Blog posts by Gary Phillips.
The 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer was honored recently at Tougaloo College outside Jackson, Mississippi. There was a conference and certainly fond and bittersweet memories and lessons learned were shared. Freedom Summer was organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”) to bring a 1,000 mostly white idealist volunteers in 1964 to Mississippi to register black voters and strike a decisive blow against segregation.
Drawing by Tracy Sugarman, WWII vet, and Freedom Summer organizer
To say such an undertaking was pregnant with potential violent white backlash would be an understatement. That June as the campaign began, three civil rights workers, two who were white and one African American, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were arrested, released and followed, then they disappeared, their car torched and found in a swamp in Neshoba County. The perpetrators were the local Klan and the law. In fact the KKK had vowed to stand against the “nigger communist invasion” of Freedom Summer. The bodies of the murdered young men were found in a makeshift grave that August.
In 1975, when I was 16, I was aware of that incident and race relations in general in the so-called Magnolia state. It wasn’t long-ago history, it was reasonably fresh living history to me. That summer me and my dad Dikes were on our way to the Mississippi Delta to see a relative, Aunt Jo. Josephine Hutton was the sister of my mother’s father, Oscar Douglas Hutton, Professor O.D. Hutton. Aunt Jo was out of another era. She’d never been married and lived on the family farm in Shelby, at the time about a 120 acre concern. The town had been founded by freed blacks after slavery.
Aunt Jo cooked her meals on a wood burning stove, had a standalone freezer stocked with venison and rabbit, had skinned squirrels for their stringy meat, and kept a double-barreled shotgun she knew how to use. Each Christmas she’d send me a big box of pecans from the stand of pecan trees on her property. The land was rented out to the Mangialardi brothers, Johnny and Flowers. Soy beans were grown.
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Based on these precepts, Asimov wrote various short stories and novels of humans and robots over the ensuing years. His classic riff on the locked room mystery, the novel Caves of Steel, is about a robot accused of killing a human and a human cop must team up with a sentient robot to solve the crime. It’s not that there are qualms about deactivating the supposed murderer –– it’s just a high functioning machine, after all. It isn’t real is it? The creeping paranoia of the novel is what does the crime portend for humankind if robots, like humans and their laws, can calculate and act on breaking their laws. If that could happen, might they not rise up and turn against us?
Rogue robots, indeed robots out to conquer and subjugate humans, are the basis of the comic book character Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. created by comics artist and writer Russ Manning in 1963. He’s a future man who as an orphan was raised by the Obi Wan of robots known as 1-A. Originally Magnus ran around in a metal mesh mini-skirt (a short toga, I suppose) and Ann-Margaret-like white go-go boots, karate chopping the hell out of killer robots.
Finally the task I’d been putting off for decades has been undertaken. For the last several weeks, usually on the weekend or at night after writing or editing or attending to the lawn is done, I’ve been getting my comic book collection in order. I have about 6,000 comic books going back to the mid ‘60s when comics were 12¢ a piece — the average comic book now costs $3.99 per. It look like I’ll probably get rid of a quarter or some 2,000 books when I’m done. The ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a lot of goofy titles like Rom the Space Knight and The Human Fly.
While I’m dealing out comics on the living room floor to create stacks of the various titles, I leaf through this or that book, cataloguing costumed heroes like Batman, Green Arrow and Superman. Masked do-gooders whose respective kid sidekicks were Robin, Speedy and pal Jimmy Olson – the ones who usually didn’t get the headlines but did help catch the bad guys. They did their share of the heavy lifting. Hell, the first Robin, Dick Grayson, grew up and became Nightwing, getting his own title.
I’ve yet to read the ongoing Image comic book series, but I do watch the Walking Dead TV show on cable. I’ve seen most of the permutations of zomibiedom that George Romero, the filmmaker who gave us the kick ass original black and white, low budget Night of the Living Dead, has produced over the years. Having read the 1954 book, I’ve also seen how Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend , said to be an influence on Night of the Living Dead, about a vampire plague that transforms humanity, and the seemingly lone remaining human man, Robert Neville, who is immune and tries to figure out why. The book has been filmed three times and itself transformed. First it was the ‘60s the Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price. Filmed in Rome, dubbed in English, except for Price (though I suppose he was dubbed in Italian) and transplanted from where the book is set in and around Gardena, California.
Initially my piece on death and taxes was going to be about the famous and infamous dinged by the tax collector. “Scarface” Al Capone went to prison, busted on unpaid taxes, and died there, first going bughouse crazy from untreated syphilis. Redd Foxx lost a couple of homes a couple of times in Vegas from unpaid taxes and surely that was part of the stress that lead to his massive fatal heart attack. Nic Cage, whose career can’t be killed no matter how indifferent he is to the movies he does (though I did dig Drive Angry and Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance), had to sell off his sweet comic book collection to help pay his back taxes – including DC Comics Action No. 1, the first appearance of Superman in 1938, for $2.1 million.
And Wesley Snipes, who played Blade, a half-human, half-vampire – thus the walking dead — character from Marvel Comics in three movies, got hooked up with two anti-tax, anti-government organizations; the afrocentric United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and the rightwing American Rights Litigators (ARL) in an effort to avoid paying his due. Among other pursuits, the United Nuwaubians claimed once that 144,000 of the chosen ones would be taken up to the home galaxy of Ilyuwn as apocalypse ensued. What a surprise then that neither group offered sound counsel. Snipes is out this month from doing the majority of his three year stint in the joint.
Rather, true to my lefty roots, I’m going to make the case for taxes, at least insofar as libraries are concerned. This week of April 15 is also National Library Week and probably aside from Social Security, Medicare and education, I can’t think of a better use of our tax money than supporting our libraries. Sure, I’m biased, my mom was a librarian and early on I learned to love reading. Initially a chore I had to complete after my grade school homework, I soon got carried away reading those kid versions of Robin Hood and Pinocchio. I suppose the germ had always lain dormant in me, as the natural inclination of being made to read extra should have caused me to rebel. But my mom knew what she was doing, she knew those descriptive passages on paper would be the catalyst.
