Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sold Out Premiere of Disturbing the Universe Impresses Chicago Crowd

This was originally posted on Gapers Block.

On Jan. 22, William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary about the legendary left-wing lawyer, premiered to a sold out crowd at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Directed by William Kuntsler's daughters Emily and Sarah Kuntsler, the film looks at the life and cases of one of America's most controversial lawyers.

William Kuntsler fathered Sarah and Emily late in life, and when he died, they were still young, so the movie became a way for them to know their father in a more adult way. It became a way for them to shed the simple childlike images of their father, and come to know him in a complex way.

The sold out Chicago premiere was hosted by the Next Gen, the young lawyers group of the Chicago chapter of the radical National Lawyers Guild. The theater was filled with activists, lawyers and law students. The amazing thing about the showing was how many people in the crowd had met or knew William Kuntsler.


National Lawyers Guild Next Gen members Sarah Gelsomino and Robert Luderman at the Chicago premiere of Disturbing the Universe.

Any movie dedicated to a leftist with as much courage as Kunstler is worth watching. It will introduce him and the cases he worked on to a whole new generation of activists, law students and lawyers. The number of important generation defining, culture shaping, legal precedent setting cases he took is astounding.


National Lawyers Guild member Elizabeth Fink with Directors Sarah and Emily Kuntsler.

Kuntsler's clients included: freedom riders, who broke Jim Crow Laws in an attempt to integrate interstate bus travel; the Berrigan brothers, Catholics who used homemade napalm to burn draft cards during the Vietnam war; the Chicago 8, the hippies and yippies who demonstrated against the war outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the prisoners who revolted against inhumane conditions in Attica prison, the American Indian Movement supporters who occupied the town of Wounded Knee to protest against the treatment of first nation people; Gregory Johnson, who burned an American Flag as a protest outside the 1984 Republican Convention and led to a Supreme Court case legalizing flag desecration.

There have been many movies and books about the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial and the comedic antics of Abbie Hoffman, as well as the barbaric treatment of Bobby Seal, who was bound and gagged in the courtroom. However, the lack of attention paid to the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee and the prisoners revolt in Attica makes this movie's focus on those cases much more important.

The scenes of the Attica revolt were powerful. What was terrifying, though, was watching the massacre that occurred when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the state police to suppress the rebellion, leading to the deaths of 39 people, including the 10 prison guards held captive by the prisoners. Later reports proved that all the guards had been indiscriminately slaughtered -- not by the prisoners, as the state initially claimed, but by the state police. The scene ended by showing the state police shouting "white power" in a primal victory cry, unveiling the truth of the American penal system.

The movie showed Kuntsler's provocative style. At one point singer Harry Belafonte discussed the AIM trial. Kuntsler had Belafonte and the actor Marlon Brando sit behind the AIM defendants. When Brando asked Kuntsler if this might be perceived as jury tampering. Kuntsler replied, "everything is jury tampering."

The movie included footage of Kuntsler in court and audio of some of his arguments. His winning Supreme Court argument in defense of the first amendment right to burn or desecrate the flag was quite powerful. He discussed how the first amendment was there not for the ideas we like, those never needed the protection of the first amendment, rather it was there for the ideas we despise and find reprehensible.

I question the film's attempt to separate Kuntsler's '60s and '70s era radicalism from his later cases once he settled down and attempted to raise his family in the Bronx. The film tries to portray his earlier cases as absolute right vs. wrong, civil rights vs. tyranny, peace vs. war, social justice vs. injustice. The film asks how someone who took those cases could take some of the clients that Kuntsler took in his later years.

Among the disputed clients: Larry Davis, a black man who was accused of killing six New York Police in a shootout; Yusef Salaam, one of several black teens accused of beating and gang raping a Wall Street accountant in Central Park; Palestinian El-Sayyid Nosair, who was accused of assassinating right-wing rabbi Meir Kahane; and John Gotti, the head of the Gambino crime family.


A sold out crowd gathers in the lobby of the Siskel Center after the Chicago premiere of Disturbing the Universe.

