Aquarius, Episode 5: Spoiler Alerts

As Brian Shafe establishes rapport with Manson and his crew and battles racism at home, Sam Hodiak and Charmain Tully are investigating a domestic violence incident by a football pro against his girlfriend.

While I don’t doubt that domestic violence was at least as common in the sixties as it is now, the choice to set the incident in the football world is surely a nod to contemporary events. Charmain interviews the girlfriend, who reports violence from an anonymous man. Charmain realizes that the information does not add up, nor does it explain why some of the bruises don’t look fresh. An escalation in the violence puts the girlfriend in a coma and the perpetrator free to sign autographs and joke with his adoring fans. Charmain hopes to catch him in the act and goes undercover: “I want it to mean something.” But Hodiak, ever the cynic, advises her to focus on battles she can win. This is one battle I’m not sure we’ve won yet.

As is Brian and Kristin Shafe’s battle against their racist landlord and neighbors. It turns out that the racist campaign against them  supports their landlord’s financial interests; he hopes the white neighbors will flee the neighborhood so he can exploit black newcomers. But, at least this time, his ploy is uncovered, and Hodiak becomes a closer friend of the Shafe family as a result.

After five episodes I can already say that, whenever a Manson appearance darkens my screen, I’m less and less clear on what the series creators make of him. This episode sees him enthusiastic about the procurement of new guns and, ever the two-bit pimp, ordering his girls to thank his providers with sexual favors. One of them seems reluctant, which Shafe (undercover) picks on; two reluctant Family members like that were part of the downfall of the real Manson family. But toward the end, Manson, healing from his wounds, shares a bit of personal history–his mother’s abandonment–with Katie. “I learned there and then”, he says, “that it’s better to be the thing people are afraid of than to be afraid.” This seems to be a message of hard-wired positivism, which is something I hear a lot when discussing my book project with friends. And yet, people with childhoods at least as horrific as Manson’s don’t end up committing terrifying crimes. The series seems to be trying to avoid classifying Manson as ‘bad’ or ‘mad’. Which would probably work much better if it were dealing with a fictional villain, akin to David Simon’s Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo Stanfield, and not with a historical figure whose name invariably evokes ultimate evil in the minds of the viewers.

Aquarius, Episode 4: Spoiler Alerts

Episode 4 of Aquarius is an exposition of hypocrisies–in domestic law enforcement, in foreign policy, and in personal life.

At the forefront of the episode are two murders: the one Sam Hodiak is investigating, an intra-racial crime within the black community, and the one no one is investigating, the murder of a black teenager named Michael Younger in the hands of a white cop (“chokehold” is said to be referred to as “cop hold”.) When Hodiak comes to investigate the former, the message from the Black Panthers, on behalf of the neighborhood, is that they will not collaborate, nor will they hand him the suspect, until the other murder is solved and the culprit, a police officer well known to them, brought to justice. Among the Black Panthers is the man Hodiak falsely arrested in Episode 1, who tells him:

Bunchy: You pushed out the contradictions and gave birth to me as a black panther. It’s the dialectic.
Sam: I don’t understand what you’re saying, and moreover, you don’t understand a word you’re saying.
Bunchy: The dialectic. A conflict of opposites. As the man said, you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.
Sam: I think it’s way too early in the morning to quote Trotsky. Oh, look, it reads!

By “it”, does Sam refer to Bunchy or to himself? Bunchy accuses him of being “a racist cop in the most racist police force in the nation.” Perhaps moved only by the will to secure cooperation on his own investigation, or perhaps realizing a bit of the broader structural problem, Hodiak investigates Younger’s murder. He and Shafe crack it and prepare to go to internal investigations. But Cutler, promoted to lieutenant now, stops them. “You think that, after Watts,” asks Cutler, “this department going to admit a white cop killed a black teenager?” Shafe’s incredulity about the department’s decision to bury the murder, and his awakening to the bitter news about the status quo, will undoubtedly echo in many sympathetic post-Ferguson viewers’ thoughts, made more bitter because of the passage of time.