There were several topics I considered for this “How To” post for Dr. Pop. I used to be something of a shade tree mechanic and have installed a clutch, done the brakes, swapped out a water pump and even with my dad, Dikes, a real mechanic, rebuilt a ’58 Ford Fairlane. I’ve changed door locks, and done some minor plumbing tasks around the house, including replacing washers and even unbolted a toilet to replace the wax gasket for the waste pipe. Certainly one derives a sense of satisfaction successfully completing such endeavors as well as saving a few bucks.
I also eschewed writing a step-by-step retelling of how I once, after consulting an online source, replaced the drive belt in our clothes dryer. For it seems the fix-it I’ve done recently that has brought me great satisfaction was getting rid of a bothersome patch of bamboo in my Aunt Margaret’s back yard. This bamboo has crept over from her neighbor’s yard on the northern side of her house. While the neighbor has a back yard with an old pick-up and appliances, and seemingly not troubled by the bamboo sprouting willy-nilly on his side of the their common chain link fence, my auntie is not so charitable. Like kudzu, the bamboo stalks had begun to thrust their way further and further onto her property. Left unattended, the stuff would take over – and she has a sizable back yard that includes a grapefruit and lemon trees.
I don’t know if it’s been instructive, but it has been interesting to chart the reactions, negative and positive, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has garnered among the black intellgencia. I liked the slavery-spaghetti western mashup. But then, to me real events are there for the plucking, to be appropriated by pop culturists and re-imagined. As one of the few patrons sitting in the Rave theater in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza last year during a matinee, I damn near fell out of my seat at a particular scene in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, another example of the mashup. In this flick, ol’ stove pipe hat wields a silver edged ax like a three-armed samurai.
There’s a scene where Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, makes a pact with the head vampire to work together to defeat the Union Army. In this way slaves would not only still be the labor force propping up the South’s economy, but food for the vampires. Damn. Well, that must have quelled the film being shown in various parts south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But I suppose since the film wasn’t a hit, like Django Unchained, what white Johnny Reb backlash there was to that scene was minimal. Though I imagine if the screenwriter or the director were black, that would have engendered some pin head commentary from the self-appointed arbiters of “American” culture on Fixed, that is, Fox, News or the Rushness himself.
For surely Tarantino as writer-director has pushed the buttons when you have the right wing Limbaugh denounce his film as it being ginned up that we are still a slave nation. Edward Boyer in a piece for Zocalo Public Square reported on a panel that took place at Eso Won Bookstore in Leimert Park about the film. He reported that the panelists did not like the film for various reasons including distorting the history of slavery, gore for gore’s sake –a critique that is pretty much leveled at all of Tarantino’s films, and so on.
In an article on CBSNews.com, Terry Moore, the artist-writer-publisher of the Strangers in Paradise graphic novels, a blend of Friends meets the political thriller, and Echo, a sort of female Iron Man (which has been optioned for film), said: This is a really great industry to find America’s best short story writers right now because where else are you going to find them?”
Well you could find short stories where they’ve always been, in prose anthologies and on the newsstand in the monthly Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine or literary rags, but his point has a certain resonance. That is given graphic novels are these days available in their own sections in Barnes & Noble – form as genre — and can be checked out from your local library.
It’s not that Joe Sacco is the first comics artist, a sequentialist if you’ll allow, to produce stories different from the bread and butter of the likes of Marvel or DC; grim costumed avengers in dark spandex or muscled babes with booties to bounce fifty cent pieces off and make change. In the 1950s there was EC, for Educational Comics, published by William Gaines They produced lurid crime and horror comics packaged in covers with hanging bodies, eyes bulging out, decapitated female heads and originated titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Mad. They also published a different kind of science-fiction story in 1953 called “Judgment Day” written by Al Feldstein, and drawn and inked by Joe Orlando.
In the story a helmeted spaceman, Tarlton, a representative of the Galactic Republic comes to the planet of robots called Cybrinia. The robots are identically built, divided color-wise into orange and blue. Only it turns out the blues have less rights than their orange counterparts. Observing this, Tarlton decides the Cybrinians aren’t ready yet to be admitted into the Republic. Then in the last panel as he heads home in his ship, he removes his helmet to reveal he’s black. The then Comics Code, the supposed arbiters of what was fit material for America’s youth, tried to shitcan the story but weren’t successful
During the heyday of the underground comix era of the late ‘60s to the mid-‘70s, hippie publishers like the Rip Off Press, Last Gasp and Krupp Comics Works put out mostly black and white, with color covers, comics by a new wave of artists and writers. They were weaned on the antiwar movement, the Black Panthers and copious amounts of marijuana smoking. Some of these artists worked as assistants to mainstream, superhero artists.
In December of 2011, for the fifth time in its history, the pro football team the Green Bay Packers sold stock in the team. They looked to sell 250,000 shares to raise $62 million or so toward a budget of $163 mil to renovate Lambeau Field, including adding 6,600 seats. Season tickets for the Packers always sell out. But you have to be a real fan of the team given the stock pays no dividends, and cannot be sold or traded. The shares can only be transferred to a family member, and shareholders receive no preferential treatment in terms of tickets. The Packers are the only publically-owned team in the National Football League.
The team has working class roots. They were founded in Wisconsin in 1919, named after the local meat processing (meaning slaughterhouse) plant, the Indian Packing Company. It was in 1923 when they first sold stock. From their website we’re told, Green Bay Packers, Inc., has been a publicly owned, non-profit corporation since Aug. 18, 1923, when original articles of incorporation were filed with Wisconsin’s secretary of state. A total of 4,750,937 shares are owned by 112,120 stockholders — none of whom receives any dividend on the initial investment. The corporation is governed by a board of directors and a seven-member executive committee. No one person can own more than 200,000 shares.
