Class Tech

A student recently asked me to respond to some questions about technology in the school. Because my insights are glorious and must be appreciated by all the world, I am reprinting them here.

Note: I did a Google Image Search for “technology in the classroom” and found the graphic on the right. It sums up the technophilia so common in our current era: Why is the old-school image on the left in grey? Why is the teacher (or student?) smiling so much more on the right? Why have the diagrams of the right triangle and cube been replaced with pie graphs and bar charts? Where are all the books? It’s a series of subtle demonizations of quality forms of education. Of course we should add new tools to our education toolboxes all the time. But when we get a new digital gadget, we don’t have to throw away our hammers and screwdrivers.

1. Do you believe technology is setting students up for failure or success?

Both. As Neil Postman explains in his 1992 book Technopoly, the technologies around us are tools, and tools can be used for all kinds of purposes. A hammer can be used to make a dollhouse, or to bash in someone’s head. Chromebooks and cell phones have similar powers. It all depends on how they’re used. I think the two biggest dangers of technology in the classroom are (A) thinking of it as a “silver bullet” that will fix all the problems faced by students and teachers; and (B) serving technology, instead of making it serve us. For example: the lights in our classrooms are set to go off at a certain time if the motion sensors aren’t activated every 30 minutes (or whatever the time frame is). This is fine so far as it goes. But in some rooms, the lights go off constantly during class, so the teacher has to wave her arms around and roam around the room to reactivate the lights — or, if she’s too tired — just work in the dark. That’s dumb. We teachers should have easy access to the controls of the tech around us, so that we control it — instead of letting it control us.

2. Do you believe that an increase in technology is to blame for certain discipline issues our district experiences?

I think there’s an increase in discipline issues caused by a blind confidence in the pure good of technology (without recognition of the downsides), along with the general tendency of humans (and young people especially) to take the path of least resistance. In other words, people take their cell phones out when they’re bored. That’s a problem, because school is sometimes boring. When I was a bored student — back in 1472 — I would draw comics or write silly stories. The difference is that a student who is drawing can more easily engage with a class discussion. It consumes less of the student’s attention, and it’s easier to break away when necessary. Digital media are designed to be engrossing, and to bring us back constantly. The “egoboo” and social elements and user-interface (UI) components are carefully designed to keep us coming back all the time, like a chemical narcotic addiction.

Meanwhile, there are some positives to student behavior related to technology. Ten years ago, if a class got done three minutes early, the teacher had to find some way to keep the kids entertained. Otherwise, there was a chance that student goofiness could lead to some conflict or a fight or noise that could disrupt a nearby class. Now everybody just stares at their cellphones, and we have a room full of silent zombies. So in some ways, students have become much more docile and cow-like. On the other hand, I recently had to break up a conflict in the hall between two young ladies who were angry about what one of them had posted on SnapChat about the other. (One of them declared her intention — loudly — to spit on the other one, to prevent future video posts.) Students have always fought about rumors and accusations, but social media have obviously brought these problems to a new level.

One last thing I want to say here is that it’s not necessarily the technology that’s to blame. When a student posted on RateMyTeachers.com about me that (I’m quoting here) “I would rather be devoured by sharks with AIDS than be in his class”, I didn’t flip my lid or lash out at the world. I was hurt, but I was able to laugh it off quickly. (And, I realized, the joke’s on him or her — that was a creative way to critique me, so s/he learned a lot from me. I must be a good teacher after all. Ha!) My point is that SnapChat and Facebook beef is more likely to take place among students who feel threatened and beaten down by the world to begin with. Just as graffiti is a symptom of people feeling alienated and despised by society, we have to recognize that the way to deal with these new problems is not banning the tech, but healing the people and helping them find alternatives to the impulse to rage up and lash out.

Why I Write Stories

Recently a friend asked: “What draws you to writing books instead of say screenplays? Why literature? Why that over any other type of writing?”

Aside from his generosity in referring to my scribbles as “literature”, I was struck by this simple question, which — so far as I can recall — I’ve never gotten from a student in 20 years of classroom teaching. It sent me thinking, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to give. But that’s never stopped me before, and (like Sarah Kay) I find that sometimes the writing itself can lead to answers.

I think the easiest answer is the most obvious: I was surrounded by books from birth, and I fell in love with the worlds they led me to. The Belgariad by David Eddings and the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny whisked me to realms of fantasy and wonder. I wanted to create universes of my own.

