Tag Archives: social change

Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North

There’s something alarming about the fact that Traces of the Trade wasn’t made sooner—decades sooner. But, now that it’s available, audiences should watch it. Especially Americans. People living in the US have a largely amnesiac view of their own society; even while people “know” that African slavery and Indian genocide occurred, most do not know details, understand why they happened, or realize what the continued significance of them are today.

Traces of the Trade is directed by a descendant of the DeWolf family (Katrina Browne), who were the largest slave traders in United States history. While many white people are fond of saying: “My family didn’t own slaves” (although most of those people have never actually looked, to find out!), few have asked if their family benefited in any way from slavery. And few have likely benefited as much of the institution of slavery—outside of owning slaves—than wealthy slave-traders and their financiers. Thus, the director gathered together as many sympathetic family members as she could find, to travel their family’s history along the infamous slave-trade triangle: from their base in Rhode Island, to the source of African slaves in Ghana, to where the family’s economic interests in Cuba were. She invites many of her relatives, but the majority never bother contacting her, while some caution her not to take this journey, as it would bring attention and shame to the family name.

Her trip ends up being transformative for her family, but it will also be illuminating for audiences, too. The documentary helps to adjust the common assumption that slavery was exclusively a Southern thing. Of course, slaves had lived in Northern colonies for a very long time, too. But, more pertinent, was that Northern slave-traders and their financial backers were often based in the North (thus the strong economic centers of capital, banks, and the like in the Northeast). In order for the Southern institution of slavery to exist and persist, someone had to help support it economically—and many Northerners did. The message is clear: don’t be so smug, white Northerners, about the South’s history of slavery. The blood and violence the institution wrought has tainted all of America.

In order to reconcile what white DeWolf family members knew of their own family history and what the institution of slavery was really about, their travels provided them with numerous opportunities for reflection. One DeWolf cousin experiences a transformative moment when the family is visiting a slave fortress in Ghana. They spend time in a slave holding cell, then later in the day he reflects with his cousins upon how all sorts of “experts” had been telling them along their journey that they had to understand slavery in the context of its time. Allegedly, slavery must be understood on the terms of those historical figures, not via a modern, reflexive lens. But, he remarks that this is “bullshit”, since “they knew what they were doing was wrong”. Due to these experiences, a small slice of the director’s DeWolf family becomes active to pressure for changes. The director herself pursues efforts to influence the Episcopal Church’s (her religious faith) official statements about slavery. As white parishioners, they work alongside Black parishioners to influence stronger language against slavery, including for reparations.

Unfortunately, the voice features no real prominent Black voices in support reparations, except for the Black woman the director uses to engineer her family’s travels and interviews. This woman sometimes travels in front of the camera to forcefully explain some of the historical realities of slavery and what it means for present-day race relations. The irony of the DeWolf family members’ connection to slavery is that while they can profess to be non-racist today, the benefits of white supremacy have been accumulated within the family already, thus providing a class privilege. Nearly all of the cousins have Ivy League backgrounds, yet often cannot see how their family’s slave-trader history contributed to that upward mobility. One claims that the DeWolfs lost their money at one point, as if to explain away any possibility of them gaining advantage in America.

Traces of the Trade raises an important, but likely scary question—one that needs answering, but that most whites will wish to fervently avoid. How many other white Americans can trace their family genealogy to slavery? How could the process of searching for this history—and possibly finding something that most whites assume their families have no connection to—transform their perceptions of white privilege? Would they think differently about the regular claims of white Americans that to be “color-blind” is the best approach to dealing with racial inequality? Given how incredible the institution of slavery has been—to say nothing of genocide against Native peoples—how can we not afford to come to clearer terms with the legacy of these phenomenon and try to rectify their devastating consequences in a way that transcends simplistic and cop-outs (like declaring discrimination to be illegal and thus irrelevant today)?

