Eric Byler and I have been traveling around America with the goal of trying to understand why Washington is so gridlocked and the people apparently divided 50 years after the March on Washington. In Alabama, we encountered some dramatic expressions of that division. We also found people showing great leadership and working towards reconciliation such as Chief Kevin Murphy, the Montgomery Police Chief.
In Selma, we came across a situation where the people celebrate and honor two different versions of history of Selma and America. There is the community of people honoring the sacrifices made by people in 1965 on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge as they tried to march to Montgomery from Selma for voting rights for all people in America and were brutally beaten, an event known as Bloody Sunday. Every year in the month of March, there is a celebration and a re-enactment of the march from Selma to Montgomery attended by people from across the country.
Then there is the community that honors the sacrifices made by people at the Battle of Selma exactly a hundred years before Bloody Sunday. Every April, they celebrate Confederate Memorial Day and organize a re-enactment of the Battle of Selma attended by people from across the country.
Although these historic events occur every year in Selma, they are largely organized and attended by two distinct communities of people.
Do you ever think that we have the wrong people in jail? At tax payers' expense, we imprison people for years for marijuana possession and for not having proper immigration papers. We put people in jail for protesting too big to fail and political and economic inequality in America.
What about the people who cost us $22 trillion with their criminal Ponzi scheme? Not only did we bail them out, we allowed them to give themselves bonuses, and not a single one went to jail.
We lost our homes and jobs because they wanted to get rich and we gave them a free pass. And then we get upset because people from Latin America come and build our homes without proper paperwork and then throw them in jail? How is this right?
Capitalism and democracy do not work without a foundation of trust, honor and fairness.
The first step to fixing our system is accountability. We haven't had accountability on Wall St. and no one has gone to jail. We are sending out the message: If you are rich, you can buy political power. If you have wealth and political power, you are above the law.
We cannot reconcile our tradition of egalitarianism with the current reality that we have a group of people who are deemed to be above the law and superior to the rest of us. This is a system that is separate and unequal. And an unjust system is an unstable one.
We will continue this economic stagnation and social instability unless we begin to align our values with our reality.
Note: I rewrote a previous essay published a month ago.
News from North Carolina is that a new Voter ID bill will be introduced this week. Many conservatives we have talked to in North Carolina are concerned that demographic shift will make it more difficult for Republicans to win elections, especially at the statewide level. Others have told us that the motivation for Voter ID laws has to do with concerns about voter impersonation. They point to the fact that, often, voters who move out of state or have passed away are not removed from voter roles in a timely fashion, which leaves the door open to fraud.
There is no evidence of voter impersonation in North Carolina, but Republican media outlets have generated countless stories suggesting that there could be. This has created concern among constituents, and offered lawmakers a justification for a series of new government regulations that will spend taxpayer money to make it more difficult for North Carolinians to vote.
North Carolina has a US Senate race next year, and legislation that would limit the number of young people, people of color, and poor people who make it to the polls could determine the outcome. Voter ID laws are only one avenue being considered to achieve this. GOP legislators in North Carolina are also considering restrictions on voter registration and early voting in order to decrease turnout, and create long lines at the polls in more populated, more diverse areas of the state. Also, partisan redistricting has carved up areas where students and people of color live, changing their districts and polling places so that they are confused about where to vote.
To their credit, the North Carolina House of Representatives has held extensive hearings to ascertain whether a bill can be written that would address concern about voter fraud without disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of American citizens who do not have a drivers license or other government issued ID, but still wish to vote in North Carolina. Above is the moment that I found most revealing. Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat, is questioning Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, a non-partisan advocate for clean elections.
I learned that Roger had passed in an email from my mother, read to me by Annabel while on one of our frequent road trips. It took a long while to sink in. It happens from time to time that there are erroneous reports. But when I read the blog post by his lovely wife, Chaz, I knew it was true:
"I am devastated by the loss of my love, Roger -- my husband, my friend, my confidante and oh-so-brilliant partner of over 20 years. He fought a courageous fight. I've lost the love of my life and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.
"Roger was a beloved husband, stepfather to Sonia and Jay, and grandfather to Raven, Emil, Mark and Joseph. Just yesterday he was saying how his grandchildren were "the best things in my life." He was happy and radiating satisfaction over the outpouring of responses to his blog about his 46th year as a film critic. But he was also getting tired of his fight with cancer, and said if this takes him, he has lived a great and full life.
"We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition."
We are touched by all the kindness and the outpouring of love we've received. And I want to echo what Roger said in his last blog, thank you for going on this journey with us."
As Roger mentions in the video above, I first met him at the Hawai'i International Film Festival in 2002. My first feature, Charlotte Sometimes, included cast and crew with Hawai'i roots (I went to high school and middle school there), so it was a special occasion even before we encountered Roger at a luncheon that kicked off the festival. We asked him if he would be kind enough to attend one of our screenings. He said he would need to check his schedule.
We ran into him again that evening at the opening night party. He said he had checked his schedule and that he would be attending the first of our 3 screenings. We let out a loud cheer and he immediately ducked his head below his shoulders. "Please, not so loud," he said. "There are a dozen other filmmakers here who asked me the same question."
We had a feeling that Roger liked the film based on the questions he asked during the Q and A. The audience was filled with friends and calabash family, and it was announced that we were all going out to eat afterwards. To our delight, Roger and Chaz joined us. This was the first time that I got to know Chaz. What a glowing, loving, charming person she is and was. Years later, Chaz and I would become quite close as Roger's health deteriorated, as we worried and fretted together in hospitals or at their Chicago home. But these were the wondrous years, times she and I both long for now. Let me stay with them a little longer.