It comes as no surprise the Packers are an anomaly in pro sports. All other teams are owned by owners who make money and don’t like anything getting in the way of that — like say pesky players seeking their fair share given its their labor that generates those monies. While the notion of a conference playoff series between the L.A. Lakers and the L.A. Clippers has been dashed for this year, as both teams lost their respective second rounds, there was doubt as recent as last December that there would be no season at all. The players and their union were in a contracted lockout with the owners over various issues including average salaries and percentages of the gate. Without going into all the back and forth, the upshot is the players blinked. The owners essentially got, via their mouthpiece Commissioner David Stern, a three billion dollar shift over the next decade as the players went from a demand of 57% of revenues for salaries (thus raising the average bank for the non-superstars) to getting 50% of revenues.
Heck of an anniversary to mark, this 20th year since the riots or civil unrest if you prefer jumped off that day on April 29 after the not guilty verdicts came in from Simi Valley. Pretty much the only thing I knew about Simi Valley then was the year before the Ronald Reagan Library had been opened out there. So when the trial of the four cops who beat Rodney King was switched to Simi, you had the feeling no good, from the black community’s standpoint, was going to come from such a change of venue.
But it wasn’t just the verdicts in the King beating, by happenstance caught on surreptitious video by George Holliday, that stoked the maelstrom to be. Echoes of today and the shooting death of the unarmed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida by self-appointed neighborhood watcher George Zimmerman, there had been another shooting of an unarmed black teenager before siegu [Hangul for 4/29], April 29.
On the morning of March 16, 1991, 15-year-old high school student Latasha Harlins stopped in the Empire Liquor Market Deli on Figueroa near Manchester to buy a bottle of orange juice. She put the juice in her backpack, holding the money for the item as she came to the counter. The 51-year-old Soon Ja Du, a Korean national, behind the counter assumed the girl was trying to steal from her store and they got into a heated argument. Du grabbed at Latasha’s backpack and the girl struck her. Latasha then threw the orange juice bottle on the counter and turned to leave, whereupon Du shot her in the back of the head killing here instantly. Ultimately Judge Joyce Karlin would essentially exonerate Du, convicted of manslaughter but given probation and no jail time Karlin faced a recall that failed – years later she would go on to serve on the Manhattan Beach City Council for two terms — and Empire was firebombed during the unrest.
I’ll often say this when I’m on a panel about writing mysteries; I’ll mention that any student or fan of the genre should read the Maltese Falcon by Samuel Dashiell Hammett who went by his middle name as a writer. Originally serialized in Black Mask, a pulp magazine where several well-known mystery writers got their start, the novel was published in 1930. Now the titular hero of the book, private eye Sam Spade, only appears in this novel and a handful of short stories. Hammett wrote far more stories and two novels with his nameless private eye, the man known only as the Continental Op. This short, pudgy balding man worked out of the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco, also the home of Spade.
While the Continental Op stories are not chopped liver, but for my money, the Maltese Falcon is the template for the characters and situations that come along decades later, even today, in mystery and crime stories. The patter, the cynical PI (“He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” Hammett wrote), the duplicitous femme fatal, the quixotic villains, and the fabled dingus that everybody is willing to do everything to obtain. For a couple of years not too long ago, me and writer Eduardo Santiago taught several reading and discussing the classics classes to incarcerated youth. This was part of a project by the Children’s Institute — our friend and fellow novelist Nina Revoyr who works there brought us onto the gig. The goal was the bring the love of reading to underserved communities, and you can’t get more underserved than young men in the joint.
Recently I did a presentation to the staff of the Western Center on Law and Poverty about the search for the narrative. The idea being that attorneys and support staff, including the folks who raise the money for the organization, could benefit from a discussion about the basics of why and how to tell your good work in stories. I did ask the gathered who among them wrote outside the context of their work and was pleasantly surprised at the answers. The people in the room included three ex-reporters, including one for the L.A. Times who’d done an expose about the terrible conditions in some retirement homes. There was also a woman who with her husband had won money on TV game shows and together they’d written a how-to book on such.
Goes to show you everybody has a story. That like in fiction where you talk about a character’s backstory, those elements that determine who they are when we come on them in the tale, in real life there are events that have lead us to where we are today as well. Stories have layers. There have been studies by neuroscientists attesting to humans being hardwired for stories. From cave paintings, histories and deeds recounted around the camp fire to hand lettered illuminated manuscripts, storytelling has always been part of us. Maybe our brains seek order in an otherwise chaotic existence.
Related stories: The Right to Water in California
The real world event of what’s been called the Cochabamba Water Wars found its way into two recent feature films. Cochabamba is the third largest city in Bolivia and in 1999 to 2000, the residents got organized and mobilized to stop a multi-national from privatizing their water.
Quantum of Solace released in 2008 is a James Bond, Double-Oh-Seven adventure I saw at the Cinerama Dome with by buddy, fellow mystery writer Bob Ward. The picture has an exciting car chase for an opener and Bond’s Bourne Identity-like close hand-to-hand combat scenes are smashing as he might say. But the main villain in the film, Dominic Greene, is as bland as the white suits he wore. In fact what I distinctly recall discussing with Bob after the flick was, “Man, what was up with that? This is the franchise that gave us Goldfinger painting a woman in gold for revenge. The German-Chinese Dr. No and his kung fu grip mechanical hands. But Greene. Really?!”
Anyway, Quantum deals, in part, with the on-the-nose named Greene, a member of the evil Quantum cabal that Bond is chasing down, out to control the water supply in Bolivia through his fake eco-friendly front. There’s maybe one scene of some indigenous folks lining up for water but mostly Bolivia is represented by the fetching and deadly Bolivian secret agent Camille Montes who has a personal score to settle with her fellow countryman General Medrano, the officer instituting the coup as he’s in the pocket of Greene. Okay, it’s a Bond film so of course he has to do the heavy lifting, but there’s not even a scene where he leads the roused Bolivian compasinos against Greene’s fortress. I guess the producers concluded that wouldn’t be PC, the white savior showing up to lead the bedraggled brown folk — what with Bond having to exist as a kind of blunted post-Soviet Union imperialist for her majesty these days. Or did Bond defeat Greene merely to ensure the proper allied oligarchs would control the water?
