Tag Archives: social movements

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal

This is not simply a film about a well-publicized political prisoner (or cop-killer, depending on your perspective). It’s actually a comprehensive exploration in an array of issues surrounding race, imprisonment, and activism in modern America. Unlike many other documentaries on Mumia Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary focuses the least on the famous murder case (he was accused and convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer). Instead, the film introduces a rich background to that violent encounter, by describing the racialized history of Philly. Even W.E.B. DuBois warned in his famous ethnography—the first sociological study in the US—that Philadelphia was hostile, to say the least, about its Black residents (despite being the supposed “City of Brotherly Love”).

The modern city of Philly can be best understood by the segregation experienced post-World War II and the dominating presence of police chief Frank Rizzo (who personally singled out Mumia). Mumia arrives early in the founding of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, contributing in his young teens (!) to the Panther newspaper, thus beginning his career as a “revolutionary journalist”. And, no story of racism in Philadelphia is complete without including the story of the MOVE organization, which Mumia begins to cover as a reporter. MOVE is a radical Black freedom organization that attracts the ire of Philly’s city fathers and police department. All of this context helps to explain not only Mumia’s influences, but why Philly’s ruling elites were so interested in shutting him down, at all costs.

Other elements intertwine with Mumia’s personal story, particularly the rise of the prison industrial complex (which he will spend much time writing about and fighting as a jailhouse lawyer). The subservience of the press corp to powerful people and institutions is displayed in contrast to Mumia’s willingness to ask challenging, inquisitive questions of all (including President Jimmy Carter, of whom Mumia tells a funny anecdote, saying Carter once personally saved his job). After Mumia’s incarceration, he continues to work as a journalist. Most famously, he partners with NPR (although his program is canceled in the eleventh-hour before airing, thanks to a Republican offensive in the 1990s); other non-incarcerated journalists express amazement at how prolific he is, and with limited resources at his disposal. Mumia has taken the “opportunity” of the sterile, solitary environment offered by prison and works around the clock, reading and writing. Amazingly, he has never used the Internet and can only checkout a small handful of books at any time.

The extraordinary character of his life is testified to not only by the words of numerous interviewees in Long Distance Revolutionary, but also by the caliber of these interviewees. The film interviews a “who’s who” of the radical American Left, including Cornel West, Alice Walker, Michael Parenti, Dick Gregory, M-1 (from dead prez), Peter Coyote, Angela Davis, and Amy Goodman. Even figures that may surprise some appear, like Ruby Dee. These voices humanize Mumia (and consequently, all who have been locked-up in America), showing how he came to his beliefs and made his decisions. Humorously, Mumia states he wants to thank the Philadelphia police officer who (literally) kicked him into the Black Panther Party by beating him and his friends for protesting outside of a George Wallace political rally. He discusses the people he loves and the separation from his family (whom he has not physically touched for three and a half decades). Through it all, he is lively, entertaining, and funny. He sings, tells jokes, and relates funny stories (e.g., when he changed his name to “Mumia”, his mom refused to comply, calling him his given name, Wesley).

One of Long Distance Revolutionary‘s pleasures is its production value; the effects, sound, and color are all compelling. Many people (including some of the prominent people listed above), read Mumia’s words (and a few others), in artistic fashion, dramatically emphasizing the power of his words. Even though the film is clearly partisan and laudatory of Mumia, it starts with clips of anti-Mumia people, often spitting venom, disparaging him. These police and small business owners in Philadelphia (unsurprisingly, all white) seem unable to see Mumia as human and often view any support for him as heresy committed by cruel idiots.

Perhaps the most telling line from the film comes towards the end, from journalist Juan Gonzalez (who Mumia once invited to join a Black journalists organization, even though he is Puerto Rican). The moral commitment, intensity, and breadth of Mumia’s work (decade after decade) is impressive. Gonzalez notes that even though the movements that initially inspired Mumia have quieted and lost much of their steam and few public “revolutionaries” are visible in America, Mumia still refers to himself as a revolutionary journalist. According to Gonzalez, because Mumia has been in prison for so long, the system has “not had the opportunity to calm him down”.

