Documenting Struggle, Inhumanity, Hope. Then Downton Abbey.



Honor killing in Pakistan. Ebola in Liberia. Death penalty, racism, militarism and PTSD in the United States. Agent Orange birth defects in Vietnam. The Shoah.

I saw the five 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Seen together, they tell a stories of systematic violence,  war, racism, poverty and resilience.

One could start with any of these movies and find connections to the others.

The cartoon Last Day of Freedom is about Manny Babbitt, a Black man executed on death row in  1999, told from the perspective of his brother.  Manny, Vietnam Vet, PTSD sufferer, was having an episode when he murdered a stranger who happened to be in the way. He receives the Purple Heart while on death row, and a military funeral after he is executed.

Chau, Beyond the Lines, is also a story about the aftershocks of the Vietnam war..

Chau, is one of several million children born with severe birth defects from Agent Orange, dropped by U.S. soldiers onto Vietnam fifty years ago.

Specter of Shoah, like Last Day, is also about traumatic stress that disorders the lives of survivors. Shoah filmmaker Lanzmann documented what it is like to relive trauma, creating the conditions that force the story and the emotions of a barber who cut the hair of women before they entered the gas chambers.

 A Girl in the River is about a young Pakistani girl whose father attempts to kill her because she chose her own husband. Like Manny in Last Day, she  is the victim of a judicial and social system that criminalizes victims and  perpetuates violence.  In both cases the individual stories illustrate the need for systemic change.

Body Team 12, is about the Ebola epidemic in Liberia from the perspective of a woman who removes the bodies from homes and neighborhoods. Ebola victims and those like Manny who suffer from war-related PTSD in the United States both face  systems that have not prioritized health care.  In both cases poverty and inequality leading to needless suffering. In both cases racism multiplies societal neglect.

Despite their heavy subjects, the movies all provide inspiration.

  • The young woman, Garmai Sumo, who works on Team 12, removing the bodies of Ebola victims, to rid her country of the epidemic.
  • The art work of Chau, who makes a beautiful life for himself.
  • The Pakistani woman who agreed to have her story told,  is pregnant at the end of the movie — hoping for a girl who she will teach to be strong.
  • Shoah is full of people-doing the painful work of not forgetting.
  •  Bill Babbitt, in Last Day of Freedom, and  Dee and Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, who draw and film his story, refuse to let Manny die in vain.

I was glad I went, but instead staying with my heavy heart and writing  inspiring thoughts (as I planned) I confess I plopped on the couch to see: would Mary and Edith marry? Thomas Barrow find acceptance? Could the family could save Mrs’ Patmore’s B & B?  Escape into a rosy  past when all were happy to know their place.  

Pure fiction.


Bloody Origins of an Illegitimate Border.


One warm South Texas day before returning to frigid Minnesota.

We started out for South Padre Island, but along the way I convinced my partner to detour to the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park outside of Brownsville, Texas.

”My Valentines Day present,” I suggested, clinching the deal.

The park exhibit, the website said, tells of this first battle of the U. S. Mexican War from both U.S. and Mexican perspectives. I was intrigued, excited even, to see an exhibit that promised to complicate the patriotic pablum of most military sites.

We checked in at the visitor center and began the guided walking tour, into the arena where the first battle of the 1846-48 war took place. Panels provided blow by blow accounts. Several of the superior U.S. cannons that splattered Mexican bodies across the plain, were positioned here and there.

We learned that Mexican cannons could only hit one target and they missed more often than hit. As a result Mexican casualties and wounded were ten times those of U.S. soldiers.

As promised, both sides of the battle experience were told, using primary source quotes. However, the letters of U.S. and Mexican soldiers and politicians, interesting as they were, provided us with only scraps of truth. The exhibit left us without an understanding of the causes and legacy of the war for diverse sectors of society on either side. Missing from the story:

Slavery. Nothing about the Anglo cotton planters who sought Texas independence in 1836, and desired annexation in 1846 to expand their slave holdings. Nothing about the people forced to work on their plantations. The U.S. Mexico War is African American history.

Apaches, Yaquis, Navahos, who fought both Mexican and U.S. soldiers who had invaded their territories. The U.S. Mexico War is Native American history.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The peace treaty promised to protect property, language and cultural integrity of the new Mexican Americans. The U.S Mexican War is Chicana/o History. Every time a community imposes English-only legislation the Treaty of Guadalupe is re-broken.

The Park’s fifteen minute video, included one important contextual note. U.S. President Polk faced public opposition to war. He amassed troops at Corpus Christie to provoke a Mexican “invasion” across the disputed border and quell public protest. Polk’s trick has been used repeatedly by Presidents facing publics hesitant to go to war.

As presidential candidates in 2016 compete for who will build the biggest wall, we are reminded that it is the border itself, and those — beginning 170 years ago — who shed the blood of others to impose it, who are criminal.

The exhibit map (above), illustrates the geographic result of the war. It did not, however, encourage us to contemplate the worth of the transferred territory. The resources, agricultural and mineral, of the southwest, have, for over a century, been transformed into agribusiness and mining profits by people crossing the border to work. The United States is enriched, Mexico impoverished and the people creating the wealth are criminalized.

The Palo Alto Battlefield National Park is lovely. It preserves more than the memory of battle. Today it is a refuge for beleaguered wildlife pushed toward extinction by encroaching developments on both side of the border.  We absorbed the quiet, the sun, small pink desert flowers. We didn’t see an antelope, jack rabbit, horned lizard or a javelina, but a diamondback rattle snake slipped into the grass as we approached. In the parking lot we watched an Altimira Oriole; its yellow feathers dazzling our color-starved souls.
“Better than a crowded beach.” I said.
My partner looked almost convinced.

Cops and unions.


In an un-namable coffee shop in a California suburb on  January 18, 2016, two young white officers talked about the vagaries of their work.

 What matters is who is in the car with you –  you get a stickler and it’s no fun.

Warrants is a good gig. Everybody wants warrants. 

That asshole Sheriff _____ f***’s everyone… 

They  talked about eight day weeks and 12 hour shifts. One spoke wistfully about his dream vacation coming up.  He was going to the mountains. He would watch his two year old play in the snow, sit, play cards, and drink scotch.

A young Latino man walked in, wearing his jeans low.  The cops stiffened and then settled as he left.

I thought he was…

A lot of em look like that….

I sat beside them, trying to look absorbed in something else, wanting to get a hint of their life.  They look past me, through me. The messy middle-aged white-lady was invisible.

An hour before I had attended a Black Lives Matter workshop — part of the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival.    In it we touched on the dilemma facing labor — how does labor address police unions that protect members engaging in brutality and murder?

Musician and social justice activist Pam Parker said the Black Lives Matter movement was the most exciting thing to happen in decades.  She and Steve Pitts, of the Berkeley Center for Labor Research,   talked about the role labor can and must play in advancing the work of Black Lives Matter.  Pitts reminded us that before Eric Garner said “I can’t Breath” he said, “This stops here.”

For Pitts the question was how to win., and in that pursuit he felt labor unions could play a significant role,  provide institutional roots, learning to  follow the leadership of Black youth at the forefront of this movement.  It is our job to fight the rightward tendency of labor institutions – to push the needle forward.

Pitts is working with a commission on labor and race that the AFL created after Ferguson. AFL-CIO President Trumpka calls it a “fragile coalition”.  They are traveling to cities to gather feedback that can help “keep the ball rolling.” They will be in Minneapolis on February 12 and labor union members of Color and racial justice activists are encouraged to participate.

There was no labor upsurge after the murder of Tamir Rice” (the twelve year old boy shot and killed by a cop while playing with a toy gun) but its not too late for a labor denunciation of the non-indictment of his murderer, Pitts noted.

When unions protect murderers the labor movement needs to call them out. Right now the AFL establishment tendency is to call for due process when a cop kills someone, Pitts noted, but BLM activists argue the cop should be fired immediately, while awaiting trial. After all, the dead person will never have due process….

A police unions could be taking a systematic look at what is wrong with the orders they are given, the training they have, as well as overwork, and lack of community assignments where they live,  that lead to police brutality. In the period after the murder of Eric Garner, NYPD engaged in an on the job strike of sorts, refusing to engage in low-level offense searches and arrests. For a moment cops and BLM were on the same page, in action if not in motivation — addressing the need for a change in the job description of our police officers.

If we are going to be a labor movement — and not a federation of federations or a club of clubs, we need to stand for principles of justice above fraternal loyalty. Labor silence at this moment is destructive of both labor and racial justice. That goes for all unions, not just police fraternities.  As Pitts put it We have to realize that working people live 24 hour lives and if getting harassed by cops — or worse — is part of that 24 hour life, the labor movement needs to fight back.

The young cops sitting next to me in the coffee shop, reminded me that police are working people in need of protections and rights that only unions can negotiate: decent shifts, paid vacation, paternity leave, the seniority reward of choice duties.  From their discussion of asshole sheriffs and shift bosses, police departments that overwork their officers, it was obvious that in securing workplace justice for cops and just policing for communities are many issues that intersect that require unions to secure.

But today police unions have crossed the line from worker advocates to mobs, protecting turf and members engaged in high crime.  Labor activists have the responsibility to use our labor institutions, be they unions, commissions, community groups or choirs, to take action against such unions.

Pitts argued that when institutions amplify the words and demands of Black Live Matter activists they plant the seeds offered by young leaders, rooting the movement so it can win.

Win or not — at this moment, labor standing up for Black Lives Matter is what the song “Solidarity Forever”  looks like in action.