Podcasts of the Week Ending July 11


Last week I had no podcasts to share.  This week I have a bumper crop!

Afropop Worldwide :: Remembering Tony Allen

Pioneering Nigerian drummer Tony Allen died this spring, shortly after releasing his final album Rejoice, with Hugh Masekela. Afropop Worldwide revisits Allen’s storied career.

BackStory :: The End of the Road: BackStory and the History of Finales in America

My favorite history podcast BackStory comes to an end with an episode about finales in American history, from President George Washington to Mary Tyler Moore.

Hidden Brain :: The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen’s Murder Case

The story of a Black Boston teenager, Fred Clay, who spent 38 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted based on evidence the police extracted using hypnosis.

The Last Archive :: For the Birds

Rachel Carson, the extinction of bird species, and climate change.

99% Invisible :: Freedom House Ambulance Service

The modern practice of paramedics serving communities with an emergency medical service began in the Black community in Pittsburgh just over 50 years ago.

60-Second Science :: Animals Appreciate Recent Traffic Lull

One side benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reduced use of automobiles.  Some cities (not Boston, of course) have even taken advantage of creating space for people to walk and bike by closing roads to cars.  But even in rural areas, animals are thriving because of fewer collisions with motor vehicles.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Take Me Who Out to the Ballgame?

If you’re American, you’ve inevitably sung along with the chorus “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball’s unofficial anthem.  But if you’ve never heard the chorus, you may not know that the song is about a woman who wants to watch baseball at a time when that was considered a men’s only activity.  The podcast explores the history of how the song went “viral” and features music by Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust.

Throughline :: The Long Hot Summer

Civil disturbances in Black communities in America in 1967 lead President Johnson to call the Kerner Commission. The commission’s report revealed evidence of police violence that was criticized and ignored at the time, but still reads as a diagnoses of our present-day crises.


Movie Review: Birth of a Movement (2017)


TitleBirth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century.  Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington.  He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.

The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915.  Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel  called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners.  The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.

The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.  Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film.  Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common.  While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Freedom is a Constant Struggleby Angela Davis


Author: Angela Davis
Title: Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
Publication Info: Haymarket Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

This books collects several interviews with long-time activists Angela Davis as well as some articles and speeches.  The downside to this collection is that she touches on some of the same issues in each of the pieces (as you would expect of someone delivering speeches to new audiences) but the format of this collection doesn’t allow the reader to see Davis delve deep into any of the issues.

Davis reflects on the Civil Rights movement and feminist movies, her involvement in each, and their accomplishments.  She also compares it to the revival of activism in the Black Lives Matter movement that rose out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri against the police killing of Michael Brown.  Davis urges the reader/listener to recognize the intersectionality of movements and that Americans need to broaden their scope to include global crises in their activism (with a particular emphasis on Palestine).

Davis always offers harsh truths but is never disparaging of efforts towards revolutionary change that are incomplete.  Instead she encourages the reader to keep trying and keep struggling.  I’m particular impressed by her reflections that Black Americans truly defined democracy since they are the ones who advocated for true freedom, which is more than civil rights.  I have had this book for some time and to my shame only got around to reading it now, but I’m glad I’ve read since it speaks to issues that are front and center in the current moment.

Favorite Passages:

Trying and trying again. Never stopping. That is a victory in itself. Everyone and everything tells you that “outside” you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.


It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.


It’s very interesting that during the commentary on Ferguson, someone pointed out that the purpose of the police is supposed to be to protect and serve. At least, that’s their slogan. Soldiers are trained to shoot to kill. We saw the way in which that manifested itself in Ferguson.


The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation. This happened and we should not underestimate its importance. The problem is that it is often assumed that the eradication of the legal apparatus is equivalent to the abolition of racism. But racism persists in a framework that is far more expansive, far vaster than the legal framework. Economic racism continues to exist. Racism can be discovered at every level in every major institution—including the military, the health care system, and the police. It’s not easy to eradicate racism that is so deeply entrenched in the structures of our society, and this is why it’s important to develop an analysis that goes beyond an understanding of individual acts of racism and this is why we need demands that go beyond the prosecution of the individual perpetrators.


I fear that if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist… The “bad apples” type of… …who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.


But if one looks at the history of struggles against racism in the US, no change has ever happened simply because the president chose to move in a more progressive direction. Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome.


Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army—both women and men—that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.


At this point, at this moment in the history of the US I don’t think that there can be policing without racism. I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons. Without the kind of policing that we experience today. I think that different frameworks, perhaps restorative justice frameworks, need to be invoked in order to begin to imagine a society that is secure. I think that security is a main issue, but not the kind of security that is based on policing and incarceration. Perhaps transformative justice provides a framework for imagining a very different kind of security in the future.


Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect. What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don’t know whether I would have survived had not movements survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle. So whatever I’m doing I always feel myself directly connected to those communities and I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.


Deep understandings of racist violence arm us against deceptive solutions. When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America.