I feel that many of the cases he took in the Bronx era could be defended from a leftist perspective anyway. In the cases of Larry Davis and Yusef Salaam, the media immediately painted both of them as heartless murderers. What was the difference between these cases and the lynchings in the south of another generation?

In the case of El-Sayyid Nosair, a Palestinian who stood trial for shooting a racist, anti-arab rabbi, the movie quotes a derider of the Palestinians, Alan Dershowitz, in wondering why a left wing Jew like Kuntsler would defend the man. The answer is obvious to those who are informed about the occupation of Palestine, and the racism hurled against Palestinians, but not so obvious to an apologist for torture like Dershowitz. Dershowitz actually produced boos and hisses at the Chicago premiere -- no doubt from Chicago activists who remember Dershowitz's role in denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein.

Besides, the movie details how Kuntsler was vindicated on many of those later cases. Yusef Salaam was acquitted based on DNA evidence, El Sayyid Nosair was found not guilty based on a lack of witnesses, and Larry Davis was found to be acting in self defense.

The one client who may seem hard to defend based on leftist ideals is mafia don John Gotti. Why would Kuntsler defend the head of a mob family? Was it just for a paycheck? Doubtful, Kuntsler only took cases he believed in. However, even if Kuntsler didn't find common ideological ground with Gotti, he could have found other reasons to defend Gotti. People remember Clarence Darrow for defending labor leaders and teaching evolution, but he became famous for defending the millionaire murderers Leopold and Loeb. Johnny Cochraine, might be remembered for defending millionaire celebrity wife beaters, but he worked on dozens of civil rights and police brutality cases; even some Black Panther members were his clients.

In the end, this separation shows how hindsight is 20/20. To the directors, seeing their father take controversial cases when they were little girls, they didn't understand how this was the same kind of case as civil rights cases from the '60s. However, if they had been living with their father in the '60s, maybe they would have felt the same fear that they felt as he defended Yusef Salaam.

The cases Kuntsler took often had personal impacts for him. Kuntsler spent time in prison based on contempt of court charges during the Chicago 8 trial, and after he defended the El Sayyid Nosair, Jewish activists would rally every day outside of his Bronx home, calling him a self-hating Jew and a traitor.

Many attorneys in the crowd testified to how Kuntsler inspired them to join the legal profession. DePaul University Law Professor Jim Cavise discussed the AIM trial in 1974 and how Kuntsler asked Cavise, straight out of law school, to find a case that would allow the elders and medicine men to hold a ceremonial drum session before court opened. Cavise found a case, and Kuntsler held a hearing where he argued the case like it was Supreme Court law. They were successful and for the rest of the trial, before every court appearance, a ceremony was held. Cavise also described some of the strategy sessions where a peace pipe would be passed, claimed that it was "a mind expanding experience for all of the lawyers."

Cavise told another story from the AIM trail. During opening statements AIM members started raising hell and were dragged out kicking and screaming, "as they were being dragged out Bill stood up and started calling the judge every single name in the book, and of course what happened was that Bill was dragged out of the courtroom too. Later on I said, not that it was the wrong thing to do, but what made you jump up?" Kuntsler told Cavise, "There's no way that someone's going to drag my clients out of the courtroom without dragging me with them."

Many of the law students in the audience were wondering how to become an
activist lawyer like Kuntsler. The movie showed how even Kuntsler did not start as a radical lawyer. He began as a run of the mill lawyer, and even authored a book, The Law of Accidents. Many students wanted to know how to go from that to representing radicals.

As NLG member Elizabeth Fink said, "You have to want to do it, have to not be afraid. Wake up every morning choosing it." The movie discussed Kuntsler's admiration of Michelangelo's David statue. It is one of the few art pieces that display David before he throws the stone at Goliath, before he made his entrance into history. It is the moment where David has to decide whether to throw the stone or not. Whether to take a risk or to disappear back into the crowd, with no one the wiser. Kuntsler believed in those David moments.

Loyola University law student Susie Bucharo said the movie and Kuntsler's life and work "was definitely inspiring. It's easy to feel in law school like you have to go with the flow and not challenge things." She continued, "The law only deserves that respect if it's worth that respect. What this movie teaches us is that some laws ought to be challenged. It's a different way of approaching this profession."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chicago Education in Danger of Being Parking Metered

This was originally posted on Gapers Block.

