Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez


Through the Wire

Consider the question of indie filmmakers as freedom fighters. Every now and than, some flagrant injustice will capture the imagination of an auteur who becomes obsessed with setting things right by making a documentary. Does attention from the alternative media help people in dire situations to get out? What happens to them (and their kids) afterward? Americans who decades ago were labeled terrorists, and either incarcerated or hounded out of the country – including Tupac’s auntie – are still making news.

* * * * *

Imagine a happy, carefree boyhood in Mexico. Now, imagine being told that your mother and your father… aren’t. Instead, they are your adoptive parents. A mental health professional has advised them to reveal only that much, then wait for your questions. Which you don’t ask, because you’re so freaked out already.
double life
Years ago, someone handed over a mystery baby to Gabino and Alma Gomez. They understood it was a political situation. Although no details were supplied, they suspected that the U.S. authorities were interested in your whereabouts. In honor of Che Guevara, they named you Ernesto.

Of course, relatives and friends were curious to know whose baby just showed up one day out of the blue. The simple answer, “He’s ours,” left everyone free to imagine telenovela-inspired scenarios of past indiscretion and spousal forgiveness.

Turns out you’re not Mexican, either, but a Puertoricano whose real name is Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan; whose biological father lives in exile in Cuba and whose birth mother is serving a 55 year sentence in an American prison for “seditious conspiracy.”

So goes an indie film called The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, which follows the journey of this child of fugitives. “I grew up in Mexico with a beautiful family, being the eldest of four siblings with many uncles, aunts, three wonderful grandparents. I had a beautiful childhood and a normal life until the “truth” was told. I was ten, almost eleven, when I first was told by my parents that I wasn’t their ‘belly borned’ son.”

Ernesto was taken to the States to meet Dylcia Pagan in prison. At age 15, accompanied by a Puerto Rican patriot whose own children were grown, he moved to the US so it would be easier to get to know Dylcia. His guardian introduced him to Berkeley filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg.

“She knew that we had made political videos, and she called and suggested a meeting,” Weimberg says. “We met for dinner and he enjoyed the evening. He borrowed one of our videos, “Maria’s Story,” produced by Cathy, about an El Salvadoran wife, mother, and revolutionary guerilla leader. The next time we saw him he asked, more out of curiosity than as a demand, ‘Could you make a film that would free my mother from prison?’”

That question resulted in a beautifully crafted documentary that includes historical background on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, and such gleaming side themes as the quietly persistent dedication of friends on the outside who try to ease the privations suffered by prisoners of conscience. There is fascinating and wrenching first-person commentary from the teenage Ernesto himself, exposing the complicated mesh of thoughts and feelings that encircled his young life.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional may have been responsible for as many as a hundred bombings. (Of course, taking the FBI’s creative bookkeeping into account, this could translate into 20 people charged in each of 5 incidents.) The organization was responsible for the deaths of six people and the permanent wounding of many others. Pagan and several FALN comrades were all apprehended at the same time. Within the system, they comported themselves as prisoners of war, refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court, to put up a defense, or to participate in their trials. Still, the government was unable to convict them of bombings or of any crime that injured anyone.

FALN member Alejandrina Torres, arrested in the same year as Ernesto’s father, was a subject of the 1990 documentary Through the Wire (directed by Nina Rosenblum, narrated by Susan Sarandon, and shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, veteran of his own fierce encounters with federal authorities.) Convicted of several counts, including “seditious conspiracy,” Torres was sentenced to 35 years. And that was the shortest sentence among the Puerto Rican independentists, the longest being 97 years. The average sentence meted out to these separatists was many times longer than the typical murder conviction in the US at the time.

* * * * *

Through the Wire
“Supermax” prison design actually originated in Australia in the 1970s at a facility known informally as the “electronic zoo,” which was soon shut down by pressure from human rights groups. Undaunted by this example, the US penal system adopted the Supermax paradigm for, supposedly, the most ferocious inmates: serial killers, high-profile criminals, prison gang leaders, and those who have assaulted or murdered someone in less secure facilities.

None of the three women in Through the Wire was convicted of violent crime, either in or out of prison. Yet they were labeled “high risk” and singled out for special attention by the injustice system, not so much for their real-world actions as for their perceived wrong-headedness. As Susan Rosenberg said, “What put us in jail in the first place is that we made a commitment to say it’s possible to resist the strongest state in the world.” One of the movement’s slogans is Si, se puede, meaning “Yes, it can be done.”

Rosenberg, formerly of the Revolutionary Action Task Force, was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 58 years for not the use of, but the mere possession of, explosives. (That’s another interesting bunch of numbers. Whenever her story is retold by law’n’order types, the number of pounds of explosives grows.) Hers was the longest sentence anyone in the United States had ever drawn for a similar charge.

Silvia Baraldini was sentenced to 43 years for aiding in a prison break. The escapee was Black Liberation Army soldier Joanne Chesimard (now called Assata Shakur.) Actually, Baraldini only got 40 years for that, but another three years were tacked on when she refused to tell a grand jury about the Puerto Rican independence movement.

A 1997 stage play, Bombs in the Ladies Room by Megan Rodgers, highlighted the cases of Baraldini and Torres, as well as two German women held in similar circumstances where the object is to get the political prisoners to inform on others and to renounce their deeply-held convictions. Baraldini is again featured in a film called Silvia, made by Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas, which was finished recently and is being shown in various venues now. This documentary, six years in the making, was partly financed by foundation grants.

