Tag Archives: crime

Call + Response

This documentary focuses on the important social issue of human trafficking. Its specific emphasis is upon sex trafficking, and features lots of disturbing stories and statistics, delivered via a slick production. However, the documentary’s biggest problems are systemic and fatal: namely, its reformist orientation toward the subject matter and the resulting naiveté of the directorship.

Even though it purports to be about anti-trafficking movements, no actual social movement activities are even depicted—even simple protest is absent. The director laughably references so-called “open source” protest, as if previous social protest is irrelevant, or that something has dramatically shifted in real-world power relations to justify such a new term. It presumes that people can “just get involved” and “make a difference” by “educating themselves” and clicking some buttons. Unfortunately, the naiveté only gets worse.

If there is a central root cause to the modern, global “slave trade”, it is modern capitalism, just as mercantilist capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy was the cause of post-medieval era African slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Amazingly, though the film claims to be so concerned with slavery, it does not mention—even once—this major institution (capitalism) that drives the “trade”. Sure, “profit” is mentioned a few times (which heads in the right direction), but in a post-2008 financial crisis era and post-Occupy Wall Street, this oversight is not so much unfortunate or tragic, as it reveals the superficiality of the film’s analysis. This significance reflects a story told about Murray Bookchin, the famous eco-anarchist. After hearing endless testimony of people at a city hall meeting, railing against “economic injustice”, Bookchin rose to his feet to thunder “in my day, we called it capitalism”. That plain-spoken-ness is absent here in this documentary, and instead we’re awash in abstractions and manipulative, heart-tugging stories lacking context.

The sex trade in Asia is very sad, but horribly de-contextualized. Amazingly, there is not a single mention of patriarchy. How are people to understand something if it is not explained systematically, in plain language? No one in the film bothers to hypothesize or ruminate about just how different the US and Europe were (or were not) in their slavery practices 150 years ago. “The same shit, different century”, would be a simple conclusion to draw. But, now the US has “modernized” and is “civilized”. Of course, the average American (or even most History majors in college) know zilch about historic slaveries, chattel slavery in the US south, the US civil War, etc. (Instead, most usually believe mis-truths about all these subjects.) This raises the concern that “human trafficking” is portrayed as such a serious issue now simply because most of the people trafficked do not originate in the West. This leads to a serious case of Orientalism (i.e., Westerners depict the “East” in stereotyped, incomplete, racist, and warped ways). This problem may even over-shadow the capitalist-gorilla-in-the-living-room problem. Nearly all the stories are about Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe—although “slavery” still occurs in North America and Western Europe. Hearing terrible stories of how people treat their own kind in other countries serves to “other” people outside the West. “Wow, people in those poor countries are monsters. And the poor girls and women who live there… let’s save them!”

It’s good that child soldiers (in Africa) appear in Call+ Response, but again there is no context to understand their circumstances. There is no mention of colonialism (let alone neo-colonialism), no analysis of the conflict minerals in people’s cell phones, and no acknowledgement of western mineral corporations or endless marketing (itself a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone) to convince people of the “need” for such electronic devices (or whatever other toys). Instead viewers are just left with anecdotal stories.

You can learn a lot of important things about a documentary by the people a director chooses to interview. In Call + Response, we are treated to an appearance by the war-criminal Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton). She comments on the injustice of the slave trade. This is meant to be sincere and convincing. However, many viewers may not remember that this woman claimed on national TV in the 1990s that a half-million dead Iraqi children from US-imposed sanctions was “worth the cost”. To which, the mothers or Iraq would likely respond: Fuck you, Albright, you occupy no moral high ground.

Most of the assembled interviewees are, unsurprisingly, very white—except for Cornel West. Regrettably, his usually radical analysis is blunted, as he is relegated to merely discussing the influence and origins of Black music. Other interviewees include prominent celebrities, who ooze a “savior” complex. We should be skeptical of celebrities who start doing activism (like Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, and Daryl Hannah), and that pick such sensationalist and uncritical topics for their efforts.

