Montclair Film Festival 2020: Movies That Make You Want to Go Out and Vote

The Montclair Film Festival was held two weeks before the U.S. presidential election. The festival program, filled as always with documentaries, covered a wide range of election-time issues: race in America, the economy, gun violence and the influence of money in politics. The way the festival was presented, seven months delayed and shown at a makeshift drive-in or streamed, is a reminder of the biggest election issue of all, the pandemic and how it has been handled.

Here are some highlights of movies that make you realize how important it is to vote this year.

Surge

The surge is women running for office. It is presented as an outgrowth of the 2016 election and the next step after the Women’s March on Washington that followed Trump’s inauguration.

The film follows the campaign of three women running for congressional seats in 2018. All started as rank underdogs running as Democrats against Republican incumbents in traditionally red districts. The candidates are Jana Lynn Sanchez in Texas, Liz Watson in Indiana and Lauren Underwood in Illinois. All are running in predominantly white suburban districts and all have to win primaries to get on the ballot in November.

If you saw the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, this might sound familiar. It is essentially the same movie, following three female candidates for Congressional seats. Since they are both filmed during the same campaign, I assume they were made at the same time, although the Netflix doc came out a year earlier.

I was prepared to watch more of the same, but found Surge to be a riveting and inspiring movie. These women campaign the hard way. They knock on doors, shake hands in the street and appear at senior citizen club tricky trays. 

What stands out in both of these movies is the incumbents that these candidates are seeking to unseat. They are all the same: wealthy, old and white. Disconnected from the folks in their district, if there’s a debate they usually use a surrogate. They are used to throwing money at the campaign and cruising to one re-election after another. They only show up when it becomes apparent that they may for once be facing a competitive race.

Knock Down the House was lucky to have chosen as a subject Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her race and turned out to be something of a political superstar. Surge has a star too. Lauren Henderson is a smart, fearless, energetic woman with an engaging personality. She’s a registered nurse. She would become the youngest black woman ever elected to Congress, and this from a very white district.  I’d be proud to have her represent me in Congress.

Will we be watching documentaries like this in 2021 and 2022 about the 2020 campaign? Or will we get to the point where women running for office is so expected and accepted that it’s not noteworthy enough to make a movie about?

Us Kids

Not much has happened in American politics and society since the election of Trump that could give much cause for optimism. The kids at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are an exception. That is the high school where a mass shooting that killed 17 took place in February 2018.

This isn’t a documentary about what happened. It’s the story of what happened afterwards. It shows a group of teenagers responding not just with grief and anger but with determination and commitment. They confront NRA supporting politicians. They organize the mass march on Washington. They bus around the country mobilizing kids their age to fight the laws and lawmakers that enable gun violence, whether in our schools or in our neighborhoods.

Some of these kids, like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, have become pretty well known and widely-recognizable. But the film also follows a girl who was wounded in the attack, Sam Fuentes. Being a leader, being on stage and on camera, doesn’t come so easily for Sam, but her path to healing and her emergence as an activist is perhaps even more resonant as she is a bit more like what many would consider a typical high school girl.

Of all the things these kids are shown doing, the one that stands out to me is how they deal with the so-called counter-protesters, the crackers and rednecks who dress up like GI Joe and come marching around armed to the teeth. These kids don’t shout at them or hide from them, they walk on over to them and try to engage them in an intelligent and empathetic conversation. 

Lots of other kids joined them. Inner city kids dealing with gun violence on the streets worked together with high schoolers from affluent suburbs. Will these kids do a better job of sorting out this country than we did? I’m 50 years older than most of the kids in this movie but I look up to them and listen to them. And I sure hope they’re all old enough to vote now.

Nomadland

Why would I include a fictional movie based on a book written three years ago in a list of movies about election time issues? It’s the economy, stupid.

If I had to describe this movie in one word it would be lonely. The beautiful, vast and empty desert landscapes. The somber, moody piano music score. And a woman living on her own in a van.

The nomads of Nomadland are people who have had a rough turn later in life. They have lost a job or a spouse, have been bankrupted by healthcare costs or foreclosed. They live on the road in campers or vans. One even lives in her Prius. In the words of Fern, the woman who is followed by the cameras: “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless.”

They travel from place to place chasing mostly temporary gigs. There’s seasonal work at an Amazon warehouse, where a fringe benefit is a place to park your van, a nomad pow-wow in Arizona where they teach each other things like how to fix your own flat, a season cleaning toilets at a campsite. One did a season at Wall Drug, while another headed to the bee harvest in Nebraska.

This is not a story of despair. Many deep and lasting friendships are created and there is a strong sense of community.