"They never thought of the children first," Lillie Gonzalez exclaimed to several hundred people's applause at Malcolm X college. The small, but feisty, Latino community activist was speaking at the Democratic Alternatives to Renaissance 2010 conference organized by the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) on January 9, 2010. Gonzalez was "one of the lucky ones," who was able to stop the closure of Peabody Elementary School in 2009 in Chicago's Near West Side. The planned closure of the more than a century old school was a part of Renaissance 2010, Chicago's program to privatize its public schools.

"Renaissance 2010 and 15 years of mayoral control are 15 years of failure." Explained Kenwood Community Organization organizer Jitu Brown. Describing the conference, Brown stated, "we want to begin to project what we think should happen in our schools... Our vision, not a corporate vision."

President Obama's appointment of Arnie Duncan to the Secretary of Education made the conference particularly important. "The first thing that Arnie Duncan did as US Secretary of Education is fly to Detroit and promise Detroit Public Schools major federal funds if they were to adopt the Chicago model," Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, explained.


Lipman pointed out that, "Renaissance 2010 is a partnership between Mayor Daley and the most powerful financial and corporate leaders in the city. What is their goal?" she asked before answering "to train a low wage workforce and to support real estate development. That's their education agenda. Their strategy is to hand public school to private operators, undermine the teachers union, phase out local school councils, the only democratic community voice we have, and replace neighborhood schools with selective enrollment schools and gentrifying neighborhoods."

"They have a long term plan. If they don't kick you off this year, they will pick you off next year." Lipman explained.

The conference allowed organizers and activists from a number of schools to discuss the issues they face. Sarah Jefferia discussed the successful fight to keep Clemente from adopting staggered start times to the school day. Calena Mujica discussed the work that Chicago Youth Initiating Change was doing, while Mary Glass from the Milwaukee Professionals Association came down to learn from the Chicago activists who had been on the front lines of the struggle against privatization.

One student from Senn High School described fighting the closure of the school backed by Alderman Mary Ann Smith.

It was a presentation that interested Jim Madigan, a Democratic candidate for Illinois State Senate in the 7th district. Madigan attended the conference to learn about "the concerns parents have about the desire to privatize all the other public assets in Chicago. Folks here are raising some good questions." Madigan said, "this is a very grassroots anti-machine conference, and for that reason alone I thought it was a good thing to attend."

One of the highlights of the conference was the announcement of CORE's slate of candidates for the May elections in the Chicago Teachers Union. CORE is known for it's progressive positions and fighting spirit as well as being the only CTU caucus that elects its candidates. Karen Jennings Lewis, CORE's candidate for President of CTU, explained the perception of Chicago schools as failures. "We have been told for the past 30 years that the public schools in this country are abysmal. It is a lie. It was a lie then and it is a lie now." As for school closings Jennings explained that, "The closings have nothing to do with scores," but are a part of a plan to commodify the city's educational resources.

CORE's candidate for vice-president in the CTU elections is Jackson Potter. Potter is a CTU delegate at Social Justice High School in Little Village, was a writer for SUBSTANCE newspaper, and is active in a number of social justice struggles including the anti-war movement. Potter pointed out that Chicago has one of the most militarized public school systems in the country, and that instead of training students to be "cannon fodder" for "unethical wars" the government should be providing high quality education and good union jobs. Potter has helped students to organize against military recruiters on their campuses.

This willingness to speak out on important issues is one of the things that has made Potter a target for those in the teachers union that don't want to take such as activist role. Potter is fighting against a challenge to his eligibility to run for office in the CTU.

In 2005 Potter worked at Englewood High School, which was closed as a part of Renaissance 2010. While Jackson fought to keep the school open, ultimately it was not enough. Potter then took a study leave and continued to pay his member dues to the CTU and was told that there would be no break in service from the union.

However, after CORE gained steam, the leadership of CTU claimed that since he was not a regular teacher, he could not run for office in the union.