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that policemen are my friends;
I learned that justice never ends;
I learned that murderers die for their crimes,
even though we make a mistake sometimes;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

But Hodiak has his own awakening to go through, too. His son, Walt, has gone AWOL. Having served in covert ops in Cambodia, he has realized that the plan is “saturated bombing, killing children, arming crazies, destroying that civilization.” Hodiak is not blind to the atrocities of war or to the president’s deceit about the Cambodia front, but his moral compass is elsewhere: “if you want to win a war, you got to fight ugly sometimes.” But Walt is undeterred and plans to leak what he knows to the press.

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie;
I learned that soldiers seldom die;
I learned that everybody’s free,
that’s what the teacher said to me;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

I learned our government must be strong; 
It’s always right and never wrong;
Our leaders are the finest men,
And we elect them again and again;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

Finally, the Manson girls’ care and concern for each other (if only as fellow disciples) is contrasted, again, to the hypocritical sham marriages of, well, pretty much everyone else, such as the Hodiak and Karn families.

Aquarius, Episode 2: Spoiler Alerts

The second episode of Aquarius features quite a bit of gender critique, ranging from internalized, closeted homophobia, through sexual hypocrisy and workplace discrimination, to domestic violence.

In is search for his daughter, Ken finds his former client and lover, Charlie, who subjects him to his spiritual and sexual ministrations once again. One almost feels sorry for Ken; his internalized homophobia and self-hatred make him an ideal victim for Manson’s exploitation. Meanwhile, affairs abound: Ken’s wife and Hodiak, a former couple, succumb to their passions, while Hodiak’s wife sleeps with Cut, his former partner. Not a single marriage in the series is portrayed as happy and fulfilling. The show makes it almost refreshing to listen to Sadie (Atkins), Katie (Krenwinkel) and Emma discuss the need to end jealousy; it would be idyllic, if not for the fact that Manson employs the control tactics of a common pimp and essentially sells out the girls to his sound engineer and to others. In this episode we see him, for the first time, battering the girls themselves into submission.

To infiltrate a cult in which sex is a common currency, the undercover police officer, Charmain, has to sacrifice, more than Shafe, who works with her, is comfortable allowing her; but as second wave feminism is only just beginning, and Charmain is in a hierarchical organization, she is willing to go undercover among predatory and dangerous bikers, and sometimes has to respond quite sharply to male officers who miss no opportunity to humiliate and objectify her.

This episode has piqued my curiosity about undercover police practices in the 1960s, and the extent to which these were employed to infiltrate cults. These are, after all, the early days of the Nixon administration, and police professionalism and proactive policing would be encouraged. Perhaps there are many unsung heroes and villains still among us, who saw people their own age as the enemy and can tell many tales of duplicity and domestic espionage.

Aquarius, Episode 1: Spoiler Alerts

“Charlie has a vision; one day he’s gonna be more famous than the Beatles, and we’re gonna help him get there.”

The first episode of Aquarius feels a bit like a Sixties Smorgasbord. Everything is there: revolution, Vietnam, Nation of Islam, homophobia and closeted homosexuality… and also, Manson, his nascent cult, and some ideas on old and new policing.

Our exposition to Manson in this double episode introduces him already as a diabolical character. His charm toward girls, grandiosity, mystical talk, and hidden violence and “pull” with the Los Angeles upper crust, as well as his love of music, are all already there. Of course, the viewers already know the aftermath, and so, many features that would otherwise appear innocent–your typical musical aspirant hustler–take on a much darker meaning. On at least two occasions, Manson is already engaging in terrifying violence, against a shopkeeper and against his former lawyer and lover, Ken Karn. Karn attempts to regain his daughter, Emma, who lives with the Family, but ends up being pulled himself back into the clutches of Manson and his cult, in a storyline reminiscent of RuthAnn “Ouisch” Morehouse and her father, Deane. We are also introduced to Sadie (Susan Atkins) and Katie (Patricia Krenwinkel) and to a biker/bodyguard, as well as to Manson’s extensive criminal record. As the police officer in charge of the investigation, Hodiak, discusses his criminal history with Manson’s parole officer, we get a glimpse of what criminal justice was like before the sex offender panic: no time served for pimping, and seven years served on four grams of marijuana in a state park.