How To Survive A Plague

In an era where HIV/AIDS seems like a “manageable” disease in the Global North, the not-so-distant-past looks not only foreign, but downright scary. How To Survive a Plague is an important reminder of just how deadly HIV/AIDS has been, particularly to gay communities. Some things are left out of the film—such as US President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to even use the word “AIDS” until 1987, after 20,000 Americans had died—but other even more crucial embarrassments are included, such as homophobe Senator Jesse Helms’s outspoken condemnation of gays and indifference to their suffering. In the interest of scoring ideological points against “the homosexual agenda”, Helms and many others, including New York City mayor Ed Koch dismissed demands for governmental intervention into the AIDS crisis (Koch goes so far as to allege that AIDS activists are involved in fascism). Curiously, Koch’s own ambiguous sexual identity is not called into question.

Not only did the AIDS-inflicted gay community suffer the ultimate losses with the death of loved ones, friends, neighbors, and others, but also the post-death indignities of hospitals not acknowledging patients’ partners or funeral parlors refusing to take the bodies of those who died of AIDS-related causes. In the face of these seemingly unsurmountable odds, activists form a broad movement to address not only the homophobic indifference of politicians and inaction of policy, but also the practical health needs of the inflicted. Underground pharmaceutical networks are created, underground drug trials are run, resource and skill-sharing communities facilitate the care of AIDS patients, and other crucial activities occur that were necessary in the absence of the action from the American medical establishment.

Most importantly, gay rights and AIDS activists form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP), which engages in direct action tactics to confront politicians, corporate executives, scientists, and other public officials over their inaction or slow response to the AIDS crisis. They protest at conferences, speaking engagements, and the headquarters of corporations and the Federal Drug Administration. Members educate themselves about AIDS, disease science, and how to conduct trial research. They create a glossary of AIDS-treatment terms that they distribute to people so the inflicted can be more informed about their disease. Non-gay supporters, including physicians like Dr. Barbara Starrett, join ACT-UP, some making it their life’s work to advocate for this cause. Chemists help ACT-UP get the skills to apply for grants and conduct research. At a large AIDS conference, ACT-UP introduces an sophisticated plan to design better AIDS studies to find drug cures.

How To Survive a Plague is also a wonderful case study in organizational politics. ACT-UP apparently had lots of video footage taken at its internal meetings, thus viewers can observe how “they arouse to anger” people to go out and challenge the powerful who have sidelined themselves during the AIDS crisis. Dramatic speeches are given, but also incredible, painful conflict is shown, as people not only struggle with the rapid loss of their own lives and fellow activists, but also struggle over power and the direction of the organization. Some come to believe a lack of progress was holding the organization back, others think that an internal elite had emerged, and still others differed in their opinions on which tactics to pursue. All the political strain and physical death wears down the organization—which eventually sees an organization (the Treatment Action Group, or TAG) splinter-off. Successive deaths occur each year, and while many of the activists interviewed during the 1980s and 1990s are still alive and interviewed in the current period, others die. The film provides a touching and tragic view of some of these men, while also retaining a macro-level focus, with each successive year of the crisis passes, a running clock of global AIDS deaths records the spreading devastation.

Some drugs are assumed to work early on and activists demand access to them. Other drags make people very sick (and are very expensive). Dozens of drugs fall into the “what the hell” category, where they are hoped to have some possible effect on the disease; desperate AIDS patients take these drugs, while activists push for more testing on them. Finally, years later, a three-drug cocktail is stumbled upon as a solution. People are, of course, very happy by this discovery, but it is still very expensive and people continue to die—even today. One of the few downsides of the How To Survive a Plague is clear here: the global AIDS death body count is the only nod towards the international nature of the crisis—today it is at epidemic levels in Africa where it is not confined to gay communities. The expensiveness of the current drug regime precludes the ability of poor Africans to treat their disease. Thus, the middle-class background and First World privilege of American gay men helped ACT-UP, but is not able to translate into victories for poorer folks elsewhere. All the same, the nature of the social treatment of the AIDS is very different than it likely would have been had it not have been for ACT-UP’s disruption of business-as-usual. There very likely would have been a far higher death-toll and much slower action from political and medical elites had it not have been for AIDS activism. That is itself something worth celebrating.