Potter sees this as an attempt to undermine internal union democracy and has recruited Tom Geoghegan and Mike Persoon of Despres, Schwartz and Geoghegan in the legal battle that has followed. Potter explained that they had moved for discovery, and were going to put Marilyn Stewart, president of the union, on the stand. Potter believes that the evidence "will show clearly that they are playing games and that they have one standard and rule for their caucus and another for caucuses that they deem a threat."


Potter and CORE are aware that the CTU leadership might be seeking to delay resolution on the question of his eligibility to effectively keep him off the ballot. However CORE has a "plan B," in which Potter will step down and CORE will elect another VP candidate, if necessary.

The activists at the conference felt that what they did would have an impact. Lipman from Teachers for Social Justice explained, "What we do has national significance. The New York Times tied the death of Darien Albert at Fenger High School to spikes in violence, to school closings, and questioned the wisdom of the strategy. They used our language and analysis based on our five years of resistance."

Community organizer Brown told the activists at the conference, "people in this room have had the tenacity to say no to privatization, no to schools being closed, no to teachers having their rights taken away, no to children being trained for the prison industrial complex."

"The people that are closing your schools, the people that are pushing bad policy at our schools. They are working together all the time... we need to be working together after this conference."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Female Metal Vocalists Who Kick Ass

Heavy metal is a genre that invite testosterone filled lunatics. Who needs lyrics when you can bash your head into a cement wall? Who needs biting social commentary when you can beat up some sweaty car repair guys in a mosh pit?

Women have hardly been the target demographic for metal. Yet, more women are becoming fans of metal and performing in metal bands. While many female vocalists go for the 'I'm singing pretty to contrast with the heavy guitars' vibe, there are several female lead vocalists who fuckin' devastate. They growl, snarl, shout, scream and do some wicked cookie monster voices.

This shift from pretty feminine vocal stylings from female vocalists like Amy Lee from Evanesence, Lita Ford, Christina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil and Sarah Jezebel Deva of Cradle of Filth to growly more demonic vocals in the groups profile below, could be a sign that women in metal will not confine themselves to the role of stripper, or eye candy.

Many of this new breed of female metal vocalists have biting social, political and sometimes feminist commentary in their lyrics.

When Johan Liiva left the Swedish melodic death metal group Archenemy, few would have expected to be a defining moment for extreme music. Archenemy had been one of the major groups of the Gothenburg metal scene and their decision to hire Angela Gossow as their lead singer told the entire metal community that women can shatter eardrums just as good as men.

I played Archenemy for a friend once, she complained of Gossow, "That sounds like death." I think it sounds hella awesome.

Gossow, a vegetarian, has several songs to imply anti-war and liberal Existentialist themes. The song 'Rise of the Tyrant' criticizes war while the song "Revolution Begins" urges freedom,

"Who are they to tell you what to do?
The stage is not set, the road is not chosen
You fate not preordained"

Check out the video for "We Will Rise".

"Tear down the walls
Wake up the world
Ignorance is not Bliss"

Walls of Jericho singer Candace Kucsulain doesn't hide her feelings about the state of politics. "Fuck the American Dream!" she screams in the track American Dream. Maybe her distaste for Americana came from watching the groups home town of Detroit rot as a result of corporate America's policies. Kusculain rails against the female beauty industry in "All Hail the Dead",

"Struggle to fit the mold, as she makes her self sick, it should make us all sick.

With our brainwashed minds, as they die fighting beauty.
Because we're slaves to the system
We can't go on like this, let the dead be dead.
You corporate fuck, it's time to fight this.
The status quo, it's time to fight this.
Our broken families, it's time to fight this.
Your billboard barbie, it's time to fight this.
Let the dead be dead, all hail the dead."

