5 documentaries on civil disobedience in the U.S.

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The appalling, evident similarities of what is happening now in the US Government and what happened in Europe in the third decade of the twentieth century, with the rise of totalitarianisms, demand opposing the Administration in all orders of public life. This post and the next ones will examine documentaries on several resistance and disobedience acts and movements in the U.S. While in North America there has been a tradition of authoritarianism and police violence, there has been as well a rebellious tradition defending minorities’ and lower classes’ civil rights, very often put in dire straits.

Later posts will be focussed on Black Power, or the movement for African Americans’ empowerment, and the defense of Native Americans’ civil rights.

“The People Speak” (2009): The True Story of the U.S.

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New York historian Howard Zinn was tired of hearing lies about the development of his country. He was aware that the official narrative, dominated by aggressive, victorious white males -presidents, generals, businessmen and so on- that carried out in this world a supposed “manifest destiny” was an absolute falsehood written by relentless autocrats. He decided to articulate what he felt as the true story of the United States: a permanent fight between ruling classes against the rest of population, expressed in many ways and through different means, but that has been the basic reality of the country since its foundation.

Zinn wrote a key book, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than 2 million copies and circulated even more widely. He shows in a reasoned, documented way a story of his country quite opposed to the mainstream one, because it is seen from the oppressed perspective, from the extermination of the American Natives to the authoritarian regime of the Republican Reagan, including the merciless exploitation of African-American slaves, the fight for civil rights and the resistance to the witch hunts of the Un-American Activities Committee, along with the social struggles of the many poors of the richest country in the world. It is a true story that retrieves real facts and people instead of repeating myths and legends. And it is not only a tale of victimization, since it shows the many movements of empowerment arisen in this country. It recovers the pride of the oppressed and their determination to cease to being so.

In collaboration with Anthony Arnove, Zinn published a complementary book to A People’s History of the United States entitled Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which renders literally speeches, letters, articles and other documents by brave men and women who resisted the Government’s power and that of its armed forces, even risking their lives. Arnove and Zinn joined Chris Moore to organize a public reading of those essential documents by well-known actresses and actors, a rendering that instill live and strength to written word. The recitation was accompanied by performances of some leading American musicians. The film The People Speak consists in the recording of these readings and musical interpretations.

Some of the makers of American history whose words are read are Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt) (1840-1904), chief of the Nez Percé tribe, expelled by U.S. Government from its ancestral lands in nowadays Oregon; the abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass (1818-1895); the abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859); the social rights activist and feminine suffrage Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977); the spokeswoman of women rights Elizabeth C. Stanton (1815-1902); Muhammad Ali (Casius Clay Jr.) (1942-2016), boxer and champion of African-Americans’ rights; Malcolm X (1925-1965), muslim minister and civil rights activist; Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), co-founder of workers movement in the U.S.; Yuti Kochiyama (1921-2014), spokeswoman against war and of the campaign to compensate the American-Japaneses confined in concentration camps in the United States during Second World War.

Some of the actresses and actors who lend their voices are Matt Damon, Marisa Tornei, Q’orianka Kilcher, Vigo Mortensen, Morgan Freeman and Sean Penn. Among the emblematic songs of American folk are “Masters of War” (1963) by Bob Dylan, interpreted by Eddie Vedder, “This Land Is Your Land” (1940) by Woody Guthrie, sung by Bruce Springsteen, “Do Re Mi” (1937) also by Guthrie, adapted by Bob Dylan, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” (1931) by Yib Harburg, performed by Alison Moorer, “Dear Mr. President” (2006) by P!nk: P!nk, “Ohio” (1974) by Neil Young, rendered by Rich & Chris Robinson, and “People Have the Power” (1988) by Patti Smith.

An excellent film to begin to understand the true story of the United States.

“Sir! No Sir!” (2005): The soldiers’ rebellion

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Protests against Vietnam war -the longest U.S. imperialist invasion (1964-1973) until Afghanistan (2001-2014)- is usually associated to California universities and students. But inside the army there were also soldiers who refused to attack defenseless Vietnamese people, and committed what in military law is regarded as rebellion, for which they were tried and condemned. Sir! No Sir! shows that insubordination of thousands of brave soldiers who decided to disobey their officers instead of complying with the order of killing innocent women, children and men. They paid a high price for it: hundreds of them went to jail, and dozens of thousands went to exile in Canada, France and Sweden.