* * * * *

Through the Wire describes the high-tech high-security “control unit” in the basement of the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, where the isolation cells formed an environment specifically designed to break the spirits of dissenters and change their stubborn minds. In fact, these three women were clearly told that conditions would improve if they renounced their political beliefs. If you’ve ever voiced such thoughts as “Our foreign policy sucks,” there may be a similar place reserved for you.

From various sources, a picture is built up of this experimental hellhole’s methods. Sleep deprivation by being awakened every hour. Sensory deprivation in a stark white environment with round-the-clock bright fluorescent lighting and the absence of any natural light. Constant surveillance by male guards, even in toilets and showers, and daily strip searches by male staff, including frequent and unnecessarily brutal cavity searches which, had they occurred anywhere else, would be classified as rape. No books, no pictures on walls, petty humiliations over sanitary napkins and similar personal needs, lack of care for even the most serious medical conditions.

Geographical isolation from families, such that even the few visits allowed caused extreme hardship to the visitors, and harassment of what few family members and lawyers were allowed in. No contact with other prisoners, guards instructed to say nothing beyond the giving of orders, and everything said by the inmates logged in a journal. It is a Kafkaesque world of unrelenting psychological torture, stress, depression, fear, violation, and even physical mistreatment. “You will die here,” the prisoners are told. The only kind of “good behavior” that can earn any points is the renunciation of political beliefs and the giving of information about comrades on the outside.

Through the Wire doesn’t attempt to prove anyone’s innocence, or to say they shouldn’t be in prison. The point is that nobody, but nobody, should be in this particular type of prison, a test lab with human subjects where the authorities studied how much pressure prisoners could withstand before changing their views, admitting their thought-crimes, and renouncing their belief in justice. And, equally important, how much ill-treatment of political prisoners would the public put up with? When people who think about and, yes, even talk about violence are punished worse than many who actually commit violence, would the average American stand up and object?

The isolation of such prisoners is only partly punitive – it is also meant to keep the other inmates from being contaminated by the example they set. “We conduct ourselves with dignity and respect,” says Rosenberg, “and stand up for the other prisoners. They don’t want us in the general prison population.” This is a widespread policy in lockups. Ideological rebels, pacifists, and other dangerous thinkers aren’t allowed to pollute the minds of rapists and murderers.

Of course now, with the revelations of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and myriad forms of torture including electric stun implements, Lexington’s program may seem tame. But in that era, the punishment there was considered sufficiently cruel and unusual to attract the outrage of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights. From the moment the High Security Unit opened in October of 1986, a number of organizations focused their efforts on closing it.

The Federal District Court in Washington finally ruled that confining inmates to an isolated prison under constant surveillance is a “dangerous mission for this country’s prison system,” as well as unconstitutional, and in 1988, after two infamous years of operation, the Lexington Unit was shut down. At the same time, however, sixteen similar facilities were being created in anticipation of a ruling the following year from the Federal Court of Appeals, which held that a prisoner’s political beliefs and associations are legitimate basis for placement in special “control units,” and that’s not going to change.

When Lexington was immediately replaced by a newer, much larger control unit within Florida’s Marianna prison, Torres, Rosenberg and Baraldini were transferred there. In this place and others like it, each 7 x 12 foot cell has a solid windowless “boxcar” door with a locked food port, and is almost totally soundproofed. The isolation is intense, with every type of human contact reduced to the minimum possible.

* * * * *

At the time of her trial, Rosenberg’s lawyers pointed out that normally the things she was convicted of would have drawn maybe a five-year term. But she had been an outspoken activist against the Vietnam War and in favor of the freedom struggles of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. So in the system she stayed, until in January of 2001 Bill Clinton commuted her sentence, over vociferous objections from those who insisted that she was an unreformed terrorist. Indeed, the brainwashing hadn’t worked. Someone managed to interview her in the early ‘90s, when she was quoted as talking about “necessity for armed self-defense” in the cause of “revolutionary anti-imperialist resistance.”

Where do people like Rosenberg get their wild ideas? Maybe from Alexander Hamilton, one of those men we call the Founding Fathers. He wrote, “If the representatives of the country betray their constituents, then there is no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense.” Thomas Jefferson, another Founding Father, also thought it was a good idea for the rulers to be warned occasionally that the spirit of resistance is preserved in the people. “Let them take arms,” he wrote. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Once released, back in the world, Susan Rosenberg taught literature at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, but police officers who were students there objected. She was hired to present a creative writing seminar at Hamilton College, but alumnae donors got wind of it and withdrew hundreds of thousands in contribution pledges, so the gig was cancelled. The controversy got plenty of press well into 2005, and John Jay didn’t renew her contract.

President Clinton also exercised his right of executive clemency in 1999 to release former FALN members Alejandrina Torres and Dylcia Pagan, among others. Filmmaker Gary Weimberg describes how he, Catherine Ryan and Ernesto Gomez went to pick Dylcia up “at the very moment of her freedom after nineteen and a half years in prison – one of the most worthwhile and wonderful moments of my life.”