The movie is based on a brilliant book by Jessica Bruder (you can read my review here). The book is non-fiction. The movie is fictionalized although some of the background characters are nomads from Bruder’s book. While the book is about the sociology, camaraderie and community, the film makes a more personal story. Fern, a fictitious character, is presented with opportunities to move back in under a roof. She defers. Yet nothing about her life on the road seems to make her particularly happy. In the end, she starts another round in an Amazon warehouse. 

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

This is a follow-up to a 2003 documentary. The filmmakers suggest that corporations have changed their approach to the public, focusing on their role as socially responsive entities. The filmmakers call BS.

BP is one example. The company CEO was one of the first in the fossil fuel industry to acknowledge the impact of climate change and talk about the company’s commitment to addressing it. We then see footage of fatal oil rig explosions and massive leaks, courtesy of BP.

Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase talks about how his bank is undertaking a massive initiative to revive the city of Detroit. The filmmakers talk about how the reckless policies of his bank helped lead to the 2008 recession that devastated that city and its residents. The priority of corporations is return for shareholders and that always takes precedence over issues like climate change and income inequality. That point is hammered home.

There are interviews with scholars, authors and activists. I don’t remember who said what but there are some memorable quotes: “the greed economy is killing us;” “the destructive corporate agenda is completely out of control;” “you don’t need a PhD in economics to know your life sucks under capitalism.”

The latter part of the movie is devoted to activism. We hear from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Greta Thornberg and others. And the cameras visit Zucotti Park, the protests for a $15 minimum wage and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The message is not solely take to the streets, not just vote, but run for office.

And, as a reminder that the legalization of marijuana is on the ballot in several states, including New Jersey where I live……

Freeland

Answers the question of what happened to the hippies who headed off to live on communes. Answer: they became pot farmers.

You might think these are good times for marijuana growers but the fate of Deb the cannabis farmer suggests that just like in other areas of farming the little guy is getting squeezed. In Freeland, which is a fictional film, the local authorizes come after Deb, her customers get spooked and despair continues to spiral from there.

The movie is filmed in Humboldt County, Calif. The cinematography is amazing and the beauty of the scenery paired with the somber score reflects the story being told. The other highlight is the performance of Keisha Fairchild in the lead role as Deb. Timely viewing in my state where we’ll shortly be voting on legalizing marijuana.

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Montclair Film Festival 2020: Best Of

The pandemic has brought movie theaters to their knees. Big studios, armed with productions that they expect to bring in big cash, are holding back. But that doesn’t mean filmmakers aren’t at work. And the film festivals that many independents depend on as their initial outlets, are soldering on, albeit without red carpets and opening night parties.

The Montclair Film Festival, now in its ninth year, usually takes place the beginning of May. This year it was rescheduled for October. They used a makeshift drive-in at a county-owned archery field to screen a couple movies a night and presented the rest online.

The various restrictions associated with the content made the Eventive site which they used for streaming somewhat maddening to use if you wanted to cast the films onto your TV screen. But there was one advantage to having the festival online. I watched 18 movies (two at the drive-in and the rest virtually) during the 10 day festival.

I can’t promise that these were the best films of MFF20, but these were my favorites out of the 18 I saw.

My Name is Sara

How many movies have been made about young Jewish girls in Nazi-occupied Europe? No matter how many, they don’t lose their moral weight. Nor do they fail to be heartbreaking.

Sara is a 13-year old girl who lives in western Poland. Poland is occupied by Nazis and they are systematically exterminating Jews. Sara’s parents know their fate and they encourage her and her brother to run off and hide in the woods. Sara swims across the river to the Ukraine where she ends up as nanny and all-around servant to a gruff Ukrainian farm family. She assumes a new identity, a new life story and to pass the test of non-Jewishness learns to cross herself properly, takes communion and goes to confession.

This is a true story and with that comes the astonishing cruelty of German Nazis. In one scene they round up all of the Ukrainian residents in their small agricultural village and announce that two German soldiers were killed by resistance fighters. They will kill 10 civilians for every German soldier killed. Ten people are rounded up and shot before their husbands, wives, mothers and fathers.

Like all the films of this genre, this is a story of survival, not just for Sara but for the farm family she is living with. The Nazis steal their animals, the resistance fighters do too. They have to turn over much of their grain to the occupiers. On top of that, they cheat on each other, fight with each other and generally seem to hate each other. A grim story, but they all make it. It is only after the Russians have driven the Germans out of the Ukraine that we hear the words “my name is Sara.”

I’m sure at least some of my readers are thinking ‘that’s not for me,’ But it’s a brilliant movie. The best I saw at the festival. The cinematography is exceptional, the actors and actresses convincing. You can’t watch this and not be moved. I’m sure it will stay with me for a long time.

