Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 1, 2016

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.

Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.

“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.

The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.

When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:

From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.

Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.

What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.

For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.

The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.

At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.

Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.

Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.

In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:

And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”

For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:

From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.

Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.

Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.

Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.

“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.

It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?

DuVernay calls  upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.

Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article  titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):

An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

September 12, 2016

When Justice isn’t Just

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

First Run Features released the 42-minute documentary When Justice Isn’t Just to iTunes on August 30 and follows up with a DVD beginning tomorrow, September 13, 2016. The film, directed by Oscar-nominated and NAACP Image Award winner David Massey, addresses the concept and reality of justice in the United States, particularly in regard to racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. It will be very useful for classroom discussions of why Black Lives Matter emerged, why Colin Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the national anthem, etc.

Filmed in cities across the country, the documentary explores why so many unarmed black people have been targeted and killed by law enforcement officers, an issue that has taken center stage in the national consciousness. The filmmakers talk to legal experts, activists and law enforcement officials who speak to the inequality within our criminal justice system. The film asks the crucial question of how to prevent more violence in this country, including Black on Black deaths. Activists, law enforcement officials, legal scholars, and the family members of victims offer a range of responses.

At its heart, When Justice Isn’t Just confronts the broken criminal justice system, focusing on the incarceration rate of people of color. As the Black Lives Matter movement and citizens nationwide question the accountability of our justice system in cases of police violence, When Justice Isn’t Just is an essential addition to the ongoing discussion about reform and renewal.

David Massey and producer Dawn Alexander have screened their film throughout the country. As Massey states, “we as filmmakers couldn’t sit on the sidelines without documenting one of the most important human rights issues facing America and the black community today.”

When Justice Isn’t Just features a broad array of people, including Civil Rights Attorney Benjamin L. Crump, Dr. Cornel West, Black Lives Matter’s Dr. Melina Abdullah, Criminal Attorney Tom Mesereau, LAPD Deputy Chief William Scott, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and many more.

Director/Producer David Massey is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications & Education from Ohio Dominican University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Advanced Film & Television from the American Film Institute. He is the first African American in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for an Oscar in the Live-Action Short Film category.

Presently, Massey is the co-chair of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers, West (BAD-West) in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College. He has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including The Martin Ritt Scholarship; the Eastman Kodak Second Century Honoree; induction into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame; The National Education Association for the “Advancement of Learning through Broadcasting”; the National Black Programming Consortium “Prized Pieces”; PBS “Innovator Teacher’s Award”; and the Heartland Film Festival’s Crystal Heart. Additionally, Massey is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Co-Producer/Writer Dawn Alexander is mother of a young African American male, and as such created this project with a deeply felt commitment to his safety and the safety of other young black men in America. When Justice Isn’t Just is her most recent attempt to address justice since: “Justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality, and is the constant and perpetual disposition to render every person his due.”


June 7, 2016

All the Way

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Currently being featured on HBO, “All the Way” derives its title from LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan “All the Way with LBJ”. That year SDS urged a vote for Johnson but under the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. For some former SDS’ers like Carl Davidson, you can expect the slogan to be dusted off and used once again for Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump being the scariest Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater—or was it Ronald Reagan, I can’t remember.

The movie is an adaptation of a three-hour play by Robert Schenkkan starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ that ran on Broadway in 2013. The NY Times faulted it for including too many characters to receive full development in such a short time so you can imagine how much worse the problem is when the play is reduced to a 132-minute teleplay.

“All the Way” received a Tony award for best play in 2014 but that’s setting the bar fairly low given the competition on Broaday. Probably most people went to see it because it starred Bryan Cranston. Nowadays big-name TV and Hollywood movie stars are often recruited for such roles to boost ticket sales. The HBO film was directed by Jay Roach, who directed the very fine film “Trumbo” that also starred Bryan Cranston. Since I loved “Trumbo”, I approached “All the Way” with an open mind even though I couldn’t help but feel that it would be an effort to salvage LBJ’s reputation, especially since it covers the period prior to the major escalation of the war in Vietnam and the ghetto uprisings that left LBJ’s legacy a pile of smoldering rubble.

Like “Selma”, a central part of the drama consists of LBJ and MLK Jr. butting heads over civil rights legislation, especially the need for one protecting voting rights. Unlike “Selma”, however, there is much more focus on the white racist opposition to this and any other reforms from southern Democrats like Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who is played by veteran actor Frank Langella. Russell was very close to Johnson who had him over for dinner many times in their 20-year friendship that came to an end over the 1964 Civil Rights bill that banned Jim Crow practices but fell short of guaranteeing voting rights.