While non-sex trafficking is described, it’s the sex trafficking stuff that gets the central focus. As with the anti-breast cancer “movement”, we should suspect a titillation factor at work. You know, “ooh, boobs!” Whether the subject is sex trafficking or not, “slaves” are presented as lacking agency, thus requiring salvation. Surely, there is much clear-cut coercion, kidnapping, and the like occurring throughout the world. But, to lump all non-free practices together under the same label does a disservice to “victims”. People do things for complex reasons, including self-subordination. People sometimes sell themselves into bondage to pay for transit to other countries, to pay bills or survive, while others freely submit to “wage slavery” and work 40 hour work weeks. These distinctions—so crucial to understand about capitalist exploitation—are washed away. The film does try to separate slavery and labor at the beginning, but the debate is left undefined. Thus, the broader issues of free-will under capitalism are left un-addressed.

Other sensational elements contribute to the confusion. For example, it’s hard to have clear numbers about trafficking, given its illicit character. Just as with all estimates of crime, this one is just as tough, if not tougher. (Even US crime is hard to estimate, while actions outside the US are often harder, especially with Western cultural biases at work.)

One final criticism is warranted, which has to do with style. The “rockumenary” format of Call + Response is compelling in some moments, while tragically overblown in others. It’s hard to take serious a self-important and self-absorbed [male] rock star rocking-out, in the midst of the doom and gloom featured through out the film. Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli shines, but most of the musical acts are rock bands—and mostly all-male efforts at that—featuring serious-looking rock stars (and, let’s face it, fuck rock stars!, amiright?). A subtle message is delivered herein, as throughout the rest of the documentary: these men are going to save women who need help. It’s an ancient patriarchal trope shrouded in mythological chivalry and just a tad of 21st century polish. It’s the kind of ensemble that a college-educated white dude would make, who independent of any grounding progressive politics, discovers a “cause” to dedicate his privileged, post-college life to. This effort, incidentally, requires zero introspection or lifestyle change on his part.

Of all the hundreds of documentaries I have seen, this is one of the worst. And, if this is cutting edge of new social movements, we’re all screwed. After watching this documentary, I am thoroughly depressed—for altogether different reasons than those the director intended.

Topics: crime, activism, music, sex, work

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

While many people recognize the name “Enron”, few today probably know exactly what it did to deserve such an unsavory reputation. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room describes Enron from its beginnings, and details all the illegal, immoral, and simply insane things it did, all to receive its well-deserved reputation. In some ways, Enron was unique or an aberration as a company, but in other ways it was the prototypical American corporation. It was unique in its sheer willingness to lie, deceive, and recklessly break things, but it was emblematic of American corporations in its lust for profit at any cost, its masculinist competition, and its desire to curry favor with the powerful in order to avoid regulation. Founder Ken Lay was close friends with George H. W. Bush, future American president, and then later with George W. Bush. For those who doubt the closeness of their relationship, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room includes a homemade movie the Bushes made for a high-ranking, retiring Enron employee.

It’s telling to witness Enron’s geeky men trying to assert their masculinity, by doing dangerous, long-distance motorbike treks, sometimes injuring themselves in pursuit of proving their manliness. The company enacts a Draconian policy that regularly cuts a certain portion of the workforce, to encourage employees to be super-competitive with each other—consequently, people slit throats and scramble to the top, to avoid being left toward the bottom of the heap and thus fired. Then, Enron deliberately tries to create money out of thin air by using a “mark to marketing” accounting strategy, in which forecasted profits can be counted immediately. Time and again, Enron is intent on trying to believe its own hype, to become successful simply through force of will (independent of tangible resources or assets). In this respect, they are representative of the American financial sector which is premised upon marketing, self-pomotion, deception, and—quite honestly—nothing of actual value being created.