Down a Dark Stairwell

On a November night in 2014 Akai Gurley and his partner got tired of waiting for the elevator in their East New York high rise. They started down the stairs. Coming up the stairs was NYPD officer Peter Liang doing what the police referred to as a vertical patrol. Liang pulled his gun and what he later referred to as an accidental discharge resulted in a bullet that ricocheted off the wall and killed Gurley. Gurley is Black. Liang is Chinese-American.

Gurley’s family, neighbors and supporters took to the streets demanding justice. He was unarmed and did nothing wrong. Liang was indicted by the Brooklyn prosecutor on eight charges including second degree manslaughter. Then the Chinese-American community took to the streets. They called a Liang a scapegoat who was paying the price for the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other Black men at the hands of police who were never indicted or charged. In all Chinese-Americans demonstrated in 43 cities. And a third group took to the streets, Chinese-Americans who supported the African-American community, calling for an end to police violence against minorities.

The movie goes through the entire episode: killing, indictment, trial, sentencing. The filmmaker notes that in 14 years in New York City, 130 black men were killed by police and Liang was the only one to face charges.

I can’t remember a more powerful documentary about race and racism in America than this one. There are times when these groups of demonstrators end up on opposite sides of the street shouting at each other. But there remains a broad recognition that the other minority community is not the enemy. The film captures numerous conversations, not just between the community leaders, but literally with men on the street. These conversations reveal the diversity of views within both minority communities. The comment that stands out for me comes from a Chinese-American man talking to an African-American demonstrator: “This is all about white supremacy.”

Two of Us

Two older French women, Madeleine and Nina, have a romantic relationship that they have kept secret from those around them. They live together is one apartment but rent separate apartments across the hall from each other for appearances sake. When Madeleine has a stroke and loses her ability to speak, their secrecy creates seemingly insurmountable barriers for them to be together. Not the least of those barriers is Madeleine’s daughter and son, as well as a 24-hour caregiver.

The story is simply told. We learn very little of their previous lives and most of the movie takes place in a single apartment. Given the plot you may be surprised to hear that this film is filled with suspense and tension.

The movie is punctuated by silences. The story oft times moves along without dialogue. This is the first feature film for director Filippo Meneghetti. He has taken a unique story and given it a stylish rendering.

Farewell Amor

You would be hard-pressed to find a more unique and insightful movie. Farewell Amor is the story of an Angloan immigrant family in New York. Amor is the nickname that the wife Esther uses for her husband Walter. 

Walter has been in New York for 17 years before his wife and daughter join him. He works as a cab driver and has been living with another woman. When Esther arrives, they find themselves with little in common. They  are unable to connect physically. Esther has turned deeply religious, which is something of a mystery to Walter. And along with Esther is teen daughter Sylvia who has her own struggles, coming almost literally right off the plane into a New York City high school, and dealing with an extremely overprotective mother.

The film is presented in segments. The same time frame and events are presented from the perspective of each of the three principal characters. The situation they face seems to be a recipe for disaster. Yet what we see is an honest and sincere dedication on the part of each to reconstruct this family.

On the surface you might think how lucky this family is to escape a country torn by civil war and to be reunited in the U.S. It was no doubt a very long hard road to get where they are. Once here though it is still a long hard road. I’m not sure this story has been told that often or this effectively, It is a moving one.

Zappa

Zappa played guitar. He fronted a rock and roll band. He composed orchestral music. He even made movies. This documentary covers it all. It is the most extensive source of information about Frank Zappa I’ve encountered.

There are interviews with musicians who played with Zappa and with his wife. Alice Cooper tells us that he thinks Zappa sabotaged his own records because he was afraid to have a hit record. But he did have a hit record. One. Valley Girl. That was inspired by his daughter Moon who, at age 13, slipped a note under his door introducing herself and reminding him that she lived in the same house.

That’s the side of Zappa that the fans of his music don’t have to deal with. He was obsessive, self-absorbed and no doubt to many around him a complete prick. He is, of course, not the first famous musician to turn out to be a shitty father. He wasn’t that good of a husband either. “I like to get laid.” was his explanation. 

There are all sorts of tidbits of information about Zappa that show up in this documentary. His initial fascination as a child was with explosives and he planned to blow up his high school (with nobody in it). At the other end of his life he was invited, and accepted, an invitation to appear at the celebration of Czechoslovakia’s independence after the Velvet Revolution. He testified in Congress against the mature audience labels that were eventually put on albums. 

But amongst all this he was making music like no one else, whether it was played in rock clubs or by chamber music ensembles. This is a long documentary. If you’re a Zappa fan, like me, you’ll be glued to your seat. My wife, on the other hand, stayed in the next room and just popped in for the parts she thought sounded interesting. You can do stuff like that when everything is streamed. 