As you might expect, a film could be more expansive in some ways even if it had to be curtailed in length from the play. All the action in the play took place in the oval office but the film shows debates taking place in the Senate over the proposed legislation. It is entirely possible that the words that came out of one racist politician’s mouth were written by Schenkkan, but you can’t exclude them actually being heard on the Senate floor. In arguing against the bill, he says that it would not allow a podiatrist to exclude someone who had smelly feet. It is the same kind of argument being used by bakers who refuse to serve gay wedding ceremonies and from essentially the same voting bloc except now they are Republicans rather than Democrats like Richard Russell.

My only exposure to Schenkkan’s work in the past was the screenplay he wrote for Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” back in 2002 that I found lacking:

Robert Schenkkan, one of the screenwriters, told the Boston Globe in February that he wanted to make Pyle [the eponymous character–a CIA agent] more believable and more sympathetic. Since he is also involved with terror bombings that are blamed on the communists, this requires a certain amount of literary license. Brendan Fraser [playing Pyle] added, “He couldn’t be capable of doing the awful things he does do. We had to show him some respect, to make him credible as someone who could take care of himself and have language skills.” Ultimately this doctoring of Greene’s prose yields an OSS agent who might be mistaken for a character on “Friends”. With his dog and baseball cap, this Pyle seems more like a frat boy than a killer.

As it turns out, “All the Way” flunks the Indochina acid test just as badly as this misuse of Greene’s novel set in Vietnam during the 1950s. Although most of it is concerned with civil rights, there is one scene that deals with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and rather badly at that. LBJ is depicted as being preoccupied by the murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney since it might cast a pall over the Democratic Party convention. When Robert McNamara comes into the oval office to apprise him of an unverified attack on an American destroyer by Vietnamese patrol boats, LBJ’s initial reaction is to let it slide. When McNamara tells him that his rival Barry Goldwater has been leaking news of the bogus attack to the press and warning that the administration was soft on Communism, LBJ caves in and authorizes air strikes.

Is it credible to believe that Barry Goldwater’s campaign speeches was what led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the horrors that would last for nearly another decade? Not if you have read the Pentagon Papers. The USA had intended to destroy the revolution taking place in South Vietnam long before Goldwater was a candidate. A war with the North was essential in order to cut off the NLF’s supply lines. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was manufactured in order to give the White House cover for launching a genocidal war that it has never fully atoned for or honored the need for reparations to the Vietnamese. It probably would have been better for Schenkkan to stick to the civil rights struggle rather than introducing a false account of American history, especially since the play was supposed to be historically accurate.

The most interesting and dramatically effective segment involves the failed attempt by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at the 1964 convention. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer (played effectively by Aisha Hines), it pits LBJ against the civil rights activists who thought the delegation was the true voice of the DP rather than the bigots who were now seated. In effect, they were the Bernie Sanders of their day.

The MFDP was backed initially by Hubert Humphrey but since LBJ feared a walkout of all the Southern racist delegations if the MFDP was seated, he pressured Humphrey to withdraw his support. As was generally the case with LBJ, he offered material incentives to those he was pressuring–in this case the VP nomination. In order to close the deal with Humphrey and the liberal wing of the DP that backed the MFDP, LBJ gets Walter Reuther on the phone and orders him to lean on Humphrey, which he does. To give some credit to Schenkkan where credit is due, he makes Reuther look like a rat.

In one of the more dramatic scenes, we see MLK Jr. outside the convention cajoling the younger and more militant Black activists to settle for a token two-delegate observer status so as to preserve “party unity”. You don’t want the evil Goldwater to be president, do you? In essence, this is how the DP operated back then and operates today as Bernie Sanders and his supporters will learn this summer.

“All the Way” should be seen as an introduction to some important historical events even if it has to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. Bryan Cranston, as always, turns in an impressive performance. If it motivates you to read some serious historical accounts of the period like Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” or Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63”, then it will have served a useful purpose.

The biggest problem, however, is that it might leave you with the impression that LBJ is now undervalued by the left, especially since he was the architect of the Great Society and two major pieces of civil rights legislation. Nostalgia for LBJ can be seen in certain quarters, especially Salon Magazine that wrote about “Lessons from All the Way: 3 big takeaways from LBJ’s victories that progressives can’t afford to ignore”:

Yet even though millions of liberals tuned in on Friday night to see Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ, polls continue to show that our era’s Johnson is in danger of losing to our era’s Goldwater because many progressives — who largely backed Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, for the Democratic nomination — are unwilling to support her in the general election. This is where “All the Way” specifically, and Johnson’s story in general, offers three instructive lessons.