Using the classic tropes identified in Richard Spark’s TV Cops, we are introduced to this series’ version of the bond-between-two-different-police-officers: old-skool Hodiak and new-generation Shafe. The former, always in a suit, was a cop very long before the birth of Miranda (two years before the show is set); the idea of suspect rights is more natural to the latter, always in hippy clothes and, as a narc underground, “gone native” to an extent. Collaborating on a homicide, Hodiak arrests an unrelated, innocent man–a member of the Nation of Islam whom he knows from a previous case–radicalizing him in the process. Using this false arrest to obtain a confession that avoids compliance with Miranda, Hodiak creates a ruse that holds off and confounds the real suspect’s attorney (a maneuver later considered constitutionally kosher in Moran v. Burbine). Promising the suspect, a terminally-ill man, no jail time, Hodiak prevents him from meeting his attorney, arresting him after he obtains a confession. Only then he gives the suspect his warnings, which he reads out of a card.

The ruse itself does not upset Shafe; shortly before, they both collaborate on a similar Miranda ruse, and seem to already engage in the evasive waiver maneuvers that Richard Leo identifies in Police Interrogation and American Justice. What upsets Shafe is Hodiak’s false, strategic arrest of the innocent Black man, whom he believes would not have been arrested if he were white. The next scene exposes just how transgressive and “not subtle” Shafe’s personal life is (a mere year after the decision in Loving v. Virginia):

The scenes in minority neighborhoods, as well as the protest scenes, are particularly poignant to watch in the post-Ferguson era; I have a hard time figuring out if the language is anachronistic or if today’s movements simply regurgitate the identity politics and lexicon of the 1960s. It is clear, however, that the introduction of civil rights as a barrier to aggressive policing is relatively new and foreign, but that evasive interrogation tactics are already practiced and accepted; that the Nixonian law-and-order campaign resonates with police practices; and that the perception among African Americans is already that of the (white) police as an occupying force.

Stay tuned for a review of Aquarius: Episode 2, in the next post on the series.

Aquarius – New NBC Series, Loosely Based on Manson Family

NBC has released a new series, Aquarius, featuring David Duchovny as an LAPD officer in the late ’60s. The series also features a central storyline loosely based on Charles Manson and the “family.” But the Panthers and the explosive years of political rising and race consciousness also figure quite prominently. The series feels, so far, like a ’60s smorgasbord, but it is not devoid of interest.

I’m currently working on my second book, tentatively titled Yesterday’s Monsters, which examines parole hearings through the lens of the Manson family members’ parole hearing transcripts, and am therefore interested in the depiction of the period in this show. My reviews of Aquarius episodes will be posted on the CCC blog, with links to full episode viewing and spoiler alerts.

Enjoy your summer. Or not.

Film Review: Short Term 12

The wonderful 2013 film Short Term 12 tells the story of a care facility for juveniles in the San Francisco Bay Area, in which twenty-something year old Grace, her partner Mason, and a few other dedicated young staff members take care of kids from difficult backgrounds and abusive homes. Tough and capable, Grace hides a difficult personal history not much different than that of the kids she cares for, and arguably understands them better than the professional therapists she works with. The discovery that she is pregnant, and some bad news regarding her father, undo her just as a new teenager comes to the home, stirring rage and frustration.

While the story discusses institutionalization and incarceration very, very gently, and focuses on the feelings and relationships of the participants, it is a good reminder that crime is real and has real victims. Changing young people’s paths and fates takes a lot of courage and love, and the line between infantilizing someone and believing him or her is very thin.

I was incredibly moved, and that was before I heard about the lovely and important art project inspired by the movie:


This highly recommended movie streams live on Netflix.