Topics: race, inequality, historical sociology, social change, economic sociology

American Autumn: An OccuDoc

This may the best documentary to date on the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for one that explores the fundamental concerns of the movement. Some documentaries have focused more on questions of tactics or process—which are of key importance, but may be of greater interest to those who are already activists. Instead, American Autumn focuses on a variety of issues that cropped-up repeatedly throughout Occupy’s short history, including police brutality, housing inequality, unemployment, environmental devastation and hydraulic fracking of the Canadian Tar Sands, and the corporate influence upon elections (represented best by the Citizens United legal decision). For outsiders looking to understand Occupy, this is likely the most accessible documentary.

The graphical style and design is compelling, including words printed on the screen as the narrator gives polemical speeches. The best example is a critique of the usually unperceived irony of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street movie, in which the stock broker criminal Gordon Gecko gives his infamous “green is good speech”—the film responds forcefully saying: “Fuck you, Gordon Gecko!”. There is a pleasant selection of music to accompany these sequences and the rest of the film. And, of course, this reviewer was pleased and excited to hear (count ’em) two Fugazi songs. While interviewees talk, there is ample footage of protesters—either bearing signs or grappling with police lines in riot porn-esque fashion. Some of these interviewees are immediately recognizable, such as Michael Moore and probably Cornel West. To the more activist-oriented audience member, they may notice Medea Benjamin or Carl Dix. Few, except his kindred professionals, may identify Todd Gitlin (who appears with discomforting, swaggering bravado) as a sociologist.

Problematically, however, there are far too many male voices throughout. Many minutes-worth of interviewees proceed by before the first woman appears. For those with any experience with Occupy, this will seem odd, since there was often evenly-balanced gender participation, even over female-representation amongst organizers. Apparently (and unsurprising) progressive men (and male documentary directors) still like to hear themselves talk at greater rates than their women comrades. It was also strange to see so many sectarian socialists appear (especially the entry-ist Revolutionary Communist Party); this is equally odd given how small their role was in Occupy. The sizable anarchist contribution seems completely (but predictably) absent.

In terms of activist strategy, American Autumn focuses heavily (maybe even obsessing over) those who disrupt official government meetings and get arrested. There is no discussion of general assemblies or consensus decision making, or the use of cascading protest tactics to swarm and swamp city streets and law enforcement. Unfortunately, some footage in the film will be unintelligible to those who are unfamiliar with Occupy (or who possess poor long-term memory), such as the police violence against veteran Scott Olson in Oakland or the then-infamous pepper-spraying of women who were corralled in New York City. To many, these scenes would make more sense if they were explained as some of the key moments that helped to turn public opinion toward Occupy, that also radicalized the movement itself.

But, for a documentary that explores the topical issues that Occupy tended to concern itself with, this film gives a fair, albeit often progressive more than radical, representation of the movement. While there are some curious editing choices and a Michael Moore-ish director who has integrated himself (and his two arrests) into the story of Occupy, it does help to correct key myths about the movement and present it in an attractive light, while spending ample time discussing inequality and injustice in America.

Topics: social movements, social class, social change, inequality

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists

So much of people’s lives nowadays are facilitated through online and telecommunication technologies. Of course, people still live a “real life”, but much is “lived” online. There is overlap between the real and virtual worlds, but We Are Legion shows an interesting example of an online community which decided to enter the real world, together and with a vengeance. Tech-savvy people, hackers, and digital libertarians composed a fascinating, but insular subculture. The film explores how this digital community eventually coalesced under the tongue-in-cheek label “Anonymous”, and then eventually emerged on the streets in protest. The participants of this subculture are often seen as socially awkward—and ample examples are shown in the interviewees in the film—but they have important roles to play as the enforcers of a pure and free Internet.

We Are Legion does perhaps the best job to-date of presenting the early history of hackers and hactivism (hacker+activism), without any of the silly moralizing and distortions that the mainstream media is apt to make. Most “hackers” are not criminals, just people who make some technology work for a purpose that it was not originally intended. Still, more could have been done to explain what hacking is and how (it could be argued) all hacking is political behavior. Something that could helped support this argument would be more about the FLOSS (free libre open source software) movement.