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A Brief History of Racial and Social Injustice Drawn and Painted

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ben Strahn. In the 1920’s amidst a wave of xenophobia and the Red Scare that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, two Italian immigrant anarchists were arrested, convicted and executed for a murder they most likely didn’t commit.
Scottsboro Boys, Hideo Benjamin Noda
Scottsboro Boys, Hideo Benjamin Noda. The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers who in 1931 were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Ala. In the foreground of Noda’s painting is one of those teenagers Haywood Patterson.
Us Fellas Gotta Stock Together (The Last Defenses of Capitalism), Hugo Gellert.
Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together (The Last Defenses of Capitalism), Hugo Gellert. 1932
Mine Strike, Thomas Hart Benton
Mine Strike, Thomas Hart Benton. Drawn by the artist after a 1928 tour of the coal mines of West Virginia.
We Demand Our Jobs, Seymour Fogel
We Demand Our Jobs, Seymour Fogel. Drawn in 1933 during the Depression.
Vigilantes, Will Barnett
Vigilantes, Will Barnett, 1934
The Lord Provides, Jacob Burck
The Lord Provides, Jacob Burck. Police remove a woman demonstrating against unemployment in 1934 during the Depression.
Strike Scene
Strike Scene, Louis Lozowick, 1935
The Louisville Flood
The Louisville Flood, Margaret Bourke-White. After a flood in 1937 Bourke-White photographed African-American residents lining up outside a food relief agency. In the background is a billboard that speaks for itself.
American Tragedy, Philip Evergood
American Tragedy, Philip Evergood. The Memorial Day Massacre occurred in 1937 on Chicago’s South Side. Steelworkers marched toward a Republic Steel plant demanding the right to unionize. Police fired on the demonstrators, killing ten and wounding or injuring 60.
Discrimination KKK, Jesus Escobedo
Discrimination KKK, Jesus Escobedo, 1940
Big electric chair
Big Electric Chair, Andy Warhol. This is an image of the death chamber at Sing Sing where Julius and Ethel Rosenthal were executed in 1963. Amidst another Red Scare in America in the 1950’s, the Rosenthals were convicted of passing confidential information about the atomic bomb to Russia during World War II.
The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell
The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell. in 1960, six-year old Ruby Bridges heads to what had previously been an all-white school in New Orleans, escorted by U.S. marshals.
Gary Simmons chalk drawing
Green Chalkboard, Gary Simmons, 1993.

(Images are from various exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Rockwell painting is from an exhibit at the Newark Museum of Art.)

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From Germany to New Jersey: Colonial Ironworkers

Long Pond Ironworks sign

Peter Hasenclever, born in 1716 in Prussia, was the son of an iron manufacturer. He came to New Jersey is 1765, armed with a pile of cash he secured from a group of English investors that included in the wife of George III. He first bought an ironworks in Ringwood, N.J., and then set about building his ironmaking facility at Long Pond, the colonial name for Greenwood Lake.

To accomplish this he notes in his memoir, “I transported 565 persons to America from Germany as miners, founders, forgemen, colliers, carpenters, masons and laborers, with their wives and children.” What brought them here? In a 1998 article in the Highlander (an excerpt is available here), the author Susan Deeks identifies them as part of the Palatine immigration, an 18th century movement of Germans and Swiss who left the Rhine River region fleeing religious persecution and seeking a better life.

Apparently not everyone of these colonial ironworkers were satisfied with their situation in New Jersey. Hassenclever posted ads in both New York and Philadelphia newspapers seeking the return of “runaway” employees. While I couldn’t find any direct evidence of this, it seems as though this was some type of contractual labor situation if Hassenclever felt entitled to have his rogue employees returned.

The remains of Long Pond Ironworks, which is now a state park, show something of a picture of how Hasenclever’s Germans and their descendents lived.

These homes were built later in the civil war era. They are two-family homes. The one on the left is now part of a building that houses the visitors center and museum, both of which are closed for the remainder of the year due to the pandemic.

Below is the company store where workers bought whatever provisions they required. No need for cash here, purchases were directly deducted from your paycheck. There was no competition. The store was located on what was the main intersection of the village of Hewitt.

Long Pond Ironworks company store

And here’s what’s left.

Long Pond Ironworks company store
Long Pond Ironworks company store

Hassenclever met with some early success. In addition to Ringwood and Long Pond, he built out iron manufacturing facilities in Charlottenburg, N.J., and Cortland, N.Y. He was one of the first large scale manufacturers in colonial America. But he was viewed as a bit of a free spender by his British investors and he was replaced in 1769 by Jeston Humphray, who in turn was replaced by Robert Erskine. It was under Erskine’s direction that Iron Pond produced the iron for armaments and supplies for Washington’s continental army. At the time there were 125 employees

During the 19th century, the iron works underwent several changes of ownership. During the Civil War, it produced rifles for the Union army. At its peak, Long Pond had about 600 employees. But later in the 19th century things began to slow down. Iron and steel manufacturing was headed west closer to the coal and iron mines of Western Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region. The fire went out in the last furnace in 1882.