The arrogance that accompanies the accumulation of wealth is shown by the construction of two exclusive staircases ascending to the offices of Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings at the company’s headquarters. This lavish celebration of power and success clearly infects all the Enron employees. When a critical [female] reporter from Forbes magazine asks questions about how Enron makes its money (because no one really knew), Enron’s response is to insult her for not understanding their practices. Of course, Enron’s practices amounted to fraud, but they instead chose to explain their profits as sophisticated and creative. Skillings exemplifies this arrogance when earlier in life he was asked by a college professor at Harvard professor if he thought of himself as smart, to which Skillings responded “I’m fucking smart”.

The house of cards created by Enron collapses in waves, but the company managed to conceal its failings for many years. One guy who leaves the company before its final implosion, manages to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars, and becomes the second largest landowner in Colorado. Another executive, Andy Fastow, was tasked with covering Enron’s tracks, so he creates countless shell companies (with insider joke names) to conceal Enron’s losses.

The housing and mortgage crisis is a more recent financial scandal today, but the same callousness and indifference was present earlier in the 1990s and 2000s with Enron. The documentary includes audio recordings of Enron traders laughing about screwing over grandmothers and other citizens. The indifference these traders had for the victims of their actions is most pronounced in California. An Enron employee analyzed a new California energy deregulation law (the kind Enron itself lobbied for), to find loopholes, and then created dozens of strategies to play the new system and make money. One of Enron’s favorite tricks was to artificially create demand by deliberately reducing the supply of energy in California. Traders called up managers at California power plants and had them shutdown the plants, sometimes for hours. The ensuing energy shortages led to rolling-blackouts and other chaos. Californians saw their monthly energy bills quadruple in cost.

From the retrospective view of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Enron was a house of cards that involved too much risk-taking, and too much lying and self-deception. Consequently, they serve as perfect—if not cruel and cutthroat—mascot for Wall Street. Not ironically, much of the same personality characteristics and values helped to guide the crisis of 2007-2008, which brought down the world economy. Enron is a poster-child for anti-social corporate behavior and the wolves of Wall Street.

For class showings, be wary that there a few F-bombs (many of which are funny), as well as a short scene of topless exotic dancers. But, it’s still worth showing in a class, because it is one of the best tutorials of pre-mortgage crisis corporate crime, and a lesson we should not soon forget.

Themes: capitalism, Wall Street, corporations, crime, masculinity

After Innocence

The subject of After Innocence is the Innocent Project’s work to exonerate wrongfully-imprisoned people in the United States. Composed of mainly civil rights lawyers and others sensitive to how much wrong the “criminal justice” system can do, the Project tries to provide legal assistance to people in prison who they believe have been incarcerated based on faulty evidence. After a widely-broadcast Phil Donahue episode about a wrongfully-imprisoned man, many prisoners began writing letters professing their innocence to the Project. We are shown file cabinets full of letters that Innocent Project members have yet to even read due to the overload of requests. While audiences are not shown how these requests are filtered and vetted in order to determine which cases to pursue and support, it is clear that the Project does gets a lot of assistance from sympathetic law students (which is great, as it rescues them from a career path of working as corporate lawyers).

The Innocence Project estimates that many thousands of prisoners in the US are innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. DNA testing technology is the main tool used to help investigate the accuracy of these convictions. Unfortunately, DNA testing can only be done if physical evidence from a case still exists—if it has been destroyed or is missing (a pretty common occurrence), then it is impossible to verify if the convicted actually did what they were sentenced for, and thus to be exonerated. Audiences see a half-dozen examples of wrongfully-imprisoned men go through a long process of trying to prove their innocence, or see them interviewed after they have been released. These men are emotionally damaged by their experiences of imprisonment as well as their faith in the justice of “the system”. Interestingly, many of these men remark that they didn’t think the system could commit such injustices (prior to it happening to them). Thus, the more-appropriately-identified “deviance response system” (the label of “criminal justice system” does not seem to be accurate) is voracious and out-of-control. While the men are harmed by their experiences, it is unclear if the system itself is sorry for its actions: a judge and a prosecutor apologize (authentically, it seems) to those they wrongfully sentenced, but audiences don’t know if these powerful men plan to change their future behaviors.