I’ve written elsewhere about the iconography of writing, and to this day that remains a potent influence. Above my desk — as I write these words — is a photo of the writing table of Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. So when I fell in love with books and images of writers, the next step was to produce writing of my own.

I didn’t know any other kind of writing as a child. There were essays for school (ick) and stories. Make a story long enough and you got a novel. I watched movies and played role-playing games, but I didn’t make the connection between those media and the writing that created them until later. Meanwhile, I wrote lots of silly stories, and began work on my first novel at the age of 13.

Those things did provide inspiration for story ideas, though. And by “inspiration” I mean “I copied them”. One of my earliest writing memories is of seeing the VHS box art for Robocop (my mom wouldn’t let us kids watch such violent films, nor did I want to at the time) and writing a story that was identical to what I imagined that movie was like.

As I grew older and my writing became more sophisticated, I did branch out into other forms. I wrote longer nonfiction pieces to inform the world about global economics (so I could share my very limited understanding) and tried my hand at hip-hop lyrics starting in 1999. I continued writing stories (longer, more serious fare, like the works in This Ain’t What You Rung For), and finished my fourth novel in 2010. (All four are, as yet, unpublished.)

But I never considered screenplays or radio dramas. Those formats hold allure for me, but they require other ways of telling the story. They need to be formatted differently, too, which leads me to suspect that I keep writing short stories and novels simply because I’m too lazy to explore other approaches.

Then there’s the even-more-formidable obstacles to distribution. When I write a story, I can submit it to a magazine. (I’m currently working on a story I plan to submit to Asimov’s Science Fiction.) Or I can print up copies to give to friends. Someday maybe I’ll get a novel published by a traditional publishing company. On the other hand, that’s probably not a sensible dream. The point is that I have lots of control over what happens to my words. When I self-publish, I get to take all the action as quickly as I like — I’m pretty impatient sometimes — and I get to choose how the cover looks, which fonts to use in the layout, etc.

As for “literature”, that’s more about subject matter, and the truth is that I’ve always written lots of different types of stories. I started out with fantasy and science fiction, because that’s what I loved reading. After college I stepped toward realist fiction, because I wanted to explore some themes in everyday modern human life. But my fourth novel is magical realism, my current project is post-apocalyptic zombie SF, and I even wrote a romance story in This Ain’t.

Sarah Kay said, in her awesome TED Talk (linked above): “I’m always trying to find the best way to tell each story.” I suppose I do this too, but usually the format precedes the topic for me. Sometimes I get an idea for a song and I’m all “Okay time to rap in the voice of Martin Shkreli.” Sometimes I’ll have a tiny idea for a story, and pound out a one-page dealie like “The Envelope”. And of course I write plenty of nonfiction too. I’ve got a book about teaching I’m trying to finish up, and my book about politics will hopefully be out in the summer of this year.

I hope that answers your question, my friend. I’m always humbled and flattered when anyone takes time to read my words, and even more so when people inquire about the thought process that underlies it all. So thank you (and anyone reading these words) for your interest.

Didactic SynCast #109: Snow, Students, Stories, Socialism, Solidarity, and Stuff

I had a snow day today, so I figured it’s finally time for a new SynCast. You’re welcome.

Indigenous People, MAGA, and Black Hebrew Israelites

This weekend the nation has been shaken by images from Friday 18 January, of teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School (Park Hills, Kentucky) visiting Washington DC. In the video, they are staring at — and in the background, loudly mocking — a pair of indigenous drummers. Many of the CovCath teenagers are wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, proudly displaying their support for President Trump. A tremendous backlash has ensued, with many calls for action against the students. Snopes is hosting an Associated Press article with lots of details.

Today another 2-hour video surfaced on YouTube, which helps provide some additional context. Some of the students, shaken by what they consider an unfair demonization, have put forward their own narrative. The new video, which apparently was removed from Facebook, is strange and confusing — and I won’t be surprised if it’s removed from YouTube soon as well. But I’ll try to explain what I see, and then discuss a larger context.

What the Video Shows: Hour 1

The video begins, so far as I can tell, at the end of the Indigenous Peoples March, near the reflecting pool of the Washington DC Mall, outside the Lincoln Memorial.