Bill Clinton did not just arbitrarily decide to issue pardons or commutations to the Puerto Rican nationalists. Nor, still refusing to recognize the right of the United States to hold them, did they request clemency, which is the usual first step. The request, made by their supporters, had been on the table for years, during which the FBI had plenty of time to react, and indeed did its best to insert a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Clinton may have done the right thing, but don’t cheer for him too loudly. This is the same president who in 1996 signed a wicked piece of law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act that severely curtailed the rights of prisoners to challenge brutal conditions by filing suit in federal courts.

* * * * *

Like Alejandrina Torres, Dylcia Pagan returned to Puerto Rico where she now lives in a house of her own, free from restrictions after a period of parole. Her voice is still heard, saying what it has always said. She wrote about the death in 2005 of Ojeda Rios at the hands of the FBI, a shooting that many feel was no more than an extrajudicial execution. Regarding such matters, Pagan quotes United Nations Resolution 2621, which “affirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination recognized as being entitled to the right of self-determination to restore to themselves that right by any means at their disposal.” Sustained by belief in the rightness of her cause, she is currently working on a book about her life.

Ernesto’s bio-father William Morales is a noteworthy revolutionary who in 1977 was severely injured by a bomb he was constructing. Still, he managed to escape from the maximum security area of New York’s Bellevue hospital, elude pursuers, and make it to Cuba, where later on his grown-up son visited him several times. Morales, who married many years ago and also has a 13-year-old son, is still making news. Early this year, students and alumni filed a lawsuit against the City College of New York. They claim their First Amendment rights were violated when a sign, which had been there since 1989, was removed from the door of the Guillermo Morales / Assata Shakur Student and Community Center. Currently, the US government is pressuring Cuba to prove its commitment to democracy by extraditing Morales (specifically named) and others. H.R. 525 has five sponsors and, you can count on this, a significant “or else” factor written between the lines.

Assata Shakur, member of the extended family of Black activists who all adopted the same last name, was best friends with the mother of rapper Tupac Shakur. Although there is a very convincing case that she was framed, Tupac’s godmother is still in Cuba with a million-dollar price on her head, offered by the US Department of Justice. The FBI and the state of New Jersey say she killed a state trooper. (Actually, a real cop-killer can be picked up much more conveniently – his name is Judge John M. Walker, Jr. and he lives in Connecticut.)

The Gomez family who raised Ernesto are still in Chihuahua, working with social movements to improve the lives of their fellow Mexicans with fewer economic opportunities.

And what of Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan, aka Ernesto Gomez Gomez? If his life was so complicated already, one can only guess how it changed after the film was released. In the comments section of a PBS website discussing the movie, one entry begins, “Dear Guillermo: By way of this letter, I would like to express my opinion on your life.” Whoa! Who needs it?

But let the man, who has returned to going by the name of the parents who raised him, tell it: “I right now live in Puerto Rico with my girlfriend. I finished college some three and a half years ago. I currently bartend to pay the bills and I’m trying to open a film production company with some Mexican partners. I tend to say my blood is Puerto Rican but my heart is Mexican.”

Ambivalent about the forces and historical events that have shaped his life, Ernesto says, “I feel that many people have turned this whole political prisoners issue into a romantic tale of heroism and sacrifice. And every mistake and wrongdoing, every pain they’ve caused, is supposed to be right and understandable because it was in the name of the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence. I have learned by my own experience it isn’t like that. I was an innocent victim (and I hate the word victim) of both my biological parents’ decision to join a clandestine armed movement inside the US. Luckily for me, an exceptional family took me in as one of their own. But I was the only one with such luck. Most of the children of the other political prisoners had pretty difficult and, some, even horrible childhoods.”

* * * * *

How much difference have these films made? Well, exposure has certainly not stopped the building, staffing and filling of institutions as bad as Lexington and worse. There are now two entirely Supermax federal prisons (Florence in Colorado and Marion in Illinois) and 30 others, both federal and state, that have Supermax wings or sections.

Silvia Baraldini served over 16 years in the U.S. prison system before being repatriated to Italy in 1999 to finish her sentence. Did being in two movies influence her fate? Whether it did or not, let’s hope she is better off in her native land, even if incarcerated.

Nearly ten years after Through the Wire, the still-imprisoned Susan Rosenberg was featured on 60 minutes in December of 2000. Did this lead to the commutation of her sentence the following month? One columnist suggests that Bill Clinton was influenced by the TV show. But, given the lengthy process involved in clemency, it’s more likely that the purpose of the show was to prepare the public mind to accept the executive decision that released her.

What about Dylcia Pagan and the other Puerto Rican independentists? “Yes, we were very much part of the seven-year international campaign that lead to the successful petition for clemency,” says Gary Weimberg, who took earlier versions of his film to fund-raisers and other events. Dylcia’s son Ernesto says, ‘The film played, in my opinion, a key role in the whole campaign for their freedom.”

It’s hard to measure just how much difference, in any given case, attention from the alternative media actually made. The increased visibility certainly didn’t hurt the cause. It’s an interesting point to consider, now when the political complexion of America has changed so much that anybody who speaks against the rapacious, murderous government could be picked up and made to disappear. Remember habeus corpus? Our leaders don’t. If something doesn’t change, there won’t be enough indie producers to make movies about all the potential victims of governmental injustice, and besides, all the filmmakers will be there in the Halliburton Hotel along with us.