Alissa White-Gluz of the Canadian metal band The Agonist mixes growls with actual singing, to great effect. "Does history guide you or do you set out to change it?" White-Gluz whispers before thrashing guitars and sweep picking pummel listeners and she begins to scream in "Business Suits and Combat Boots." The video features a business man pick pocketing a homeless person, and photos of caskets returning to the US from Iraq, while the lyrics condemn animal testing, racism and the beauty industry. Their video for "Thank you pain" actually premiered on the website for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The Los Angeles based Otep, founded by their singer Otep Shamaya, is more than just a band with some conscious lyrics, Shamaya is actually engaged in social change and politics. She actually spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention! In the song Confrontation she uses a grungy voice to speak out,

"Riot gear, the slaves are here
Piling corpses high

Its the rich man's war
But its the poor that fight

More capitalist crimes,
More enemies than allies

No WMD's - who gives a fuck
If they die"

While the video for Warhead mocks the paranoia of US militarism. Blast beats and palm muted riffing keeps the song chugging along while the video shows a picture of George W. Bush with the caption "The king of lies Is alive" Shamaya screams, "He lied, they died, keep the peasants terrified!"

In "Smash the Control Machine," Shamaya mocks right wing media with a catchy yet heavy song that easily lends itself to pogo dancing - or mixed martial arts against a yuppie.

"Then they outsourced my job
And gave a raise to my boss
Bailed out the banks but billed me for the loss

They say we must submit
And be one with the Machine
Because the Kingdom of Fear
Needs compliance to succeed

So waterboard the kids for fun
It's all the rage
And play born-again American"

What is the future for female metal singers? They need to have the media take them seriously as musicians, and not eye candy. Every year Revolver magazine, one of the most popular heavy metal magazines, prints it's list of 'hottest chicks in metal.' Where is there list of the 'hottest dudes in metal'? The misogyny of our society is unfortunately well represented in the taste makers for metal. Instead of seeing these singers as important artists or ass-kicking vocalists, they are seen as cheerleaders with tattoos and Slayer shirts. The metal world and music industry need to stop this and treat theses bands as more than metal with tits.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Intergallactic Speciesism, Leftist Escapism, and Cinematic Messiah Complex's - What Avatar tells us about Cinema and its Relation to the Real World

Avatar, the most expensive movie ever made, has, before it even premiered in theaters, become a turning point for cinema. Critics, film producers and cinemaphiles have recognized that unless the movie was a complete plop, it would change movie making forever, and with the movie premiering at number 1, it seems their predictions were accurate. I saw the movie opening night, and it does look incredible. The 3-D added depth to the film without being a cheesy gimmick. The high definition motion capture set a new standard for realism in computer generated animation. The movie is sure to become a science-fiction/fantasy classic along with movies like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Terminator, and Batman.

However, what exactly are the repercussion Avatar's success will have on the film industry and American consciousness? What do the plot, the new movie making technology and America's obsession with being someone else mean for where we are and where we are going?

The world of Avatar is a science fiction version of Iraq. Humans occupy parts of the world of Pandorum, and seek to drill for a mineral called 'unobtonium.' We are never told what the mineral is used for, but it apparently sells for quite a bit of money back on earth. The Na'vi are the native people on Pandorum and these 10 foot tall blue warrior hippies are not friendly to the mining operation. Played by an ensemble of Black actors, the Na'vi represent a number of forces opposed to American imperialism.

The movie follows Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington as he is hired by a blackwater inspired corporate military operation to protect the mining operation. Worthington's character is paralyzed from the waist down and is hired to be a part of the “Avatar” program to place his mind in the body of a Na'vi in an attempt to convince the Na'vi to leave their home and allow the miners to drill it.

Through the course of the movie, Sully further identifies with the Na'vi and come to turn against the corporate operation. By the end of the movie he has switched sides and leads the Na'vi as they attack the mining operation in a high-tech vision of a jungle based Lawrence of Arabia, or Avatar – Dune in a jungle.

Avatar openly encourages anti-war and anti-corporate themes, it encourages armed rebellion and mutiny against the metaphorical US corporate powers. The metaphors in the movie have a left wing and progressive perspective.

Avatar explores racism between humans and the na'vi, who while an intelligent life form are certainly not human. It's a theme that's being explored in other movies, such as District 9 and the kids movie planet 51. While District 9 was disappointing in that for a movie that was a thinly disguised metaphor for apartheid in South Africa, it depicted Africans in a negative light, these movies raise interesting questions about a rapidly approaching post-human society. What rights would humanity extend to extra-terrestrials? In past film history, it is always the aliens who conquer humanity, but this string of films has been suggesting that perhaps we should fear humanity conquering the aliens? Is this a metaphor for how we should fear Western imperialist conquering the third world?

