The Spook Who Sat by the Door: The Q&A
Q&A with cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux and actor/poet David Lemieux, moderated by writer Sandra Jackson-Opoku, following The Spook Who Sat by the Door at Chicago State University on September 29, 2018.
The event was presented by South Side Projections and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Library as part of South Side Projections’ film series Chicago’s Black Arts Movement on Film. Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film is part of Art Design Chicago, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy, with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Learn more at artdesignchicago.org.
Sandra Jackson-Opoku (SJ): Welcome. I’m so glad to see you here, and so glad to be on this panel with David and Jamilah Lemieux. I want to start out the conversation just by sharing a little. I’m a storyteller, so I like to tell stories, and this one is about, interestingly enough, Idris Elba. [Laughter] Sometime ago it was rumored—I think this has actually been in conversation for maybe a decade—that Idris Elba was being considered as the new James Bond, Agent 007, when Daniel Craig, who’s the current 007, steps down. And the reactions to this rumor varied from white outrage, especially white Brits who have this investment in the whiteness of James Bond, and what they considered an attempt to appropriate one of their icons. In fact, one of them argued that Idris’s persona was too “street” for the urbane and sophisticated James Bond.
Some of the opposition even came from black people. A dear old friend who carries a British passport and has lived in London for the better part of his adult life insisted that James Bond was always meant to be an Englishman. This, despite the backstory of James Bond’s Swiss origins and the undeniable fact that Idris Elba is an Englishman of African descent. Then I saw this YouTube posting with the African American comedian Ryan Davis, who argued—in a funny way, but maybe convincingly—that black men’s hyper-visibility in places where they aren’t meant to be would mean that the minute a black James Bond showed up on a case, somebody would call the police on him.
So, that’s one side of the argument. The other is the indisputable existence of “spooks,” which is the intelligence community parlance for spies. In fact, Sam Greenlee himself, back in the 1950s and early ‘60s, was a spook. So there are blacks in the Secret Service and Foreign Service of various nations. The other side of this is the long contended invisibility of black people. This is something that Ralph Ellison argued in his novel, Invisible Man, where he talked about the places where black people are regularly seen, like domestic spaces. For example, the scene in the film where the janitor goes in and steals the pipes of the CEO. It’s the refusal of the larger society to see and acknowledge black people, especially black men. This is an idea that Dan Freeman uses to his advantage in The Spook Who Sat by the Door. In fact, the director of his CIA training program says, “I somehow forgot that the man existed. He has a way of fading into the background. You can’t remember his face, or what he looks like, or what he has said, even minutes after you spoke to him.”
Next year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original British publication, and subsequent U.S. reprint, of the novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door. And this year commemorates the 45th anniversary of the film adaptation. It was also announced in August that Lee Daniels Entertainment had secured an option on The Spook Who Sat by the Door to develop it as the basis of a series with Fox 21 Television Studios, so we’ll see how that goes.
I was in London back in August, and I had a chance to check with Margaret Busby, who was Sam Greenlee’s first publisher. She’s one of the first black British publishers. And he had shopped this book around for years and wasn’t able to find a U.S. publisher who was willing to take a chance on it, so Margaret Busby’s Allison and Busby firm published it back in 1969. And Margaret told me that this was the project that caused her publishing company to go full time. They quit their jobs and became full-time publishers. Actually, an interesting fact: The Spook Who Sat by the Door first appeared in serial form. There was a time when novels were serialized in newspapers. It was in The Guardian, which is one of the major British newspapers. So it appeared over a series of months, in pieces.
I want to start the question and answer with David. I just want you to share your memories of Sam Greenlee, and also what you remember about making the film.
David Lemieux (DL): I met Sam Greenlee when I was maybe sixteen years old, or a little bit older. I was working as a busboy in a restaurant in Hyde Park called Chances R. I guess some people here are old enough to remember that. The people that I was with, we all read The Spook Who Sat by the Door, because that was the stuff, that was the ultimate, you know. A revolutionary group that was actually bringing warfare, not conversation, but warfare.