TV Series Review: Orange is the New Black

The new Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, is a dramatization of a book by the same name by Piper Kerman (referred to as Piper Chapman in the series), who a few years ago served fifteen months in a federal prison camp for her role in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Kerman’s story, while not imaginary, is fairly unique. In her early twenties, through her romantic involvement with a woman who worked for an international drug cartel, she helped deliver money internationally. When the relationship disintegrated, so did Kerman’s involvement in the cartel, and she moved on to live a normative, white, middle-class life and get engaged to a man who did not know of her past. Then, ten years after the commission of the offense, the FBI knocked on the door; Kerman’s involvement in the cartel was exposed, and she ended up pleading guilty and being sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison.

The first season of the show, which now streams on Netflix, walks us through the beginning of Chapman’s imprisonment, from her initial surrender at camp through her adjustment to prison life. We are introduced to the other inmates and guards, to prison dynamics, and to the mix of cruelty and compassion that is part and parcel of the incarceration experience.

A few notable examples of the show’s excellent storytelling include the racial divisions among the women and the way the prison system itself uses them to divide the inmates; the underground economy of prison; and the informal socialization mechanisms behind bars. Particularly notable is the show’s attention to sexual assault on the part of the guards, which is a very unfortunate and prevalent aspect of women’s incarceration. One episode draws an analogy between the birth experience of one of Piper’s friends on the “outside” and one of her fellow inmates, taken to the hospital in shackles and returning to prison without her baby. While the show portrays romance behind bars, it steers clear from the lesbian inmate sensationalism that usually characterizes women’s prison dramas and empathizes with the need for human connection. And, while not depicting the many complexities involved in incarcerating trans women (and the practices of administrative segregation involved), it is particularly sensitive to a trans woman’s plight at receiving decent health care in prison.

Because the timing of the show coincided with the California inmate hunger strike, Episode Nine, which depicts the show’s main protagonist spending a night at the SHU, was particularly poignant. Her stay there is portrayed as a frightening, dehumanizing experience. And while there, she speaks through the wall to another inmate–or is it a ghost?–who has lost count of how long she has been there. The terror, isolation and grief involved in the experience has moved many viewers to tears, and I have gotten many inquiries about whether the SHU “is really like this” (it’s much worse and for much longer periods of time.)

Some critique has been leveled at the show’s portrayal of race and class, arguing that black and brown nudity is treated more licentiously than white nudity. There has also been a concern that the show negatively portrays poor and working class women, in a way that is inattentive to the history of black activism. While the former point bothered me, too, when I watched the show, the latter point reminded me a little bit of the complaints leveled, a few years ago, at the American version of Queer as Folk: Not representative enough, not complimentary to Every Gay Person on the Planet, not educational in the manner of a Very Special Episode of a teenage drama or a carefully-racially-balanced Benetton commercial.

I didn’t find the show remiss in its portrayal of politics behind bars. Yes, there’s a history of racial and social activism in prison. But to argue that, in presenting a federal prison camp the series is remiss in not presenting inmates of color as activists is to ignore the realities of prison. Activism and uprising are the exception, not the norm (this is what is making the California hunger strike, now entering its 17th day, so notable). While many inmates develop consciousness regarding their experience and its broader meaning, incarceration is a difficult experience and for most people “doing time” does not involve political activism. This also goes to the portrayal of race in the show: uniting in the struggle front across barriers of race is also an exception. And, at least in the context of the hunger strike, it’s not the result of some form of racial enlightenment, but rather a response to abysmal, inconceivably degrading prison conditions that offend people’s dignity beyond their racial alliances.