Mining remained active in the region into the 20th century. There was an ice cutting operation and sawmill, but those activities were killed off by the Depression. By mid-century most of the residents of the village of Hewitt had moved out in search of more populous and prosperous locales. In 1957 the Long Pond property was given to the state.

Colonial furnace
The Colonial Furnace was the first furnace built at the site by Hassenclever in 1765. All that is left is part of the foundation and much of that is covered by a tarp.
Long Pond furnace
This is the remains of one of two other furnaces that were built on the site during the Civil War era. These furnaces converted ore into iron bars.

There were two water wheels on the site that were used to produce the forced air necessary to get the furnaces up to temperature and keep the fire going 24/7.

Long Pond Ironworks water wheel
A 1909 photo of one of the water wheels
Wanaque River
The water wheels were turned by water from the adjacent Wanaque River, an outlet from Greenwood Lake
Long Pond Ironworks water wheel pit
Around 1870 the owners planned to update the facility by building a 50 ft. water wheel to replace the two 25 ft. wheels. This pit was dug for that purpose but as business slowed the new water wheel was never built.

The Hasenclever Iron Trail is now a scenic hiking trail through the woods. It follows what had been a road that was built by Hasenclever in 1765 to connect his iron making facilities in Long Pond and Ringwood. Many of the rocks on the trail are slag from the mining operation.

In 1987, Long Pond Ironworks was dedicated as a state park. Now, in addition to the historic remains of the ironworks and the Village of Hewitt, it is a site for recreational activities including hiking, boating, ice fishing, birding and horseback riding.

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Crawling, Buzzing, Creeping

Eastern newt
Eastern newt
Two-striped grasshopper
Two-striped grasshopper
Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly
Carolina grasshopper
Carolina grasshopper
Pleasing fungus beetle
Pleasing fungus beetle
Ebony jewelwing
Ebony jewelwing
Dragonfly
Dragonfly
butterfly

(Photos by Aidan Dowell)

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Museums: The Slow Crawl Back Toward Normal

Whitney Museum of American Art

During March and April, New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, however, New York and the surrounding area in the northeast are as close to having the virus under control as any part of the U.S. The reopening of the city has been gradual and controlled and at the end of August New York’s museums were allowed to open.

The Whitney Museum of American Art is my favorite of the New York museums so that was the first place I visited. The Whitney opened in early September and adopted a “pay what you wish” admission policy for the rest of the month. It implemented the usual protocols of limiting capacity and requiring timed tickets. My photos were taken during members only hours on a weekend morning, so the galleries may not always look as empty as they do here, but a substantial portion of Whitney customers aren’t around as there are no tourists coming to New York.

Whitney Museum of American Art

There are limited restrooms and limited elevator service. Patrons are encouraged to take the stairs, which are one way.

Whitney Museum of American Art

And, of course, face coverings are required.

Man with Serape and Sombrero
Man with Serape and Sombrero, Maradonio Magana.

No dining in the frighteningly expensive lobby level restaurant.

Whitney Museum restaurant

Nor can you get a cup of coffee in the upstairs cafe.

Whitney Museum cafe

Some of the exhibits are holdovers from earlier in the year, like the excellent Vida Americana exhibit which features 20th century Mexican muralists and the American artists who were influenced by them.

Electric Power, Diego Rivera
Electric Power, Diego Rivera
Untitled Jackson Pollock
Did you know Jackson Pollock created paintings that looked like this untitled piece? The exhibit explores how Pollock was influenced by Jose Clemente Orozco.

There were a couple new exhibits as well like Around Day’s End: Downtown New York, 1970-1986

Street Woman on Car, Anton Dalon
Street Woman on Car, Anton van Dalen

Not quite normal. You might end up huffing and puffing walking up to the 8th floor with a mask on. And you might have to search a bit to find an open restroom. But, all in all, it was great to be back.

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The Men Behind the Toppled Statues

The wave of protests in the United States and around the world that followed the murder of George Floyd included, in some places, the defacement or destruction of some pubic monuments to historical figures. For some this amounted to a long overdue removal of symbols of racism, bigotry and even genocide. For others it represented an erasure of history and desecration of sculpture. But a look at the men whose lives were memorialized in these monuments suggests the real question is why anyone would see fit to celebrate these individuals’ lives to begin with.

Albert Pike

On Friday night, June 19, protesters in Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C., toppled and burned the statue of Confederate General Albert Pike. The protesters used rope to pull the statue off of its pedestal. In fell backward and landed in a pile of dust. Lighter fluid was then used to set it afire while the crowd chanted “no justice, no peace.” Trump, apparently watching on TV, tweeted that the DC police should have stopped the protesters and complained “These people should be immediately arrested. A disgrace to our Country.” The tweet was read aloud on a bullhorn at the scene and protesters erupted in cheers. 