He came into the restaurant. I kept looking at him, and his picture was on the back cover of one of the publications. I knew who he was, put it that way. So I went to his table and said, “Excuse me, brother, are you Sam Greenlee?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you know, I really like your book a lot. There’s a character in there I really, really relate to.” And he said, “Yeah, I know, Pretty Willie.” I said, “Yeah, because it’s nice to see a black character that’s my complexion that’s not a tragic mulatto. Like, ‘I’m trapped between two worlds.'” Like, I ain’t never been on that shit. [Laughter] I always tell people that I’m mixed, but I’m not mixed up. [Laughter] So, I just appreciate him, because most of the time when they would depict someone as light skinned as I am, they’d have some kind of psychosis going on that made them less than, or they were tricking on them, whatever. So he said, “Tell you what, if I ever make a movie I’ll look you up.” I’m thinking, “Yeah right, sure.” [Laughter]
So maybe three years later—two, three years later, ’cause I think I was nineteen when it was made—there was a brother that was actually in the Panther Party here in Chicago that knew Sam Greenlee, and he was involved in theater. He’s passed away, his name was Arrow Brown, we called him Cubby. Anyway, he somehow knew Sam, and Sam Greenlee described me, and he said, “I know exactly who you’re talking about.” He didn’t have any trouble locating me, and he came to me. He just pretty much took me off the street, and said, “Hey man, come with me. Sam Greenlee wants to meet you.”
So I went with him over to Sam Greenlee’s apartment up in Woodlawn. When I walked in, that little red, black and green hat I have on in the film—those are all my clothes—I had that on at the time. All 135 pounds of me. And I recognized the other brother there was Ivan Dixon, who, people say, “Oh, Ivan Dixon, Hogan’s Heroes.” But my Ivan Dixon, in my mind, was the Ivan Dixon from Nothing But a Man, a classic black film that was made with Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Foster. A superb film, that was probably made in the late ‘50s, very early ‘60s. But anyway, he gave me a script and asked me to start reading it. So I started reading, and he said, “You can stop.” Then he said, “Well go on, take it from the top.” I started reading again, and they started laughing. Dixon was laughing. And you know, I’m nineteen years old, full of fire, and I’m not into that Hollywood stuff at all, and I wasn’t an actor. So I put the script down. I said, “What’s so damn funny? What do you find funny?” He said, “Oh, brother, you had the part as soon as you walked in the door. I just want to make sure you can read.” [Laughter] That’s a true story. So, yeah, I can read.
Anyways, Sam was a good brother. He was very serious about what he was doing. Many of the people in the film, like the brothers that were Cobras, put it this way, most of the Chicago people were not involved in theater. Pemon [Rami] was, the brother who played Shorty. But we were just brothers that he picked out. I got the part ’cause I look like I do, and I talk like I do. I didn’t have to act. So there you go.
SJ: And you were pretty.
DL: That’s questionable. [Laughter]
SJ: Jamilah, I know your father’s role in The Spook Who Sat by the Door proceeded your birth, but what are your memories of the film? Did you see it as a child, and what did you think when you saw it?
Jamilah Lemieux (JL): I did. I was pretty little the first time I saw it, maybe six, seven, eight. So there was a lot that went over my head, but probably not too much, because my sister who’s here can tell you that the values that Daddy had at that point were the values with which we were raised. So none of this was surprising to me. But it has been a special little part of our family, I guess, for our entire lives. I’ve come across a lot of people in my work, when I studied theater, that were familiar with the movie. So it has always been nice to say, if somebody brings it up, “Oh yeah, my dad was in that.” So it’s something that I’m proud that he did, and I’m happy that he’s been able to talk to people about it, and that the story has stayed alive as long as it has, especially considering the efforts to keep the film away from audiences since it was made.
