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When the Cops Tried to Cancel Rage Against the Machine

Terrified and offended by the band’s leftist politics and righteous anger, law enforcement throughout the country did whatever they could to harass and intimidate RATM at every stop along its 1997 ‘Evil Empire’ tour

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

By the time they were ready to go on tour for their blockbuster sophomore record, Evil Empire, the men of Rage Against the Machine had already experienced their share of controversy and concern-trolling from pearl-clutching parents, conservative politicians, law enforcement and mainstream media.

Formed in 1991, Rage Against the Machine was always unapologetic about their desire to use music to agitate, pointing their crosshairs at American elites while screaming about “pigs” and class warfare. “We began with zero commercial ambition,” guitarist Tom Morello told Louder Sound in 2020. “I didn’t think we’d be able to book a gig in a club, let alone get a record deal. There was no market for multi-racial, neo-Marxist rap-metal punk rock bands. That didn’t exist. So we made this music that was just 100 percent authentic, it was 100 percent what we felt like playing. We had no expectations.”

To the shock of the band, their 1992 self-titled debut proved incendiary from the drop, racking up critical accolades and record sales alike for its blend of brilliant grooves, leftist politics and righteous anger. Just a year later, they were playing at Lollapalooza and “Killing in the Name” was a radio hit. 

Amid their rise to the mainstream, RATM maintained a radical edge in its approach to artistry. They spent all 15 minutes of their first Lollapalooza set standing naked at the front of the stage with duct tape over their mouths as a protest against efforts to censor musicians (they were escorted off stage by police). They were booted off Saturday Night Live for the sin of hanging the American flag upside down onstage. And most of all, they ran into efforts by police to stymie access to their shows. 

“They tried to shut several down, filed injunctions — none of which were successful, I might add. We were playing these colleges, and the audience would be 100 percent white fraternity boys and sorority girls, passing through five levels of metal detectors and pat-downs,” Morello said about the band’s early days. “I think the cops were afraid that we were going to be bussing in Bloods and Crips to the show. There was an air of hysteria.” 

All of this came to a head in 1997, as the band embarked on a globe-trotting tour in support of Evil Empire, which had soared to the top of the Billboard chart. They were bigger than they had ever dreamed — and it made them more dangerous than ever in the eyes of their biggest critics.

Twenty-five years later, its 1997 tour with the Wu-Tang Clan still burns bright in the minds of fans who were there to see it in the flesh. The various efforts to shut up the band and keep them off stages didn’t work — and in hindsight, the campaign to cancel Rage Against the Machine feels like an apt metaphor for the existential 1990s clash between alt rebellion and Bush-era conservatism. 

The band kicked off 1997 with a busy spring of performing with U2 and traveling for international shows, with stops including Tel Aviv, Paris and Japan. RATM encountered few hiccups during this phase, but that began to change in the summer when they hooked up with Wu-Tang Clan for the second half of the year. “The Wu-Tang tour was dramatic, to say the least. The combination of our politics and a rap group terrified the authorities. We managed to intercept a memorandum meant for a local sheriff’s department in Colorado, and it talked about anti-police sentiments and the blackness of Wu-Tang,” Morello recalled to Kerrang! in 1999. 

In one case, a sheriff went as far as to claim that RATM had to be shut down because its performance would be, effectively, one long pre-planned riot. In September 1997, Grant County Sheriff William Wiester lobbied a judge to block the band’s show at the Gorge Amphitheater near the sleepy central Washington town of George. The band was actively “hostile toward law enforcement,” Wiester said, going on to claim that previous RATM shows had a high number of injuries and arrests. “We’ve had dozens of shows here — the Beach Boys, Clint Black, Bonnie Raitt — and no problems,” Weister told the Seattle Times. “But at these alternative shows, the young people are disrespectful or just disobedient of everything, including the police.”

A judge found no merit to the sheriff’s argument, noting that even “rampant” drug use and rowdy behavior didn’t qualify as a riot in the eyes of the law. Disappointed but undeterred, Wiester puffed his chest and declared that the cops were going to crack down on the show as much as possible. He assembled an unprecedented police and security team: While most events at the Gorge were normally patrolled by a dozen deputies, he assigned 50 officers, including from other departments and even the state Fish and Wildlife Agency, to work the RATM show. He also pushed the concert’s promoter to double its private security staff to 240 people.