Albert Pike was a 19th century lawyer, author, poet, Confederate general and racist. This Confederate general was actually born and raised in Massachusetts, the descendent of colonials who had come to the area in 1635. In his twenties, he ended up in Arkansas. He started his career as a journalist and later became a lawyer.

During the Mexican-American War he joined the Regiment of Arkansas Mounted Volunteers. But he didn’t get on so well with his commanding officer and the two of them ended up in a duel. Neither of these high-ranking soldiers managed to hit their target after several shots so they gave it up. When the Civil War rolled around, Pike, who had frequently represented Native Americans in cases against the federal government, was the Confederacy’s envoy to Native Americans. In that position he negotiated a treaty with a Cherokee chief in which the Cherokees were promised a state of their own if they supported the Confederacy and if the Confederates won. PIke became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, commanding a troop of Native Americans. But he again butted heads with his commanding officer and was to be brought up on charges that his troops scalped soldiers. Pike ran off into the hills of Arkansas. After the war he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.

Albert Pike

It is a question of some dispute among his biographers and historians as to whether Pike was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. What is not a matter of dispute is his racism. Pike was a member of the Masonic Lodge and rose to the exalted position of “Sovereign Grand Commander.” He assured that he would resign if the Masons admitted Blacks. He was also a virulent opponent of Black suffrage, quoted by one of his biographers as saying: “the white race, and that race alone shall govern the country, it is the only one that is fit to govern, and it is the only one that shall.”

And somebody erected a statue of this guy in the nation’s capital?

Junipero Serra

Statue of Junipero Serra

On the same day that the Pike statue bit the dust in Washington, a group of indigenous activists at a park in downtown Los Angeles, took a moment for a blessing, then tied a rope around the head of Junipero Serra’s statue and brought it down. It bit the dust to the sounds of cheers and drumming. On the same day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park another statue of Serra suffered the same fate. A couple weeks later in Sacramento, a statue of Sierra was beheaded and painted red. In Ventura, Calif., they got the message and the town council voted to remove a statue of Sierra from its city hall location. At Stanford University, his name was scrubbed from campus buildings.

Junipero Serra was a Spanish priest who came to North America as a missionary and ended up being responsible for building the missions of Spanish-owned California in the late 18th century. He founded the first mission in San Diego and added nine of the eventual 21 Spanish California missions. The goal of these missions was to convert Native Americans to Christianity. They were also seen by the Spanish as a way to deter Russia from moving in on Spain’s Pacific Coast territory.

Serra had originally come to Mexico where he worked on an Indian mission. He and other Franciscans moved into what was known as Upper California after the Jesuits had been expelled from the region by the Spaniards. Serra was known for self-punishment, whipping himself with chains or pounding his chest with rocks while delivering a sermon. This apparently was a way to purify the spirit. 

While Serra was building missions to save the souls of Native Californians, their population was being decimated. One reason was the syphilis that was introduced by Spanish soldiers. That was not of much concern to the missionaries. After one encounter at the San Diego mission that resulted in hostilities, Serra optimistically wrote “it seems none of them died so they can still be baptized.” Those natives who were converted were segregated from Native American society, forced to live on the mission and were subjected to forced labor. Their condition was not so different from a concentration camp.

To the Catholic Church, Serra, the ‘apostle of California’ was a saint. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. To Native Americans in California he and the statues that memorialize him are symbols of colonialism and oppression.

Edward W. Carmack

A few weeks earlier, on May 30, protestors in Nashville, Tenn., took down the statue of Edward W. Carmack, an early 20th century politician, journalist and racist. Among those applauding was Taylor Swift who noted “Taking down statues isn’t going to fix centuries of systematic oppression, violence and hatred that Black people have had to endure, but it might bring us one small step closer to making ALL Tennesseans and visitors to our state feel safe–not just the white ones.”

Edward Carmack

Carmack served two terms in the U.S. House of Representative and one in the Senate, from 1901 to 1907. As a journalist he started out with the Nashville Democrat, became editor-in-chief of the Nashville American and later editor of the Memphis Commercial and Nashville Tennessean. His most notable activity as a journalist was his attacks on Ida B. Wells who at the time had launched an anti-lynching campaign in her paper, Free Speech. One of the most notable incidents was in 1892 when Wells wrote extensively about the mob lynching of three black store owners whose main crime seems to have been competing with a white store owner. Carmack urged his readers to retaliate against the “black wench.” The Free Press offices were raided and destroyed and Wells likely only saved herself by being out of town. She stayed away after that. 

Carmack came to an end in 1908 when he attempted to kill another publishing rival, Duncan Brown Cooper. Instead he wounded Cooper’s son, who returned the fire and killed him.