SJ: Actually, now that you mention it, I wanted to ask David—Sam would always complain, bitterly, that the subversive message in the film caused him to be punished, and to have to struggle economically, that he was white balled for the rest of his life. I know that he did struggle to make a living, that he was always in survival mode. In fact, towards the end of his life, he was proudly bootlegging his own movie. He would carry it around in a backpack and sell it for $10. But is it true—he always said that the FBI had ordered the movie theaters to not screen The Spook Who Sat by the Door when in was released in 1973. What are your thoughts on that?
DL: There’s an excellent film that if you all are interested you should watch, it’s called Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, where they really detail some of those circumstances. There’s interviews with Sam, with me, with some of the people that were in the film. Ivan Dixon passed away before that film was made, so there’s an interview with his wife, Berlie Dixon.
Sam actually went all the way to Africa, he actually went all over to try to get funding for the film. He did not want any other people involved in the film. He didn’t want any studios involved in the film. He wanted it to be 100% independent, so he would have 100% control over not only the content, but the distribution, and everything else after the fact. He secured some promises from some Nigerian businessmen when he’d gone to Nigeria. He had different groups of investors. Nobody invested a ton of money in it, he just got a little bit here, a little bit there.
He was moving along with that process when he went to Nigeria. Apparently some representatives from the U.S. government went and visited the brothers who were gonna do business with him. Actually it was Ivan Dixon, specifically, ’cause Ivan Dixon was known as a—I don’t even like using words like radical, ’cause it just sounds so lame to me, “radical.” He was a genuine race man, for those of you all that understand what that meant. He was always doing things that were dignified. He had to make a living, so he would be in films, or TV shows, or whatever, but when he did his own projects, they were always very dignified, very strong, very pro-community. So when the film actually came out, there’s absolutely no doubt—remember this was, I want to say the height of COINTELPRO, but any of us know damn well it’s still going on now. But it was during the height of that point in the history of COINTELPRO. I guarantee you that that film was definitely suppressed.
A very quick anecdote: I remember a brother one time that told me he actually saw the film on a ship at sea. He was in the military. I said, “There’s no way they would show that.” He said what happened was, someone had picked it up, and they saw the title The Spook Who Sat by the Door, and they thought it was, like, a Halloween movie. [Laughter] And they did not watch it. And somehow, just some random person got it, and said, “Yeah, we’re gonna show this film.” And they started showing it, and all hell broke out on the ship. [Laughter] I mean, this is anecdotal, I don’t know if it happened or not, but it was such a good story, I don’t doubt it.
But did they try to suppress that? Absolutely. I have no doubt about that. And tried to destroy all the copies. The only reason that there is a copy is because Ivan Dixon had the wherewithal to put a master copy—’cause there’s not just one—into a container that was labeled some other way. So United Artists, who ended up being the distributor, and ended up having to finance the last several weeks of shooting, ’cause they kept running out of money during the process—United Artists completely panned I’m sure, under pressure. You know, you could go see Dolemite for ten months, but you couldn’t see The Spook.
SJ: So there’s this question that’s asked sometimes, more about the book than the film, but the film, too, and that is: What is it? I mean, there’s always this urge to categorize and to label. So the question is: Is it a political novel, a political film? Is it genre fiction, like a spy film, or a thriller? Some people suggest that it’s a satire of the Black Arts Movement, or the civil rights movement, even a proto-Blaxploitation film. So how do you categorize? And this is gonna be either one of you all.
JL: I mean, I’d say fantasy.
SJ: Why is it fantasy?
JL: Because I think that Mr. Greenlee and many other people who were involved with the film—this was a dream of theirs. You know, the idea that we could be organized, and take to the streets, and fight for our liberation, was a dream of sorts. I certainly wouldn’t call it a satire. There are obviously some strong political things there, but I always thought of it as a fantasy. You know, every time I watch it, I just think, “What if?” What might 2018 look like if something like that had actually happened?
DL: Yeah, I pretty much agree with that. I mean, for those of us that were involved in it—of course, I wasn’t involved in producing it, I didn’t write it, but I was not acting. I mean, man, it was just that. Like, man, this is great. Y’all give me an AR-15, I’m shooting at these people who historically try to kill me and mine. So yeah, I’d say fantasy. There was a philosophy to it, and he had a whole thing. You know, the whole little thing, this is not about hating people, this is about loving our own, and fighting for our liberation. I mean, that’s classic. That’s classic Malcolm X. It just is. So I would say definitely not a satire. There is, to me, very little levity in the film. Every now and then there will be something where, I guess this is supposed to be a little funny, you know, the war is over and I can’t pay you. But for the most part, yeah, it was on a lot of people’s minds back then.
SJ: About that scene that you just mentioned, David, that’s kind of a pivotal scene in the film, where Dan Freeman and your character, Pretty Willie, have this conversation. It starts out being about complexion and what the identity is of being a black man, but then it goes into things like the Great Migration and that sort of thing. If you compare the scene in the movie to the scene in the book, there’s some difference. And I understand you say you didn’t write the film, you didn’t produce it, but I understand you did have a role in sort of defining and giving Pretty Willie a certain type of dialogue. Can you talk about that?
DL: That scene, you know, “I was born back. I live black. I’ll probably die because I’m black. Because some cracker will put a bullet in my head,” that was me just talking. That scene took all day. It looked like it might have been simple but, you know, when we were shooting that specific scene, the brother that played Freeman, Lawrence Cook—he’s passed, he’s an ancestor now—he was a pretty funny brother. You should have seen, he’d make little faces sometimes. I had a hard time focusing because he kept making me smile, you know, I was nineteen years old.
But then Ivan Dixon told me to start thinking about some of my own experiences that I had dealing with this whole, you know, melanin deprivation shit I’ve been dealing with since I was born. [Laughter] And again, not being a tragic mulatto, but definitely angry, irritated at times, because I’ve never done or gone anywhere else. So sometimes you get a little tired of that shit, you know, and the assumptions that people make. I’m not talking about people thinking that you’re white, I’m talking about the ones that know you’re black but just have an idea of how you’re supposed to think, and how you’re supposed to roll, and what you’re supposed to be into. “Why are you not living in Chatham? Why you not doing this? Why you not doing that?” I had an elder tell me one time, “Boy, you just butter down the drain.” ‘Cause I wasn’t in that mix, you know.
So I mean, I had all that stuff going on. And Ivan Dixon, who’s a beautiful brother, he just said, “Look, David. Just let it out. Just go on a rant,” which I’m very capable of doing. [Laughter] And he said, “Just keep going.” And he told them just to start filming. He said, “Just go on.” Because I actually said a few more things than what you heard. [Laughter] You know, “Some cracker will put a bullet in my head,” or the last line wasn’t in there, “I’m gonna kill one of these motherfuckers, and I’m sick of them fucking with me,” that wasn’t in there. [Laughter] You know what I’m saying? So they stopped right at that part.
But yeah, people remember that. And some people thought it was funny because people say “oh this high yellow motherfucker and this and that and the other.” No, I know how I look. When I was nineteen I might have went [makes angry sound] about that, but now, “Okay man, whatever.” But that was kind of a big deal. He just let me loose. I also wrote the line, “They got some bad brothers in New Orleans.” [Laughter] ‘Cause that was after Mark Essex had gotten in that tower and did what he did. And it took a marine helicopter to completely obliterate the top floor of the Holiday Inn in downtown New Orleans in order to get that brother. And supposedly he may have had an accomplice that they never got, so I’m just saying. I’m sure y’all youngsters don’t know who Mark Essex is. Look him up.
SJ: The killing thing about those kind of identity politics is the assumption that there’s some essential way of being black. That being black is reduced to being of a certain complexion, or coming from a certain place, or speaking a certain way, or having a certain type of education, or a lack thereof. You know, this essentialism, which I think has probably been one of our biggest struggles.
