Thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder packed a stretch of Capitol Mall on Monday evening to hear Common, the Oscar-winning rapper and activist, perform and advocate for criminal justice reform.
The Imagine Justice Concert also included appearances by artists including J. Cole and Goapele, and speakers such as activist Van Jones. It was part of a campaign to raise awareness about several pieces of California legislature aimed at giving more rights to juvenile offenders and revamping California’s bail system.
“The reason I’m on this stage here right now is because of mass incarceration,” Common told the crowd at one point between songs Monday night.
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“I believe we all have a duty to look out for those who are being overlooked and those who are being thrown away. Because we all have made some type of mistake – we all had issues and did things that we wish we could take back. But when people are willing to transform and change their lives, they shouldn’t be punished for it forever.”
A stage spanning the width of Capitol Mall stood against a backdrop of the Capitol as a crowd estimated by officials at 22,000-25,000 people – many holding signs that read “Schools not Prisons” – watched and applauded.
Performances – particularly during the 90 minutes Common occupied the stage – mixed music with a heavy dose of social rhetoric. The Chicago-born rapper interwove each of his songs with a dialogue that harkened back to the Civil Rights movement and referenced social unrest occurring in the present day.
“Earlier today there were some people saying that ‘blue lives matter, white lives matter,’ and yes they do,’” Common said. “But when we discuss black lives and ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it’s not saying that other lives, they don’t matter. It’s just saying that black people, Latino people, deserve the equality that white people get in this country.”
After a series of opening acts and speakers, Common appeared on stage around 8:20 p.m. and performed a half-dozen songs before ceding the spotlight to J. Cole for a short set. Peering along Capitol Mall toward the Tower Bridge at one point, the latter seemed awed by the sight.
“Damn,” J. Cole said, “this (crowd) go far back.”
Common returned for several more songs, joined by soul singers Ledisi and Andra Day, before ending the concert shortly before 10 p.m. Before leaving the stage, he told the crowd: “You all have made history. We’re changing history for ourselves, right now.”
“I 100 percent agree with the message,” Myla Watson, a teacher at Kit Carson Middle School in Sacramento, said afterward. “As an educator I definitely believe in schools and not prisons, and rehabilitation – people who make mistakes that are willing to correct those and be better people. So I really appreciate what Common and everybody did.”
Monday’s event was the start of a three-day Sacramento campaign. Organizers said they want to raise awareness about Senate Bill 394, which would give juveniles sentenced to life without parole a chance to be released after 25 years of incarceration, and Senate Bill 395, which would require minors to consult with legal counsel before waiving their Miranda rights during police interrogations.
Common is also supporting Senate Bill 10, which would allow more people to be released on bail without requirement of a money-backed bond. While advocates of the bill say it would reduce the number of low-income people being held in jail for monetary reasons, opponents argue it could potentially put more dangerous people on the street.
In addition to Monday’s concert, Common was scheduled to take part in meetings with legislators and youths on Tuesday, according to a news release, and wrote on Instagram that he plans to hold another performance inside of Folsom Prison.
While some of the 25,000 at Monday’s free concert were likely drawn by the music, others said they were aware of the event’s social aims.
“He’s trying to get more equality for young men,” said Steve Williams, 28, of Natomas. “Some of the laws he’s trying to get (passed) apply to young African-American men, or minorities. So I basically came out to show my support, you know, an African-American young male.”
Glenn Sullivan, 22, said he attended the event with an Oakland-based organization called the Urban Peace Movement that advocates for social justice issues.
“It’s righteous to me,” Sullivan said. “These brothers are taking part in an issue that needs to be addressed. They’re extending their celebrity to highlight that issue and the injustice that it causes.”
Early in the event, Jones, the political activist and frequent CNN commentator, urged the assembled thousands to “Look around.”
“Moments are important, but movements are more important,” Jones said. “This march marks the beginning of the end of mass incarceration in the United States of America.”
Despite the crowd size, there were almost no reported incidents. Police responded to one fight that resulted in no serious injuries, and made no arrests during the concert, said Sacramento Police Department Sgt. Arnel Aquino.
“It was a very well-behaved crowd,” Aquino said.