“This ain’t about principles, it’s about votes. That’s the problem with you liberals — you don’t know how to fight! You wanna get something done in the real world, Hubert, you’re gonna have to get your hands wet.”

To really gauge LBJ’s role in American history, you have to have a more inclusive time-span than the one presented in “All the Way” that is bounded by JFK’s assassination and a victory party at LBJ’s ranch after the votes have finally been tallied making him the new president.

As a sign of how “we can overcome”, the voting rights bill of 1965 that is a cornerstone of both “Selma” and “All the Way” was enacted just five days before the Watts riots, the largest in American history. It was one thing for the Blacks to press for voting rights and another for them to throw Molotov Cocktails. LBJ’s reaction to earlier urban uprisings had been from a law and order perspective and now he would confront them as he confronted the Vietnamese peasants: with iron and blood.

The liberals he assigned to report on native restlessness were hardly distinguishable from the Southern racists. Harry McPherson, who was the White House counsel under LBJ, toured Bedford Stuyvesant and reported back to his boss:

[And] Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is the home of what Marx called the lumpen-proletariat,'” an “incredibly depressing” cityscape with “every tenth car—as in Harlem—a Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera, or Chrysler, double-parked before a busted decaying house.” He offered a few po-litical impressions (“I am coming to believe that 95% of the Negro leaders in this country are West Indian”), but mostly stories of the sort that the Kennedys had ridiculed Johnson for telling. “A statue, in the park of a public housing project, of Lincoln—seated, with his hand around the shoulder of a Negro boy,” he wrote. “There is a lot of modern playground equipment in the park, but when we were there, the kids weren’t playing on the equipment; they were climbing all over the statue. It almost seemed as if they were trying to lift Lincoln’s other hand and put it on their shoulders. The statue’s bronze is worn to a light brown by thousands of children’s hands. It is the statue of a father—a powerful figure for kids without one at home.”

(From Kenneth O’Reilly’s indispensable “Nixon’s Piano”)

When the Kerner Commission prepared a report that blamed social and economic conditions for the riots, LBJ would have none of it and even refused to invite the authors to meet with him at the White House. What was wrong with these ingrates was his reaction. After all, the Great White Father had bestowed the Great Society upon them.

A rival commission investigating the riots was headed by Arkansas Senator John McClellan, a typical racist who sought answers in law enforcement rather than redressing social conditions. His target was the OEO, a key part of the War on Poverty that many on the right viewed as instigating the riots even though only 16 of its employees were ever arrested during an uprising. For the most part, the OEO representatives in the Black community served as the eyes and ears of the government and could hardly be mistaken for H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael.

I will conclude with O’Reilly’s summation of the relationship between LBJ and McClellan’s McCarthyite investigation of poverty workers:

The riots also hardened Johnson’s soul. He embraced McClellan’s notion that subversives and criminals had instigated the riots, and “having earned recognition as the country’s preeminent civil libertarian” now seemed oddly determined “to become its chief of police” (McPherson’s words). Desperately trying to hold the Democratic party’s voting bloc together, the president dismissed the ghetto riots as the product of Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists. And he did so while trying to contain the growing conservative critique of his administration’s policies. Edwin Willis, the Louisiana Democrat who chaired HUAC, reminded him of how effective old Republican party tactics might be in the present. “Just like some years ago the Republicans made a dent in the Democratic column on the false issue that Democrats were ‘soft’ on Communism, so I regret to say that in my opinion they will try to portray Democrats in general, and you in particular, as being ‘soft’ on law enforcement and respect for law and order.”


May 5, 2016

Kwame Somburu, ¡Presente!

Filed under: african-american,obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Yesterday I learned that Kwame Somburu had succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Although he was a Facebook friend for a few years, I really had no personal connections to him previously. As was the case with any number of other people I knew from a previous lifetime in the Trotskyist movement, we had reconnected in cyberspace. After spending a few hours doing some Internet research on him, I regret that I had never spent time chatting with him back in the late sixties when we were both members of the NY branch of the SWP. About a month or two after joining the party, there was an incident involving Paul Boutelle, as Kwame was known at the time, that made it into my memoir:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_055 UnrepMarx 1_Page_056

It was that incident and Paul’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” that year that had always been stamped indelibly in my memory. After watching Kwame Somburu: A Conversation with a “Rabble Rouser”?, the superb interview with Paul made two years ago in Albany, NY by Kush Nuba and linked to below, I have a much better idea who he was and why I stayed in the Trotskyist movement as long as I did. It was smart and charismatic people like Paul Boutelle, his running mate Fred Halstead, and Peter Camejo that will always define the party for me—not the bizarre workerist cult I left in 1978.