Last year’s Even the Rain, from Spain, shown in the States in art houses and at film festivals, has a lot more depth and verisimilitude going for it than 007’s last outing. It’s a film within a film set-up and deals with a Spanish film crew arriving in Cochabamba during that fateful time to shoot a lefty film about Christopher Columbus. Essentially they will show Columbus in a revisionist light as he exploits, enslaves and commits inhuman acts against the indios in the so-called New World – all for their gold and labor. Indeed the focus of the story’s film is a priest, Bartolomé de las Casas, a cleric who eventually campaigned against the brutal treatment of native people. Daniel is one of the non-actors the director Sebastian casts for the film for his Indian face and forceful way to play an historical leader named Hatuey, is also an organizer working to stop a multi-national company from privatizing their water.
Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victors.
For centuries, the histories of Africa and Latin America were told via the pens of their European colonizers. In the wake of often-armed political struggles in those aforementioned regions, college campuses in the 1960s stirred with struggles to establish ethnic studies programs to reclaim the truth from lost and falsified histories. Ethnic studies not only illuminated that which had been denied, but also created pride and self-esteem within those American of color who may well have been ignorant of their own pasts.
My own eyes were certainly opened when (get this) one of our white teachers taught a black history class at Lutheran High School.
He’s walked back what he said, as the saying goes. But on May 15 when answering a question on Meet the Press about the Medicare Trust Fund –– now being projected to be depleted by 2024 –– presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich denounced proposals for restructuring the Fund by some in his Party.
Essentially there are those, such as Representative Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, advocating for the creation of block grants to states to fund the program. Gingrich stated, “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.”
When Gregory mentioned Ryan specifically, that the senator is suggesting completely changing Medicare, Gingrich stated, “I think that is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose upon the–I don’t want to–I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”
Professor Elizabeth Warren strikes me as a smart, cool customer. I’ve only seen her on the tube on the Daily Show and the NewsHour, but you get the impression from what she says and her straight forward manner that she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to financial oversight matters and how to safeguard the American taxpayer. While my understanding of high finance is meager at best — and even director Oliver Stone and his co-screenwriters, Allen Loeb, Stephen Schiff and Stanley Weiser in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps couldn’t explain the Big Meltdown but rather ultimately offered up a sting story you could see coming (yet the angle-playing characters in the flick somehow couldn’t) mid-way through — Ms. Warren has struck me as someone who not only knows the score but what has to be done to keep the wolves from gobbling up the entire chicken coop.
In the Watchman comic book maxi-series and subsequent movie, the venal masked thug the Comedian got the joke. He knew as one of the Watchmen, a grouping of super-heroes, that as long as he maintained the status quo, he could literally get away with murder because his actions kept the ones in power, in power. Who watchers the watchers indeed. Professor Warren is the one who came up with the idea of a federal consumer financial protection entity – which became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). But because she isn’t like the Comedian, because she isn’t a rubber stamper like many of the other lawyer-politician-lobbyists who populate the backrooms and trendy bars of the Hill and its environs, she is the natural enemy of Wall Street which means she’s the perfect person to be our watcher.
Gary, Celine and Gilda on the question of spontaneity vs preparation.
LISTEN to the Conversation
READ the Transcript:
Gary: This is long running, at least in political circles. This has been a long-running battle or struggle over spontaneity versus preparation insofar as in Britain you’ve had these massive rallies opposing the cuts and the fee increases. I want to use that as a jumping off point.
Wasn’t a lot of that spontaneous? And then it grew and grew? I’m asking you, Celine, more than anybody.
Celine: Of course there are certain events that were organized. Ror example, tomorrow we have what’s probably going to be one of the biggest marches this country has seen in generations. We’ve been preparing for months, but there’s definitely been….
Gilda: We’re having a big march tomorrow too…
Celine: Oh, really? What are you guys marching for? Or against?
Gary: It was one of those things that was planned by the County Federation of Labor for some time and it was going to initially be in support of teachers and unclassified workers. And then Wisconsin and then all this other stuff. And then it also grew to include — actually, I’m sorry –– it was going to be for the private sector union folks, but then it grew to include public sector workers. It is an example of something that because of recent events had to obviously change course and expand.
Celine: Right. The student movements have been very interesting because the police have a very specific preventative techniques here – what they call preventative techniques — to control the crowd.
Celine: Kettling is the main one, which is basically: the police encircle protesters when they think violence is going to ensue, and its a way, supposedly, to contain the violence before it happens.
But realistically, what that looks like most of the time is — at least in these protests — we’ve been systematically punished, I guess. Every time we would go out and march we would be encircled by cops and then held there for hours on end, in the freezing cold usually.
So there’s been a huge level of spontaneity that has occurred as a result of that because none of us wanted to get kettled. So the student protests have actually become these sort of really, really fun kind of guerilla protests where we start a march and we just take over the streets and we don’t really know where we’re going. The decisions are made on the spot and the cops don’t know what to do and they end up just basically being traffic control, because we block the streets and occupy shops on the way and then other people join us.
I was once asked by a book editor to come up with an outline for a novel set in a slightly futurized Los Angeles. It was obvious to me that any novel I’d outline about a future L.A. would naturally be set after the Big One hit. As an L.A. native I’ve come through several earthquakes. In the ‘70s in high school I even stayed in bed half dozing as one rocked our house in South Central. In ‘94, Dr. Pop and I rushed out of bed to grab our then small children and get downstairs under an archway during the Northridge quake. So I was somewhat blasé about earthquakes as I suppose many Californians get.
