights Concerts 1986-1998, Monty Python took the first steps in the ‘70s by organizing the performances that evolved into the Secret Policeman’s Ball. The comedians called on Pete Townshend and the rock stars followed his lead.

The result was the music that fills the set’s other five DVDs, documenting the sprawling concerts organized in the ‘80s and ‘90s by Amnesty International USA’s director, Jack Healey. Shrewdly, Healey made it a multi-generational project, recruiting ‘60s stars Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and ‘70s stars Bruce Springsteen and Jackson, but also seeking rising acts from U2 through Radiohead.

Membership in Amnesty International doubled after MTV’s broadcast of “A Conspiracy of Hope” (1986), included in Released! The agenda was simple: members were encouraged to write letters or postcards to tyrants and the minions, asking for the release of particular political prisoners—non-violent offenders presumably imprisoned for their beliefs or peaceful protest. It would be interesting to find objective analysis of the results; at least some prisoners were freed in response in the sort of gestures dictators indulge in. In two notable cases mentioned in Light a Candle,” concerts were staged near the borders of oppressive regimes, in Argentina near Pinochet’s Chile and Zimbabwe near apartheid South Africa, drawing fans from across the border in an effort to inspire change in their homelands.

In the end, one of Amnesty’s great accomplishments was to undermine the apologists in the media and academia, making it unfashionable to stick up for Stalinists and tin-pot tyrants on America’s payroll.

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