Steve Dear recently made me an offer I couldn't refuse: Get in free to the April 22 Bruce Springsteen concert, go backstage and maybe meet The Boss himself. The catch: put in some time in the lobby inviting concertgoers to sign a petition for a moratorium on executions.
Dear, head of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, had gotten permission from Springsteen to set up tables in Charlotte and Raleigh and collect names. In both cities, Springsteen gave a plug to PFADP before performing "Dead Man Walking." Each time, the crowd cheered its approval.
On the night of the concert, I crowded into Dear's minivan with several other volunteers and headed for the Entertainment and Sports Arena. Dear warned us: "Be prepared to be cursed out by a lot of drunks."
ESA officials were ready for us. Our group was led in though a back door, each of us was issued a backstage pass, and we were escorted to our table. Clipboard in hand, I immediately started inviting people to stop and sign the petition.
People seemed surprised to see us. Most kept going, but many stopped. Given the widespread support for the death penalty in this state, it came as no surprise that so many heads shook negatively at my invitation. I was surprised when former Garner Alderman Tim Montgomery, a Democrat, shook me off. But I wasn't surprised when another Democrat, state Sen. Wib Gulley from Durham, signed his name.
Lots of people yelled things like, "Kill 'em all," but others thanked us for being there. Several times, I was approached by people who asked where they could sign a petition in favor of executions. And I met those drunks Dear warned me about. One guy got up in my face and said: "You can kiss my ass, motherfucker. You don't like that, do you?" I assured him that I didn't.
The lines formed at the beer stands and restrooms were ideal spots to find captive audiences. I would give my pitch, reminding people that Springsteen had invited us to be there, and wait for a hand to go up. Frequently, nobody bit. But when one person bravely broke the ice and agreed to sign, several others usually followed suit.
Dear, who is a serious rock fan as well as an outspoken activist, estimates that more than 700 names were collected at the two concerts. "Bruce did this with nothing to gain," Dear said. "People applauded, and that in itself was amazing."