I’d seen the ‘70s disaster film Earthquake all about a cast of stars led by Charlton Heston (before he was president of the National Rifle Association) who cope before and after a huge quake destroys L.A. There was the film Escape from Los Angeles where a devastating earthquake had separated a large swath of the Southland from the mainland, and Los Angeles Island is a massive prison. In 2012, the 2009 movie, the Mayan calendar is realized – or maybe it has something to do with the Earth’s core melting — and pretty much the world is destroyed yet somehow John Cusack drives through the mother of all earthquakes in L.A. in the limousine he drives for a living with his family. There’s also the science fiction novel Lucifer’s Hammer where a massive tsunami wipes out parts of the Southland after chunks of a comet strike the Earth.
But this was before Haiti and Japan and the point reiterated that earthquakes are not a plot device, but have real and fatal impacts.
I have no set idea of what Utopia looks like and I blame my youth on this.
In fact, I can point to the day at my grade school, 61st Street Elementary in South Central, when, if there ever was a chance for such to seed, that notion was shattered. Our teachers hipped us to the Dewey Decimal system so we could find books in different categories in our well-stocked school library. Thus mentally armed, me and the other kids were let loose in the library and I recall vividly seeking out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. To this day, decades later, I can’t tell you why I knew about this book. Disney had made a film in ’55 with Kirk Douglas and James Mason, but at that point at eight or nine, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen it on TV.
The book, a science-fiction novel, was first published in 1869. It’s about the mysterious Captain Nemo and his ocean spanning submarine the Nautilus. The brilliant biologist and mechanical engineer Nemo (Latin for “no one”) is sinking war ships in his crusade to end war. Revealed in a follow up novel of Vernes’, Mysterious Island, Nemo is actually Prince Dakkar, son of a raja, and has devoted his life to battling injustice and imperialism, particularly the British Empire for conquering his native India. Thus he is both freedom fighter and terrorist, seeking to enact his vision for a better world Okay, so that’s not exactly a utopian dream, but in sci-fi novels, the road to utopia, made as it is by flawed humans, oft derails into dystopia.
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
While it’s odd to think of Los Angeles as fitting in the theme of a Resistance City, there are hardcore struggles going on in various sectors of the vast metropolis. For instance on the economic front, in what’s becoming a familiar refrain, yet again public worker union members had to mobilize and descend on Los Angeles City Hall on January 12 at a city council hearing. Mind you, I’m not an unbiased observer as I do contract communications work for one of the affected unions, Local 3090 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The local’s members include 911 police emergency dispatchers, clerks in the Building and Safety department, and message clerks in the library system. It’s predominantly a female local, with a high number of people of color in its numbers.
On the table before the council was another drastic proposal by the city’s Chief Accounting Officer, Miguel Santana. He’d argued for the city to lease out nine city-owned parking garages to private entities — a deal that’s supposed to realize $300 million eventually, with the city seeing some $53.2 million this fiscal year to help balance the budget. Another round of so-called “shared sacrifice” the pols like to call it. A phrase unionized auto workers would tell you has a cynical ring to it.
If the council voted not to do this, then Santana said there would have to be another work day furlough imposed on the workers. This would not be rolling furlough days as there are now – 26 in a fiscal year, but one furlough day a week until the end of this fiscal year on July 1 (the shortfall for fiscal year 2011-12 for the city is projected to be $350 million).
Our federal deficit is hovering somewhere around $14 trillion.
A deficit, as anyone who has had to maintain a household budget will tell you, is the gap between what you spend and what you earn. But unlike having to pay for heat, light, food, rent and a car note, spending on our nation’s level has many more complexities.
For instance, we chose ––or some would argue, were sold a bill of goods –– to go to war with Iraq and Afghanistan under the rubric of the never-ending War on Terror.
According to several estimates, those two wars are now costing us taxpayers around $3 billion weekly. Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Professor Linda J. Bilmes two years ago published a book called the Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq War, which predicted that the actual budgetary and economic costs of that single war would reach that number.
In an October 27 post on the Daily Beast, Bilmes wrote the two have now revised their estimates and predict the cost of the wars will be between $4 and $6 trillion. All wars are not equal: due to troop reductions in Iraq, Afghanistan costs are now greater in that country.
David Simon, creator and executive producer (with former Baltimore detective Ed Burns) of The Wire, wrote of two competing myths in America in an introduction to The Wire: Truth be Told by Rafael Alvarez (who wrote episodes of the show), a book examining the creative and actual arenas that underscored his series that resonated beyond the actual numbers of people who watched the episodic on HBO.
He stated if you were smarter, shrewder or frugal or visionary, the first with the best idea, given the process of the free market, you will succeed beyond your wildest imagination. Conversely, if you don’t posses those qualities, if you’re not slick or cunning, but willing to work hard, be a citizen and devoted to your family, why there was something for you too.
Simon went on to note that in Baltimore with its brownfields, rotting piers and rusting factories, are testament that the economy shifted then shifted again, rendering obsolete generations of union-wage workers and workers’ families. The Wire then is a story wedged between these two competing American myths. Physically, The Wire’s West Baltimore landscape of cracked sidewalks, busted out street lamps and streets dotted with boarded up row houses reflects the physical manifestations of the shifted economy, as well as a the signs of the underground economy that partially filled the economic vacuum – the drug trade.
Urban planners write about spatial justice, about how cities are laid out, developments developed, and you get results like park poor, healthcare deficient and public transit lacking urban cores. It has been shown how blueprints can codify class and race-based policies that short-change people of color and the working poor. Grassroots organization arise in response to these inequalities to organize residents to push back on such planning that has historically left them out of the process or marginalized their needs and concerns.
I believe as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not that into public spaces, though I have nothing against them personally. But there is one such public space I dig, and at least sporadically, have enjoyed over time; the Grand Performances series which have taken place for some 24 years. This has been a publicly and privately funded nonprofit enterprise bringing music and other arts for free to the downtown L.A. venue of the Water Court at the California Plaza.