As many times as I’ve spoken during Black History Month, I never tire of urging people to remember that it wasn’t a single individual or two who created that movement, that, as a matter of fact, it was largely women within collective contexts, Black women, poor Black women who were maids, washerwomen, and cooks. These were the people who collectively refused to ride the bus.


But freedom is still more expansive than civil rights. And in the sixties there were some of us who insisted that it was not simply a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in a society, but rather it was also about the forty acres and the mule that was dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century. It was about economic freedom. It was about substantive freedoms. It was about free education. It was about free health care. Affordable housing. These are issues that should have been on the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century, and here we are in the twenty-first century and we still can’t say that we have affordable housing and health care, and education has thoroughly become a commodity. It has been so thoroughly commoditized that many people don’t even know how to understand the very process of acquiring knowledge because it is subordinated to the future capacity to make money. So it was about free education and free health care and affordable housing. It was about ending the racist police occupation of Black communities. These were some of the demands raised by the Black Panther Party.


I tell you that in the United States we are at such a disadvantage because we do not know how to talk about the genocide inflicted on indigenous people. We do not know how to talk about slavery. Otherwise it would not have been assumed that simply because of the election of one Black man to the presidency we would leap forward into a postracial era.


For some time now I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment as the main modes of punishment. I should say that it is not simply out of empathy with the victims of capital punishment and the victims of prison punishment, who are overwhelmingly people of color. It is because these modes of punishment don’t work. These forms of punishment do not work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them, because they’ve had no access to education or jobs or housing or health care. But let me say that criminalization and imprisonment could not solve other problems.


We will have to do something quite extraordinary: We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)


Title: Just Mercy
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Endeavor Content | One Community | Participant Media
Macro Media | Gil Netter Productions | Outlier Society
Summary/Review:

This movie flew under radar when it was released last Christmas, but it was available for free on streaming networks in June, so I thought I’d check it out.  The movie is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and adapted from his book of the same name.  Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer and as an idealistic young man we see him move to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative. With the support of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) he works to represent poor prisoners, including death row inmates, get proper legal representation.

The main plot of the movie relates to the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of white teenage girl  in Monroeville (a town the is shown to be proud of  its connection with Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). Stevenson sees that Johnny D. was convicted primarily on the testimony of another prisoner, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a lighter sentence in exchange, and that witnesses who saw Johnny D at the time of the crime (including a cop) were not called at all.

I expect it is no spoiler to note that Stevenson will get Johnny D.’s conviction overturned, but the procedures and indiginities he has to go through still create a lot of tension. The early 1990s were a time when “tough on crime” was at its post-Jim Crow era peak, so its amazing that Stevenson is able to succeed (compare this movie with When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five case happening around the same time). There is also a subplot involving another death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran whose mental health was shattered by PTSD and is convicted for planting a bomb that unintentionally kills someone. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film relate to Richardson’s case.

The movie falls back on some of the cliches of civil rights themed biopics, but it does stand a notch above them.  Jordan and Foxx are absolutely spectacular in acting their roles, and they are a joy to watch.  The movie also foregrounds the Black characters, so it avoids Hollywood’s predilection for “white savior” narratives.  If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out while it’s still free (although it would also be worth paying for).

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 20


My favorite podcasts are increasingly becoming so focused on current events that I wonder if they’ll still be relevant on Saturday, but I’m pretty sure that all of these podcasts are still “fresh.”

All Songs Considered :: New Music Friday: Run The Jewels

A deep dive into the terrific new album, RTJF, and album that speaks to a current moment of reckoning with racial discrimination and policing.

Fresh Air :: Poet Eve Ewing Connects 1919 Chicago Riots To Today

Eve Ewing found poetry in the report analyzing Chicago’s “Red Summer” and uses it to draw parallels to systemic racism that persists 100 years later.

Have You Heard :: Arrested Development: How Police Ended Up in Schools

One of the worst aspects of overpolicing in the USA is the use of police to address school discipline issues and the perpetuation of a school-to-prison pipeline. The podcast traces the history of police in schools back to the 1960s and includes some commentary from some brilliant Boston Public School students

Here & Now :: #SayHerName Campaign; The State Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

The #SayHerName Campaign brings awareness to Black women who have suffered from police killings and police brutality, who are overlooked even as the world is focused on Black Lives Matters issues.

Planet Money :: Police Unions And Police Violence

Police unions are not like other unions, as police already have powers that other workers do not, and the existence of police unions helps perpetuate police killings and police violence.

Radiolab :: Nina

The music of Nina Simone and why it resonates with our times.

What Next :: A Politician’s Brush with NYPD Abuse

New York state senator Zellnor Myrie offers his first-hand experience with police violence during protests in Brooklyn, and how it’s translating into dramatic legislative action.


Movie Reviews: Peter Pan (1953)


Title: Peter Pan
Release Date: February 5, 1953
Director: Clyde Geronimi | Wilfred Jackson | Hamilton Luske
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I remember watching Peter Pan with Mary Martin on TV and seeing a revival of the Broadway musical with Sandy Duncan as a child.  Later I read the play by J.M. Barrie.  But I never saw the Disney movie until I was an adult, and my general impression is that it is pretty awful.  Revisiting the movie for my Disney Animated Features project did not improve my feelings of the movie.