As to the main critique against the show–its atypical narrator and removal from the class/race experience of prison–I think it is important to keep the potential audience in mind. Indeed, while Kerman/Chapman’s story is atypical in terms of her background, introducing the viewers to prison through her eyes is a masterful storytelling device. The passage, by referendum, of so much punitive legislation illustrates how few middle-class taxpayers humanize, and empathize with, the prison population. Even the powerful stories of exonerated inmates haven’t made nearly as much impact as they should, because the average citizen simply cannot imagine himself or herself suffering such indignity. This lack of imagination is startling, considering that 1 in 100 Americans is behind bars, but as we know, that share is not randomly distributed among the population. My experience in explicating the realities of incarceration is that spewing the overworked “prison industrial complex” cliche at white middle-class voters does nothing to deepen their understanding and empathy. On the other hand, giving them a character they can identify with–a woman who, to them, does not “naturally belong” behind bars–can do wonders for their ability to imagine themselves in such a setting. Moreover, while the story is told from a white, middle-class woman perspective, all of its characters come to life as complex, interesting women, aspects of their lives before incarceration shown in flashbacks, and their interactions with each other offered authentically and believably.

Does Orange is the New Black tell viewers everything they need to know about incarceration in America? Of course not. It portrays a federal prison camp of women and does not expose its viewers to overcrowding. Its exposure of SHU isolation practices is menacing, but minimal. And its engagement with the literature on prison politics and economics is superficial. But television cannot educate without entertaining, and judging from the immense interest this series has provoked, it is doing its job as well as can be expected. Many people who did not know about the hunger strike have now resolved to educate themselves and understand it better. Just seeing one night in the SHU on screen will help millions of viewers try to imagine what it could be like to spend five, ten, twenty, thirty years without seeing a living soul. If that raises consciousness and awareness to one of the biggest human rights struggles in America, I will be more than pleased.

Finally, those seeking a more realistic dimension to complement their perception of the prison experience for women should read Inside This Place, Not Of It, which drives home the frightening prevalence of sexual abuse by guards and of atrocious health care practices.
Props to RJ Johnson for providing fodder for this review through the lively discussion on his Facebook page.

Film Review: Fruitvale Station

What a tragic week in which to watch Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Still raw and thoughtful after the week of intense public commentary on George Zimmerman’s acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murder, a San Francisco audience wept tonight at the Metreon as they saw a familiar scene come to life: A brutal shooting of a handcuffed man, in grainy cellular phone footage first, and in dramatized high definition much later.

The film walks us through a day in the life of Grant, a 22-year-old man, teetering between two courses of life: Responsibility, a steady job, and a stable relationship with his young daughter’s mother, and a life of drugs in the street that led him to a stint in San Quentin the previous year. His family and friends, and especially his girlfriend, come to life, not in an idealized, canonized, haloed poster image for a demonstration, but like any of us: Living, loving, making mistakes, having fun, getting angry, trying, failing, succeeding.

We could talk about the comparison between the dramatized series of events and what actually happened. And we could remember the moving op-ed from the doctor who treated Grant, and the aftermath for BART Police, and the broader meaning of the taser defense, and about the difference between protest and riots, but we already talked about all that during the events and the trial. And now it’s time to look at the movie as what it is – a work of art that seeks to tell us something important.

Here is what I am glad the movie does not tell us: That we should canonize Oscar Grant as the saint of the struggle against police abuse of power and racialized violence. or that his life was exemplary and flawless.

The movie also does not tell us this: That Oscar Grant is nobody, his life not worth remembering except for the event of his death.

Instead, the movie tells us what we should all remember: That Oscar Grant should be canonized. As all of us should – every single one of us. Because every human life is valuable and precious and has intrinsic value. Grant’s, and Mehserle’s, and Martin’s, and Zimmerman’s. And because the measure of a life is not its death or its achievements, but the small magic it works in our loved ones and friends and family members. In the little deeds, like dropping off our kids at school, or going to the supermarket to buy ingredients for gumbo, or at the greeting cards aisle picking a silly card for a relative.

And yet–even though all lives are precious and valuable–some lives are worth less than others. David Baldus‘ study of the death penalty indicated the way prejudice operates through the race of the victim; black victims’ murderers, whether white or black, fared more leniently than their counterparts with white victims. If you will, this is where the prevalent “let them kill each other” approach comes from. And a grim reminder that underenforcement, like overenforcement, is not race blind.