Ordinarily the plaza is an open air dining and coffee drinking space set on a tier, that is you can park underneath or walk up to its plateau fronting an elevated Grand Avenue from lower Olive Street on its eastern side, where the plaza is set among massive office towers and the Omni Hotel. Across Olive is the apex of Angel’s Flight, a funicular rail that goes up and down a short run of Bunker Hill. Angel’s Flight (having re-opened recently after being shut down for a decade in the wake of a fatal accident) has been seen in noir films such as the lurid ‘50s masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly with Ralph Meeker as the best Mike Hammer ever, to the recent Our Family’s Wedding, a comedy about the misadventures of an African-American groom and his Mexican-American bride and their respective soon to be in-laws.
Back to Grand Performances. Over the years a broad range of sound and visuals have been on tap at this space from the retro lounge/world beat band Pink Martini, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the Watts Prophets, the spoken word progenitors who came out o the Watts riots of ’65, the music of Battlestar Galactica (and this is not the time to delineate the current incarnation of Battlestar and its Caprica offspring on cable, but suffice it to say this sci-fi epic ain’t your daddy’s ‘80s Battlestar helmed by Bonanza’s Lorne Greene on network TV), the Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra, to the silent film, La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc with a live score accompanying it featuring strings and a choir.
No doubt I’m the last cat who should be writing about public space. I mean here at home in Los Angeles I rarely think about public space and congregating in same. That is, I do congregate occasionally, I just don’t go out of my way to do it. Because mostly I’m in my car going to and fro – and when I get to my destination, it’s rarely to a park. I have nothing against open spaces, I like open spaces and certainly L.A., particularly our urban areas of the city, that are green poor – though this is not the only way in which gathering spaces are manifested in this city.
Lord knows people have meetings, write screenplays or work on the Great American Novel on their laptops (or playing World of Warcraft with who knows who all else online) at many a Starbuck’s or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in this considerable town. Maybe somebody has tracked this, but I’ve yet to see or hear about a sinewy barrista kicking somebody out for staying too long in their coffee shop. But then, it seems these folks now and then buy a coffee, frappachino and/or bottle of water to keep the static down.
My gym, which the lovely and talented Dr. Pop pays for – as one has to have perks in this line of work – is an L.A. Fitness housed in a former Montgomery Ward department store in a mall on La Cienega near the 10 Freeway. Okay, so already it’s not a public space, but bear with me a moment. Given this is ethnically rich L.A. and the geography of where the gym is (located in between several distinct neighborhoods), this facility gets a cross section of its inhabitants from young sleek-muscled tatted ballers wearing just the right shoes for their hops to, what I presume to be, orthodox Jewish woman in sweat gear that includes long stretch skirts, sweat pants under that and coverings for their head. Admittedly, you don’t generally find representatives of these two groups awaiting their respective turns at the preacher curl machine, gabbing about the latest episode of Rookie Blue.
At nearly 139 square miles in size, Detroit is larger than Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco combined. Home to some two million at one point, the population has shrunk to less than half at 800,000 and decreasing. Motown, the once Motor City U.S.A., has seen hard times since either one of those appellations applied to a city that’s been struck with what my Uncle Norman would have called, “buzzard’s luck.”
Detroit has been riding a rough road for a long time. Mayor Bing and wonks like Data Driven Detroit controversially seek to physically downsize the city. This past May, seven-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed by a policeman’s bullet in a tragic incident arising from a botched police raid. Also in May, Kwame Kilpatrick, who once billed himself as the nation’s first hip-hop mayor of Detroit, was sentenced from 18 months to five years for violating probation. You might recall when in office the married Kilpatrick was busted for sexting the woman he was having an affair with, his chief of staff Christine Beatty. Kilpatrick, whose administration was plagued by several scandals and charges of corruption, and who once had a license to practice law, was initially convicted of two counts of perjury.
Kilpatrick was sent to the former Jackson prison, which is now called the Charles Egler Reception and Guidance Center. Jackson was once home to another Detroit native, the former pimp and junkie Donald Goines. In 1969, being re- incarcerated at Jackson, Goines started reading the paperback original novels of another pimp and hustler, Robert Beck aka Iceberg Slim. This and his mother bringing him a manual typewriter while in the joint inspired Goines to write and eventually publish such books as Never Die Alone (filmed in 2004 with rapper DMX as the criminal protagonist) and arguably his best book, Daddy Cool.
But it’s Detroit in the era of Goines and hit songs like “Only the Strong Survive and “It’s Your Thing,” where the city and places like Hamtramck and even Flint, 66 miles away, were on the boom due in no small measure to the car industry. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, were turning out cars and trucks like there was no tomorrow — where at the point of production, peoples’ lives changed materially and politically.
Recently Dr. Pop and I attended a screening (a fundraiser to help send young activists and organizers to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit next week) at the Community Coalition in South L.A. of a 55-minute black and white documentary originally released in 1970 called Finally Got the News. Made by Stewart Bird, Rene Lichtman and Peter Gessner, Finally dynamically captures a period in time when the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was on the move. This was a group who arose from the shop floor of Detroit’s automakers who sought to not only confront the racism and unequal treatment inside the plants, but the complacency and cozy relationship of their union, the United Auto Workers, with management and the police. Read More…
You see, as Rice relates, he has a new book out, The Moonlit Earth. When he was first contemplating the book, he knew he was going to have a female protagonist and wanted to give her more heft than how female characters are often portrayed in books by men. He singled out four types of women he wanted to see eliminated from the genre. These are: the long-suffering cop’s wife who just doesn’t understand her husband’s call to duty (often, in the past at least, this was also the girlfriend of the private eye); the babe assassin (well, sorry Christopher, you simply can’t deny the appeal of foxy vampire slayers like Anita Blake, Jane Yellowrock or Damali Richards); the ice queen bureaucrat (agreed); the token lesbian cop (ditto).
Now given this is a belated Mother’s Day post by a mystery writer, and the aforementioned slayer chicks don’t have children – though I think they fool around with studly shirtless vampire beefcakes now and then, it’s appropriate to give a brief lowdown on mothers who sleuth.