Although I encourage everybody to watch the entire interview, I’d like to extract a few essential biographical points to put Kwame into context. His father was a small businessman doing radio repairs in Harlem where the family lived. From an early age, he was sensitive to racism starting with being forced to read Little Black Sambo in grade school. He has vivid memories of the people of Harlem spontaneously pouring into the streets after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.

In 1951 he quit high school because he was bored. He used to sit in the back row of the classroom reading a book and ignoring the teacher. Despite being a high school dropout, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity reading everything that came his way from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to Karl Marx and Irish history, which interested him as an example of how other people can be colonized and exploited. Anything that was off the beaten track intrigued him.

As an autodidact, he was ideally suited to selling the World Book encyclopedia in the 1950s. Before there was an Internet, that’s the way that many families could do simple research without going to the library. My parents bought a copy of the Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that I read ravenously.

When Kwame wasn’t selling encyclopedias, he was driving a cab—a job he had in 1968 when I first ran into him at party headquarters. He had joined the movement three years earlier but had first run into the Trotskyists in 1960. He was walking down the street in Harlem when he spotted a couple of white guys collecting signatures to put SWP candidates on the ballot. Since he was always curious to see what out of the ordinary people were up to, he struck up a conversation with the party members. Because he had already been reading Marx, it was almost inevitable that he would end up at party headquarters even if McCarthyism lingered on. That year he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and kept loose ties to the party until he became a member 5 years later.

Kwame was one of the old-timers who left the SWP in 1983 as Jack Barnes finalized the purge of all those who resisted his bureaucratic assault on party norms and Trotskyist politics. What is striking about the interview with Kush Nuba is the sharpness of his mind and his ability to recall events from fifty years earlier in great detail. Is it possible that a lifetime of revolutionary politics can keep the mind in fighting trim? Cancer might have wreaked havoc with his body but his mind shined like a star until his last breath.

February 17, 2016

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

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For at least a month before its premiere, I was repeatedly invited to press screenings of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” over the summer of 2015 that I turned down because the title of the film suggested that it would be a kind of fan’s tribute to a highly problematic Black nationalist group that imploded just a few years after its formation through a combination of its own ineptitude and police repression.

Among the batch of DVD’s I received in November in conjunction with NYFCO’s 2015 awards meeting was this documentary that remained gathering dust on my bookshelf for the reasons mentioned above. When it aired last night on PBS (and that can be seen here as well), I decided to finally have a look especially since it was bashed by former member Elaine Brown in the Daily Beast:

Like new-right ideologue David Horowitz, Nelson paints Huey as a thug, a “maniac,” according to an interview he highlights with one former Panther—a man harboring a lifelong, apolitical grudge against Huey, whom he never knew or even met. Nelson’s Huey is then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own “demonic” behavior. Although Huey was killed 10 years after the Party’s demise, Nelson ties Huey’s tragic murder to the death of the Party. This opens the way to his wholesale condemnation of the Party as a fascinating cult-like group that died out on account of the leadership of a drug-addicted maniac. In this, he exonerates the government’s vicious COINTELPRO activities, and discredits and destroys the very history and memory of the Party.

The Nelson referred to above is African-American director Stanley Nelson who could not be more unlike David Horowitz based at least on his 2003 documentary on the murder of Emmett Till not to speak of his simply allowing former Panther members to tell of their own experiences with Huey Newton in the last year of his life when they saw him as a paranoid megalomaniac who had evolved into a gangster leading a crew that specialized in robbing drug dealers and pimps.

My biggest worry before seeing the film was based on the occurrence of the word “vanguard” in the title. Not only do I find it routinely misunderstood by “Leninist” groups but in the case of the Panthers all the more so since in their case it was a purely “substitutionist” project. As one former Panther in the film put it, they carried guns and adopted revolutionary rhetoric in order to spur the Black community into following their example. As it turned out, their roots in the Black community were fairly shallow so when the repression deepened they proved highly vulnerable.

I was keenly aware of all the events depicted in Nelson’s film, having seen them unfold in the late 60s and early 70s but they were only a blur now in my mind until revisiting them in this nearly two hour highly powerful documentary.

Long before I became a Trotskyist, I was attracted to Black nationalism. I was moved by LeRoi Jones’s reading of “The System of Dante’s Inferno” as a Bard College freshman and in my senior year went to a debate on Black nationalism at the Village Gate in March, 1965 that pitted Jones (who would become Amiri Baraka a year or so later) against the awful Nat Hentoff. I loved how Jones took Hentoff apart but the biggest thrill occurred three months earlier when I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in New York, sponsored by the Trotskyist group I would join two years later.

