Monday, March 14, 2016

Arresting Power

Portland might be at the forefront of progressive composting, but in terms of racism and police violence against people of color, it is no different than any other urban center in America. The incredible documentary Arresting Power begins with an excruciating play-by-play of the 911 calls leading up to the murder of Aaron Campbell, who, feared suicidal by his family after the death of his brother, was shot and killed as he attempted to defend himself from a police dog attack. It is only the beginning of a long string of examples, some discussed in depth (Kendra Jade, Rickie Johnson, Tony Stevenson, Keaton Otis), others noted in passing between sections, but all where police killed and attempted to justify the use of their excessive violence. As Walidah Imarisha has explored in her examination of Oregon's racist beginnings, the state was founded as a white refuge and has a long history of exploiting minorities for labor, while not allowing them to settle permanently. The notorious Lash Law was technically on the books until 2001. In the 1920s, Oregon also had the highest per capita membership of the KKK in the nation (approximately 14,000).

In the wake of systemic police violence in Albina, a group of black activists in north Portland founded the NCCF, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, in 1967. Members of this organization (Kent Ford, Percy Hampton) went on to spearhead the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like the Oakland and Chicago chapters of the BPP, they emphasized community empowerment, self-sufficiency, and public safety within the black community, starting breakfast programs at Highland Community Church and a free health clinic on North Russell, named after Chicago BPP chairman Fred Hampton. The historical incidences described are beyond belief, but the unjustified killings all follow typical patterns of police violence: claims of non-existent weapons, fleeing black "suspects" defined as "threats", racial profiling and the absolute debasement and lack of concern among white people in authority for black people's lives. Great sets of interviews with Joann Hardesty (Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice & Police Reform) and non-violent protesters attacked and arrested by police during marches for Kendra Jade in 2003 reflect a culture of intimidation and violence used to squelch public dissent.

The directors--Jodi Darby, Julie Perini, Erin Yanke--scratch 16mm film at the sites of the killings just as graphite rubbings are made from gravestones. These segments are used as segues, with names of the victims shown on screen. It is an unsettling and effective method of respectfully acknowledging a list of names so abhorrently long that no single documentary could adequately cover each story and give redress to the social injustices reflected in each. The fact that filmmakers would have to pick and choose from such a long list of "justified" killings is telling and only reinforces the fact that Portland is more concerned with fulfilling the state's historical dreams of white capitalist enclave and gentrified hi-tech playground than investing in our increasingly displaced and struggling communities of color.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hearts & Minds

"For twelve centuries we fought against China. For 100 years we fought the French. Then came the American invasion--500,000 of them--and it became a war of genocide." -- Father Chan Tin

"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is cheap in the Orient." -- General William Westmoreland

Throughout the late 70s-80s, Vietnam became the focal point for a broad range of films, some dealing with combat (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War), some with aftermath (Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Born On the Fourth of July), others using it as a setting for adaptations (Apocalypse Now as Conrad's Heart of Darkness). Then there was the deluge of POW films from 1983-86, with even Gene Hackman (Uncommon Valor) getting on the solider-of-fortune vigilante bandwagon. Within Reagan's creepy and bankrupt culture of nationalism, the Vietnam "Prisoner of War" movement went into overdrive, fueled by a fervent anti-Communism permeating the mass media of 1984, the year of Reagan's re-election. Newt Heisley's flag image, created in the early 1970s, was suddenly plastered everywhere. In the midst of this, and perhaps as a reaction against it, new documentary forms were taking shape. These new filmmakers were social activists and balked at the notion of a so-called "balance" that they were constantly being accused of lacking. The first was Rafferty-Loader's Atomic Cafe in 1982, an examination of Cold War hysteria told through an incredible collage of newsreels, educational films, and other "duck and cover" pop culture. The second was Michael Moore's Roger & Me in 1989, his swan song to Ford and Flint. But both owe much to an earlier, lesser-known 1974 film that Moore has called "not only the best documentary I have ever seen, but maybe the best movie ever." That film is Peter Davis's Hearts & Minds.

The impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. policy is well known: it made conscription unsustainable, drafted soldiers being too much of a liability both on the battlefield and once returned home. Reagan's administration realized indigenous mercenaries like the Contras could be financed, armed, and trained to terrorize their own pro-democratic activists without working-class American youth getting their hands dirty. Until the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, things went totally underground for the better part of a decade, public reaction to Vietnam being a prime reason for this shift in intervention. But until coming across Hearts & Minds, I had never seen Vietnamese villagers speaking passionately about what this war wasn't (a fight against Communism) and was (the apex of an ongoing Western colonial war of genocide against a people fighting for independence and national unification.) Nor had I heard the view articulated so well by former-Sgt. William Marshall, who lost an arm and a leg and was furious for what his country had drafted him to do in the name of nothing. In many ways, it reminds me of Studs Terkel's book "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II, which serves as a compendium of human experiences across the board, the quotations around "good war" intentionally ironic. In the same vein, Hearts & Minds could be nested in the same, this being the warm-and-cuddly Lyndon Johnson phrase used to discuss what needed to be done for victory: to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people (which "people" is subject to debate).

The film, shot just as the war was winding down, is a fast-paced compilation of interviews without narration. This was a very rare approach for a documentary on war. Newsreel style was still the norm; think the BBC's World at War series and Laurence Olivier's refined narration. By contrast, Hearts & Minds was honest and matter-of-fact, attempting to soften the conflict for no one. It reminds the viewer that war is also about human remembrances and raw emotional experience, not large tactical arrows outlining which division went where and why. The participants run the gamut to policy makers to people on the street, both in America and Vietnam. Infamous "hawks" like Kennedy-aide Walt Rostow openly belittle and insult Davis when he asks for an honest accounting of the conflict's origins, saying that rehashing that is "pretty goddamn pedestrian stuff at this stage of the game." He is but one of several who openly assume that their version of the war is the only one in existence, the only one that matters, the only one scholars need concern themselves with for the historical record. Luckily, there are interviews with Daniel Ellsberg (leaker of the Pentagon Papers), Barton Osborn (CIA agent who quit and blew the whistle on covert operations), and a host of others who tossed their bureaucratic careers aside to speak out against the injustice they'd helped to sustain in some way. Alongside these are the stories of two U.S. servicemen: Randy Floyd, an air force pilot who flew 98 bombing missions; and Lt. George Coker, a returning POW who had just spent the majority of the war in captivity. Through great editing, their own perspectives unfold gradually, scene by scene, as do those of dozens of others, like Detroit-born William Marshall, and peace-activist Bobby Muller, who would go on to found the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Most intense are the scenes with the Vietnamese, all of whom spoke up despite very real dangers for doing so (the war was still going on during early filming.) There are the victims: the coffin maker, who looks over his shoulder while speaking; the two sisters, whose prolonged silence and sadness at the end of the scene pushes an intensity onto the viewer which is almost unbearable; the Catholic and the Buddhist, both aligned in their views on the Vietnamese struggle for independence; the angry, grieving father who demands an explanation of what he had ever done to Nixon for him to come there and murder his family; the man who says to a friend, after looking at the camera, "Look, they're focusing on us now. First they bomb as much as they please, then they film." Then, there is the lavish country club banquet of the South Vietnamese capitalist class, the recipients of the billions in American foreign aid pouring in, one of which makes the incredible admission that "We saw that peace was coming, whether we liked it or not." The comment is astounding, delivered without a pause, and really says it all. U.S. corporations can be seen encroaching throughout Saigon: Sprite trucks, Coca-Cola plants, toothpaste billboards with smiling Western women, even the ridiculously out of place Bank of America. Eerily, CBS logos, intended to be a "ubiquitous eye that is watching all", are ordered left on the bodies of Vietcong corpses by soldiers in the field as an ominous calling card. 

In the end, what is so relevant and sad about Hearts & Minds today is the fact that little has changed. The fabrications for foreign invasion by American policy makers continues. Consecutive administrations still lie to keep up some modicum of popular support. The jingoistic hysteria following 9/11 was nothing new, nor was the xenophobic nationalism that accompanied it. Even General Westmoreland's racist quote has now been uttered in a thousand variations over the past ten years, just replace "Oriental" with "Muslim." But perhaps most telling are the prescient closing words of ex-bomber pilot and activist Randy Floyd when asked what was learned from it all: "Nothing. The military doesn't realize that people fighting for their freedom are not going to be stopped by changing your tactics, by adding more sophisticated knowledge. Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their power makers have exhibited."