A small group of men, who appear to be Black Hebrew Israelites, are quoting scripture and trying to address everybody who walks past. They level some accusations at the indigenous protesters, including self-hatred and worship of false idols. (At one point, one of the BHI guys says “You got your head up the white man’s ass.”) A few indigenous folks try to talk with the BHI speakers, but most of these interactions are short and hard to follow.

At one point, the man holding the camera (who seems to be part of the BHI group) turns it on himself and says: “The problem is these women coming up with their loud mouth”.

As the BHI guys speak, other folks — of various backgrounds, possibly tourists, possibly from DC itself — approach the group. We start to see young people in MAGA hats and shirts. These are apparently students from CovCath who were in DC as part of the 2019 March for Life anti-abortion rally. The BHI guys accuse the young people in MAGA gear of supporting a “faggot” (because Trump once kissed Giuliani dressed in drag) and a “pedophile” (possibly because Trump has been accused of raping a 13-year-old girl).

The BHI guys then lambast the Catholic Church for its decades of sexual abuse of minors. (It’s not clear if they know that the MAGA-clad students are from a Catholic school or not.) Early in the video, the cameraman suggests that the “dirty-ass crackers” in the MAGA hats + shirts are afraid to come too close. He says they would never wear those items in a black neighborhood. “I will stick my foot in your little ass,” he says.

Throughout the entire first hour of the video, various people try to speak with the BHI guys. Some of these people are black, which leads to accusations from the BHI guys of “Uncle Tom”. The cameraman asks why, with all the MAGA-hat-wearing white folks around, “you wanna fight your brother”. They also refer to black teenagers near the CovCath students (perhaps they are also students at CovCath) as “Kanyes” and “Coon-ye West”. The indigenous protesters occasionally join the argument, but mostly appear to dance and drum in the distance.

At one point, addressing the white students (many of them wearing the American flag or MAGA slogan on their clothing), one of the BHI guys asks: “When was the last time you saw a Mexican or Hispanic or Native American or a Negro shoot up a school?” In response to the silent crowd, the cameraman says: “Yeah. Crickets.”

More CovCath students arrive — all of them guys, nearly all of them white. At least half are wearing “Make America Great Again” in some form: baseball caps, sweatshirts, winter hats, t-shirts. Some of them say things which are hard to understand. Some appear to be mimicking or mocking the native dances nearby.

What the Video Shows: Hour 2

The tone shifts in the second half of the video. One of the CovCath students removes most of his clothing (why, I couldn’t say) and leads the crowd in a chant of some kind. Most of the CovCath students join in. The guy holding the camera asks “Do y’all understand who the real caveman is now?” Referring, apparently, to Capitol Police, he adds: “We’re surrounded, and they won’t do a damn thing about it.”

It’s hard to tell who’s moving near whom, but both the BHI guys and the CovCath students exchange angry words. The distance between them shrinks, until two indigenous drummers — Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and Marcus Frejo, from the Pawnee and Seminole tribes — step between the two groups. They sing and drum for a while, until we arrive at the moment many people have already seen, with the MAGA-hat-wearing CovCath student staring at Phillips. Some students jump and dance, while others do a version of the Atlanta Braves “tomahawk chop”. Some chants of “Build the Wall” are audible.

When the drummers step in, the cameraman says “Here comes Gad”. (Apparently that’s a term among BHI believers for Native Americans.) After a minute of drumming and singing, one of the BHI guys says: “Gad, he calmed all these spirits right down.” In a later interview, Frejo seemed to agree. “They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us,” he said. “I heard it three times. That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.”

When the CovCath students begin chanting again after a moment, the cameraman says: “Mockery. You’re at a native rally with Make America Great Again hats.” The rest of the video is a series of exchanges between the BHI guys and the CovCath students, most of which is hard to hear. Occasionally a white adult (presumably a teacher) will tell the students to “back up” or stop trying to speak with the BHI guys. “You’re not going to change their minds,” one lady says. Night falls, the cameraman explains that his battery is dying, and the video ends.

What I Think

It occurs to me that I’ve spent several hours composing this post about a disturbing incident that involved no physical violence, in the same way journalists and commentators dissect videos of police officers killing unarmed black folks like Laquan McDonald. (This same weekend, the cop who killed McDonald was sentenced to just seven years in prison. Kalief Browder spent three years in prison for allegedly stealing a backpack.) I could reflect more on that oddity, but instead I’ll just note it for the record, and move on.