Further struggles exist once people are released from prison. It is challenging for innocent “ex-convicts” to get their records expunged. Surprisingly, it is even difficult for a police officer who was wrongfully-imprisoned to get his benefits and job back. Suing for damages is even more difficult, as it would imply that there were mistakes made in the way that prosecutors aggressively pursued convictions at all costs. It would, obviously, require prosecutors to only prosecute where appropriate—this contradicts typical convention, as prosecutors work to create reputations as “tough on crime”, so they can climb the occupational ladder and eventually become judges. The arrogance of some prosecutors becomes pretty clear. One remarks that the system didn’t do anything wrong, even though it wrongfully imprisoned someone. Another prosecutor gets heated in the court room and condescendingly tries to dismiss and accuse the Innocence Project of being bias (too “pro-convict”), due the organization’s name. Of course, this prosecutor is unreflexive of the bias implicit in the title of his own occupation—“to prosecute”—and does not want to own up to the fact his position makes him automatically skeptical of every defendant.

Curiously, although After Innocence is a film about the wrongfully-imprisoned in America, so much of it could also apply to those who are guilty of the crimes they were convicted. The lives of non-exonerated ex-felons are very similar to the men featured here. They all have difficulty getting jobs, convincing others to trust them, and dealing with intensity of the outside world (one remarks that everything is so loud outside of prison).

There were a few things in After Innocence that made me uncomfortable, even though I am in complete support of the Innocence Project’s work to release wrongfully-imprisoned people (and even my belief in releasing supposedly “correctly”-imprisoned people). I have a feminist concern about the over-presentation of rape cases in the film. Perhaps DNA evidence lends itself most to this type of legal case and evidence, but I was unnerved by the conclusion that many might take away from the film. I’m concerned that over-skepticism of the testimony of rape victims may cause people to disbelieve women who are assaulted. During a hearing to release man wrongfully-convicted of rape, new evidence was offered that the female victim had four different men’s sperm in her vagina, as if to suggest that she was of questionable trustworthiness. Given the scary levels of women who experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, I am uncomfortable with anything that makes people less likely to believe women. There needs to be a way to discuss why wrongful identifications are made or why inaccurate evidence is used in court. I think even presenting statistics on rape (and the prosecution of rape) would help to contextualize this part of the film more.

Additionally, I would like to know why so few murder cases—which also involve physical evidence in which DNA testing is relevant—were included in After Innocence. Those cases are the ones that I had presumed were most common. As such, I wanted to hear more about how and why the Illinois governor halted all death row executions a number of years ago after it was shown that many death row inmates were innocent of the crimes they had been convicted of. The governor actually appears briefly in the film, but little is said about his role in this phenomenon.

One final element would have helped to strengthen After Innocence: all that research that shows jury prejudice (especially in regards to race inequality) and faulty eye-witness testimony (including police testimony based on memory). Given how much of such scholarly research has been done, this would have been a ideal way to bolster the DNA-based evidential claims of wrongful-imprisonment. By showing how “the system” gets it wrong so often would be valuable in fostering critical thinking, and healthy skepticism of how the legal system functions and is prone to convict regardless of evidence and reality. Some of these arguments were indirectly referenced in the film, but a few legal scholars would have helped drive the point home better. Still, After Innocence is a film that will illuminate the “mistakes” that the system can commit and will hopefully attune audiences to challenging it more in the future.