While some critics have chastised Avatar's plot for being predictable action movie fare, Annalee Newitz ( has commented on a white messiah complex in the movie. The way the movie presents one of the white conquerors becoming the leader for the indigenous people and leading them to victory has raised shadows of Dances with Wolves, the Last Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia and others. She comments that a movie industry dominated by white directors will continue to assume that the audience is white and need a white character to bridge the gap in order to understand the non-white characters. Consider how many white journalists where in Ghandi, or the fact that the Indian pacifist leader was played by a British actor, or that the film being produced about Mao will be filtered through the lens of a white journalist (

What aggravates me is the messiah complex in film period. How many times do we have to see this tired Christ parable play out? A chosen one, prophesied to lead the people to glorious new horizons, even if it costs his his life. In Avatar, Ewa, the goddess mother nature of Pandorum, picks Jack Sully by having it's seeds float around him, a prophesy that the Na'vi interpret as a sign that he will play an important role in their future.

I've seen this before, with Neo “the One” in the Matrix, Anakin Skywalker being prophesied to bring 'balance to the Force' in the Star Wars Prequels, John Conner leading humans to victory over the machines in the future of the Terminator, the fetus in Legion “the only hope humanity has of surviving' an onslaught of murderous angels and even Jebus himself in in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. There are probably a thousand other big budget movies with this same messianic plot.

Why is it that we look to fiction for heroes to save us instead of saving ourselves? Since these movies are myth, they are all vying for which messiah story will replace that aged myth of western civilization- Christianity. Most American's probably know less about Christianity than they do the pantheon of gods we have created from Superman and Wonder Woman to the Terminator and Rambo. There is a lot of money riding on such a paradigm shift in myth belief. The more money people spend on 'entertainment' the less they spend at Church. Capitalism's myths come to replace feudalism's myths.

Avatar does more than just comment on the real world through metaphor, it has a physical relationship with the material world. The movie cost close to ½ billion dollars. Funding from Fox Studios and James Cameron made Avatar a major business enterprise employing thousands including the actors, animators, and camera-crew.

We should consider what avatar means in a world where millions of people spend days living their fantasy's through avatars in games like World of Warcraft, movies like Harry Potter and tv shows in general. Why is it that entertainment for Americans amounts to escaping the real world and pretending to be someone else? We are living through the height of the worst economic crises since the 1930's and escaping into fantasy is easier than facing a life without guaranteed health care and possible foreclosure. What will it take for Americans to live their own lives instead of living vicariously through fiction?

The left has praised the film. On the Maoist blog Kasama, both Mike Ely and Eric Ribellarsi have praised the fact that a movie so militantly opposed to current US military operations is the number one film in the country at the moment. However are they living their own fantasies of rebellion and race traitorism through the movie? At what point does the American Left stop critiquing movies and start a true rebellion?

Consider the race this movie has already set off to go 3-D in theaters and soon home entertainment systems. When Microsoft released Windows Vista, it raised the bar on the basic computer hardware needed to operate the operating system, making it necessary for many consumers to buy newer computers, and creating more toxic digital waste. Link

This has a real impact in the places where all the toys Americans dispose of originate from. Many human rights groups have pointed out the horrific conditions in mining operations in the Congo, where Coltan is mined. Coltan is a mineral needed for liquid crystal displays used in laptops, cellphones, and flat screen tv's.

The irony of Avatar is that despite its metaphorical criticisms of imperialism, the movie may spark the need for the entertainment industry to have a higher demand for mineral mined in blood diamond type conditions.

While the Left may understand the message the movie is trying to send, to many Americans seek to ignore such messages. Whether it be the movie studio producers who don't care what message a movie has as long as it makes money, or regular people who seek any kind of opium to avoid facing the real world.

What I wonder is how long until US marines in Iraq or Afghanistan claim the Na'vi warriors for themselves? How long until US soldiers occupying a foreign country name their squads after the Na'vi, paint Na'vi icons on their bombs and boost each other before a battle by quoting from Avatar?

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