I will also state for the record (although anyone who knows me will know it’s a given) that I am appalled and outraged by many statements from the Black Hebrew Israelite speakers. They demonstrate a kind of sexism, hatred of LGBTQ folks, and vile rhetoric that I cannot support. I will not apologize for any of their words, nor will I minimize their role in the proceedings.

At the same time, however, I want to point out that they represent “the hate that hate produced“. Some of their points are valid. (The demonization of black anger compared to the frequency of white gunmen killing people in schools, for example.) Anyone shocked by the attitude of the BHI speakers has never studied Malcolm X or the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army or the Nation of Islam. The Oakland rapper Paris once said: “Don’t be telling me to get the nonviolent spirit / because when I’m violent is the only time you devils hear it”. Again, I want to make clear that I do not endorse this brand of violent rhetoric. But it is an essential part of the historical dialectic that white folks generally refuse to consider.

Many people who have seen this weekend’s incident from multiple angles are loudly chastising the media for only showing the students mocking the drummers. They want the larger video to be seen. (The YouTube page is filled with commenters urging everybody to “download this now before they try to bury the truth”.) While getting that larger context is good, I worry that most of those racing to the students’ defense are only willing to consider a medium context, and not a larger, full context.

The larger context of this incident involves centuries of white supremacy. Let’s look at the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples March, shall we?

Missing and Murdered Indigenous women – Since 2016 there are over 7,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. Within the first 6 months of 2018 there are 2,758 women reported missing. [...]

Native Lives Matter – For every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died annually from 1999 to 2015 as a result of a “legal intervention,” according to a CNN review of CDC data broken down by race. The vast majority of these deaths were police shootings. [...]

Honor Our earth…Respect Our Treaties – President Trump’s first order of business was to sign for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Dakota Access Pipeline — The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members have been fighting to stop the oil from flowing into the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP).

The Keystone XL Pipeline will go along the Mississippi River and affect all of our water. Keystone scheduled to be built 2019, will illegally be scheduled to be built on Native American-owned lands and private landowners.

Big Bear Ears Monument — Trump administration and investors are disregarding treaties to gain profit from a mining project. This project will destroy our Big Bear Ears monument, a sacred site to many Southwestern tribes.

These problems were not brought about by single individuals or small groups of people. Addressing them requires ardent attention from all of us. I daresay most Trump supporters are indifferent or hostile to the concerns of indigenous communities.

And this is my biggest point: That’s not just any hat. Support for Donald Trump is not just another American political movement. Some people have suggested that MAGA is the new swastika. I don’t agree, but MAGA is not just another slogan.

Trump’s base loves the fact that “he’s not a politician”. Trump often ridicules the way presidents act. He spent years insisting that Barack Obama was not legally authorized to be President of the United States. Hopefully I don’t need to continue with this list. President Trump is willing to destroy the icons of American democracy; therefore we must understand that his movement is based on iconoclastic destruction, racism, and division.

This is the larger context we must address in this weekend’s incident. The CovCath students wore MAGA clothing as a way to make a statement, and that statement was reinforced powerfully through their mocking chants.

Of course we can’t know what that smirking student was thinking, but he made a conscious decision to stand his ground and stare down this indigenous elder as he tried to use music to calm a tense situation. As someone who has worked professionally with teenagers for almost two decades, I can say that he (and most of the other students) probably had one (or both) of the following thoughts in his head:

  1. I’m proud of this hat and what it represents. I’ve been told to hide my support for President Trump, but I refuse. I’m taking a stand against everybody who disagrees with me.
  2. lolz they are sooo triggered huahuehuahue im totally owning these libs

Either way, I’m confident that these young people have no idea why their mockery was so poisonous. I’m confident that a mini-mob mentality spurred their atrocious behavior. I’m confident that they felt attacked by the BHI speakers, and wanted to assert some pride as a reaction. I’m confident that they don’t understand the historical violence that has always accompanied White Pride. I hope that Marcus Frejo is correct when he says that a spirit of enlightenment reached the CovCath students, but I know from my own classroom that such enlightenment is rare and slow.

Some people have suggested the CovCath students are being unfairly maligned. They say that the indigenous drummers approached them, and they were merely reacting to the music. Some folks say that those of us outraged by the students’ behavior are not considering it in full context, but instead jumping to conclusions.

I think it’s important to be fair, and I’m bothered by much of the frontier/street-style justice I’ve witnessed on the internet. When it comes to issues of race and struggles against oppression, it’s true that we humans often cannot expect justice in any other form. But of course that doesn’t make it okay for people to receive death threats based on short online videos.