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(Originally published by the late, great Earthblog.net, May 19, 2007)

America Freedom

“I would advise movie theatre managers to hand out vomit bags. You may end up needing one.” — Todd David Schwartz

“Ye shall know the truth, and it shall upset ye.” — Michael Ventura

I never call anybody a paranoid conspiracy nut, for this simple reason: the high probability that things are even worse than the most extreme nightmares of the most paranoid of conspiracy nuts. Aaron Russo, who made the movie America: Freedom to Fascism, is not the first person to have noticed that our country’s domestic and foreign policies are run by bankers. Mussolini, an expert on fascism if ever there was one, defined fascism as corporatism. When multinational corporations, the government, and the bankers are working together, that’s all it takes. Presto: the New World Order.

The beginning of the end, as any wild-eyed political theorist will attest, was the passing of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. By strange coincidence, the federal income tax started that year too, after the alleged ratification of the 16th Amendment. I say alleged, because as recently as 2003, a judge declared the 16th amendment never was properly ratified. President Wilson later admitted he had accidentally ruined the country. During all the years when America bitterly denounced Communism, it’s ironic how no one mentioned that the graduated income tax and the “national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly” are two of the ten planks of the Communist Manifesto.

These blows to the American economic system were followed up in 1934 by a devastating punch when we went off the gold standard. Paper money, which had previously consisted of receipts that you could trade for gold, became just paper. One school of thought holds that printing paper money not backed by gold is just the same as counterfeiting. So the Morgans, Warburgs, Rockefellers, et al, now had a license to steal, via the Federal Reserve which can print (or counterfeit, depending on your orientation) any amount of money it cares to. It’s a private bank, uncontrollable by either the President or Congress.

Did you know that we don’t have to pay federal income tax? No kidding. This is because “gain” is the taxable thing, but swapping work for money is an even exchange, with no gain involved. That’s one of the basic arguments. There is no law that requires the average American worker to pay this tax. If there were, they would have showed it to us by now. Ask any IRS goon, or indeed any government official, to show you the law, where it says you have to file a 1040, and they’ll show you the door. If, like Aaron Russo, you arrive at their office with a camera to record their answer to the big question, first the guards will tell you not to film, and then some Homeland Security personnel will show up.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump all IRS people together as goons. America: Freedom to Fascism rounded up a bunch of ex-IRS employees who renounced the dark side and came back with impressive stories to tell. There’s the former criminal investigator who accused the agency of violating people’s rights, and was told to resign. And the former special agent who quit paying and won’t start again until they show him the law. One ex-employee of theirs who stopped filing and paying was asked a question by an interviewer, phrased in such a way that it implied he was getting away with something. He replied that he isn’t getting away with anything, as he has no obligation to obey a law that doesn’t exist.

The hunt for this elusive law rivals the legendary search for the Holy Grail. It just doesn’t seem to be anywhere. A pesky group called We the People are always stirring up trouble: they offer a $50,000 reward to anybody who can show the law; they start a class-action lawsuit against the IRS to make them show the law. A guy from the Tax Honesty movement goes on a hunger strike. But all these efforts are in vain. In 2005 some judge ruled that the government doesn’t have to show us the law. The law that affects every living American, the law that if we disregard it, we can lose all we own, including the right to exist outside a prison. The law that never was.

When that ruling came down, the mainstream press, as usual, ignored the issue – one that, admittedly, is not conveniently reducible to sound bites. It takes several whole meals, actually, before a person can begin to absorb and digest the enormity of the income tax scam. Tax resistance is a huge subject with a long history and a lot of angles. There’s the “voluntary compliance” aspect, the Fifth Amendment aspect, the slavery aspect, the linguistic aspect. “Direct unapportioned tax” is the key phrase here – look it up some time. There’s the IRS = Mafia aspect, namely, the income tax is nothing but an extortion racket on a titanic scale. Of course, even when the Supreme Court is against them, the decisions don’t apply to the IRS, which doesn’t have to obey the Supreme Court. Who says so? The IRS, of course.

Like any other struggle, the tax resistance movement has chalked up a lot of martyrs. Russo’s movie recounts the truly heartbreaking story of the famed prizefighter Joe Louis, one of the most severely damaged victims, though far from the only one. There are guys like Irwin Schiff, who have been at this for decades, refusing to back down, despite whatever the government throws at them. The real ugly part is, you don’t even need to intentionally thumb your nose at the IRS to attract its retribution. Russo interviews people whose homes and business have suffered terrorist attacks by IRS troops. They can just come in and grab everything you have without ever even charging you with any crime, never mind such a quaint formality as a conviction. How is anyone able to hear these stories and not get up and grab a weapon right now?

Did you know that all money from individual income tax goes to pay off interest on debt? In other words, all the income tax you’ve ever paid has gone to the bankers. You remember the bankers – the ones that took over the country in 1913-34. None of the federal income tax you’ve ever poured into the insatiable maw of the IRS has gone to pay for services. The states pay for highways and schools. Corporate taxes pay for defense. Federal income tax pays the bankers. It is, says Aaron Russo, that simple, and that terrible.