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Battle of Algiers

America's post-1945 plans are pretty well documented: secure the world's markets, control its resources, convert war production to domestic goods, remake West Germany and Japan into hi-tech capitalist satellite states, and leverage them to help the U.S. dominate the global economy. Above all, avoid sinking back into another Great Depression by forcing the world to buy our toasters and guns, both designed to break periodically. What would be the developing world's role in all of this? Enrichment of a tiny percentage of global elite loyal to American business interests, who would control their civilian populations by force and crush any leftist populist resistance to the siphoning of their national resources. Anyone against this agenda would be against freedom.

The other Western powers were cash poor but tried in various ways to control or coerce past "partners" abroad. In north Africa, the rotating door of European imperialists fighting self-serving wars on the backs of their colonial subjects meant the arrival of an unexpected power vacuum. The same occurred in southeast Asia following Japanese withdrawal from French Indochina (see next week's Hearts & Minds). As part of its Anglo-American Loan of 1945, the U.S. shrewdly forced Britain to liquidate its overseas assets in the Commonwealth, thereby ensuring America's economic dominance for decades; England would be paying annually on that tab until 2006. As for France, they had no intention of letting go of Asian and African colonies and attempted to install puppet leaders loyal to western business interests.

It was imprisoned Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci who first coined the term "subaltern", which advocated that indigenous histories be told from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizers; and although The Battle of Algiers cannot be said to be truly subaltern due to Italian direction and financing, it nevertheless reflects an understanding of the mechanisms of postcolonial oppression and dominance, and their impact on human rights. The idea for the film originated with the Algerians. It was Salash Baazi, a former member of the FLN (the Algerian freedom fighters, by then victorious) that first approached Italian producers with the idea of filming the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander imprisoned by the French and later freed to become a long-standing member of the Algerian government. The first draft, done by an Italian screenwriter before Pontecorvo's involvement, reflected the angle still so prevalent today, that is, the narrative vis-a-vis the conscience-stricken imperialist soldier who uncovers the "truth" about his nation's actions. Thankfully the FLN rejected this idea as ridiculous, and a second draft was produced that provided a realistic approach. This persistence of the FLN--that their story be told with some modicum of fairness--is important to keep in mind since Pontecorvo sticks to this vision when coming on board, going so far as to cast several real-life participants, including Yacef himself as the FLN leader.

The film's significance today is multi-faceted. The Battle of Algiers has been used by both the oppressed and the oppressor, depending on the spin, and yet it still stands as a strong political statement, created at least in part by then-powerless voices attempting to eradicate imperialist systems of tyranny and control.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Incident at Oglala

"We're trying to regain what we had in the past, being human beings and being involved in human society." - Stan Holder, Wichita AIM leader.

During the height of its power and influence, the Black Panther Party was an important symbol to other oppressed people of color, both at home and abroad. Among these was AIM, the American Indian Movement, a group of radical Native American activists who drew inspiration from the BPP's program of zero tolerance for America's authoritarian power structures. Like the BPP, AIM had no shortage of historical grievances to add to its agenda. One of their earliest actions, in 1972,  was partnering with other indigenous rights groups from the U.S. and Canada to trek cross-country, from California to Washington, D.C., in the Trail of Broken Treaties. Once there, Nixon refused to meet with them or acknowledge their lengthy list of demands but the protest established AIM as an important new grassroots movement and caught the FBI's attention. It's widely believed that the FBI did not discontinue their counterintelligence program following the outing of their murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton in Chicago. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the contention, made by Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Ward Churchill, and others in AIM, that the FBI ran the exact same counterintelligence program of informants, disinformation, and "bad jacketing"against the American Indian Movement, tactics employed with such effectiveness against the Black Panther Party in the years prior.

Corruption on reservations was first and foremost on AIM's agenda. In the lead-up to the most famous AIM occupation, they accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of inciting violence and fostering an atmosphere of intimidation and fear on the Pine Ridge reservation as a means of social control, further asserting that this was all done in collusion with the FBI, whose agenda was the splintering and eradication of all radical minority organizations. There was a failed procedural attempt at removing the corrupt head of the BIA, Dick Wilson, who was believed to be responsible for many murders and mysterious disappearances at Pine Ridge, with the help of his security forces. Just like with the BPP takedown by the Chicago police, the BIA--specifically Dick Wilson and his self-proclaimed GOONs ("Guardians of the Oglala Nation")--became the triggermen for the FBI, working to undermine and destroy efforts of indigenous independence and solidarity.

Things came to a head on February 27, 1973 with the famous Wounded Knee occupation.  