How in the world did anyone think this guy should be celebrated with a public statue? Turns out it was the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement behind it. As a politician, Carmack was a prohibitionist. And the temperance folks in Tennessee thought him a Prohibition martyr. It has been suggested that the most suitable replacement for the toppled Carmack statue would be one of Ida B. Wells.

Edward Colston

Meanwhile over in England, a demonstration in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement was taking place in the town of Bristol. They used a rope to bring down a bronze statue of Edward Colston. Some knelt on the neck of the statue for eight minutes. It was then rolled down to the harbor and dumped in the water.

Edward Colston
(Portrait by Jonathan Richardson)

Colston was a successful English merchant who later became known for his philanthropy. The problem is where that money came from. The slave trade. Colston was a member of the Royal Aftrica Company from 1680 to 1692 when he sold his shares to William III. He was deputy governor for part of that time. The Royal Africa Company held a monopoly in England on trading with Africa’s west coast. The commodities they traded in included gold, silver, ivory and slaves.

It has been estimated that while Colston was with the company some 84,000 Africans, including women and children, were forcibly transported to the Americas. Another 19,000 are believed to have died during the journey. The company branded the enslaved Africans with “RAC” on their chests.

The statue resulted from his philanthropy, donating to schools and hospitals in Bristol and London, where he worked. But, as a petition circulated among the citizens of Bristol states: “Whilst history should not be forgotten, these people who benefited from the enslavement of individuals do not deserve the honour of a statue. This should be reserved for those who bring about positive change and who fight for peace, equality and social unity.”

Bristol site of Colston statue
The pedestal that once housed the Colston statkue. (Image by Caitlin Hobbs)
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Walking Away the COVID-19 Blues

Campgaw Mountain Reservation, Mahwah, N.J.

Campgaw Mountain Reservation

Cedar Lakes Estates, Port Jervis, N.Y.

Eagle Rock Reservation, West Orange, N.J.

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve, Franklin Lakes, N.J.

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How Does Bill Barr Stack Up Against the Worst Attorneys General in U.S. History?

Bill Barr

The Attorney General of the United States is the country’s top law enforcement officer, the lawyer for the U.S. government. But in our history too many attorneys general have focused less on the law than on the agenda, whims and politics of the president who appointed them. They have attacked and sought revenge against the president’s enemies, supported and covered for his friends and allies. And often done so with little regard for the Constitution or the civil liberties of American citizens. 

All that is a pretty accurate description of U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. How does Barr stack up against the worst attorneys general in American history?

Barr v. Palmer

A. Mitchell Palmer

Most discussions among historians about America’s worst attorney general start with A. Mitchell Palmer, attorney general from 1919 to 1921 under President Woodrow Wilson. Palmer warmed up for this gig during the war years by holding the position of Alien Property Custodian. In that position he was responsible for seizing and selling the assets of “enemies,” most of whom were German Americans, including a number of German brewers who Palmer determined were “unpatriotic.” 

While many of the most vile attorneys general, like Barr, were carrying out the desires of the president who appointed them, Palmer’s racism and xenophobia seem to be self generated since during a good part of his term Wilson was incapacitated after suffering a stroke. The post World War I era in the U.S. was characterized by a Red Scare, a reaction to not only the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia but also labor union activity and anti-immigrant sentiment. What Palmer is best known for is the “Palmer Raids.” He went after anyone who he considered a dissident or radical and immigrants, especially eastern Europeans, and Blacks were high on his suspect list. The victims of the Palmer Raids were also held in detention for months without ever being charged or convicted and, when not blocked by the courts, the immigrants were deported. 

Barr has ICE to do the administration’s bidding when it comes to rounding up immigrants, deporting them, or detaining them with no legal reason. But he jumped in the fray in Portland, arresting and detaining protesters who he claimed were “assaulting the government of the United States.” His escalation of rhetoric regarding the threat posed by the Portland protesters is right in line with what Palmer had to say about the “radicals” of his era. 

Barr has repeatedly intervened to try to stop immigrants and asylum seekers from getting into the U.S. In one case he redefined the definition of torture to make that definition more narrow and make is less likely to be a reason to grant entry to an asylum seeker. He intervened in another case involving a Mexican man who sought asylum under a U.S. law which granted asylum to individuals who feared persecution because they were a member of a social group. The man’s family was under threat because his father refused to let a gang use his store. The Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the man’s family constituted a social group. Barr reversed that ruling. He has also created an office for the “denaturalization” of U.S. citizens and has allowed the use of confidential therapy notes in deportation cases. Barr has sued cities and states that have adopted immigrant protection policies and, in a speech to the National Sheriffs Association he encouraged the sheriffs to join in on a “significant escalation” to retaliate against sanctuary cities and states.