According to Pentagon data, between 1966 and 1971 there were 503 926 attempts of desertions; in 1971 whole unities refused to go to war. In the second half of the 60s, thousands of soldiers created many organizations against the war, and in 1970 and 1971 demonstrations proliferated all over the world. Soldiers’ movement included many acts of resistance and the organization of political associations, as well as the publication of clandestine papers in military bases.

Few remember today that courageous disobedience against the American Government and military. At the most, people remember the participation of actress Jane Fonda, who supported the soldiers in concentrations and demonstrations and even traveling to the military bases in Vietnam itself; or the pacifist actions of not recruited young people. The courage that soldiers needed to face military courts and years of forced work deserves to be remembered as well. More than one hundred films have been made on Vietnam war, and this is the first that centers on the soldiers’ opposition inside the army.

Sir! No Sir! examines that process through interviews to some of its protagonists, who reflect on it 30 years after, and through abundant archival material like pictures, stock footage and images from local news. The extended version of the film (86′) includes something lacking in the shorter, TV one (50′): the systematic practice of removing any witness of that incident that embarrassed the powerful American Government and military. Reagan Administration and the others have covered it up to prevent it from being an example for future troops.

Among the most impressive images there is an action of dozens of war veterans who traveled to Washington in order to throw with contempt their medals to the Capitol stairs. It was their homage to the 50 000 American soldiers dead in Vietnam (out of half a million sent there) and to the loosely estimated two millions of Vietnamese killed with artillery, agent orange and napalm.

Unfortunately, there was no similar action during Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Just PTSD.

A Good Day to Die (2010): The uprising of the natives

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The United States were born from a genocide, the brutal extermination and posterior enclosure in reservations of the American Natives. When nowadays fascists shout “America for the American” they don’t know what they are saying, for if their claim were to be satisfied they would be evicted or put into jail, while Sioux, Cherokee, Navajo, Apache and the like would recover their ancestral lands.

A Good Day to Die shows the rising of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, and how one of its co-founders, Dennis Banks, came up against the American Administration in order to make them give up the practices of oppression, humiliation and violence they had perpetrated against the American Natives since the beginning. It was a movement for civil rights, an act of courage and dignity that suffered a violent repression by the police and the military.

In the second half of the twentieth century, native survivors who struggled in the reservations were subjected to acculturation programmes to make them forget the legacy of their people. Banks remembers that when he was 5 years old he was taken to a boarding school in Minnesota, from which he didn’t come out until he was 9. During those 4 years of internment, like many other natives, he was forbidden to speak his mother tongue, he was set apart from his community and he underwent a process of identity and confidence destruction. The children closed in those Federal institutions went through all sort of abuses -physical, sexual, emotional- by officials. Dennis tells us how afterwards he went to Stillwater prison because of a minor offense, and how he understood there the need to face the American Government’s aggressive politics.

The turbulent 60s, with the movements of civil rights, pacifism and feminism, gave Banks a model to claim and recover natives’ dignity and rights. In 1968 he convened an assembly to deal with the most serious problems of those peoples: poverty, marginality, police violence, unemployment, assimilation, lousy housing.

AIM founders decided to rebel against an attack that had been near 400 years under way. To face police violence they decided on taking arms, not against civilian population, but against the officers attacking them.

Since then, AIM have been active and visible in different fronts, the best known of them in Washington, where in 1972 they took over the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and in Wounded Knee -the emblematic village in South Dakota where in December 29, 1890, the U.S. 7h Cavalry Regiment massacred 300 almost unarmed  Lakota men, women and children-: in 1973 Wounded Knee was occupied by the AIM, after what there was a 71 days siege by armed forces (the longest military conflict in U.S. soil since the Civil War). It was in Wounded Knee where Banks pronounced a famous speech for general mobilization: “We will not tolerate any more abuse. … This is where it started, and this is where it’s going to end. It’s a good day to die. … I will go to my grave knowing that I tried my part to bring about meaningful change. I did my very best”.