I get the appeal of the story and why it’s persisted in popularity for over a century.  The adventure and imagination are irresistible.  Any child would love to fly off to a magical world.  The pirates are Hilario and scary. And growing up is overated.

And yet, the movie is horribly sexist.  Tinker Bell immediately hates Wendy in the most awful stereotype of female jealousy.  The mermaids are no better. How is that Tinker Bell became a Disney icon when she spends this entire movie being a vindictive turncoat?  As awful as it is, it doesn’t compare with the viciously racist deception of Native Americans.  I had to fast forward through the cringey song and dance numbers.

Perhaps there’s a way to redeem Peter Pan, but I’m not the one who’s going to do it.  Don’t watch this with your children, there’s so much better out there.

Rating: *1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 30


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Anthropocene Reviewed :: You’ll Never Walk Alone and Jerzy Dudek

John Green analyzes a show tune that has become a beloved soccer anthem, and the performance of a Polish goalkeeper in 2005.

Code Switch :: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

The murders, the videos, the outrage, the hashtags – the pattern of Black people murdered by cops and vigilantes is unsettlingly familiar.  When will it move beyond a grim voyeurism towards actual justice?

The Last Archive :: The Invisible Lady

The story of a sideshow attraction in 1804 New York expands into a wider analysis of the invisibility of women in public life.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Makin’ Whoopee

The history of novelty toys, specifically the Whoopee Cushion, and why we find the sounds of farts funny.


Podcasts of the Week Ending April 18


All Songs Considered :: John Prine’s Life In 10 Songs

Folk singer-songwriter John Prine recently died of COVID-19.  I wasn’t ignorant of his music so this was a good introduction to his magnificent talent.

Code Switch :: Why The Coronavirus Is Hitting Black Communities Hardest

American inequality and racism don’t go away during a pandemic.

Twenty Thousand Hertz -:: What’s Up, Doc?

The story of Mel Blanc, the man of a thousand voices.

What Next :: What America’s Biggest Nursing Union Wants

Fighting on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses are also fighting for better conditions for themselves and their patients.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Documentary Movie Review: Let the Fire Burn (2013) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “L” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “L” documentaries I’ve reviewed are The Last Waltz, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Life Itself, and loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies.

Title: Let the Fire Burn
Release Date: October 2, 2013
Director: Jason Osder
Production Company: George Washington University
Summary/Review:

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia became known as “the city that bombed itself,” and incident that remains shocking and mindboggling 35 years later.  The Philadelphia Police dropped an incendiary device on the rooftop of an organization called MOVE, and then made the controversial decision to “let the fire burn” (although fire apparatus were on site) that lead to the deaths of five children, six adults, and the destruction of 65 row houses in the West Philadelphia.  The bombing resulted from a multi-year confrontation among police and neighbors with an organization called MOVE, a Black liberation group that espoused a back-to-the-earth philosophy and were highly confrontational with the police and neighbors (which included a loud speaker on the exterior of the house where they broadcast profanity-laced tirades).

The movie is structured around two films made in the wake of the bombing.  One is a deposition by 13-year-old Michael Moses Ward (aka Birdie Africa), the only child to escape the destruction of the MOVE house.  The other is the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission hearings held in November 1985 chaired by chaired by William H. Brown, III.  With these retrospective accounts providing the framing, the film cuts in archival film and photographs as well as news coverage.

The film documents the emergence of MOVE in the 1970s, their initial conflicts with the police, and a 1978 shootout when Mayor Frank Rizzo tried to have the police evict MOVE from their first headquarters.  The shootout resulted in the death of one police officer and the conviction of nine MOVE members for his murder.  When the organization moved into their new location on Osage Avenue, they fortified the building with wooden boards across all the openings and constructed a wooden tower on the roof.  The rooftop “bunker” was a major concern for the police who saw it as a place where MOVE members could potentially fire at the police.  The destruction of that bunker proved to be the impetus that lead to the many unconscionable decisions by the police.

The movie has a verite style that kind of guides one through the events as they happen with no outside narrator providing context.  The movie feels all too relevant today when Black Americans continue to bear the brunt of police violence.  No doubt, MOVE was a cultish and obnoxious organization, but we’ve seen many instances of police dealing with well-armed white conservative and Christian groups without resorting to brutal violence, much less burning down the homes of dozens of innocent neighbors.  We see one police officer commended for attempting to rescue children from the burning building, and then learn that the words “n****r lover” were scrawled on his locker.  This movie serves as an important document of the intersection of liberty, policing, and racism in America.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 23


Only one new podcast episode this week, plus a recommendation for a podcast series to listen to in its entirety (I’m only halfway through myself).

This American Life :: The Out Crowd

Important journalism for anyone who wants to know the extent of the crimes against humanity being carried out in our names at the border.

The Report

This 15-part podcast breaks down the Mueller Report for those of us who don’t have time to read the report and/or need an assist with the legalese.

 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: