Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is this the Birth of a Nation? Film: The LA Black Panthers

Is this the Birth of a Nation?

by Melissa Harris-Lacewell March 22, 2010

In response to the imminent passage of health care reform protesters spat on
Representative Emmanuel Cleaver. They hurled homophobic obscenities at
Representative Barney Frank. They shouted racial slurs at Representative
John Lewis.

Democratic leadership responded by marching to the Capitol in a scene that
looked more like a 1960s demonstration than a morning commute for the
majority party.

The attacks on black and gay members of Congress immediately mobilized lefty
mainstream media. On Monday night both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow
drew parallels between the health care battle and the civil rights movement.
I like, respect, and appear frequently on both programs, but I think both
have missed the mark in their racial analysis.

Crafting a metaphor that connects the civil rights movement and the bigoted
language of this weekend's protesters is seductive. It seems so obvious
given that Representative John Lewis plays a critical role in both. A young
Lewis was severely beaten 45 years ago when he tried to lead a group of
brave citizens across the Edmund Pettus bridge in an effort to secure voting
rights for black Americans.

This weekend he graciously rebuffed his detractors in a perfect example of
nonviolent, direct resistance. Representative Lewis said he harbored no ill
will against those who called him names and insisted that we are all
citizens of this nation and that we must learn to live peacefully and
respectfully together. It was the kind of response that makes Lewis a hero
to many.

But there is a very important difference between Bloody Sunday of 1965 and
Health Care Reform Sunday of 2010. In 1965 Lewis was a disenfranchised
protester fighting to be recognized as a full citizen. When he was beaten by
the police, he was being attacked by the state. In 2010 Lewis is
a long time, elected representative. When he is attacked by protesters, he
is himself an agent of the state. This difference is critically important;
not because it changes the fact that racism is present in both moments, but
because it radically alters the way we should understand the meaning of
power, protest and race.

I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the
idea of "the state." The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the
legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to
another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state
does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the
state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's
money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.

To the extent that a state is challenged as the sole, legitimate owner of
the tools of violence, force, and coercion, it is challenged at its core.
This is why "state's rights" led to secession and Civil War. The legitimacy
of the central state was challenged, then reestablished. It is also why the
Civil Rights Movement was so powerful. The overt abuse of state power
evidenced by the violence of Southern police called into question their
foundational legitimacy. The federal government had to act or risk losing
its authority as a state altogether.

Which leads us to March 2010.

The Tea Party is a challenge to the legitimacy of the U.S. state. When Tea
Party participants charge the current administration with various forms of
totalitarianism, they are arguing that this government has no right to levy
taxes or make policy. Many GOP elected officials offered nearly
secessionist rhetoric from the floor of Congress this weekend. They joined
as co-conspirators with the Tea Party protesters by arguing that this
government has no monopoly on legitimacy.

I appreciate the parallels to the civil rights movement drawn by the MSNBC
crowd, but they are inadequate. When protesters spit on and scream at duly
elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act
of racism. It is an act of sedition.

John Lewis is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his
country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state.

Commentators and observers need to move their historical lens back a little
further. The relevant comparison here is not the mid-20th century civil
rights movement. The better analogy is the mid-19th century period of
Reconstruction. From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the unholy
Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, black Americans enjoyed a brief experiment
with full citizenship and political power sharing.

During this decade black men voted, held office and organized as laborers
and farmers. It was a fragile political equality made possible only by the
determined and powerful presence of the federal government. Then in 1877 the
federal government abdicated its responsibilities to new black citizens and
withdrew from the South. When it did so it allowed local governments and
racial terrorist organizations like the KKK to have the monopoly on
violence, force and coercion in the South for nearly 100 years.

As I watch the rising tide of racial anxiety and secessionist sentiment I am
not so much reminded of the Bloody Sunday protests as I am reminded of D.W.
Griffith's Birth of Nation. This 1915 film depicts the racist imagination
currently at work in our nation as a black president first appoints a Latina
Supreme Court Justice and then works with a woman Speaker of the House to
pass sweeping national legislation. This bigotry assumes no such government
could possibly be legitimate and therefore frames resistance against this
government as a patriotic responsibility.

There are historic lessons to be learned. But they are the lessons of the
19th century not the 20th. We must now guard against the end of our new
Reconstruction and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism.

[Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and
African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest
book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics
When Being Strong Isn't Enough.]


From: Karen Pomer
Subject: One Week Only: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party

41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party

L.A. Limited Engagement

When: Friday, March 26, 2010
through Thursday, April 1, 2010

Where: Culver Plaza Theater 9919 Washington Blvd. L.A.

Geronimo Ji Jagga, Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins,
Roland Freeman, Ronald Freeman, Wayne Pharr, Bernard Parks Sr., Long
John Washington, Wesley Kabaila, Scot Brown,

Directed by:
Gregory Everett

Produced by:
Carl Craig, Garry Walker, Jasmyne A. Cannick, Damon Jones

The Pan African Film & Arts Festival is proud to present 41st &
Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party as part of
its extended year-round programming at the Culver Plaza Theatre.

41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party is
the first part in a documentary series that follows the Southern
California Chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense from
its glorious Black Power beginnings through to its tragic demise.

Despite the Party's formation of free medical clinics and a successful
breakfast program for children, the L.A. chapter was also known as the
most violent Black political group in the United States. 41st &
Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party explores the
Black Panther ethos, its conflict with the L.A.P.D. and the US
Organization, as well as the events that shaped the complicated and
often contradictory legacy of the L.A. chapter.

41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party
contains interviews with former Black Panther Party members along with
archival footage detailing the history of racism in Los Angeles,
including the Watt's uprising from the perspective of the participants
who "engaged with the L.A.P.D."

41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panther Party is
the most in-depth study ever of the L.A. Chapter founder Alprentice
"Bunchy Carter" and features first hand accounts of the Party's
formation as told by the original surviving members. This film gives
the viewer an eyewitness account of Bunchy and John Huggins murders at
U.C.L.A. in 1968 and includes exclusive interviews with Black Panther
Party leaders Geronimo Ji Jagga and Elaine Brown.

Also featured are former Black Panther members Ericka Huggins, Roland
& Ronald Freeman, Wayne Pharr, Jeffrey Everett, Long John Washington,
former L.A.P.D. Chief Bernard Parks, US Organization member Wesley
Kabaila, U.C.L.A. Professor Scot Brown, and many others.

Rating: R

Run Time: 120 minutes plus Q&A

Official Web Site:


Media Contact:

March 26 - April 1, 2010

The Pan African Film & Arts Festival Presents.

"41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers"
In a Limited Engagement

Culver Plaza Theatres
9919 Washington Boulevard Los Angeles, CA

Showtimes: Friday-Sunday
12 p.m. | 3 p.m. | 6 p.m. | 9 p.m.

12 p.m. | 2:45 p.m. | 5:45 p.m.* | 8 p.m.
*No Q&A

Tickets: $10 ###

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