At the dinner following the screening, it was a shock to see my high school friends pinging Roger with questions about reviews he'd written, his opinion of their favorite movies, recent movies, etc. We knew that in the morning, it was likely a review of Charlotte Sometimes would be published in the Chicago Sun Times. This was the early days of the Internet. In order to read the review, we had to find a Kinkos, and pay by the hour to go online. Since we were in Hawai'i, it wasn't hard to stay up. The review appeared at about 1 am. I knew that some good things would happen as a result of meeting Roger. I didn't know that the best of them would have little to do with film.
The video above was shot at Roger's film festival in March of 2003, about 4 months later. EbertFest, known then as "The Overlooked Film Festival," is an annual pilgrimage for film lovers around the nation and around the world. We really had no idea what an amazing community we'd been invited to join. Somewhere, I have photos from the festival with Roger and Chaz. When I find them I will post them. Suddenly, images from the past are a treasure. You know how it is.
NOTE: Listen to Annabel Park & Eric Byler talk about this video on Coffee Party Radio
Annabel Park recently spoke to Diane Rufino, leader of the Eastern North Carolina Tea Party, at the "Honor the Oath" rally at the State Capitol in Raleigh.
Diane had drawn applause during her speech when she praised North Carolina's role during the Civil War, yet, she said that Rev. Dr. William Barber is wrong to remind us of historic struggles for racial equality in order to counter the TEA Party, and address modern day injustices. "Time to move on," she said.
Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, was interviewed on MSNBC at a protest yesterday in front of the US Supreme Court as it considered striking down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Barber later released this statement:
When this nation began, the right to vote was denied to women, poor whites and African Americans. In 1870, after a bloody civil war, the 15h Amendment was ratified which provided: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
In 1872, only a few years after the First Reconstruction was put in place, white supremacists, fearing a new political reality, attacked our ancestor’s new voting rights violently and unconstitutionally. By 1900, black voting in the south was virtually wiped out.
In six years of collaboration, this is the first time I've uploaded a video of Annabel Park and me discussing our work. The night before, we had watched a classic documentary by Ross McElwee called Sherman's March, and, as Annabel was dropping me off at the airport, we began a conceptual exchange about our new film, Story of America. Annabel came up with a new idea that I thought worth recording.
I didn't have a camera on me, but I turned on the voice recorder on my iPhone while she completed her thought. Then when we arrived at the terminal, I turned on the video function and asked her to say it again.
As you hear in the longer version of this video, Annabel was born in South Korea and immigrated to Texas with her family when she was 9 years old. She says that her experience finding her identity in America has been a creative process — learning, observing, spending a lot of time being confused, and finally realizing that identity construction in America has often been a creative process. In this video, and going forward, perhaps, in our film, Annabel connects her personal search for identity in America to a centuries-long struggle to find our shared identity as a nation.
One of the goals of our new film is to uncover the sources of division in America, and do something to counter them. In my view, much of the division can be attributed to bifurcated historical narratives (north vs. south, essentially) regarding slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, and the election of our first African American president.
Eric and I are really enjoying and learning from the dialogue we are having on the Virtual Townhall series on Coffee Party Radio.
The next Virtual Townhall is on Sunday (3/3) on the 3-year anniversary of the Coffee Party. This is the updated schedule for the Virtual Towhnall series in collaboration with the Story of America.
Schedule of Upcoming Townhalls
The deep divisions that exist in America along political, economic and cultural lines have led many Americans to take a highly cynical view of government and its power to serve the people. As we count down the final hours and minutes in which our leaders are unable to avert our economic plunge off the fiscal cliff, that cynicism and fatalism is reinforced.
Last November, the week of the 2012 presidential election, I launched an effort to use the transformative power of dialogue and storytelling to better understand and heal America's divide. When we began filming our project, known as Story of America, our cameras captured just how divided we were as voters even down to our experiences of voting and our views of the candidates. We filmed people from both sides of the political and economic spectrum covering everything from the role of government to the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. By sharing these videos via our website and social media, we hoped to help people engage in a national dialogue which could one day bring us all closer together.
After the Newtown massacre, I must confess, my faith in dialogue was tested. Two days after the shooting, I wrote a blog post responding to some of the popular pro-gun talking points that generated 50,000 likes and more than 650 comments, including some very angry and derogatory ones. I started to wonder if most Americans just live in very different realities, where each side views the other as foreign or insane.
River Oaks Precinct is the most African-American precinct, in the most ethnically diverse district of Prince William County, Virginia. On November 6, 2012, the polling place at Potomac Middle School did not record its last vote until 10:45 pm, nearly four hours after polls had officially closed. See video:
According to Woodbridge District Supervisor Frank Principi, Virginia law requires that one voting machine be assigned per 750 registered voters. By contrast, Maryland law requires one voting machine per 200 registered voters. This polling place did not appear to adhere to Virginia’s law, with only six voting machines and over 5,000 registered voters. Occoquan District Supervisor Michael May included in his post-election newsletter an official statement from the Prince William County Electoral Board. It reads in part, “We would like to make clear that The Office of Voter Registration and Elections has been fully funded by the Board of County Supervisors. No budget requests have been denied by the Board of County Supervisors.”