When it comes to immigrants, radicals and protestors, Palmer and Barr are indeed birds of a feather.

Barr v. Daugherty

Henry M. Daugherty was attorney general from 1921-1924 under President Warren Harding. He secured that appointment after being Harding’s campaign manager. Harding brought to Washington with him a group of cronies who came to be known as the “Ohio Gang.” Daugherty was a card-carrying member. What the Harding Administration was best known for is corruption, most famously the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved a member of Harding’s cabinet taking bribes for the leasing of petroleum reserves.

Daugherty himself may have been looking to get a piece of the action. He was charged with improperly receiving funds from the sale of the American Metal Company, a German-American owned concern that had been seized during World War I. Three other members of the Harding administration faced similar charges. Daugherty would later be tried twice before the charges were dropped. In the second trial, all but one juror thought he was guilty.

Daugherty may or may not have known about the Teapot Dome scandal but he was part of an administration filled with corruption and at the very least he turned a blind eye toward it. Barr likewise is part of an administration filled with Trump cronies who are having more than their share of problems with the law. 

Barrr has actively tried to drop or lessen the charges against Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Flynn was Trump’s first National Security Advisor. He lasted 22 days. He was convicted of felony lying to the FBI. Barr has tried to have the case against him dropped before he could be sentenced. Stone has a decades long record as a sleazy political operator. He had worked on the campaigns of Nixon, Reagan, Dole and Bush II as well as Trump. Stone was convicted by a jury of five counts of lying to Congress, and one count each of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Barr sought to get Stone a lighter sentence, a move that resulted in four career prosecutors resigning. Eventually Trump pardoned Stone. It will surprise no one if, in the future, we hear that Barr is trying to intervene on behalf of Swindling Steve Bannon.

Barr v. Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales was attorney general from 2005-2007. He was George W. Bush’s second attorney general. He is known for three things:

— he endorsed warrantless surveillance

— he supported “enhanced interrogation techniques,” aka torture 

— he fired nine U.S. attorneys who refused to agree to a directive to go after the president’s political enemies.

Gonzales resigned from his position in 2007 “in the best interests of the department.” There were no dissenting opinions.

Barr’s history of warrantless surveillance goes back to before Gonzales. He was involved in the planning of the NSA mass phone surveillance program in the 90’s. During his first term as attorney general, from 1991-1993 under Bush I, he authorized the DEA to amass phone call data and ordered phone companies to turn over the records of phone calls to some 100 countries that he determined had drug traffickers.

Earlier this year he fired Geoffrey Berman, the head prosecutor of the Southern District of New York. The firing was done by press release. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Berman was in the process of investigating possible illegal activity by the Trump Organization.

Barr v. Mitchell

John Mitchell

John Mitchell was Richard Nixon’s attorney general from 1969 to 1972. Before that, he was Nixon’s campaign manager. He is believed to have played a role in sabotaging the Paris Peace Accords, something deemed necessary for Nixon’s election victory. Mitchell fiercely went after anti-war demonstrators who he demonized. He authorized phone taps and preventive detention. What he wasn’t that keen on enforcing was school desegregation. Mitchell was the attorney general for a “law and order” administration. (Sound familiar?) He ended up in jail.

Mitchell planned the Watergate burglary that eventually brought down the Nixon administration. He was also actively involved in the cover-up and eventually he was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. He went to prison for 19 months.

When Barr authorized the tear gassing and removal of peaceful demonstrators in Washington so that Trump could march down the street for a photo op, it surely seemed to evoke the memory of John Mitchell. Even more so, Barr’s role in the Ukraine scandal that resulted in Trump being impeached. Nixon was on the verge of being impeached when he resigned.

We don’t know whether Barr was directly involved with Rudi Guiliani’s effort to tie the awarding of Congressionally-approved aid funds to a scheme to get the Ukrainian government to claim it was investigating Hunter and Joe Biden. But we do know Barr tried to cover up the whistleblower complaint that first exposed this. As was the case with Mitchell, the final chapter in Barr’s possible involvement and cover up will probably be written after he is out of office.

I have not even gone into Barr’s misrepresentation of the Mueller report and how he avoided making it available. Nor did I mention how he was held in criminal contempt for refusing to testify before Congress about Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census. And it’s pretty unprecedented that some 1,000 former Justice Department employees signed a letter calling on him to resign. But I think it’s fair to say that if every discussion of America’s worst attorney general starts with A. Mitchell Palmer, it ends with William Pelham Barr.

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An Oasis in the Bronx

New York Botanical Garden

New York Botanical Garden

Water Lilies and Lotuses

Peach Twist
New York Botanical Garden

The Perennial Garden

New York Botanical Garden

Native Plant Garden (plants native to New York area)

Native Plant Garden
New York Botanical Garden
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