Incident at Oglala was the first (and only) mainstream documentary dealing with Native American radicalism in the 1970s. Its scope is focused primarily on the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation and the subsequent case of AIM-member Leonard Peltier and his alleged (and highly contested) involvement in the murder of two FBI agents injured and then killed execution-style in a firefight on Pine Ridge, a case for which he is still serving a life sentence in Canada.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Murder of Fred Hampton

Last week's screening Black Power Mixtape provided an overview of some key players in the black power movement. This week, we will look specifically at the murder of two black activists by the State and the coordinated collusion between the FBI and the Chicago Police Dept. to eradicate the Chicago arm of the Black Panther Party through terror and violence.

On the night of March 8 1971, a handful of activists calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the federal offices in Pennsylvania and raided file cabinets. The stolen documents they obtained confirmed earlier suspicions of how far the FBI was willing to go to infiltrate and destroy domestic organizations dedicated to issues of human rights and social justice. The FBI's program went by the name COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program), and its main target was the Black Panther Party, which it deemed a terrorist organization and a threat to national security due to its calls for black empowerment and especially its anti-capitalism. The FBI used false communications, agent provocateurs, and, with the aid of local law enforcement, assassination to splinter and destroy the organization.

The Chicago chairman of the BPP was Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader whose first arrest in 1968 was for stealing $71 in ice cream and delivering it to children in the neighborhood. Above all, Hampton was a brilliant networker and speaker, a builder of bridges between groups with like social agendas, however tangential. Even among South Side's apolitical gangs, he worked hard to push the Party's message of empowerment and community control and actively sought their solidarity and support. Like the BPP more broadly, he saw Socialism as the only answer for working black people in America and championed international unity among oppressed people of color, promising solidarity with any group, black or white, that would align themselves with the BPP's ideals of transnational liberation for all suffering under capitalism and colonialism.

The FBI decided Fred Hampton had to go. The State would not tolerate a supreme teacher in the mold of OAAU-era Malcolm X, delivering radical messages of global outreach and p.o.c. unity that transcend religious divides. Through a manipulative quid pro quo, they pressured a 19-year-old black man earlier arrested for car theft to act as an informant; William O'Neal gained access to the BPP's brownstone headquarters and, even more effectively, became head of security and Hampton's bodyguard. He provided floorplans of the apartment and flagged the location of Hampton's bedroom. 

On December 4, 1969, at 4:30 am, there was a knock on the door of the BPP apartment. Mark Clark, on security watch and armed, walked to the door and asked, without opening, who it was. "It's Tommy," a voice said. "Tommy who?" Clark asked. "Tommy gun" came the prearranged cue. Through the door, Mark Clark was shot in the heart and died instantly. As he body convulsed, he pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding as the Chicago Police fired 90 rounds into the apartment. Fred Hampton, who had been drugged earlier by informant O'Neal and possibly never regained consciousness, was badly injured on the mattress in his bedroom; a later autopsy showed that he was killed from two shots fired into his skull at close range, finished off by the cops once inside, who were overheard saying "He's good and dead now." With their main target dead, they continued to fire into the other rooms, later charging all of those shot and injured with attempted murder, including Deborah Johnson, Hampton's 8-mo-pregnant fiancee. 

Despite the falsified ballistics tests, Mark Clark's reflex shot was the only bullet fired by the BPP. Hence, there was no "wild firefight" as reported by the Chicago Police, who quickly held press conferences to laud the great achievements of their officers and proclaim the community safe from the militancy of the Panthers and their dangerous breakfast program for children. Within hours of the assault, the Panthers called in the film crew who had been filming Hampton's speaking engagements. This team began to make a documentary quite unlike the one they started out to shoot. Their footage, which contradicted accounts given by the CPD and FBI, would further open up massive holes and inconsistencies in the State's official version of events. Crucially, the Panthers also opened up the crime scene to the public, and over 25,000 Chicagoans filed through to see the blood-stained execution space for themselves, to see the nails in the wall the CPD attempted to falsify as bullet slugs fired from BPP guns. The Chicago Tribune, initially supportive of the police's version of events, changed their coverage when the amount of contradictory evidence became clear, and their reporting added to the damning documentation already gathered by the BPP and the photographic evidence taken by the filmmakers.

