Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 28, 2006

August in the Empire State

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm

“August in the Empire State” is a deceptively understated documentary about the protests that took place in New York City at the Republican Party convention in 2004.

It is focused on two characters who symbolize the class divide in Bush’s America. One is Cheri Honkala, the National Spokesperson for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. Looking and sounding like a younger version of Lily Tomlin, she leads a delegation that is determined to force the realities of homelessness and hunger on the well-fed minions of George W. Bush attending the convention. They are even willing to risk arrest by marching without a permit.

Cheri Honkala

One of these delegates, her opposite number in the film, is Paul Rodriguez, a young Puerto Rican running for Congress on the GOP ticket in New York City. As the son of a single mother and a member of an oppressed nationality, he is not the typical Republican, however. It is to the film-maker’s credit that they chose somebody like Rodriguez since his affiliation with a party that has a racist record against Latinos makes one wonder what makes him tick. Documentaries that have this effect always tend to be more interesting than those that deal in pat explanations and stereotypes.

Paul Rodriguez

Serving as a Greek chorus on the proceedings is the journalist Michelle Goldberg, who will be well-known to anybody who reads www.salon.com. Goldberg has a bemused attitude toward the omnipresent police force that trails Ms. Honkala and her band about the city. Periodically she strolls up to some behemoth undercover cop to ask them about the need to protect New York City from an unarmed group of poor women. As should be obvious from this excerpt on her article on these protestors written around that time, Goldberg is an exceptionally sensitive reporter:

The crowd hardly needed to be convinced of the importance of nonviolence. Though a few black bloc types hung around the back, the gathering was largely composed of reluctant protesters — people who hate confrontation but who took to the streets because they felt they had no other choice. Patricia Lewis, a large 54-year-old woman in a wheelchair, has been unable to use her legs since a car accident in 1985. A retired bookkeeper, she depends on Section 8, the affordable-housing program, for her one-bedroom Harlem apartment. In November, her building will be auctioned, and the new owner might convert the building into nonsubsidized housing. “I cannot afford to pay $1,600 for a one-bedroom,” she said. “That’s why I have Section 8 — because I’m poor!” She’d never taken part in a march before, but the desire to defeat President Bush had inspired her. “This is something I really, really want to get involved in,” she said. “We have got to get rid of this man!”

Rodriguez is the president of the Young Republican Club in New York City. If there is any logic in this political choice, it is probably that of a smart career move. Rodriguez states that he checked out the political clubs on campus when he arrived as a freshman. The Republican’s ideas seemed closest to his own and he joined. At a family gathering in Staten Island, we learn that everybody there except Rodriguez is a Democrat, including an uncle who vociferously denounces the war on the poor in New York. His grandmother shushes them up, urging them to eat or to play music.

On the website of his failed Congressional campaign, we get a sense of the Horatio Alger ascent of Paul Rodriguez:

As the only child of single mother, I have worked since I was about 10 years old. As a result, I worked my way through school and also made a significant contribution to the finances of our household.

Upon graduation, I began my Wall Street career working in the US equity research department of Salomon Brothers, covering food and beverage companies in the US, Europe and Latin America. In 1994, I transferred to the emerging markets side of the business and began covering the cement and construction sectors in Latin America. Over the next four years, I worked for one of the top-ranked infrastructure research teams at Merrill Lynch, and then at Caspian Securities, an emerging markets boutique founded by Christopher Heath, former CEO of the renowned Barings. While at Caspian, I added research coverage of the real estate sector, an opportunity that allowed me to expand my work beyond my traditional Latin American universe and unto Turkey. Moreover, I worked on various investment banking transactions, raising several hundreds of millions of dollars for Latin American and Eastern European firms.

Throughout the film, Directors Gabriel Rhodes, Keefe J. Murren and Michael Galinsky sustain our interest about these characters and the complex reality that is the U.S. today. Galinsky’s last film was “Horns and Halos,” a documentary about James Hatfield, the author of a controversial book on George W. Bush, and Sander Hicks, his editor at Soft Skull press at the time. Sander–an old cyberfriend–and Hatfield (who died of a self-inflicted drug overdose) are two memorable characters, just as are Honkala and Rodriguez.

As the social contradictions in the U.S. deepen, we will undoubtedly find two camps arrayed against each other with the two principals of this film serving as representative figures. As is the case in all of the best documentaries, the film succeeds as it makes us think about the dilemmas we face today.

“August in the Empire State” website: http://www.rncfilmproject.com/gabe_keefe2.html

1 Comment »

  1. What a refreshing blog from the American left – keep it up!

    Comment by adrian weston — July 31, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

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