So how do we find a third way?

Let’s Resist Oversimplification, Shall We?

I’ve got a long history of resisting oversimplification. The only time I have ever blocked people on Twitter was because they suggested I was unwilling to keep an open mind. I believe my record proves that accusation to be without merit. I frequently play the Devil’s Advocate in my classroom. I often talk to people who disagree with me. I’m currently finishing a book about politics, in which I explain why I frequent Fox News and the Wall Street Journal:

First, I want to make sure I’m responding to what these conservative sources are actually saying, rather than what I expect or remember hearing. There’s a dangerous tendency for us to assume that we know what other people are saying — or would say — and therefore we think based on assumptions without going to the source.

But the other reason I read conservative sources is because I don’t know everything, and my vision of the world isn’t perfect. There’s always another side to every issue, and even the sources I do trust (like Democracy Now! and The Intercept) will occasionally leave things out of the conversation.

Having an open mind means that you seek out different points of view and take them seriously. As Chinua Achebe said in his 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah: “Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.”

I don’t know what a proper condemnation from our society toward these students should look like. It would involve the impeachment of President Trump for a start, for his daily violations of the US Constitution. More immediately, some have called for the expulsion of students from Covington Catholic High School. I don’t know how I feel about that. Part of me finds it harsh, but another part says it’s a fair response to what the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School called, in a joint statement, “behavior [...] opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person”.

I was struck by a comment from Diné Navajo social worker Amanda Blackhorse on the issue of punishment for the CovCath students:

i do not intend to discount your fear, anger, and upset, but please keep in mind these boys are of high school age. i am tired, i am upset, and i am overwhelmed, but all i wish is for these boys to be reprimanded by their schools, parents, and friends. i posted this with the intention to spread the reality of being indigenous in 2019. we did not meet these boys with violence for a reason.

More to the point, however, it doesn’t really matter what I think about the punishment these students face. I can’t have much influence on that series of events. But I can reach a few people with these words, and that’s what I want to focus on. I want white folks to understand the nature of this insult. I want America to stop the violence facing indigenous communities, explained above. I want people to understand what white privilege is, and behave in a way that demonstrates this understanding.

I also want an immediate end to native mascots. The American Psychological Association has advocated their end for 15 years, due to the “harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people”. My friend Colleen Butler recently tweeted:

Native mascots contribute to the dehumanization of Native people. Dehumanization was just what I saw in the eyes, the smirk, and the laughter yesterday. These things are connected.

We must also (all of us) resist the temptation to engage in groupthink and blind certainty. I believe the BHI speakers were driven — as many religious folks are — by a fiery conviction that their interpretation of scripture is The Truth, and that anyone who disagrees is Evil. As Arthur Miller said in The Crucible, about the Puritans of Salem: “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world.” Many Trump supporters (and members of the International Socialist Organization) share a similar certainty.

I believe the CovCath students were driven — as many teenagers are, as I was in my youth — by a need to belong, and the strange surge of adrenaline that comes with being in a group united by purpose. I believe that the indigenous guys were driven by a desire to calm the tension and provide the strength of spirit their ancestors offered them, through drumming and song.

I want us to escape our silos and have painful, honest conversations that result in true consciousness on all sides. In a way, that’s what the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life were trying to do. The confrontation we saw here was, in a way, just an uncovering of the seething resentment that has been festering for years. I’m horrified by what this mirror showed us, but I’m also glad that things didn’t get worse — which could have easily happened.

I’ll close with this: Such consciousness is needed most among white folks. Obviously black folks and native folks and latinx folks also have room to grow, and blind spots of their own to address. But there’s a particular brand of unconsciousness among white people because white supremacy has left a unique stain on the soul of humanity. We have to understand that the violence and poverty among black, latinx, and indigenous communities is the result of a wretched history — but also that this poverty and violence continues today. We must not ignore the suffering of Kalief Browder and Laquan McDonald and Anna Mae Aquash and the unnamed 8-year-old from Guatemala who died on Christmas Day in ICE custody. This suffering is a problem for our entire species. It affects the people in the ghetto and the barrio and the reservation more than it affects those of us in the suburbs, but it’s our problem too. If you truly believe that you are not free when others are oppressed, you need to act like it.