Anonymous had its origins in an online message board called 4chan, where anyone could post whatever they wanted, but everyone was identified with the label “anonymous”. People joked about the absurd possibility that “Anonymous” was actually just one incredibly prolific contributor and not a legion of individuals given the same moniker. Early on, Anonymous supported pranks, but eventually became political, harassing a White supremacist radio DJ and most famously the Church of Scientology. From there, Anonymous morphed into a highly political, attack army, that was unleashed upon numerous targets, especially corporations and governments that tried controlling the Internet. It was fascinating and entertaining to see the evolution of Anonymous from crude pranksters to political revolutionaries.

Anonymous’ support of WikiLeaks and of the Arab Spring the best example of its current ethos. Hactivists kept the Internet running in North Africa and the Middle East, as citizens in Tunisia and Egypt begin rebelling against their dictatorial governments. A great line emerges in the film: when the Egyptian despot turns off its Internet, people respond by saying “fuck you”, “we’ll turn it back on”. The interviewees warn that bad things happen in the “dark” (or in this case, when the Internet is non-functioning and people are cut-off from the outside world), and that its “almost as if the Internet is a living thing that feels pain”.

I thought that LulzSec was treated a bit too harshly by the film. LulzSec was a militant, radical spin-off of Anonymous, who used their advanced expertise to directly take on state agencies and corporations. Yes, there were some excesses (like the public release of Sony user’s credit card information), but they also repeatedly “stuck it to the Man” and the world’s largest villains who are responsible for all sorts of social harms throughout the world. An added benefit of the film is that it makes former HBGary CEO Aaron Barr look like a guarded, double-talking stooge.

While We Are Legion draws connections between WikiLeaks front-man Julian Assange and the hacker community, more could have been done to explain WikiLeaks and the magnitude of its impact, which will likely be greater than most everything that Anonymous has done, in the annals of history. Some of the screen time could have be re-allocated to this story, and away from the Anonymous vs. Scientology story (which is, admittedly fascinating and bizarre, and important for understanding Anonymous’ politicization).

It would be interesting to see further exploration of the (mostly male) interviewees’ masculinist pretensions and sometimes overt homophobia. Clearly, male posturing occurs everywhere men interact with other men, perhaps especially amongst men who are unable to achieve traditionally-male performances. The filmmakers track down some of the most charismatic supporters and “members” of Anonymous, including Commander X and Barrett Brown. These colorful individuals reveal a few of the simple reasons why Anonymous has been so successful with what it does—it is populated by incredibly intelligent, driven, and creative individuals. The film itself is graphically pleasing and the electronic soundtrack is appropriately playful throughout. All in all, We Are Legion is the best film-based introduction of the online world of hackers, and it presents an accurate depiction of the usually undiscussed political dimensions of the hacker community.

Topics: technology, social change, social movements, media

Requiem for Detroit

As far as historical, urban films goes, Requiem for Detroit is amongst the more unique. Instead of showing a linear development, the film begins by showing Detroit’s earlier days, but then also the long arc of the city’s slow, gradual devolution. For the unaware, Detroit is a major American city that has long been on the decline and is going down hard. Detroit is a wonderful, yet scary metaphor for the US in general and American industrialization in specific. Requiem takes audiences through the city’s history as a private playground for automobile barons, showing the dramatic labor clashes that formed the United Auto Workers, and the pivotal racial rebellions in the 1960s. After that point, however, the city becomes a shell of its former self, leaching its population—especially whites—to the suburbs. The largely Black population that is left behind faced capital flight, diminished social services, political neglect, increased crime and violence, and a spiral into neighborhood chaos and destruction.

As an artsy film, Requiem has many strong points. Detroit’s high point of economic and cultural supremacy in the US—represented by General Motors and Motown, respectively—are contrasted with a cornucopia of landscapes and panoramas featuring decrepit buildings. In fact, the film-makers even feature an “urban explorer” who specializes in industrial trivia and knows his way around the city’s many collapsed factory sites. The “great” apocalypse footage, however, borders on what might best be described as “devastation porn”; incredible eye-candy that stimulates our sense of desperation and awe, but is mainly empty fluff. The real human story of Detroit’s collapse is instead told, partially, by a variety of interviewees. While there are some amazing characters featured—former White Panther John Sinclair and the always-amazing Grace Lee Boggs stand-out—there is something strangely amiss. Most interviewees are whites, mainly those who fled for the suburbs. Thus, we’re left with sad stories about why their families “had to leave” the city, as opposed to sad stories about why Black families “had to stay”, likely for different and crucial reasons. This is a major problem for a film about a city with one of the US’s largest Black populations. Also, far too many of the whites are current or former auto company executives. While this may be appropriate for part of the story, it misses other dimensions. A good stylistic element of the interviews that stands out (which may or may not have been intentional) is how most of the white interviewees are filmed driving their cars around the abandoned city, while the people of color interviewees are filmed in their neighborhoods, in front of their houses.