In 1967 I ended up working in Harlem for the welfare department and began radicalizing under the impact of the war in Vietnam and seeing poverty for the first time in my life. When Newark erupted in July, I was convinced that world revolution was on the agenda and applied for membership in the Young Socialist Alliance two months later.

In late 1967 the Panthers had attracted the attention of both the bourgeois media and the radical movement. For the SWP, the Panthers were seen as a major development because they were popularizing the idea of Black control of the Black community, a slogan we raised in our election campaigns.

Whatever enthusiasm I felt would be dampened to some extent by the appearance of Fred Hampton at the YSA convention in November 1968. We had invited the chairman of the Illinois Panthers to give greetings to the convention with a fifteen-minute time limit. Instead he harangued us for over an hour, essentially coming across as if he was speaking to the Young Democrats. Derrick Morrison, an African-American YSA member who had frequent meetings with Malcolm X, kept coming up to the podium passing him notes that his time was up. When Hampton finally got tired of these reminders, he concluded his “talk” with a four-letter tirade and stalked off.

What a contrast to Malcolm X who told the Militant Labor Forum that he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the meeting and praised the newspaper for telling the truth. Now I don’t know if he was simply being diplomatic but the kind of macho bluster heard from Hampton was pretty much par for the course in this period.

Nelson’s film is very useful as an introduction to the factors that led to the Panther’s collapse but you never get the sense that he has a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. One interviewee characterized the breakfasts as a major achievement, reaching 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.

The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism. Ironically, the SWP would adopt this organizing method later on without having the slightest clue that if it failed for the Maoists, it would also fail for them.

At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:

panther pig

This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.

The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that the film brought alive to me was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.

In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.

Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN.

What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.

If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated Black America.

Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.

July 1, 2015

Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

July 1, 2015

Dear Mr. Proyect,

 As a former Pacifica producer, I write to inform you that my biography Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press, on September 29. Miller argued Shelley v. Kraemer (which overturned racial restrictive housing covenants), along with Thurgood Marshall and Charles H. Houston.  In addition, Judge Miller, a member of  the California judiciary, published the California Eagle, the oldest black newspaper in the west.  Annually, since 1977, the State Bar of California awards the Loren Miller Legal Services Award for lifetime achievement.

It is my hope that you will share news of this biography on your blog. The attachments and the link below provides more detail including endorsement by Kenneth  Mack, Harvard law professor.


The story told here in full for the first time is of a true American original who defied societal limitations to reshape the racial and political landscape of twentieth-century America. Miller, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights attorneys from the 1940s through the early 1960s, wrote the majority of the Brown v. Board of Education briefs. This biography recovers this remarkable figure from the margins of history and for the first time reveals how he changed American law and history forever.

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June 17, 2015

The White Negro

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 2:32 pm

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes.

―Jack Kerouac, On the Road

So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in such American cities as Paris and Mexico, D.F., this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village. a menage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, lob and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too.”

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.

-Norman Mailer, The White Negro

January 2, 2015

Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:09 pm

A Collective Response to Cop Terror

Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever


“Selma”, the stunning new film based on Paul Webb’s screenplay and directed by the previously unheralded African-American Ava DuVernay, makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison with Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. Both films revolve around the circumstances attending the passage of key legislation affecting Black America: in the first instance, the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and in the second the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that sealed the doom of Jim Crow, a legacy of white America’s abandonment of Reconstruction.

“Selma”, however, has exactly what “Lincoln” lacked, namely the agency of Black self-emancipation dramatized by the Selma to Montgomery march. If Lincoln was seen as a wise benefactor of a sidelined Black population whose leaders like Frederick Douglass failed to materialize on screen, the prime mover in “Selma” is Martin Luther King Jr. who is played to perfection by David Oyelowo, the actor last seen as a cartoon version of a Black Panther member in Lee Daniels’s “The Butler”. He is far better served in this new film.

Both films pay close attention to period detail and use the speeches that are part of the backbone of American progressive politics, including Lincoln’s and LBJ’s. It is of some significance that the speeches given by King in “Selma” are only approximations of what he said in Selma since the King estate refused to allow the speeches to be used by DuVernay. So she wrote the words herself after steeping herself in the original for months.

read full article

December 7, 2014

Richard Greener talks about James Brown

Filed under: african-american,music — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

My old friend Richard Greener was a business associate of James Brown for many years. In this interview we compare notes on the great rhythm and blues musician prompted by my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite” and the feature film “Get on Up” in CounterPunch.

October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:

During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.

By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.

Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.

As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.

Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.

The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.

Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”

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