The election of Donald Trump showed a hideous lack of consciousness among white Americans. It showed our willingness as a nation to invest tremendous power in a man who has bragged about sexual violence; mocked disabled people; ridiculed native identities; urged violence against black protesters; and shown utter disregard for the humanity of most Americans. The fact that he won the election (sort of) is a stain of dishonor, the result of a serious lack of consciousness among white folks.

One way for us white folks to raise our consciousness is to hear the voices of indigenous people. The Reddit forum /r/IndianCountry has some great resources and discussions “By Natives, About Natives & The Americas”. The Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing (who should already be in your Twitter timeline) recommended some native folks on Twitter worth a follow: Adrienne Keene, Rebecca Nagle, and Kelly M. Hayes. And of course there are countless online news sources like Indian Country Today.

Claiming that we should all “come together” in an amorphous spirit of “unity” is oversimplification. Suggesting that we should all take pride in being American, and downplay the racism we see every day, is oversimplification. White supremacy has always been based on violent oversimplification. Trump’s wall is oversimplification, based as it is on the idea that swarms of Others are coming to hurt us. Thinking of ourselves as Americans rather than human beings (what Chuck D calls “Earthicans”) is oversimplification.

I refuse to engage in that kind of oversimplification, and I hope you will too.

A luta continua.

EDIT: On Tuesday 23 January, Nathan Phillips spoke to DemocracyNow!. An excerpt:

 I was absolutely afraid. There was a group of over 200 young angry white men who were displaying mob mentality. And they were facing down just four black individuals. And it was coming to a point where just a snap of the finger could have caused them kids to descend on those four individuals. I didn’t agree with the Black Israelites and what they were saying. But what I do believe is that America is a land of freedoms. And as much as I disagreed with those Black Israelites, they had the right to be there.

Boots Riley on BlackkKlansman

Boots Riley is a filmmaker (Sorry to Bother You), rapper (The Coup), and lifelong activist against oppression and injustice — economic, racial, and otherwise.

He recently posted a critique of Spike Lee’s latest film, BlackkKlansman, on Twitter. He posted images, but some folks would like text. I think it’s a really important critique, so I’m copying out the text here.

The following are not my words. Everything after this line was written by Boots Riley.  I made a few edits based on follow-up posts he made to the original thread (and italicized movie titles), but the rest is verbatim. (And if you’ve never listened to The Coup, check out their second album Genocide and Juice. It’s one of the five best hip-hop albums of all time.)


Here are some thoughts on Blackkklansman.

This contains spoilers, so read no further if you don’t want the film spoiled.

This is not as much an aesthetic critique of the masterful craftwork of this film as it is a political critique of the content of and timing of the film.

I also want to say, as I tweeted last week, that Spike Lee has been a huge influence on me. He’s the reason I went to film school so many years ago. He’s the first person I sent a demo tape of my music to when he had 40 Acres and A Mule Musicworks, and he has inspired me as a cultural critic as well. He never held his tongue about what he thought of Tyler Perry films or any other films that he happened to see and be displeased with. Spike doesn’t hold his tongue. Although I’m gonna lay out my disagreement, I hold him in highest respect as a filmmaker. I should also add that many people who helped make this film are folks who I know personally, and who I think are amazing folks with great intentions, and since they know me, they know I’m not gonna hold my tongue.

First, Blackkklansman is not a true story. A story not being “true” is not necessarily a problem for me — I have no interest in telling them myself at this time — but this is being pushed as a true story and it is precisely its untrue elements that make a cop a hero against racism. When I voiced some criticism before, a few people said “but it’s a true story!” It’s not.

It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression. It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.

Here is what we know:

The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years (not for one event like the movie portrays) where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act point to him doing — sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression. Cointelpro papers show us that these police infiltrators of radical organizations worked to try to disrupt the organizations through things like instigating infighting, acting crazy to make the organizations look bad, getting physical altercations happening, and setting them up to be murdered by the police or others. Ron Stallworth was part of the cointelpro. Cointelpro’s objectives were to destroy radical organizations, especially Black radical organizations.

Cointelpro papers also show us that when White Supremacist organizations were infiltrated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to disrupt them. They weren’t disrupted. It was to use them to threaten and/or physically attack radical organizations. There was no directive to stop the rise of White Supremacist organizations. the directive was to stop radical organizations. The White Supremacists were infiltrated to be more effective tools of repression by the state. In some cases, it was the undercover cops who came up with plans and literally pulled the trigger on assassinations. This happened in church bombings of Civil Rights movement associated Black churches in Birmingham, the assassination of Civil Rights organizer from Detroit in Selma, the Greensboro Massacre of Communist Workers Party members in 1979, and more. This is what Ron Stallworth was helping to do, and he was doing it in that era. The events of the film all take place in 1979 and after.