He mentions the number of millions of people who refuse to file federal income tax returns. It’s questionable, given the nature of the matter, how accurate such a number can be. But a great many people have said no to filing a 1040. The reason is, they prefer not to lie, because it’s very punishable. A dire crime, is lying to the IRS. The agency goons are the only ones who get to lie, such as by telling us we owe them anything in the first place – the greatest hoax ever perpetrated by any government, anywhere. Even Hitler’s big lies wore off after a few years, and the people caught on. But we’ve believed and gone along with this income tax swindle, how many years now?

Russo introduces us to Marcy Brooks, who was a juror in a trial where someone was accused of not filing tax returns. First, she realized that a government witness had lied, contrary to what could be seen on videotape. Then, she paid attention when the defendant said, “You show me the law that requires filing and I’ll be glad to do it.” Later on, during their deliberations, the jury asked the judge for a copy of that law. He refused, saying “You have everything you need.” They jury didn’t like that, and returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

In trials having to do with tax evasion, as in so many others, the jury nullification concept is precious. We should all regard it as a great privilege to be on any jury, especially one where something as heinous as the income tax is concerned. A citizen armed with awareness of the right of jury veto is one of the most powerful people on earth.

When America: Freedom to Fascism was released, it didn’t make as large an impression on the American public as some people had expected. Possibly, the film covers too much. It gives an overview of the various features of the Patriot Act and the Executive Orders, of which most people have managed to stay blissfully unaware. And oh, right, the Real ID Act. And the seemingly unstoppable movement to put RFID spychips in everything, everywhere, including paper money. Each one of these problems deserves a movie in its own right.

If you’re not calling for the vomit bag yet, try this: a harrowing video clip depicting the arrest of a woman attacked by the police with a taser. The really ugly thing about this weapon is, the suspect is immobilized and debilitated. Then the cop can order some action – “Take your hands out of your pockets,” “Put your hands up,” whatever – which the suspect is no more able to comply with, at that point, that a quadriplegic would be – so the cop hits them with the electricity again. This is not what we expect to see in our country.

So here we have a movie that began as a quest to find out if there is, in fact, a law requiring Americans to pay taxes on their incomes; a movie that espouses freedom and deplores the concept of world government, and that shows us things the Founding Fathers would resist to the death. Why hasn’t America: Freedom to Fascism garnered the attention it deserves? Why aren’t crowds roaring through the streets, demanding change, on account of the things we’ve seen here?

It got off to a pretty good start. As of June 2006, Russo’s office reported that the film had been screened in several cities to sold-out audiences who granted it standing ovations. And it’s been seen online over a million and a half times. But somehow it just didn’t gain the momentum and recognition that, for instance, Fahrenheit 9/11 did. Comparisons between these two works are inevitable. In fact, one such comparison was made by Todd David Schwartz of CBS, who said Russo’s movie “makes Fahrenheit 9/11 look like Bambi.” So, why did it make less of a noise?

A few theories, in no particular order:

Moviegoers are attracted by Michael Moore’s humorous, in-your-face demeanor – although Russo, whose approach is more sophisticated, is no less charismatic a figure.

Moore’s film took the public’s virginity and exposed the entirety of what the government’s jockstrap concealed. Russo’s film kicked it up a notch, confirming that those who rule us do, indeed, utilize every orifice of every beast, including the Domestic Taxslave.

Even with all its many ramifications and secrets, the 9/11 attack was a discrete event, with boundaries of place and time, and thus easier to journalize about than a horror that’s been ongoing for decades. This whole matter of the Federal Reserve and fiat currency and inflation, requires some knowledge of the “dismal science” of economics, and it offers no visuals to match the spectacular cinematic fare of burning towers and heroic rescuers. It’s easy to get upset and demand that the government solve the problem of planes crashing into towers, but the problem of unbridled, unlegislated taxation and play-money currency won’t be tackled by government. Rather, the government has to be tackled by us, but people are not yet ready to do anything on that scale.

It may be that one factor working against America: Freedom to Fascism was a tendency to take it for granted that the movie would lead to immediate and widespread outrage, resulting in drastic action. Because of this very assumption, Earthblog.net chose not to review it when it was first released, since the site’s main purpose is to throw light on under-illuminated issues and events. The feeling was, it would be redundant to comment on a movie already destined to saturate the media like the death of a pope or a porn star.

Then there was Russo’s illness, which meant spending time in a European cancer clinic, not the best place from which to run a film publicity campaign. And, like every other worthy project, getting the film released needed lots and lots of money – like half a million dollars. And although at that time the Freedom to Fascism website had 11,000 incoming links, it could always have used more publicity.

People will pay to be upset, no question. But when they slap down their dollars at the box office, they want to be upset by the sight of nubile teenagers dismembered with pruning shears, not by a list of the fifty kinds of taxes they’ve paid in the last 24 hours.

People will also pay, many thousands in some cases, to not be upset. They travel to Sedona and other venues where seminars and workshops can teach them to calm down and stop stressing out. People desire peace of mind, and a certain percentage of us believe in looking for things to be joyful about, not things to take offense over. Some very wise and spiritual people insist that the only possible argument, and certainly the only potent one, that can be made for peace is to model the behavior they’d like to see everyone abide by. If a person is fortunate enough to reach a plateau of life that offers peace and creativity, what’s so wrong with wanting to cherish that and make the most of it? If more people had peace and creativity in their lives, they wouldn’t go around acting like thugs, on whatever scale of thuggery they happen to participate, whether petty or grand.