The civil case would drag on until 1982, as the FBI and CPD worked hard to stall the proceedings of the Hampton and Clark families. Two FBI documents obtained in that 1971 classified file theft, including O'Neal's map of the apartment, revealed his role, and the feds involvement and attempted cover up. In the end, "justice" (if one could call it that) prevailed in the form of a monetary settlement of 2 million. None of the police officers, nor Cook County/State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and obviously none of the FBI agents, were ever indicted in the murders. The ensuing public scandal did cut short Hanrahan's political ambitions and facilitated increased black activism within the city, but the Chicago BPP never fully recovered from the blow. It says volumes about America's political class and the mainstream media's subservience to it that Watergate became the historic benchmark for the abuse of State power and not COINTELPRO. It seems the state-sanctioned murder of leftist minorities always takes a backseat to hotel break-ins and tape recordings if the political elite are the ones being wiretapped.

I would never say that Fred Hampton is currently in the national spotlight because he is a revolutionary person of color buried and obscured by the white power structures of our nation, his execution a footnote at best within our so-called institutions of higher learning. But the number of times I have seen this documentary and this case mentioned over social media in the past 12 months is more than I have seen in the past 20+ years combined. A new generation of p.o.c. are keeping Hampton's memory and message alive, screening this documentary in communities, engaging in important conversations, and exposing the continuum of white supremacy and violence that is still a hallmark of American capitalism.

Jim Bunnelle
Acquisitions & Collection Development Librarian
Lewis & Clark College

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

WHEN: Monday, Feb. 8
WHERE: Miller, Room 102

Ever since capitalism was forced to shift from slavery to wage exploitation, it has attempted to co-opt and control people of color on a global scale by various means. More often than not, this takes the form of state violence and coercion, and, at least since 1945, the U.S.A. has taken the global lead in this role. Whether targeting domestic radicals at home or indigenous "populists" abroad, who have the audacity to refuse the relinquishing of their material resources for western use, the United States abysmal postwar record is clear. Numbers vary (often because we don't bother to count), but in Vietnam's war for independence against western colonialism, it's now estimated that we murdered around 1,700,000 Vietnamese between 1965 and 1974 (British Medical Journal study, 2008); and that doesn't take into account the French period back to 1955. Our record in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa from the 1970s until today speaks for itself, and the violence perpetrated among people of color within our own borders has often been called an internal extension of our nation's external behavior against the southern hemisphere. Throughout social media, the core tenets of white capitalism are now being called on the carpet daily by those it most exploits. The Black Lives Matter movement, like the Black Panther Party before it, is a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for social justice in America. They disregard the "rogue cop" fallacy and push issues of police violence further by questioning the processes and the policies. While demanding accountability for the murderers, they go further and point out that these "bad apples" are in fact working as intended, protecting the broader aims of institutionalized capitalism by killing members of a black underclass whose "loosies" somehow challenge the profit margins of U.S. corporations.

For this spring's lineup, Watzek Screens has selected six films covering revolutionary struggle by people of color against capitalist authoritarianism and state violence. Films will cover the Black Panther Party and the FBI's assassination of BPP members Hampton and Clark, the American Indian Movement's Wounded Knee occupation at Pine Ridge, and international films on FLN's fight against the French in Algeria and Vietnam's war against U.S. dominance. We will end with Arresting Power, the recent documentary on historical police violence against the black community in north Portland.

The Lost "Mixtape"


In the late 1960s, a group of Swedish filmmakers came to the United States to document the nascent black power movement. For whatever reason, the footage they shot ended up unlabeled and forgotten in a Swedish Public Television vault for thirty years, until it was reassembled and released in 2011 as The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75. Its structure is loose by design, allowing large spaces for black activists to speak in their own words, with narration and readings of select texts provided by The Last Poets' Abiodun Oyewole. A centerpiece is an interview with BPP-member Angela Davis, then imprisoned in California in 1971 on trumped-up, 1st-degree-murder charges for the death of Judge Harold Haley, a charge for which she was later proven not guilty. Like Malcolm X before them, Davis and other Panthers fostered a solidarity between p.o.c. movements worldwide, particularly in Algeria, Angola, and Vietnam. While placing their own struggles squarely within the context of capitalist exploitation of black Americans, they nevertheless made broader connections with fellow victims of imperialism abroad by supporting, however possible, subaltern societies of the global South who had zero voice (at least in the North) and who were suffering horribly under carpet bombing and chemical defoliation.

Mixtape shows the players speaking for themselves in both text and image. Next week's The Murder of Fred Hampton will get at the heart of the matter, at what can happen to a motivated, charismatic revolutionary of color who works to galvanize an impoverished urban black community around issues of social justice, white violence, and capitalism.