Going forward

Next week something will happen. Ebola will retake center stage, or ISIS will kill someone in HD. And the struggle will fizzle. And I’ll throw my hands in the air, asking what is a good boy to do when protesting in the streets isn’t sexy any more. For anyone who cares about the injustice in Ferguson or any place like it, Gideon’s Army offers answers.

The documentary follows a few young public defenders in the south. They dedicate their time and effort to people America has devalued and dehumanized, or in the current lingo, demonized. They trudge through endless plea deals, college loans and failure.

They constantly lose to prosecutors who hold most of the cards and their subsuming profession leads them to fail the people in their private lives.

But they’re organized. They have this unique support group called Gideon’s Promise that trains and keeps up with young public defenders in an effort to keep them engaged, and to keep them from jumping ship when more lucrative legal careers present themselves. They have that fraternity from suffering. They share that truly empathetic ear. And they are mentored and grow into mentorship roles.

They win sometimes, and it’s so sweet. Gideon’s army is instructive for people aching for something more edifying than the same old rants, frustration or dialogue.

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Fruitvale Station

Private screenings of Fruitvale Station at Shiloh 14 in Billings! Cry your eyes out in front of the big screen with nobody there to judge you.

The biopic is pretty straight forward, and probably a little sugar coated. How could this guy have so many epiphanies in 24 hours? For the first 20 minutes or so, I thought suspension of disbelief would be near impossible. That changed with a poignant flashback. Oscar Grant is about to sell some pot, and the money it will generate will allow him to meet his familial obligations. He looks out on the bay and remembers his time in prison.

How Fruitvale uses that experience is valuable for what it is not. There’s no meeting the roommate or fighting in the yard. There’s no adolescent mockery of prison rape. Instead the only prison scene is the meeting between Oscar and his mother. By drawing our attention to Oscar’s connection to the outside world, we remember he’s a human/father/son. Oscar’s mother wants to know about his bruises and challenges in prison, but he continually shifts their conversation to the outside.

Called a snitch by a rival inmate, Oscar flashes into something violent for a moment. Regaining composure he absorbs the slight and sits back down. But his mother scolds him and says she won’t visit him inside anymore. She walks out on the visit, refusing to accept his apologies, as guards descend on him. He looks like a helpless boy.

Shifting back to the present, Oscar dumps a large bag of Pot into the bay and scuttles the drug deal.

When I write it down, the whole thing seems incredibly cheesy. But the prison flashback was the turning point for me. I totally bought into the movie after that scene. Fruitvale Station works because it takes such common material, such a tired story of injustice, and makes you care again for a minute.

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Bastille Day

0200 MST; Read verdict, slightly drunk, coming down from euphoric night of dancing at a folk festival. Get mad, go to sleep.

1100; Share the verdict with friends over brunch. Shocked by their indifference. Retreat to smartphone and twitter.

1110; Perkins assessment of US justice system seems about right.

1130; Bloody Mary, black coffee and cheese make me feel ok for a while.

1230; Reading more, not that interested in the Chinese flute player. Friend asks me “really? you’re doing that?” I’m pretty offended.

Tweet says organize. I am not organized or organizing

The flute player says he saw two butterflies. He asks what Montana was like a thousand years ago.

1300; Tibetans are doing their song and dance. (We left the China stage) I’m pretty moved in spite of myself. They cite self immolation. They can’t go home. They’ve never been home.

I see a butterfly

1315; Pissed off at America’s justice system. Pissed off at myself for playing around instead of organizing.

Is that a tear, or do I have sunscreen in my eyes?

1500; Driving home. I am venting about the homogenous jury. spewing nearly incomprehensible. Mad it’s a bunch of white women. Mad so many black men are disenfranchised.

1945; Walk into my house to find a small arsenal on the table.


2000; Jubilant room mate tells me “I told you so”. A genuine Zimmerman supporter sleeps a wall away from me. He’s happy that the justice system worked.

Is he a piece of shit? He’s a veteran. He has valid life experiences. Is it worth my time trying to engage him. Why don’t I just move back to a coast?

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Werner Herzog – Bad Lieutenant

The German auteur Werner Herzog has devoted a good portion his most recent work to the American criminal justice system.

In 2009 Herzog directed Nicolas Cage in a remake of Bad Lieutenant.  Herzog famously moved the setting from New York to post Katrina New Orleans “after the collapse of civil order” (Herzog interview, jump to 13:50).  Bad Lieutenant confronts police brutality and corruption with typical bombast and a twisted sense humor.  He says “Let’s be as vile and debased as it gets right away… just… and never let the audience down from there.”  Also there’s an iguana.