I was hoping to see more about how Detroit contributed to some of the US’s most radical social movements—especially the 1936 sit-down strikers and the Black power-era Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). Also, we don’t get any indication that Detroit served as the cultural kitchen for some of the US’s most innovative music. Motown is represented, but the proto-punk of the MC5 and Stooges could have been showcased, as well as rap (although the white Eminem is featured), and the 1990s’ radical techno scene.

Thankfully the film ends with a “pro-active” segment, that shows how Detroiters are not only coping, but perhaps evolving (or strategically devolving or smart shrinking) the city. While this segment is a bit too short, it shows a fascinating “into the abyss” perspective, including activists who are turning Detroit into what is likely the US’s largest urban farming experiment. This ending helps to raise important questions about what happens when cities reach certain limits, or urban sprawl empties-out those cities, or (more generalizably) when peak oil hits and society has to become less auto-reliant and more locally focused. Because, of course, it all happened to Detroit first. While there’s a lot to scare audiences in Requiem, there’s also ample provocation for us to learn lessons from Detroit, too.

Topics: urban sociology, community, social change, economic sociology, social movements

Pink Smoke Over the Vatican

The Catholic Church is not only one of the world’s oldest and largest organizations, but also one of the most resistant to change. The Church is presently struggling with many disturbing internal matters, including a wide-spread sex abuse scandal (and cover-ups), and international resistance to its policies towards abortion and birth control. The patriarchal roots of these issues intersects with another on-going controversy of note—which is the focus of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican”the ordination of female priests.

Viewers may be surprised to learn of the early days of Christian history, in which women played a prominent role. The film discusses the organized efforts of male leaders to expunge female leaders from positions of authority, including those who were “called” to the priesthood. In doing so, the significance of gender in the socially constructed history of the Church becomes all to apparent.

The film reveals that the issue of ordination is not only about whether women can be ordained, but also what to do with the women who already have been ordained. A variety of interesting interviews introduce a lot of female priests from numerous countries. The strategy of pro-female ordination supporters has been for sympathetic male bishops to ordain women priests and then to eventually ordain some of them as bishops, too. Then, these women bishops had the power to begin ordaining women themselves, mainly in Europe, but now also in North America.

One of the more paradigm-shifting elements to “Pink Smoke” is the footage of female priests leading mass and other religious ceremonies. For Catholics who have only known men to assume these roles, such events will look other-worldly. The faithful—and definitely religious Catholics—are the intended audience of the film, and as such the film is sometimes a bit “churchy” (especially true for non-Catholics and the non-religious). But, even for others, the film explores the crucial points of debate around the issue that even lay-non-laity audience can appreciate. Some of the female priests go as far to argue that many of the other scandals (e.g. regarding sexual abuse) would be better addressed by female leaders. While it does not take much counter-evidence to show the wide-spread corruption of female political leaders (particularly heads-of-state), there is a qualitative point to make about the starkly different gendered approaches that women may bring to the Church’s leadership. Many of the interviewees point to gendered double-standards: the all-male Church hierarchy maintains the status quo by reference to Church laws that were made by earlier men (which they assert are not God-derived laws). Interestingly but unsurprisingly, many of the ordination supporters were inspired by other social movements, including South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and the American civil rights movement.

Perhaps the predictable post-script to “Pink Smoke” has been the Church’s reaction to the ordained women. Many have been excommunicated or are being threatened with it. Roy Bourgeois—the director of the School of the Americas Watch and a male supporter of female ordination—was interviewed prominently in the film, but after the film’s release, he has since been excommunicated from his Maryknoll order.

Topics: sociology of religion, gender, social change