About 20 placard-carrying demonstrators led by state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) Tuesday night protested a benefit concert at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who has been convicted of murdering two FBI agents.
But the pickets turned away few, if any, of the people streaming in to see singers Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson and comedian Robin Williams perform in a concert dubbed "Cowboys for Indians and Justice for Leonard Peltier." Organizers said the concert was held to raise money for the legal defense of Peltier, who they believe did not get a fair trial.
But Campbell and the others demonstrating outside the Pacific's main entrance noted that Peltier's 1977 conviction already has been unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I'm outraged that they're holding a benefit concert for the convicted murderer of two FBI agents," Campbell said.
"What about the wives, families and loved ones of the victims?" Campbell asked. "When will Willie Nelson, Robin Williams, Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson hold a benefit concert for them?"
Campbell said he also had organized the protest because he was concerned about the concert's "impact on law enforcement in California."
Concert-goers, however, said opposition to the concert, which was touched off last Friday by a letter from Richard T. Bretzing, Southern California's top FBI official, failed to keep them away because they were interested in music, not politics.
'Came to See Willie'
"I know what (Peltier) is accused of, but I came to see Willie Nelson," said Joan Aguilar, 56, an aerospace worker from Lawndale. "What Willie does for his fellow man is his own business."
Aguilar added: "I know (Peltier's) had a trial and been convicted. But they could have been mistaken."
Only a few concert-goers said they did not know about the Peltier controversy.
"I didn't know anything about this," said Mae Mintzer, 47, a grocery store manager from Huntington Beach. "I just came to see Willie Nelson. . . . I don't have a point of view on this."
An estimated 9,000 people, or half the amphitheater's 18,000 capacity, attended the concert, a Pacific spokeswoman said. "That's a very good turnout for this kind of concert and this time of year," she said.
Backstage, before he appeared, Kristofferson said: "I'm not surprised the FBI got involved. They had targeted Leonard from way back. It's something you would expect in a repressive society or in a medieval empire, but this is not something you would expect in the land of the free."
Mitchell said after her performance that Leonard Peltier was not the only reason she was at the concert.
'I'm the Paul Revere'
"My participation here is just to inform people that this is going on," referring to the ongoing disputes between the federal government and the Indians. "I'm the poet, I'm the alarmist, I'm the Paul Revere. Others will have to inform people about what they can do.
"When the Holy Mountains go, so goes the world."
The Holy Mountains in South Dakota, now under Indian control, are sought by the government for uranium mining, she said.
"It's just a tragedy. Are we going to be good Germans and sit down wind from the stench of Dachau?"
She said she knew nothing of the protest outside.
Actor Peter Coyote, the concert organizer, did see the demonstrators and said:
"We're sad. It's unfortunate. We're not gloating over anyone's death. To portray people coming here tonight as taking sides in that tragedy is not accurate or appropriate. We are here about something simple--due process. When you have 50 U.S. congressmen on your side, you can't be far from dead center."
Coyote said he was "thrilled" by the concert. "We have a wide range of people coming together on the issue of due process. It seems to be something everyone can agree upon."
Security personnel said that they had received several bomb threats earlier in the day but that no devices were found.
The controversy was touched off Friday when Bretzing, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, condemned the concert. In a letter sent to Steve Redfearn, general manager of the Pacific, Bretzing said he was "utterly revolted" over the concert being held because Peltier "cold-bloodedly" murdered two FBI agents.
Peltier, a founder of the American Indian Movement, is serving two consecutive life terms at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for the 1975 slaying of the two FBI agents during a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
His attorneys have maintained that the prosecution withheld evidence vital to his defense. Among about 15,000 pages of documents released in 1982 under the Freedom of Information Act was "newly discovered evidence indicating (that the government's key ballistics expert) may not have been telling the truth . . . ," a federal appeals court noted last year, although it denied Peltier's motion for a new trial. Several thousand more pages of documents are still being withheld by the FBI under a national security exemption.
Coyote said he was disturbed at the way Peltier was tried.
"Leonard Peltier has been a friend of mine for about 18 years, but despite the fact that I'm convinced of his innocence, what really bothered me was that his trial was so full of errors that this case was really a threat to all Americans," Coyote said this week.
FBI spokesman Jim Nielson Tuesday said the agency "would make no comment" on the concert or the protesters.
Tuesday night on the picket line, Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) said he was protesting the Peltier benefit because "it's wrong to hold this concert on public property."
The amphitheater is on the Orange County Fairgrounds but is operated under a 40-year lease by New York-based Nederlander West.
Noting that the amphitheater is in his district, Ferguson said: "I'm considering introducing legislation to prohibit the use of public property for political purposes."
As he waved his placard, Ferguson said: "We want people to know where their money is going. I think that 90% of the people who purchased their tickets in advance didn't know that this was a fund-raiser, and certainly not one to free a murderer."
Familiar With Issue
But most concert-goers said they were familiar with the controversy. "I saw (concert organizer) Peter Coyote talking about it (on a television talk show)," said Bob Clark, 34, a bread company salesman from Hacienda Heights.
"And I was talking about it with my father and sister before I came," Clark said. "From what I've heard the past couple of days, I pretty much feel Peltier could be innocent."
When told that Campbell had organized the demonstration, Clark shrugged his shoulders and said: "Everybody's entitled to his own opinion."