Stallworth wrote a memoir to put himself in a different light, but let’s look at what else we know.

There was no bombing that Stallworth or the police thwarted. This was not in Stallworth’s memoir. That was made up for the movie to make the police seem like heroes.

There was no copy that got recorded and/or arrested due to saying things at a bar while drunk about how he’s ok with shooting Black folks. This also was not in Stallworth’s memoir. This was put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism, like they don’t all protect whatever racist and abusive cops are in there. This is a scene where the whole police force — chief and all — work together with the fictional Black radical love interest to set the one racist cop up. Never happened. Never would, and someone saying that something vague while drunk wouldn’t be able to be arrested for that. But makes the cops look like they care. His partner that did the physical infiltration of the Klan was not Jewish and did not look Jewish to people. This was a made up thing to raise the stakes and make it seem like the cops were sacrificing more than they were. Add that to the false notion that they were doing it to fight racism and it endears you to the cops more. This means there was no scene where Stallworth had to go throw a rock through the window or whatever.

I’ve met Kwame Ture two or three times, and heard him speak more than that. By the time he was calling himself Kwame Ture, he had formed the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) and was living in Africa most of the time. The program of the AAPRP for Black folks in the US at the time was to help create a revolutionary Black intelligentsia. They did this through an immensely long reading list and rigorous study groups. He came back to the US and toured colleges to talk to Black folks for this reason. At SF State in 1989/90, I took part in a few of these study groups. If you really went up to Kwame Ture and asked him what we should do right now — as Ron Stallworth does in the film — he would have said what he usually said: “Study!!!” But, it made the Black radical group look more dangerous to have Ture say something that sounded like he was calling for armed insurrection — which they were not calling for in the US at the time. I mean, this movie is trying to make a Cointelpro operative into a hero. It needs every little piece of help it can get.

With these fabricated story notes that Blackkklansman hits upon Ron Stallworth looks like a hero, and so does his partner and the police force. Without the made up stuff and with what we know of the actual history of police infiltration into radical groups, and how they infiltrated and directed White Supremacist organizations to attack those groups, Ron Stallworth is the villain.

Everything else is simply unverifiable stuff that ex-cop Ron Stallworth wrote in his memoir. We don’t know what happened because the “files were destroyed”. We have to trust the word of a cop who infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years. This is probably why it was only able to be published by a publisher that specializes in books written by cops.

At the end, the radical girlfriend says that she’s not down with him being a cop, then Stallworth — the guy who we’ve been following and made to care about and who is falsely shown to have risked his life to fight racism — says that he’s for the liberation of his people at the same time as being a cop. All the fake stuff we just showed him go through argues his point for him. And then they hear something and go, guns drawn, to investigate. They go down the hall together with the signature Spike Lee dolly — the one that tells us it’s him, the one that took Malcolm down the street, the one that took Dap across campus telling “Wake Up!”. They go forward into the future, side by side, in symmetrical composition, to fight the burning cross of racist terror. Cops and the movement against racist oppression united. This is the penultimate shot before the film goes to news footage of current White Supremacist attacks. Awww hayull no.

Look — we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines — we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Much of the call to challenge police brutality and murder brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement has been met by right wing cries of “But what about Black-On-Black violence?” Some of us, like Spike Lee have bought into that. Two years ago, I wrote an article in The Guardian about the myth of the ride of Black-On-Black violence and prove through statistics exactly how that idea is false, mentions how Spike Lee’s Chiraq plays into that myth, and how that myth is used against movements for social justice. It’s titled “Black culture isn’t the problem — systemic inequality is“. In the context of the political debate happening around the police’s role in racist attacks — this new film is a political brother of Chiraq. The two films say together: “Black folks need to stop worrying about police violence and worry about what they’re doing to each other — plus the police are against racism anyway.”

By now, many folks now know that Spike Lee was paid over $200k by the NYPD to help in an ad campaign that was “aimed at improving relations with minority communities”. Whether it actually is or not, Blackkklansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign.

Follow-up with references in screenshot format