Topics: medical, sexuality, social movements

The Weather Underground

After watching The Weather Underground for the fifth time, I realized that it is more sophisticated and balanced than I had remembered from the first four times. Those who oppose the actions of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) probably consider the film to be apologist, while those supportive likely think it to be too critical. But, I think it actually frames perfectly the group’s opposition to state and corporate violence, while also showing the moral ambiguity of their bombing actions. For younger generations of viewers, the Weather Underground was a radical spin-off of the broadly-based Students for a Democratic Society, which was the key student organization of the 1960s. The Weathermen (as they were called, patriarchally, before they went underground) played an infamous (and less than laudable) part of SDS’s disintegration.

One of the strange, but entertaining aspects of the documentary is how it portrays interviewees in ways that clash with expectations. For example, perhaps the most level-headed and rational person in the film is David Gilbert, the film’s only interviewee residing [still] in prison for his role in a botched armed robbery after the WUO disbanded. On the other hand, someone who would otherwise be considered the most legitimate and prestigious—Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin—literally froths at the mouth as he describes, scornfully, how the WUO engaged in “organizational piracy” and “ran-off with the student Left”. Then, there is maybe the most widely recognized person during this post-Obama-election era: the infamous Bill Ayers, who the right-wing laughably tried to associate with Obama, due to their mutual presence in the same circles in Chicago for years. Finally, a former FBI agent who helped to track the WUO appears, too, and even speaks admirably of how the group was “serious” and able to intelligently avoid capture (after the film was released, this ex-agent shared a stage with a former WUO member, to discuss this time period).

The WUO—and American Left radicals, generally—proposed an important question, that has tended to make many people very uncomfortable. Whose violence is worse: state violence or citizen violence against the state? Or, more specifically (as framed by Naomi Jaffe), is it better to accept the violence of the US as it murders millions in Vietnam, while doing nothing to resist it (which she frames as itself violence), or to fight back in order to stop the US’s violence (as the WUO argued)? The problem is, as Mark Rudd puts it, that Americans are encouraged to view all non-state violence (especially that done by groups like the WUO) as criminal and mentally-ill. (One can discard the fact that the bombing attacks harmed no one except property, so their “violence” is debatable.) But, it’s worth responding to this hegemonic argument, by asking what should movements do when their efforts to change society (progressively, for the better) are stymied at every turn? When movements invariably become more radical due to state resistance and do not seem to succeed at pulling more people toward revolution, then what? What do people really expect? JFK seemed to know, when he said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable”.

Mixed in with these serious questions about ethical action, there is ample comedy, goofiness, and absurdity. And, things that contemporaries audiences will just shake their heads at it in confusion and disbelief. A pro-drug organization/cult hires the WUO to break the incarcerated LSD-guru Timothy Leary out of prison—which they do. He is brought to Algeria where he makes wide-eyed statements about supporting revolution. Before going underground, the Weatherman branch-out across the US and move into working class neighborhoods. Their goal is to convince working class youth (who they suspect, often incorrectly, will be more radical than they are) that they are serious revolutionaries who those youth should join up with to fight the system. The Weatherman try to do this, incredulously, by picking street fights. And, something sure to raise the eyebrows of audiences is the Weathermen’s “smash monogamy” ideology. In the interests of creating stronger emotional bonds between comrades, people were discourages from “pairing up”, but to instead engage in wide, promiscuous sexual activity with each other, with either sex, including group sex. A diary is read (by the female narrator Lili Taylor, although the words of a male author) which describes a van driving on a highway while a dozen people lay on the floor of the van, naked, engaged in group sex. Of course, we don’t hear this male author critique the usual interpretation of the “sexual revolution” and how it offered far more to men (namely, easier access to sex with women) than it did to women (who were expected to “put out”, without the same mutual commitments as before).