I have a Jamilah question for you. The two most striking images of black women—really the only ones, there was a secretary at the beginning—but the two most striking images of black women who are main characters are the unnamed Dahomey Queen, who was a D.C. prostitute that Freeman has this long relationship with during the time that he’s with the CIA, and then his ex-fiancee Joy, with whom he continues to fool around. What do you make of those gender dynamics in The Spook Who Sat by the Door? And I know that it’s always dangerous when we look back on the past through the lenses of the present, it’s called presentism, and judging the past through those lenses. But I think that it’s a discussion worth having, about whether those depictions of black women depict any masculinist tendencies in the Black Power Movement.
JL: The short answer is yes. I think that those women were honest characters in terms of how a lot of men—and this cuts across racial lines for certain experiences—view women. So it’s not that these were necessarily wholly negative depictions of women, but that they weren’t just simply there. And I think that perhaps the greatest shortcoming of our pre-2000s black radical movements, and the Civil Rights Movement, and freedom movements throughout history, has been a failure to recognize and center women as equals. And we can be equals with different or intersecting skill sets. It’s not about saying that the women had to be in the streets with guns. There were certainly women that were in the streets with guns. But that I’m not surprised, you know? It never offended or bothered me.
Again, this is a movie that I’ve been watching for thirty years. If something were to come out like that today, I would have a different reaction to that. I would look for the women to be more present. But I think that so often, for a lot of people, their vision of black power and black liberation was centered around liberating the male, so that he might be the one to decide what the lives of black women would look like. And I don’t think that they would articulate that, and say, “Well, when this happens, then we’re gonna decide what you all do.” But patriarchy is patriarchy is patriarchy. So I would hope that any sort of modern day story, or someone who wanted to tell the truth about not just the sort of radical actions that are going on today, but the sisters who fought side by side with my dad, you know, when he was in the Black Panther Party, would talk more about the role of the women. Not just in terms of being in the freedom movement, but I’d want to know more about their relationships.
The other woman, even though you didn’t see her, who was significant in the film was his grandmother, who couldn’t read, which I thought was interesting. There’s an affection for and love for women, which is very different than having a derisive, dismissive, “I don’t care about them” sort of attitude. But it’s this reverence that still in a way can erase your humanity and your capability, and just kind of render you into these roles of nurturer, lover, mother, etc.
DL: The only thing I can say is that, philosophically, I was a member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. I never looked at women as background people. There were sisters in the party that did the same thing that we did. So we really weren’t on that sexist stuff. Now were there individuals in the party that might have been on that? Yeah. But in general, we just didn’t play that. I mean, the icons of the party, you saw Huey, you saw Ericka Huggins. Angela Davis, by the way, was not in the Black Panther Party, but Angela Davis was one of the revolutionary icons of that time period. I don’t really feel like, personally, we had that going. And I agree with my daughter that women are not depicted in a negative manner in the film. Even the sister that, okay, she’s a sex worker, so what does she do? She ends up spying and giving information to the revolutionaries. So you use whatever you doing to make it work for the people. It is what it is. I don’t really think that that was a big issue in the film. Again, historically, it was what it was. Nowadays, things would be depicted differently.
SJ: What about the fact that she didn’t have a name? I found that interesting. She was only known by the title of Dahomey Queen.
DL: It’s an honorable title. Kind of threw her off a little bit, being referred to as a queen. So, is that bad?
JL: I argue yes. I think the lack of a name is significant. Again, she was a figure, she represented something. She was a means to an end, she was beautiful, but she was not, you know, Sara, or Malika. She wasn’t a full person.
DL: Her name was Paula, but anyway. [Laughter]
JL: Well, we didn’t know that.
Audience Member #1: Her name was what?
SJ: The actress’s name was Paula.
DL: We called her Paula, so. [Laughter] But I understand your point.