In times of terrorism and cruel bloodshed like ours, armed struggle don’t seems the best way to solve conflicts (among other things, because powerful people use it to justify their regimes of terror). However, with their armed resistance to attackers, AIM managed to recover natives’ pride and dignity, and to remember many Americans that the indigenous inhabitants of North America had not been completely erased.

An upcoming post will be focussed on documentaries on American Natives..

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“Berkeley in the Sixties” (1990): University counterculture

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The counterculture of the 60s, with its most intense moment in 1968, had more than one epicentre: Paris, Prague, Mexico, United States. In California, Berkeley University was the main place. Two decades after the facts, this documentary goes back to Berkeley to understand that historical moment of uprising. Combining stock footage and present interviews to 15 former students’ leaders, it portrays the actions of protest and disobedience taking place in the university at that time. The most conscious students knew they were living a moment of crisis, and that their country’s Administration wasn’t a democratic institution at all, but an authoritarian one. That’s why they refused to do what was expected of them -to get instructed in a disciplined way and to become part of the productive system- and instead to face the establishment.

The protest movement in Berkeley University has been disregarded by some critics who describe it as a group of rich young people who had a good time playing the heroes, aware that they could do so because they had their families money and network behind and under them. Even if there is some truth in it, and one should be always suspicious about cultural myths, we shouldn’t forget that many young people went to jail for their actions, and even some of them were killed by the army (listen to “Ohio” song by Neil Young). May all the young of rich families who are now studying in the schools of business had a rebellious impetus similar to that of the California students in the 60s!

The film sets the rising in Berkeley in the general context of American counterculture of the 60s. It was the decade of the civil rights movement, of denounces against the HCUA (House Committee of Un-American Activities) that punished any deviation from capitalist and imperialist thinking, of protests against Vietnam war and in general against the Cold War, of the creation of Black Panthers and of the feminist movement. All these currents appear in many moments of the film.

The images are accompanied by music evoking that decade: Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Grateful Dead. A time travel, then, though the experience shouldn’t be only a recreational one and provide a reference of resistance and disobedience.

“Harlan County, USA” (1976): Striking miners against magnates and thugs

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There was a time when white workers in dire straits didn’t vote for multimillionaires who left them without health coverage. The bravest even fight them. Harlan County, USA, one of the best known classic documentaries, follows the long strike of 180 coal miners and their wives against the Duke Company in Brookside mine, Harlan County, south-east Kentucky, in 1973,

The strike began in June 1972, and was a protest against the subhuman conditions to which the owners of the mine subjected the workers. These called for safer work conditions and living wages. Kopple joined the strikers when she realized that their fight wasn’t a simple fuss, but an articulated action by aware people. While negotiating an agreement, the company wanted to ban the strikes and prevent the workers from becoming members of the general union of American miners, which left them without any weapon ro resist abuses. Miners held their ground and continued the strike throughout 13 months, even though they were in desperate need of their poor wages.

The company didn’t observe fair play. In their attempt to maintain production, they first sent the sheriff and other officers to make the miners go back to work. When they saw this didn’t work, they sent to the mine armed thugs to scare the workers and scabs to break the strike. To attack the union, they even paid goons to kill the main workers’ representative, which they did.

Miners resisted all those assaults and threats. Even when the thugs shot against them (see images below) they kept the mine closed to follow the strike. The killing of one miner and the following uproar was the turning point that in the end make the company accept some of the claims.

Harlan County, USA deals with all this material with a deep cinematic awareness. It looks for the most accurate way to show the facts. Kopple renounces to use voice over and instead limits herself to register the images and sounds of some meaningful scenes, without commenting on them nor explaining them. Her aim is to respect the miner families, not to put herself above them by doing a didactic film. She ended up by knowing very well those families, with whom she and her team lived during the strike and beyond. She joined them and supported them without feigning an hypocritical neutrality that would have been unjustifiable in that case of abuse and assault.

The film manages to show the long strike and the effects of officers’, thugs’ ans scabs’ pressure on the strikers, as well as the sheer force of these to keep an untenable situation. In one of the images (see below) one hit man shoots the miners and almost kills the camerawoman. That’s what would want despots and their servants: to erase consciences, to kill the critics. Let’s hope they won’t achieve it, as they didn’t in Harlan County.

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