You Ask Me Whether I Approve of Violence?

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Reviewed in this essay:

Better this World (USA, 2011. 95 min.) By Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (USA, 2011. 85 min.) By Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Sweden, 2011. 93 min.) By Göran Hugo Olsson

One year later information is still coming to light about the widespread use of undercover police and intensive surveillance during the G20 summit in Toronto in June, 2010. Provincial police, it turns out, had infiltrated radical networks throughout southern Ontario almost a year before the protests began. In one case, the undercover police officer not only spent many months posing as a dedicated political activist, but she even lived undercover as the roommate of one organizer who was later arrested in the massive crackdown. More than 1100 people were swept up and thrown into makeshift jail cells, and some eighteen community activists were plucked from their beds in pre-dawn raids, or followed and arrested elsewhere during the summit weekend, slapped with conspiracy charges and goaded without success to rat each other out, laying bare the power of the state to clamp down not just on dissent but on the potential for dissent.

As cracking plate-glass windows and looped tape of burning police cars hid the brutalities of the “Integrated Security Unit,” the difference between violence as corporeal reality and political imaginary once again came to carve fault lines between protestors, police, and the public.Thematically linked by their young activist subjects and the aggressive police operations against them, a host of powerful documentary films released this year touch on these interstices of justice, protest, policing, and violence. These films cut across decades to bring forward the systemic continuities between political “episodes,” from the struggles of the Black Power movement in The Black Power Mixtape, to the anteing-up of environmental activism through the 1990s and 2000s portrayed in If a Tree Falls, to the anti-war outrage that carried the protesters in Better this Worldfrom across the continent to the Republican National Convention of 2008.

Better This World, 2011

A remarkable study in idealism and infiltration, Better this World documents the story of newbie activists David McKay and Bradley Crowder, two young, small-town Texan protesters arrested as domestic terrorists on the eve of the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Minneapolis-St. Paul. With hearts full of fire and a far-away war pleading the urgency of the moment, McKay and Crowder soon found themselves under the influence of the macho incitements of controversial political figure Brandon Darby.

After their arrests, these best friends would be pitted against each other by the Federal Attorney’s office, just as members of the Earth Liberation Front and the Black Panthers were before them. Charges of manufacturing Molotov cocktails with the intent to use them against policemen and security forces—without evidence of any such plans—are construed as terrorism in a high profile FBI operation whose consequences, most immediately for our two young protagonists, are serious prison time and destroyed relationships.

Directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega showcase remarkable access to the accused, their families, and willing spokespeople from the FBI, but the real cinematic achievement of this film derives from its construction of a cinéma vérité feel despite a retrospective telling of the story. Surveillance culture here proves to be the filmmaker’s friend, as essential elements of the backstory are told through security videotape, recorded telephone calls, and police transcripts. The cinematic construct of immediacy is also useful in conveying the sheer urgency of not only the terrorism charges themselves, but the politics animating the protestors of the RNC. This sense of urgency helps explain the influence of the clearly volatile Darby, whose insistence on action over talk—the basis for the Defense’s entrapment argument once he is revealed to be an FBI informant—holds the heartbreaking violences of Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war, and Palestinian occupation ideologically hostage to Darby’s dangerous provocations. “Do you think the people of Palestine have the luxury of sitting around talking about their feelings?” Darby is recounted as saying at one point, urging his young protégés to “prove” that they are serious about their politics.

On the one hand, like many tellings of even Toronto’s own G20 showdown, Galloway and Duane de la Vega presents McKay and Crowder’s legal battle as a study of the U.S. government’s abrogation of civil liberties, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the wake of 9/11. But like the best of films, Better this World also allows its often more complicated subtext to lodge itself as a set of unrelenting questions in the minds of its audience: what would it take for us to betray our loved ones? What does it mean to be “serious” about politics? What counts as violence?

"Protestor," by T.J.Watt, from If a Tree Falls (2011)

Such questions similarly undergird Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which tells the story of environmental activist and onetime ELF-member, Daniel McGowan.

McGowan’s arrest in 2005 for political arson sets up this tight documentary about environmental activism on the US west coast and the FBI’s targeting of so-called eco-terrorists throughout the 2000s. As Curry and Cullman tell the story, environmentalists enraged by US forestry practices of clear-cutting and logging old growth forest, particularly in Eugene, Oregon, came to translate their increasing frustration with peaceful protest into more direct tactics. Occupations and blockades soon give way to arson and millions in property damage perpetrated by autonomous cells of the Earth Liberation Front. These acts put the ELF in the official “terrorist” category of crime, and, acting under the Bush administration, the FBI launched one of the largest arrests of environmental activists in American history. Curry and Cullman interview a selection of ELF members, their sympathizers, targets, and finally the Federal Attorney’s office and undercover police agents. The film, however, suffers under a thinner narrative construction than Better this World, and so skates over the harder questions about how we understand and use both “violence” and “property” in a time of ecological crisis.

Despite their obvious sympathy with McGowan, Curry and Cullman often reproduce old clichés of black-bloc anarchists throwing rocks, and give excessive space to property extremists who believe that breaking windows is the same as breaking faces—or, in this case, pouring litres of pepper spray into protestors’ eyes. In this telling of the story, good kids lose perspective and are led astray by winsome woodland loners with proclivities to heroin addiction, and political commitment proves shallow in the face of prison time as collaborators turn against each other “like dominoes.” The question of whether corporate property damage counts as “terrorism” and should be prosecuted as such is presented as a matter for balanced Habermasian debate. This idea of politics as a democratic playing field made up of social actors hearing each other out, debating their differences and recanting their more “radical” positions, however, is constantly undermined throughout the film. Perhaps the creepiest example of this cynicism is an undercover cop’s glee in remembering, almost nostalgically, “pumping up” his activist-turned-informant when he begins to doubt the ethics of his betrayal.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

Black Panther Angela Davis, speaking some forty years ago, best answers the central animating question of all these films. “You ask me, whether I approve of violence?” she asks her interviewer in disbelief in Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson’s remarkable The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. “When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

Real violence, as she implies here, is not simply symbolic or about “damage” as a self-explanatory category of wrong – it is about premature death; death faced by some populations as a result, overwhelmingly, of corporate and state action. That death might come in different forms – death by assassination, death by drone attack, death by drought-induced starvation – but it is always a literal death, the reality and violence of which unites the subjects of all three of these films as motivating animus. One cannot escape such a conclusion after watching The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which harrowingly documents a period of history that saw the infiltration project of COINTELPRO, the assassination of Black Panther organizers, the flooding of poor black neighbourhoods in US cities with hard drugs, and the beginnings of the largest incarceration of racialized poor people in history.

And yet the question about “violence” was still the only one most journalists thought to ask of those who gathered in Toronto to protest the policies of the G20. “But do you approve of violence?” they asked, over and over again while activists pleaded their case against austerity measures and concentrated power. “Do you believe in violence?” codes of course as “Will you engage in it?” Either way, the question is relevant, just radically misdirected, as these three films collectively demonstrate. As cinematic experiences and archival documents they offer an opportunity to take stock of the politics of this enduring question, and so are as illuminating as any public inquiry, any particular courtroom drama, any police car left burning as spectacle in the middle of a movement.

About the author

Brett Story

Brett Story is a writer, organizer, and independent documentary filmmaker based out of Toronto whose most recent film, Land of Destiny (2010), offers a portrait of a petrochemical town in crisis. She is currently working toward a PhD in geography at the University of Toronto, conducting a project about the relationship between prisons and cities.

By Brett Story