A couple of notable oversights exist, for those familiar with Weather-history. The history of SDS is a bit brief and incomplete. While the Weather-faction—often called the Revolutionary Youth Movement—was sizable, so was Progressive Labor (more “old left” than New Left). And another faction, rarely discussed in most SDS histories was the Radical Decentralization Project (initiated by the radical ecologist Murray Bookchin) which was anarchist in orientation. Also missing in this incomplete picture is all the other things that radical Leftists were doing during this time period: founding cooperatives, initiating the anti-nuke movement, and the Movement for a New Society, to list a few. Even though the very end of the film hints at internal disagreements and power-sharing issues (including gendered inequalities), the dictatorial politics of the Maoism and Third World Marxism to which the WUO subscribed, is left unaddressed. Gitlin makes an early, flip comment that is actually fairly accurate: Weather had a vanguardist attitude, that thought that their isolated actions of property destruction could embolden resistance (as opposed to helping to bring the wrath of the state down upon the movement and to alienate marginally sympathetic individuals). As he puts it, the Weathermen told the rest of the student left: “Join us or fuck you”. This machismo seems a bit strange, considering how reflective (and often apologetic) many interviewed ex-Weathermen are in the documentary. Many came from middle-class or more privileged backgrounds (which most do not discuss), which helped provide access to money that allowed them to stay underground for so long.

The soundtrack is spooky and often atonal. Some of the original music is composed by band members of Garland of Hours and Fugazi, which is a treat for indie rock fans. The combination of present-day interviews, alongside old footage of the much younger activists spouting revolutionary rhetoric is quite compelling. The film provides an abbreviated list of WUO targeted property destruction, with the reasons for each bombing. These targets include the NYPD headquarters, California Department of Corrections, US Capitol building, the Harvard Center for International Affairs, the ITT headquarters, the Presidio Army Base, and others. An early incident that causes the WUO to engage in only property destruction and avoid taking human life, is an accidental explosion that kills three WUO members in New York (where we see a young Dustin Hoffman gawking at the smoldering townhouse). The bomb was intended for an officer’s ball and the explosion would likely have killed hundreds of people, including the wives of the officers (clearly “non-combatants” by any definition). Realizing how a desperate logic and a maddening war had driven them to that decision, the remaining WUO members re-direct their efforts to symbolic destruction that avoids harming human life (for which they succeed).

There are many lessons to draw from The Weather Underground, but just as many open questions for radical social movements. The shocking reality is that little has changed with the society that the WUO critiqued and fought against. The names of the countries attacked by the US have changed (and the death tolls are slightly lower), but the same dynamics remain. Police brutality and racial discrimination run rampant still. Corporations continue to call most of the shots and American culture is even more dominated by their propaganda. The documentary does not suggest that a new armed struggle, clandestine group is needed today, but it does demand that the left take a serious look at its past to try to figure out some way forward and through the modern day madness.

Topics: social movements, revolution, militarism, racism, morality, terrorism

The Punk Singer

Most music documentaries—especially biopic films—do little to inform a sociological analysis. There are scores of context-independent, apolitical, and boring music documentaries out there (and these are on musicians who are good)! Thankfully, The Punk Singer is not one of these. It focuses upon the life and ideas of Kathleen Hanna, whose musical and political resume would be one of envy for many. She was the lead singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill and co-founder of the riot grrrl movement, to name only two things of note (member of Le Tigre would be another). Hanna has been central to so many things of cultural significance in the United States in recent decades that The Punk Singer could serve as a historical primer of sorts for the ill-informed.

