Here comes the story of the Hurricane… the man the authorities came to blame

IT’S been a few days since the death of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the American boxer whose wrongful murder conviction was the subject of the amazing Bob Dylan song ‘Hurricane’.
And it’s been a few days to assimilate what his death means to me as a passionate devotee of Dylan’s music.
‘Hurricane’ was the stand-out song on Dylan’s 1975 album Desire, one I have played hundreds of times and used in school lessons to highlight racial prejudice and the injustice of the US judicial system.
For me, Carter and Dylan will always be inseparable.
Rubin Carter, who had prostate cancer, died in his sleep at home in Toronto, last Sunday, aged 76.
He spent a quarter of his life in prison for three murders he did not commit. His imprisonment also ended a promising boxing career.
Carter’s nightmare dates back to the night of 16 June 1967, when three white people were gunned down at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey.
Moments later, hometown boxer Rubin Carter and his friend John Artis were pulled over by the police, who took the two men to a nearby hospital to see if one of the dying men could ID Carter and Artis as the gunmen. The victim did not.
Within weeks the Grand Jury investigating the Lafayette murders declined to indict either man.
But three months later, career criminal Alfred Bello, who had been lurking around the Lafayette on the night of 16 June, and was looking for leniency from police, told prosecutors he could identify the two black men as the killers.
On 27 May 1967, with no motive offered by prosecutors, Artis and Carter were convicted on three counts of murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison.
“How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.”

Eight years later in 1975, Rubin Carter sent Bob Dylan a copy of his autobiography The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472.
Dylan visited Carter in prison within a month of receiving the book.
“The first time I saw him, I left knowing one thing … I realized that the man’s philosophy and my philosophy were running down the same road, and you don’t meet too many people like that,” said Dylan in a later interview.
And so the song was born.
Within a few days of the meeting Dylan sat down with producer Jacques Levy and the two men quickly penned ‘Hurricane’.
Part protest song, part historical document, Dylan’s eight-minute epic reads like a legal brief, as the singer punches holes in the prosecutor’s Lafayette killings case, spitting out the lyrics with passion and contempt.
After attorneys at Dylan’s label, Columbia Records, asked for slight changes in the song to avoid possible lawsuits, ‘Hurricane’ was quickly shipped out to radio, where it received heavy airplay.
Dylan also featured the song heavily in his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which made a stop at the New Jersey prison where Carter was held to show their support.
The Revue, which featured Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, Allen Ginsberg and Roberta Flack, went on to play massive benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Houston Astrodome to raise funds for Carter’s legal defence.
After Dylan played ‘Hurricane’ on virtually every date of his Rolling Thunder tour, Carter’s incarceration became an unavoidable subject of national discussion.
It also intertwined Dylan and the song permanently with Carter’s own life and campaign.
But what it didn’t do, was set Carter free.
In 1976, following Bello’s recantation, the initial convictions were overturned; Carter and Artis were given another trial. But they were convicted and imprisoned again.
After nine years of submitting appeals, Carter’s case was finally heard for the first time in a federal court in 1985.
The judge ruled that prosecutors had “fatally infected the trial” by promoting a theory of racial revenge without evidence, and withheld evidence that disproved the witness’s identifications.
“The extensive record clearly demonstrates that the petitioners’ convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” the judge said.
The convictions were overturned on constitutional grounds and Carter was set free. (Artis had been released on parole four years earlier.) The charges were formally dismissed in 1988.
But ‘Hurricane’ wasn’t just a legal brief set to music.
It’s also a great song, a musical freight train that picks up terrifying speed and fury as it roars down the track.
In its unapologetic anger, it remains reminiscent of songs Dylan had written in the early 1960s.
Perhaps it was closest to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” about a poor Baltimore maid who died after a rich drunken white man William Zanzinger hit her with his cane. Zanzinger was jailed for just six months.
After his release, Rubin Carter moved to Toronto and became active around issues of inequality in the criminal justice system.
He founded Innocence International in 2004 and published a second autobiography, Eye of the Hurricane: My Path From Darkness to Freedom in 2011 with a foreword by Nelson Mandela.
In 1999, he was portrayed by Denzel Washington in Norman Jewison’s film The Hurricane.
Rubin Carter remained active in criminal justice causes until the end of his life.
In February this year, he wrote a column for the New York Daily News campaigning for the exoneration of a Brooklyn man David McCallum who has spent nearly three decades in prison on murder charges.
“If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised,” he wrote.
“In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years, and have been in heaven for the past 28 years. To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.”
Hurricane: https://vimeo.com/53933900

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Author: seagullnic

Writer, editor, lecturer and part-time musician. Passions in life: my family, Bob Dylan, music of many genres, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, cooking plus good food and wine.

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