Topics: crime, law, justice

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

Everything that most people “know” about gangs from mass media and from “common sense” is tested by former skateboarder-turned-director Stacy Peralta’s excellent film “Crips and Bloods: Made in America”. Instead of taking the typical, easy routes for treating gangs—either presenting them as vicious, mindless thugs or glamorizing their violence—the film takes a much more challenging, but authentic route, showing the complex social conditions out of which Los Angeles gangs arose, in the midst of impoverishment, racial segregation, police brutality, and government suppression of movements for progressive social change. Crucially, LA streets gangs must be understood in relation to the dramatic events in which they were part, especially the 1965 Watts Uprising and the 1992 LA Uprising. Prior to Watts, black immigrants to LA faced racist housing covenants and residential segregation, and then increasing unemployment as they fell victim to the first waves of deindustrialization in the 1960s. Thus, “Crips and Bloods” employs a serious and critical sociological imagination as it analyzes the structural forces that created the conditions from which gangs emerged.

Modern street gangs are descendants derived from generations worth of politically-repressed black communities. Whenever successful gains seemed imminent, a White supremacist system reimposed itself upon them. For example, gang violence reaches an all-time low during the Black Power era of the late-1960s, as blacks join community-based organizations like the Black Panther Party that aim to achieve neighborhood autonomy and black empowerment through “survival programs”. In response, the LAPD—with decisive assistance and guidance from the FBI—destroyed these organizations and the broader movement. As former Slauson gang member Kumasi puts it, “They hunted them down, they murdered everyone who did good, and made everybody else go into exile or they locked them up in the penitentiary. And when all that was over with, a new element rose up called the Crips. Ya see? Then the shit started again.” Claiming what many criminologists have previously discovered in research, gangs fulfill certain neighborhood-stabilizing functions, providing order in the absence of other structures, narratives, and authority systems. In other words, the Panthers could have provided that social order, but thanks for government suppression, gangs now provide that order (regardless of how chaotic it may seem on the surface).

“Crips and Bloods” should be praised for not doing what many lazier documentaries on gangs do: interview criminologists and law enforcement specialists. Instead, director Peralta sees the best way to understand gangs and member’s motivations is to talk to participants directly. The vast majority of the film’s interviewees are either current gang members or former members, both Bloods and Crips. Interestingly, during the film’s credits it is revealed that that nearly all of these people are now current-day gang-interventionists, who works to reduce gang violence through peace-making and community development efforts. What makes these characters so compelling is that they have gone through various transitions in their lives and can reflect upon their true motivations for joining a gang and what that participation felt like, as well as their reasons for leaving the gang and their informed conclusions about what needs to be done instead. The film makes clear—especially during its final minutes—that the most promising way to successfully reduce gang violence is by local community members (including former gang members) who can articulate better modes of social organization, and not through strategies of further criminalization.

There are numerous moments of sociological note throughout the film, but one sure to attract attention is the subtle attribution of responsibility for gangs placed upon female-headed households and the lack of youth supervision. This comes off a bit as “blaming the victims” and seems to suggest that if only black males (presumably fathers) were in such households that youth would not stray into the orbit of gangs. Surely mothers—who shoulder the burden of raising children regardless of racial group or neighborhood residence—transmit certain values to their children. But, the film veers away from such a conservative and moralizing argument by hinting at a variety of reasons why these mothers were so busy and were not as able to “show love” for their children, such as their long work hours in lowly paid jobs. “Crips and Bloods” also adopts part of the “prison abolitionist” perspective on gangs, by asserting that criminalization and hyper-incarceration has itself destabilized neighborhoods and disrupted potentially-functional families that could include male parents.

Quite a few well-known individuals appear in “Crips and Bloods”, including football-star-turned-activist Jim Brown, New Leftist and state senator Tom Hayden, author of Do or Die Leon Bing, and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Ron Wilkins (as well as a number of sociologists!). Combined with stellar design and great music throughout, the most important contribution of “Crips and Bloods” is to show individual gang members as sane actors in insane conditions. Instead of appearing as monsters, the film allows them to explain their own violent behaviors—and we learn about the array of social pressures, needs for protection, and masculinity that contributes to such behaviors. This may be the most critical and sociological film treatment of gangs available.

Topics: crime, deviance, race and crime, race/ethnicity, urban sociology.