For those unfamiliar with Hanna and her cultural milieu, The Punk Singer defines and provides a brief overview of the first and second waves of feminism in the US. Then, without giving an overt definition of feminism’s third wave, the documentary offers nearly all the main elements that scholars and activists identify with the third wave. We see an emphasis on cultural reclamation of previously derogatory words (incl. “slut”, which Hanna had written on her belly once while performing and the word “girl”). Even the idea of girlhood is reworked here. There is the advocacy of taking control of one’s own sexual empowerment and pleasure (see Bikini Kill lyrics and numerous statements by Hanna). The DIY (do it yourself) ethos is replete throughout the documentary, as musicians, punk scene denizens, artists, and Hanna herself create their own subcultures, media, events, and social movement. The Punk Singer also inserts a brief nod to intersectional themes, as a member of the “queercore” band Tribe 8 reflects on needing to analyze other forms of domination and inequality. Finally, the third wave is represented by the post-modernism demonstrated by punk and Hanna herself—she remarks to the camera that not everyone has to care about feminism, but that others should have to stay out of her way.

For Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fans, there are numerous opportunities to see these bands perform, as well as old “how did it really happen” interviews. Even for those unfamiliar with these bands, many will have heard of others who were influenced by Bikini Kill and Hanna herself, or who crossed paths with her. Joan Jett and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon appear as friends and confidants, as does King Ad Rock (aka Adam Horowitz) of the Beastie Boys, who is Hanna’s husband. There is also an important reflection upon Hanna’s friendship with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (Hanna spray-painted the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his apartment wall, inspiring the band’s most famous song title); an interviewee remarks that a good Nirvana history will conclude that its legacy is not in the “hesher rock” scenes of the Pacific Northwest, but in feminist art punk.

Sociological audiences will be able to observe how social change occurs in subcultures, with people pushing the boundaries of acceptability and expression, creating the space for new groups of people and ideas. The Punk Singer shows how Hanna challenged both her male punk compatriots to treat women better (sexual violence and marginalization are central themes) as well as empower her female compatriots to seize control of their lives and their art. Bikini Kill challenged male thuggery at their concerts, asked women to stand-up front by the stage, and called-out sexual predators. Hanna’s influence on riot grrrl is just as significant: she and her fellow punks created fanzines that discussed the need for feminism in punk scenes in order to protect and encourage female participation, and other problems faced by women in the male-dominated punk environment. Not only was this an intellectual influence upon punk (felt by women as well as men), but it also manifested in real-world riot grrrl groups, who met—kind of like second wave consciousness-raising circles—to support each other, network, do art and music together, and push for change within the punk movement. It is impossible to deny the effect that riot grrrl has had upon punk. Of course, sexism, misogyny, and assault still exist, but they are far less tolerated by everyone and they are easier to challenge than in the early-1990s. The Punk Singer is a great window into a fascinating world and one of its most charismatic participants.

Topics: gender, feminism, music, culture, social movements

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

Dive! Living Off America’s Waste

A unique film whose time has finally arrived, Dive! focuses upon people who “dumpster dive” in Los Angeles, in search of recently discarded food from grocery stores. Divers salvage safe, quality food from the dumpsters and use it to prepare meals with. While salvaging or gleaning is an old practice (probably thousands of years old, dating back to the earliest farms), as applied to the supermarket era, this is a relatively new phenomenon.

The film’s characters are people who have a social critique of wasteful consumerism and are not squeamish about picking through trash to find things they believe should not be classified as trash. Many are hipster-looking, all are white, and mostly male. Many, including the film director, are comfortable salvaging meat—at least when it’s been recently frozen or cooled—which suggests they are omnivores or at least freegans (willing to eat meat if they don’t pay for it). While the film presents an analysis of meat’s wastefulness (i.e., translating calories of grain into animal meat) there is little concern with reversing this tide of bad eating, or encouraging there to be less meat production. This illustrates one of the main problems with the film: there is a superficial critique of the problem of distribution, but no structural analysis of why the problematic food system is as it is.