But of course, there are no personal solutions. When even one is in chains, no one is free. The world doesn’t work unless it works for everybody. We know this. But while the thugs won’t change and become like us, neither do we want to change and become like the thugs, which kind of precludes seizing up weapons and taking to the streets. (The good news is, one “call to action” doesn’t involve guns: Refuse the national identity card and any thing that looks like it. Repeal the Real ID Act and anything that acts like it. )

When one watches such a film as America: Freedom to Fascism, there is a certain sense of futility. Because the filmmakers aren’t just trying to expose the wrong, they want something done about it. And who knows how to fix this mess? What Russo shows is so big and so serious, and it’s been going on for two generations – who are we going to punish? The greed-heads who started it are all dead, leaving their progeny to benefit from their rape of the American working person – not to mention the middle class, which has all but disappeared without a trace.

And this thing is so big, it’s overwhelming. You can’t just write a letter that’s going to put a stop to the thievery and make restitution to all the Moms and Pops who’ve been crunched up in the jaws of the income tax monster. It’s easy to be a patriot when all you have to do is say “I support the troops” or “I vote”. What’s not easy is to go out and overturn the Federal Reserve system. That’s messy. People are not ready to address this.

When a cop beats up a bartender in another city, it’s pointless to get involved, because outsiders won’t have much impact on a local matter. But when the entire government and the system that funds it are corrupt from top to bottom, there are no outsiders. And it is overwhelming. The whole system would need to be ripped apart, and we’d have to change the country in major ways, to stop enforcing this law that doesn’t exist. It’s better to pretend we don’t understand, and unfortunately most people don’t even need to pretend.

In those who consider themselves politically hip, reactions to America: Freedom to Fascism range from familiar disgust to severe revulsion, though there is not much surprise. But to anyone not accustomed to looking beneath the surface, there’s enough here to drown them. The IRS and Federal Reserve are the main focus, but Russo touches on enough other things to make you want to give up and bury yourself in the mundane triviality we call life in the USA. Reading Lost Rights is less fun than watching American Idol, but it would be a real good idea to make the switch.

There is a belief that anyone who sees things getting worse is a card-carrying member of the Tinfoil Hat brigade. There seem to be a lot of Americans who, even when the irrefutable proof stares them in the face, even when they find themselves inside the barbed wire perimeters, will still be saying “Russo is a paranoid conspiracy nut.” That’s the sad part.

However, there is cause for optimism. Just because this powerful film didn’t rile everybody all up the first time around, doesn’t mean it isn’t doing a lot of good. When an idea enters someone’s head, it does not always flourish right away. Just because a person is exposed to an idea, it doesn’t mean they’re gonna jump up and turn their life around within 24 hours. An idea can burrow in, lie dormant for years, and then show up later under the most surprising circumstances and in the most astounding ways. So it’s good to never discount the delayed reaction effect.

Problem is, we don’t have a whole lot of time left to wait around while that natural process takes place.

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Good Hair (2009)

“Weave sex is a little awkward,” an actress named Nia Long says. “Keep your hands on the titties,” is the advice given by the barbershop men.

If I were a sociology teacher I’d show this movie in my class and we would have plenty enough to talk about for a whole semester. Definitely more to it than meets the eye.

Chris Rock has delightful spontaneous wit.
Al Sharpton is cool.
Ice-T is cool.
Maya Angelou is cool.

The dancers and models we see here are of course in excellent shape, but the ordinary citizens, the folks interviewed by in barbershops and beauty parlors, are so overweight. I’ve been studying up on obesity in America, and it really does seem like we’re being secretly poisoned by something inescapable.

It’s wrong to be judgmental or discriminatory against anybody because of their size, but I’m pretty sure that people who are 100 pounds overweight, don’t want to be, any more than I want to be however many pounds overweight I am. And medical care for the various conditions that occur alongside obesity, well, who can afford any kind of medical care any more? And how beautiful can a person feel, even with a $3,500 hair weave, when carrying around an extra 100 pounds?

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The film is subtitled “A Love Story,” and it is – a love story where the people are not only the same gender, but one is 30 years older. The gay demimonde has existed in many times and places. No matter how forbidden and furtive, there has pretty much always been, among the queer, a community of sorts. But any man who takes on a partner so much younger will always draw fire. There have been 30-year-old grandfathers. It’s biologically feasible, and it’s a significant age difference. These two had a lot to overcome.

And there’s something else. What a lot of us want, deep inside, is to know a loving person will be with us at the end. Chris had that. Through his several years of cancer, Don was on the scene. When Chris died, his partner spent the rest of the day drawing different views of the corpse, just as he had drawn so many hundreds of other portraits of the living man. In the documentary, Don Bachardy doesn’t discuss this aspect, but I’m guessing that this strange kind of post-mortem ceremony had enormous value for the survivor. This final exchange of intimacy between lovers could not have been one-sided. I’d bet the farm, that the writer’s voice was continuously heard by the artist, even as the artist sketched the writer again and again. In the annals of spontaneous, self-generated therapeutic techniques, this one is exceptional.

I once took Christopher Isherwood’s blood pressure. That morning, when I looked at the day’s patient schedule and said “Wow!”, the three women who worked in the front office were like, “And your point is…..?” This Santa Monica medical practice had a lot of celebrities on its books. When Flip Wilson came in for an appointment, there was excitement. But the Isherwood name did not ring a bell. That’s the industry for you in a nutshell – writers get no respect.