Far from offering overt racial preachy monologues, the film exposes the experience of an African American working class life in a way that weaves the racial experience intrinsically into the minutiae of one’s day, in life and in death. One’s consciousness need not be raised for one to experience the subtle effects of race on one’s life. In a humorous scene, Grant’s sister asks him to buy a card on her behalf for her mother’s birthday. “Don’t buy a white card,” she asks, a reminder that even in the Hallmark aisle there are symbols and themes and that even cute pastel slogans speak to different life experiences.

And, through the fighting scene with a former fellow inmate on BART that led to Grant’s apprehension and shooting at the station,  the movie tells us one more thing: That the experience of imprisonment is toxic, poisonous, and that life on the outside is permeable to life on the inside. That animosities behind bars have a way of affecting interactions on the outside. That an imprisonment experience that offers no growth, no hope, no betterment, promises only pain and tragedy.

Many thanks to the many friends who came with me to see the film tonight for their wise words.

Film Review: Life With Murder

A gentle, quiet, middle-aged Canadian couple is faced with one of the most horrific dilemmas imaginable: How do you cope with having your child been murdered… by your other child?

The excellent 2010 documentary Life With Murder follows Brian and Leslie Jenkins from Chatham in this horrific ordeal. A short driving distance from Detroit, where a murder occurs every day, in Chatham a murder occurs every year. “Unfortunately,” says Leslie, “1999 was our year.”

Jennifer Jenkins, 18, was a much-beloved and popular girl, and the town was stricken with grief when she was found shot to death in her home. Suspicion quickly fell on her brother, Mason (20 years old at the time), who tried to escape the house… on a horse.

Mason, Brian and Leslie’s interviews at the police station are shown on camera, as is the original 911 call from the parents who discovered the body. Mason insisted, against a mountain of condemning evidence, on his innocence and filed numerous appeals. His parents stood squarely behind him, not speaking about the events of the night of the murder for many long years, until Mason exhausted his appeals… and changed his story. And after these developments, their choices as a family are nothing short of remarkable.

Of special interest to readers of this blog is the incredible footage from Canadian prison. Mason is on friendly terms with a correctional officer, with whom he comfortably and amiably shares details of the night of the murder. Visitation happens in a natural, home-like setting: Mason’s parents grill meat with him in a yard with lawn around the cottage in which they visit; they get to spend visiting weekends with him in the little cottage. In one scene that will stun U.S. viewers, Mason and his mother cook a meal in a kitchen with knives on the wall. The contrast to the visitation experience in U.S. institutions is palpable.

But the most interesting aspect of the film is its gentle, and yet painfully honest, treatment of denial and detachment, and its subtle probing into the psyche of loving, introverted people gradually uncovering untold horror and coming to terms with it in their own way. In his insightful commentary about the film, director John Kastner talks about the difficulty of conducting “a major investigation of a subject when the participants don’t want to discuss it.” He writes:

Brian and Leslie were generous with their time, but would they open up to us? Or were they living – as some suggested — in a kind of Never-Never land, refusing to face facts about Mason? And how to explain their steadfast support of him, visiting him in prison regularly? (How could they talk to him? Look at him? Have anything to do with him?) 

A colleague and I began meeting them in Chatham for well over a year, often twice a month, gradually peeling back the layers of their psychological armour. At first they revealed very little. But it became apparent they were more aware of the awful details of the murder than they had initially let on. They parked the information in a mental drawer, so to speak, as a survival mechanism to help get them through the day. 

Eventually they decided they had bottled up their story for too long; it would be therapeutic to discuss it with someone besides a shrink who was sympathetic and who was familiar with the criminal justice system. Important to them, too, was helping other families learn from observing their own tortured efforts at healing and reconciliation. 

I think the Jenkins are wonderful people. I so admire their great character and integrity. Many in their shoes would have tried to protect their son by fudging the facts to the authorities. But the Jenkins’ remarkable, often painful, honesty is apparent in their videotaped interviews with the police – not to mention in their interviews with us.

Life With Murder streams on YouTube and on Netflix.

Props to Katie Morrison for the recommendation.