For instance a particular favorite of Dr. Pop was a couple of books, Going Nowhere Fast and Bad News Travels Fast, by friend and fellow mystery scribe Gar Anthony Haywood. Joe and Dottie Loudermilk are a retired couple (she a professor and he a cop) who like to travel with their Airstream trailer to various national landmarks. Their wanderlust was inspired in part to get away from the troublesome grown children though invariably their kids would get the parents involved in some damn mischief.
This Saturday, April 17, in honor of Earth Day, there will be activities in South L.A. This is a good thing, of course, as all of us should be concerned about the fate of our environment and what we can do to not kill our world and us. Now I’m not going to enjoin the debate about whether climate change is happening or not, I mean, it seems to me the evidence is clear that Polar bears are losing their ice floes, but hey, I’m no expert.
For even the experts are divided…just look at the debate between climatologists who pretty much agree that global warming is happening versus meteorologists, some of whom are TV weather forecasters, who are skeptical. There’s a recent study done by George Mason University and the University of Texas on this divide, with something like a fourth of the weathercasters surveyed agreeing with the statement, “Global warming is a scam.”
But back to South L.A. I’m sure one of the aspects of the celebrations will be about green jobs and green job training. For as this Great Recession has affected the middle class and those with technical skills, it has devastated the job prospects for youth of color, particularly black and brown young folks. The jobless rate for whites in the United States in March was 8.8 percent. For blacks it was nearly double – 16.5 percent; and for Hispanics 12.6 percent. These unemployment rates increased for both minority groups from the previous month – while it stayed steady for whites.
There are efforts here in Los Angeles to create a wellspring of green jobs opportunities in new construction and in regards to retrofitting existing structures, and apprenticeship programs partnering with the building trades. Mindful too that the building trades has traditionally been a white male bastion of workers where it was somebody you knew or your brother or cousin who got you on the job. Though there has been work buy some of the forward thinkers in and outside of organized labor to break down that good ol’ boy system We even have Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa trying to push through his and Councilman Richard Alarcon’s Green Energy Compromise Plan. The plan relies on a one-time only rate increase, and setting aside certain earmarked monies for renewable energy.
Yet the City of Los Angeles is in the midst of one of the worst budget deficits in its history while simultaneously the state of California is damn near broke. On top of forced furloughs and layoffs abounding, there are at least 4,000 city jobs are on the chopping block or facing further curtailing of work hours. Added to that, the Department of Water and Power (DWP) is in a pissing contest with the City. The DWP didn’t turn over some of their surplus to the general fund because it didn’t get the rate increase it wanted from the City Council. As this matter gets wrestled out, notions like a green tax seem like an awfully big rock to push up the deficit hill and get cash-strapped, future uncertain voters or their elected to approve.
Let alone then where does the money come from to fund green jobs programs, particularly as this relates to inner city youth? Is all this green talk just feel good rhetoric? I don’t know, but in my next post, I’ll go looking for a few answers.
Until then, check out these L.A. efforts:
As mentioned in my previous post – back to the future of dystopia – with an emphasis on re-zoning sci-fi style.
I can’t cite the direct literary root (or route), though this idea of a walled-off or secret city separate from hostile environs has threaded its way through various science fiction and fantasy novels and films over the years. Tarzan searched for and protected the Lost City of Opar in a few of his adventures. In Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, an entire planetoid, our moon, is populated with underground colonies containing, among others, criminals and political exiles.
Pissed off with their lot, some of these disparate forces band together for freedom against Earth rule and stage a revolt. Marvel Comics’ Black Panther is the super-hero, warrior king of the scientifically advanced hidden African kingdom of Wakanda. For centuries the one who wears the mantle of the panther has led the people to fight off everything from European colonizers to Dr. Doom.
The notion of the jewel of a city protected from the predatory outsiders is turned on its head in John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York. In this flick, due to runaway crime in the near future, Manhattan Island has been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison. Black helicopters patrol from the air, making sure no scofflaw climbs out.
Inside a kind of Lord of the Flies meets Clockwork Orange tableau has played out as various sub-cultures exist bumping up against each other amid the trash, crumbling buildings and warring gangs and tribes. It’s World War III between us, the Soviet Union and China, and the President of the United States’ plane is hijacked by revolutionaries, and crash lands in the prison-city. Ex-hero soldier turned bank robber Snake Plissken is sent in and has 24 hours to find the prez. The Duke of New York, leader of the latest gang, the Gypsies, is also on the hunt for the world leader. But the Duke lacks vision, he’s not out to unite the prisoners and fight for their freedom and sovereignty, he merely wants to use the president as a shield for an escape across one of the mined bridges. Read More…
James Cameron has a baseball cap with the letters HMFIC on its crown. As this is a family-friendly site, I won’t spell out what those letters stand for, but just consider his film Avatar has made a sweet billion dollars worldwide, and I’m sure you can deduce their meaning. Dr. Pop, aka Comrade Wife, our daughter Chelsea and I saw this wonder in glorious 3D at our damn near neighborhood theater in Culver City.
Like a lot of those who’ve seen the film, the special effects bowled me over from the ten-foot tall blue-skinned Na’vi to the bad ass, escapees from a Halo game, flying death machines of mass destruction the evil corporation wield as they wantonly try to subjugate the paradise planet Pandora. I was enthralled. Cameron has talked about having the idea for the film more than a decade ago, but had to wait for technology to catch up to tell the story the way he saw it in his head. As a kid, he reportedly read a lot of science fiction traveling to school an hour each way in Chippawa, Ontario, Canada. Well I’m betting he must have stumbled across some Edgar Rice Burroughs’ (of Tarzan fame) John Carter of Mars series of books in all that reading, eh?
In those books the Martians, who call the red planet Barsoom, are a mixed bunch of humanoids that include the ten (or maybe it’s twelve) foot tall green-skinned, four-armed fierce Tharks. Carter, a former Confederate officer who may be immortal, is kind of magically transported to Mars and becomes a warrior-savior figure there — fighting for justice rather than slavery, so that’s an improvement. Story elements from Burroughs to the Pocahontas bit are evidenced in Avatar.