My heart was beating fast because this man had known Bloomsbury. Leonard and Virginia Woolf published three of his books. E.M. Forster was his literary mentor. Besides, he was just a cool guy – for instance, he was into Eastern religion long before the hippies caught on to it.

A lot of childless couples bring pets into their relationships, so they can have something to care about and fuss over together. Their mutual bond with the pet strengthens their own bonds. That works well for some. Isherwood and Bachardy didn’t have pets, but reserved their affection for each other. They were, in fact, each other’s pet – Chris was a horse, and Don was a cat. (There was a lot of that kind of thing in the old Bloomsbury crowd. The letters of Virginia Woolf, et al, are full of marmosets and dolphins and all kinds of creatures that the correspondents characterized themselves and each other, as.) This documentary of a shared life includes segments of animation that bring alive the horse and cat characters that the two drew for each other. It’s brilliant, and really illustrates one of the secrets of a lasting couple: the creation of a private realm, where just the two of you live, and nobody else is allowed.

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After Innocence

by Pat Hartman

Generally speaking, law-abiding folk who wind up in prison face a much worse time than the career criminals. We know this. But imagine, first, being accused and convicted of a heinous crime you didn’t commit. Then, for the rest of your life as an inmate, imagine being hounded, under the guise of rehabilitation, to make a confession. For the innocent, one of the worst ordeals is that the staff won’t let you just do the time, they’ve got to mess with your head. When the administration regards you as its number one challenge, and years of “therapy” are aimed at making you admit that you did something you didn’t do, that pretty much qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

When I get that I’ve-lived-my-life-all-wrong feeling, and think about untrodden paths, the one that inspires the most regret is that I didn’t go to law school. It takes a village-equivalent of attorneys to spring an innocent person from prison. I should have been one of those pain-in-the-ass lawyers.

Of course, documentation doesn’t hurt, either. Jessica Sanders wrote, directed, and produced this film; Marc Simon wrote and produced it. These stories are only a few from the 150 people the Innocence Project had helped to free, when After Innocence was made. Apparently, the exonerees are a very lucky subclass, because at least their cases did involve some kind of biological evidence, whereas many cases don’t. If I understand this correctly, only a fraction of those who want to contest a wrongful conviction are able to, because DNA evidence would be their only hope, only no DNA samples were taken. Then, it seems they are a fortunate subgroup again, because the DNA evidence was actually preserved long enough, and conscientiously enough, to be still useful. In many jurisdictions, the survival rate of evidence is not good.

One guy reacquaints himself with the world only to find that, after 23 years of breathing a recycled processed atmosphere, he’s allergic to fresh air. One told the judge that the administration of justice in their state is a crock of shit. One says he had “the worst lawyer on the planet.” There’s a guy whose father, a highway patrolman, wouldn’t visit him in prison. Another is a former police officer, and he believes thousands of people are incarcerated who should not be. In one case, the guy’s freedom literally hung by a hair. Another says, “I’m one of the strongest human beings ever created. I know that now.” One guy amazingly keeps a sense of humor, joking about reporters who ask, “Are you angry?”

Well, they have every reason to be angry. They would be serving life sentences, or dead by execution, if not for the Innocence Project, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The men whose stories are told here were cleared, or at least freed, by DNA evidence. A lot of times, exonerees can’t even get their records expunged. That’s one of the problems with life after innocence – there’s always residual trauma.

The system’s refusal to back up and correct its mistakes is only one of the many ugly offshoots of the basic problem, namely, too many wrongful convictions. I mean, one is too many, but this is getting ridiculous. The system is so recalcitrant, even people who have been proven innocent can’t get out.

And why should the establishment be so damn stubborn? After all, who benefits when the wrong person is convicted of a crime? Certainly not the victim of that crime, whose rapist or killer goes unpunished. Not the other, future victims of that criminal. And it creates another whole group of victims, the innocent person who is put away, and the family, and anybody else who depended on them. The only benefactor is the corporation that gets paid by the taxpayers to keep this person locked up. What kind of a way is that to run a justice system?

In this film we see parents who thought they would never hug their sons again, which is always nice. We see drawers full of letters from those the Innocence Project is unable to help. You say to yourself, “How could there be that many wrongly convicted people?” But, knowing that DNA is considered infallible, why would any convict with certain knowledge of his own guilt, bother to request DNA testing? We see clips from the Phil Donahue show, and an interview. His huge fanbase helped a lot in raising public awareness of this problem. Publicity is important not only to help the imprisoned innocent, but to spread the word about the possibility and consequences of wrongful conviction to potential jurors, which includes just about everybody.

Anger is only one of many emotions felt by exonerees. Some try to understand the greater purpose behind so much pain. I would imagine that for someone freed after a couple of decades, there would be a very strong impulse to create distance from the experience and try to move on. Even so, for many victims of the system, to move on is to take up the cause and become activists. When they were inside, they hoped someone outside would take an interest. Now that they’re outside, they do take an interest in the wrongfully convicted who have, so far, been left behind.

Here’s a scary fact: the single leading cause of wrongful conviction is good old eyewitness identification. In a film which overflows with human interest stories, one of the oddest and most heartening is of the woman who apologized to the man imprisoned by her testimony. They got to be friends, and she became an activist too. She tells an audience, “Change one person’s life and you change the world.”