SJ: I’m gonna throw up two general questions and then open it up to the floor. One of them is: How did both the book and the film look at some of the pressing political issues of the time? You have the Cold War going on, and then the tail end of the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, Jim Crow, post-Jim Crow moment sort of thing. So that’s one question. And then, the Chicago Freedom Fighters was the name of the group that came out of the Cobras—well, in the film, they were the King Cobras, and in the book. But it seems to me like there really was a street gang called the Cobras, wasn’t there? On the West Side? Supreme Cobras? Okay. Anyway, the question was, these men are pulled from the ranks of this street gang, and through his intervention and his training they become freedom fighters. So, as a former police officer and detective with what we call the force—I guess now it’s the CPD—how realistic are those portrayals of street gangs, and their culture, that sort of thing?
DL: You know, his purpose was to elevate their consciousness to where they were no longer a threat to the community, but a service to the community. Remember, gangs for the most part are made of young people, just like in the military. They get seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-olds, ’cause they’re a little more easily influenced to do things. That energy can be turned in a positive way. I mean, I’m not gonna go through all the cliches of why some of our young men end up doing those sort of things, nor am I absolving people of abhorrent behavior, you know, things that are destructive to the community.
At the same time, these are groups of young men that are already organized, that already have a structure of organization, that oftentimes—not so much now as back then—have some sort of philosophy of behavior, you know, they have a chain of command. They have things to be able to influence them to turn that energy away from doing things that are destructive in the community, to become protectors of the community. It’s really not a far-fetched concept. It really isn’t. So I think that’s why Sam went with that.
And just for people that are not my age, I’m certainly one of the oldest people in the room, if not the oldest person in the room. I know there’s some other brothers in the room, we’re probably all around the same age. The gang situation back then was a completely different thing than what you see today. Again, there was structure, there was order. I’m not saying that was good, ’cause it’s never good when you have people extorting businesses, and taking kids’ lunch money. But the fact that there was some sort of rules of behavior that had already been accepted by these young men—you change the rules into things that are more conducive to the community, that could happen. Now, my assessment of that really don’t have anything to do with my time on the police department. It just is what it is. I was in the community, I spent a lot of my formative years in Parkway Gardens, 64th and King Drive. And walking down King Drive, I mean, you would go through more than one territory, but you could sort of stay out of the mix of their stuff if you wasn’t into that. It’s a little different with young people now.
SJ: Did you have anything to add to that, Jamilah? All right, we’re gonna open it up to questions from the audience. I’m gonna ask you to please make your questions brief, and if you feel like making a statement, versus a question, please make that brief. And stand up so that we can hear you. Do we have a mic for the house? Okay, so just talk loud. Any questions? Yes, sir.
Audience Member #2: When you were talking about it being a fantasy of what 2018 would be like—I was thinking about, when watching the movie this time, because I had seen it when I was much younger, the shooting of Shorty by the cops, and then the resulting riot. We’re kind of not too far from that right now. And I was wondering what you might think of that.
SJ: So the question was that the shooting death of Shorty in the film was very reminiscent of some of the things that were going on. And I agree with you, there were a lot of things, when you re-read the book and look at the film. It’s sort of like things haven’t really changed that much.
DL: Well, repression breeds resistance. It’s just true. That’s not even just a human thing. All living creatures have a right to want to live and breathe and walk around the next day. If you go to step on an ant, they’ll try to get out of your way. If you try to step on red ants, if they can, they’ll crawl up your leg and bite you. When communities suffer certain behavior over and over and over and over again—see, the difference between now and back then, of course, is communication now, social media, things happen now in real time. You may not just hear about what maybe happened after it has been embellished a hundred times, you might actually see something. What is that little tagline? This is happening, or this happened. You see something actually play out.
So yeah, has there been any great, huge, cataclysmic change in the position that many of our people find themselves in in this society? No. What’s gonna be the consequences of that? It’s kind of hard to say. This is a different breed of youth, too. I’m not even gonna comment on that, ’cause I’m not qualified to judge, I can only make observations. We have a lot of hashtag revolutionaries. [Laughter] When I was in the Panther Party, we called them Rally Panthers. They show up at the rally, raise their hand, say, “All power to the people,” but they didn’t get up at four o’clock in the morning to go feed the little kids breakfast. They didn’t sit up in the headquarters hoping that the door wasn’t gonna get kicked down. Those were the real Panthers. But, anyway, they have the same equivalent now. We’ll see. Take good care of your health so you can be around a long time to see how this is gonna play out.