I’m not hatin’ on Jim, but as a writer who wrestles with trying to inject originality in his stories, I do have to admit to envy given Cameron didn’t have to stretch when it came to the stock plot and characters in his film. From the cranky but dedicated scientist, the damaged, conflicted hero, the gorgeous, strong princess, to the one-dimensional villains, we’ve seen them before many times over. The not-so-subtle subtext of Avatar is essentially the noble natives winning over the expansionist imperialists. This in turn, according to Patrick Goldstein in his Big Picture column in the January 5, 2010 Calendar section of L.A. Times (and for a big city newspaper, it’s getting awfully thin isn’t it?) has the teabaggers and Palinites all a-twitter.
This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. But this intersection of politics and sci-fi, of dystopian to hard-fought utopian visions of the future, are not the stuff solely of other recent big budget movies like 2012 and The Road. There’s more, and we’ll get to them in my next post.
For those of you who like comics, check out this interview on Robot 6 about my new webcomic Bicycle Cop Dave, patrolling the underside of gentrification that I’m writing with Manoel Magalhães illustrating from Rio — for FourStory, the affordable housing/urban issues blog.
Maybe you’ll check out the story after reading the interview.
In some quarters, including the Colbert Report (though I must give props to brother Colbert for mentioning this on his show ‘cause otherwise I wouldn’t have known and thus have nothing to write about), it’s been reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the copyright infringement of the lyrics ‘bow wow wow yippie yo, yippiee yeah’ by the Master of Cosmic Slop, George Clinton.
Thing is the P-Funk ringmaster isn’t the winner, but an entity called Bridgeport Music which brought suit against Universal Music Group. In contention was a 1998 song D.O.G. in Me by a Universal group called Public Announcement who lifted, er, sampled, (among many others including Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube) those aforementioned lyrics from the 1982 funk and R&B classic, Atomic Dog, performed by Dr. Funkenstein his damn self, George Clinton. The song was written by Clinton, David Spradley and Garry Shider.
At trial Spradley testified Clinton had been out partying hard the night he was to come in and record lyrics to the song in the studio. He and Shider had to help the good doctor stand at the mic on unsteady pins, and letting him riff until something good happened.
“I just had the word dog,” Clinton recalled on NPR in 2006. “That’s all I had in my mind. I had to ad lib a lot of it. The track was atomic. It’s a futuristic track. “I don’t still hear no tracks like that one.”
The ultimate irony here is some sources have stated Bridgeport “administers” Clinton’s music. Apparently that’s a 21st century euphemism for you as the writer won’t see squat. As Mr. Maggot Brain apparently twittered post the court’s decision, neither he nor the other writers of the song will see any of the $89,000 in damages Bridgeport was awarded for Atomic Dog’s unauthorized use by Public Announcement. Bridgeport filed some 476 cases of copyright suits in 2001, with two – this case and one against the late Notorious B.I.G. – making it to trail.
Clinton has had legal wranglings with Bridgeport, his former music publisher, over the rights to his work. In 2005 he won ownership of the master recordings to four albums he made with his group Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove, Hardcore Jollies, Uncle Jam Wants You and the Electric Spanking of War Babies. This gave him licensing and recording rights. But he doesn’t own the copyrights of the songs on those albums or others like the ones on Computer Games from which the Atomic Dog single arose.
In a tale too often repeated among musicians, as this was particularly an egregious situation among blues and rhythm and blues musicians, in 1983 a broke George Clinton signed away those copyrights for the $1 million advance he got from Bridgeport. In 2001 a judge upheld that contract as well as pointing out that even if Clinton did have those rights, he couldn’t profit from them, because he didn’t disclose them as possible income when he filed for bankruptcy in 1984.
I guess the lesson here is there’s a niche to be filled in offering financial literacy classes to musicians. That when you’re shelling out money for hoochies on the video, motherships to descend on stage, and indulging for who knows what vice among your entourage, you gotta budget.
In the words of Funkadelic, can you get to that?
As a freelance prose and comics writer, I sweat a lot about where my next paycheck is coming from. Half my day, and I’m being somewhat metaphorical here, is spent with my butt in the chair grinding out the words. The other half is spent partly with my butt in the chair “cold calling” editors or using the internet to market the stuff I’ve got coming out. At Comic-Con this past July – and y’all know Comic-Con is the mother of all comic book conventions, right? — freelance writers and artists converge to bask in the ambiance but more than anything, network, schmooze, and otherwise figure out how to get on the radar of respective editors at Marvel or DC.
There are plenty of other companies producing comic books, but except for the Big Two, no one pays a livable advance – that is a salary up front against earning royalties after ‘X’ amount of issues of that comic book sells. According to Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest distributors of comic books and graphic novels, Marvel had a 42.58% share of the market in July 2009, DC 34.14% and bringing in a distant third was Dark Horse at 4.06%. This still means on an annual basis DH earns millions in sales of comics, tchotchkes like character figurines and such, and movie option dough on properties like Sin City and Aliens vs. Predators. Read More…
Gay rights issues, particularly same-sex marriage, has been roiling within the African American community in Southern California. This has come to a head around the Reverend Eric Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. He’s come under pressure from his national board for calling for the repeal of Proposition 8. Indeed, Lee, who has also been a supporter of organized labor causes such as advocating for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, was active last fall on speaking against the proposition when it was on the state ballot during the presidential race.
Initially there was much ballyhooing after the election that black votes were responsible for Prop.8 passing. There were claims based on exit polling that blacks had voted 70% to 30% for its passage. These numbers engendered a lot of finger pointing and various OpEds and commentaries all over the map decrying the gay-black split, the historic group denial long attributed to the black community not acknowledging its own LGBT folks and on and on. Calmer heads prevailed and further analysis of the data showed those numbers were a tad off. African Americans who came to the polls last fall, motivated in no small part by Barack Obama being at the top of the ticket, did vote a clear majority, 58%, for Prop. 8’s passage. This is higher than the overall 52% among all voters. Not great, but not insurmountable.