The documentary does give an admirable analysis of food inequality in the US and why salvaging is needed to better use food surplus. Here, Dive! discusses poverty, especially in a big city like LA, where hundreds of thousands are poor and face food insecurity daily (meaning individuals are unsure of where their next meal is coming from). This stark poverty is contrasted with an analysis of all the ways in which food is wasted, from the field to shipping to the grocery store aisle to consumer’s plates. In the US, half of all food grown is ultimately wasted and not consumed. While the divers’ intervention (at the point of commerce) is one of the less “lossy” parts (compared to fields and from consumers), it is clear that an incredible amount of perfectly good food is thrown-out all the time when it could be better consumed by many of the poor people who live in close vicinity to these sources of loss.

The director focuses upon a “good Samaritan” law that allows people to glean food from dumpsters—although the divers themselves are shown debating with each other whether or not it’s acceptable to go into a locked dumpster (most think it’s okay, given the value of salvaging food). He focuses a lot of attention on the Trader Joe’s corporation, often seen as an eco-friendly supermarket, but whose dumpsters are often full of perfectly good produce. Divers simply toss-out any rotting food and save the good food; in many bags, there’s only a few items that are going bad, but consumers will pass-over the entire bag. and, thus it is never sold, although the rest of the contents are acceptable.

Food charities—who for decades have been serving in a greater capacities as stand-ins for government assistance during right-wing regression of the social safety nets—are also featured prominently. Most charity providers would like access to more food—especially fresh produce to prepare meals with—but do not have enough access or resources. The film reveals that some supermarkets are providing food items to these charities, but not all. The most commonly donated item is bread, which rots slower, but is less needed due to its oversupply. Grocers seem very concerned with avoiding liability from possible lawsuits due to food poisoning experienced by those who salvage food. The director makes it his personal mission (almost a la Michael Moore) to get Trader Joe’s to explain their dumpsters full of ripe produce, but he gets consistently shrugged off. He finally discovers that managers and PR agents are less open to the conversation that are rank-and-file grocery store employees, who are more willing to dialogue and sometimes set aside food.

One nice aspect of Dive! is that it normalizes dumpster diving—at least to the extent that people can identify with the characters it features—who seem nice, principled, and sometimes funny. They use the salvaged food to make delicious meals for themselves and others. The community of divers is made up of counter-cultural people who have values critical of the industrial food system. They even have three admirable “rules” to diving that they enforce upon themselves, including taking only what you need, first one in gets to pick first (but has to share), and leaving the dumpster cleaner than when they found it.

As someone who worked for years with Food Not Bombs (FNB)—an organization that does very similar salvaging efforts—I was both encouraged and disappointed by Dive!. It is nice to see this practice being promoted and explained to wider audiences, and the critique of poverty and waste is welcome. But, most of the food was being consumed by the divers themselves, who many admitted they didn’t actually need it, economically-speaking. (The film does note that the divers began to see people who likely couldn’t actually afford to buy food eventually going in dumpsters, too.) While toward the end of the film the diver community engineers a large pick-up to deliver to a charity, there seemed to be a reformist attitude that I thought was only scratching the surface of the issues at hand.

Even FNB—which is in fact a radically-oriented, anti-capitalist activist and mutual aid project—does not completely work “outside the system”, as it relies upon the excesses and waste of capitalism. As such, FNB and charities both need waste in order to function. Of course, part of FNB’s work is to illustrate this waste and to prefigure (or suggest through demonstration) better ways of behaving in the world. But, diving is still dependent upon the system’s dysfunctions to persist. If supermarkets get less wasteful or farms produce less food, all that does is just rein in waste, but does not address the inequality of the system itself.

The director admirably cites a Noam Chomsky quote about activism—that it is important to act in order to create progressive change, since those in power rarely do it themselves. But, the film ultimately recommends a reformist solution: better salvaging for the poor, as opposed to ending the institution that both produces the waste and creates poverty: capitalism. All the same, Dive! is a good conversation-starter about this issue of food waste and poverty, and does a great job of humanizing people who are principled and concerned about these issues. I imagine that many people who see this film will not pass by dumpsters with the same indifference again!

Topics: food, poverty, environmental, social movements

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