“A no-tolerance policy involving criminal behavior will be in place and as many persons as possible will be booked into the Grant County Jail,” Wiester reportedly said in a statement ahead of the concert. 

The band had a plan to strike back.They opened the September 12th show with a rousing rendition of NWA’s anthem “Fuck tha Police,” and punctuated its encore by mocking the Grant County Sheriff’s Department. “So, Sheriff… you think you can intimidate us?” frontman Zack de la Rocha said on the mic. “There are so few of you, and there are so many of us. There ain’t nothing more frightening than a pig with political aspirations. We take it as an insult that he calls us violent because everybody knows the police are out of control.”

Nonetheless, Wiester held true to his word. More than 80 people were arrested over the course of that night, almost entirely for underage drinking and drug use; zero were charged with disorderly conduct, despite all the riot fears. 

That wasn’t the case at other stops on the 1997 tour. RATM’s performances had a reputation for massive, ecstatic mosh pits and random bouts of overstimulated violence; bassist Brad Wilk told MTV (with a fat grin) that crowds had a habit of ripping out seats and throwing them on stage. (One commenter on YouTube corroborates this account: “What Brad Wilk mentioned about the chairs flying was true at the [Illinois] show. We were in the front row of the pavilion seats, there were two rows of plastic seats in front of us,” they wrote. “Rage came on, the people in the chairs not nailed down fled for their lives!”) 

Elsewhere, there are stories of fans ripping up greenery and sod while losing their minds to RATM’s hit songs, with another commenter remembering seeing “no lawn left” at The Meadows (now Xfinity Theater) in Hartford, Connecticut. The venue is designed with amphitheater seats and a standing-room pit near the stage, all surrounded by a green hillside. And for Hartford native Lemu Coker, who was 15 years old when he went to the August 17th show, the blissful chaos of that concert remains a core memory. He says at one point, de la Rocha called for the crowd on the hill to come down and pack in, closer to the crowd in the amphitheater. “Security wasn’t having it, so they made folks go back to the green hill,” Coker recalls. “The people didn’t appreciate that.”

As the tension grew, RATM launched into one of their most ferocious songs, “Bulls on Parade.” That’s when Coker remembers “all hell breaking loose.” “People were lighting smoke bombs, and it felt like the entire arena was moshing. I think the cops were trying to retain some semblance of control, because they started to pepper spray people. I had to take off my shirt and cover my nose and mouth to breathe,” he says. “I didn’t stop moshing, though.”

Apparently, somebody asked de la Rocha to make an announcement that people on the hill should calm their behavior, but it was too late. Coker jokes it was just like the infamous coda of “Killing in the Name”: Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me

“At one point, people started to light the wooden fence at the top of the hill on fire in multiple places, so the cops and security had their hands full. But the band kept on playing and it was just one of the most surreal scenes I’ve ever been a part of,” he says. “Smoke bombs, people coughing and running, others moshing, some fighting the police, others lighting the back fence on fire, all while Rage sang about ‘Freedom.’ I’m 40 years old now, and the memory of that ‘what is going on?’ feeling has never faded, even if the details have. Best show I’ve ever been to.”

The 1997 tour was full of these surreal moments, if the fans who witnessed them are to be believed. Even today, they still share tales of near-riots, anarchic camaraderie and indelible images, like that of de la Rocha performing in a wheelchair after badly injuring his leg on a previous show. More than anything, though, they mention the same thing that Coker said to me: Best. Show. Ever.

Maybe the band knew in the moment that they were already nearing the peak of their powers. Maybe they had no idea how big their brand of artistry could be. Whatever the case, RATM impacted a generation of young, restless fans with earth-shaking riffs and eye-opening messages about everything from the corruption of capitalism to the joy of the Zapatistas. Their 1997 tour was fueled by the band’s relentless drive to turn 1990s America on its head — and their fans were ready to oblige. 

“We’re not going to play to the [mainstream], we’re going to hijack it. This tour is going to incorporate everything that rich, wealthy classes in America despise. Each of the 20,000 people in the audience will be reminded of their independent political power,” de la Rocha told Rolling Stone in 1997. “I expect we will run into trouble somewhere in the country. Honestly, part of me hopes we do.”