I suppose a serious man would argue he’s being flippant about a system that destroys thousands of lives for the sake of political patronage and prison dollars (Read the amazing eight part series “Louisiana Incarcerated” in the embattled Times Picayune).  I don’t think that’s giving him enough credit.  Herzog keeps exploring and critiquing the criminal justice system.  Besides Bad Lieutenant he’s recently released “Into the Abyss” and “On Death Row” which take a unique look at the death penalty.

If anything, Herzog is just following themes isolation and violence where they take him.  Before focusing on the US South, Herzog was interested in how people deal with solitary confinement and isolation in Grizzly ManLittle Deiter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn.

This stuff is always kind of a pain in the ass to watch because it’s unconventional.  He never plays the right music and doesn’t bother much with straightforward storytelling.  The fact that he made the somewhat conventional On Death Row to complement Into the Abyss underscore his willingness to challenge and evolve the documentary.

I’d argue that he’s taking us closer to the subject, and making audiences feel or know their subjects in a way that’s better and more meaningful than traditional fact based documentary.  But what do I know? Maybe he’s just making the same old stories more fun for a chattering class…

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Killer Mike

Well done fan submitted video for Killer Mike’s “Reagan”.  Rap music goes at the PI Complex more aggressively  than the rest of popular culture.

“Thanks to Reaganomics Prison turned to profit

cuz freelabors the cornerstone of US economics

Slavery was abolished unless you are in prison

You think I am bullshitting then read the 13th Amendment”

This song slips into simplistic paranoia toward the end. I’m happy to suspend disbelief though, it’s just so nice nice to hear some political hip hop.

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I’ve been distracted by my own life. I’ve got a somewhat demanding job. There’s a bunch of Vertigo comics to attend to. Not to mention that TV is going through some kind of renaissance. Last year I just gawked at OWS and Wisconsin. I’ve lost touch with anything like civil society. I’m in the mountain-west. It was a huge deal when effin Tim Tebow spoke in my town. The only thing close was a Blake Shelton concert.

Not much reaches me here. This outpouring of solidarity for Treyvon Martin strikes me in an emotional way that OWS’s horizontal-process-centric orientation couldn’t.

@prisonculture suggested on twitter that the whole bonanza of online demonstration was somehow detracting from the base fact of racist violence:

I find myself torn between embracing the acts of solidarity for Trayvon through social media while wondering if they obscure what actually+ actually happened to him. That he was murdered and that a racist and oppressive system abetted the killing… OK I need to get off twitter.

In other similar situations I might also be a bit conflicted. I could see it as this Ace In the Hole type of thing. Where a man dying is an opportunity to bust out a ferris wheel and profit.

But this is unique. It raises my spirits. I actually feel good about the future when I go online and see Lebron in a Hoodie. A whole bunch of fbookers, a group that doesn’t get much in the way of civics at school, is spontaneously confronting injustice. No way would I have thought it possible a few weeks agon

What interests me about the case, from criminal justice reform perspective;

  1. What do people want to happen to Zimmerman? What kind of justice do people want for him.
  2. How did we get to the point where vigilante justice is basically legitimized by the legislatures and local police.
  3. Will people see this as a reason to support gun control, or is that just so far over that I’m an idiot for even thinking it.
  4. Do I support stand your ground if Trayvon was standing his ground? How will that all play out in court (assuming an indictment ever shows up)
  5. If Zimmerman really is a racist, and simultaneously a respected member of his community, can we start to see the hypocrisy and fear in our own lives?   I think probably we can.

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April 2, 2012 · 11:55 pm

Rock the Lockup

As usual, I didn’t even know about the party.  A few weeks ago there was a Prison Reform Film Festival in Houston.  Despite some sketchy web design, they screened some great movies.

If I Want To Whistle, I’ll Whistle
Directed by Florin Serban   2010  Romania/Sweden

Directed by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian    1979  USA  B/W

Don’t Kill My Father
2010  USA  Color

Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo
Directed by Bradley Beesley  2009  USA  Color

Meeting With A Killer
2001  USA  Color

Troop 1500
Directed by Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein   2005  USA  Color

Mi Vida Dentro or My Life Inside
Directed by Lucia Gaja  2007  Mexico  Color

TORTURE: America’s Brutal Prisons
Directed and Produced by Nick London   2005  Britain  Color

The Dhamma Brothers
Directed by Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein and Andrew Kukura  2008  USA  Color

Hospice shorts:  Angola Prison Hospice   and  Prison Terminal (work in progress)
Directed by Edgar Barens  1999 and TBA  USA  Color

Was also interested to see that the festival was partly sponsored by “The Prison Show“, a radio program where callers can shout out to incarcerated friends and family.  I knew this kind of programming existed for hostages in Columbia.

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