We need to get back to where “presumption of innocence” meant something, say the proponents of what some call the “new Civil Rights Movement.” We need legislation to make states submit the DNA they have, to the national database for comparison, which could find the real rapists and killers.

The truly guilty, having paid their debt to society, are released on parole, and society then performs its obligations to them. They’re entitled to a whole range of social services to help them get back on their feet. The exonerees get don’t even get that much.

One of the things they fight for is compensation, for themselves and others like them, who have had big chunks bitten out of their lives. It would be nice to just break even, to be able to pay back the $150,000 your parents took out of their retirement fund to finance your defense, for instance. You’d think someone in this situation would at least be owed the back pay for the jobs they were removed from.

There are some bright spots in the movie: a prosecutor asks for forgiveness from the guy he put away, and a judge smiles as he signs the order to vacate a sentence. A district attorney apologizes. A Department of Corrections director realizes that his regime has been part of the problem, and needs to take on some accountability. A governor commutes the sentences of all death row inmates.

And then there’s an official who insists that an exoneree’s innocence is irrelevant, because “the system worked exactly like it’s supposed to.” Well, duh! That’s what we’re saying – this is how the system is supposed to work, the very thing that’s wrong with it. When a violent crime has taken place, as long as the outcome is a that a body occupies a cell, it too often doesn’t matter which body. That’s a system which needs to be fixed!

Of course, as we now know, not every aspect of every DNA test is infallible, due to methodology and interpretation and one thing and another. At least, not every instance of DNA testing can infallibly prove what somebody wants it to prove or claims that it proves. But I appreciate the spirit behind what one of the exonerees says:

“DNA is God’s signature… never a forgery, and his checks don’t bounce.”

Free Tim Masters Because
The Innocence Project

Note: The After Innocence DVD includes “Pearl Jam performing with exonerees Wilton Dedge and Vincent Moto,” and footage from the film’s Sundance premiere.

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This film was released two years after I left Venice, so I figure I’ll recognize some of the people – which I do. Turbaned icon Harry Perry; Alky Bob . And the smokeless pipe vendor. The filmmaker catches his entire spiel, which is rather outstanding. I never could get the thing to work right, though.

Don’t get your hopes up, because there’s nothing very “confidential” about this film, in the sense of being shockingly scandalous. Sure, gals in skimpy beachwear, and a smidgen of muscle guys, but it’s pretty tame. It starts out with views of Terry Schoonhoven’s “St. Charles Mural,” an excellent choice. The rest is boardwalk acts, disco skaters, and plenty of street musicians.

There’s a seriously adept fiddler, reminding us again that some world-class musicians have paid busking dues. And who’s this one-armed singer? There’s a guy sitting on a dairy crate, strumming a guitar, wearing a brilliant Mexican blanket, who must be Ted Hawkins. And a rapper who delivers the line, “My sound so def I can’t hear you.” Which is unfortunately all too often the case, with these hip-hop guys.

One musician does a song about how “LA’s a dog’s toilet.” Especially Venice Beach. The dog people are a piece of work. They’re at one of the most beautiful, special locales on earth, and all it means to them is, “Hey, what a great place for my dog to take a dump!”

Beach visitors are asked what they think about Venice “Like another planet,” says one. “Primo weirdos from all over the world,” and “This is the decadency of the United States, right here.” (Maybe that guy was thinking of the dog shit, too.)

From Rhino Video, produced by Jeff Jackson

If you like this vision of Venice Beach, you’ll love Norman Spinrad’s novel, Child of Fortune.

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The History of the Tele Times is made from some of the 6,000 hours of film accumulated by wizard documentarian Claire Burch. The focus here is on B. N. Duncan, legendary underground artist of Berkeley, CA. We revisit the esteemed “Fred and Ned” comic strip that Duncan created with Wild Billy Wolf, and the zine they started, which later continued with Ace Backwords, a major under-appreciated genius of our era. (One of his songs is on the sound track.)

From 1978 to 1982, The Tele Times presented the ultimate in outsider art, in every sense of the word. Primitive artist Narayan, for instance. It’s said that life on the streets is many times more difficult for a woman than for a man. It is interesting to be introduced to such a woman, however briefly.

Duncan is seen constantly photographing the kaleidoscopic Berkeley ambiance and interviewing its dwellers. Burch recorded the historic meeting of Duncan and Backwords and the historic meeting of Duncan and uber-cartoonist R. Crumb. We hear excerpts from the lively feud between Crumb and a stripper, and meet his partner Aline Kominsky-Crumb.

The interview with Duncan is very ably conducted by Ace Backwords (who, if there were any justice, would have his own TV show. I’d call him an even hipper Dick Cavett.) They discuss Gypsy Catano, and the occupation of People’s Park, and a whole lot more besides. The conversation turns to the subject of vehicle dwellers or rubber tramps including Vincent Johnson, the founder of Rainbow Village.

Historically speaking, these are the people who later turn out to have genuinely made history, rather than the politicians and armies, as is generally supposed.

The back of the DVD case has a nice quote from Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer, venerable keepers of the psychedelic tradition. (A debate between Horowitz and Backwords would be an interesting event. The latter’s book, Acid Heroes, pretty much trashes the entire scene.)

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RELATED: A Trip Through Facets

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