JL: I think that there’s certainly the potential. By the end of the film, in six cities there have been uprisings. I think that the political climate now, and the level of discomfort and awareness—I mean, the upside of social media and the internet is that you don’t have to wait til it’s int Jet to find out that Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. You’re watching this happen within hours, if not minutes, across the world. So, you know, I think that it’s possible that we’ll see—I don’t know if it would be something organized, as this was, but that at some point there will be—I mean, we are seeing uprisings, right? But people that are actually prepared to go into armed struggle is very different than saying, “I’m ready to go rally,” or “I’m gonna do a die-in,” or “I’m gonna fill the jails tonight, and we’re gonna do bail support, and people are gonna get locked up on purpose.”
But I do think that it’s going to get violent in ways that we haven’t seen, and that the pain is going to be redistributed, and I think we’re long overdue for that. I’m not saying that’s my desire, but how long can you create somebody, and train them to self-annihilate, and be the architect of their lives, and make decisions on their behalf, and tell them that they’re less than a person, and even when they’ve achieved class mobility or access into certain spaces, remind them that they are an interaction with a police officer or a nervous white woman away from death? How long can you treat a group of people like that without there being some sort of serious repercussions? So I will be interested to see what kind of conversation we’re having about this in ten years.
SJ: There are a lot of dated things about this film, but there are some very visionary things. One thing that Dan Freeman, which is, Sam Greenlee, said about the white power structure is, “A powerful and dangerous fool is not to be underestimated. Add the elements of hypocrisy and fear, and one had an extremely volatile combination. It was a combination that could easily blow the country, even the world, apart.” Say no more. Yes?
Audience Member #3: I think you have a point. ‘Cause, honestly, I’m organizing in the city, I’ve been doing it for a while, and the reality of the matter is that we do have some type of structure. The problem is that we have folks who are pacifists, we have folks who are at the helm of mayors, of governors, who are willing to put up those fights. Now, seeing as we are preparing for the Laquan McDonald verdict, as a debate coach I’m getting statements from my students saying, “Where do we go if the verdict does not go the way it’s supposed to be?” And I’m a debate coach on the West Side, but I live on the South Side. And I have kids who are saying, like, “Where do we go?” And one of the organizers who popped off the Laquan protest for the city. I have kids who are sitting up there afraid. Because they don’t know. Because I have kids who are set up in DCFS custody, who have opened their mouths and said they could have easily been Laquan.
So when we sit up here and have a city—honestly, the administration is preparing for ‘68, and most cases the city is telling them the CPD is not gonna get breaks. We’re gonna let them have all out whatever, but also be in there where Snoop [Haritha Augustus] was killed in South Shore this summer. Understanding how much force that the police came in on black folks in the community. With so much force. And seeing them swing on black elder women who I see up and down 71st Street every day. And having to carry them into cars. So this idea that we can re-envision this utopia of it breaking out—I’m just saying that we are going to have blood. And unfortunately, it may happen sooner than later. And I think as a people we have to get in a comfortable space saying this is going to happen, and where do we prepare ourselves for that aftermath? Because as quickly as we can have those folks who are willing to put out those fires, they can’t put out all of them. And we have to restructure in a way to benefit our children, and actually really politically engage with them. And I don’t mean registering to vote. I don’t mean sitting up there saying like, “Kumbaya, we shall overcome” to the poll box, either. I mean actually getting them to a space of saying we are willing to fight and die for our liberation. Just a statement.
Audience Member #4: I have a question. By the way, I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times. I wish I could have seen it today, but I was teaching late. But I’ve watched the movie with students before, with young people, and I’ve also watched it with members of the Communist Party, different communist groups, ’cause it’s a movie that gets shown when having certain conversations. It’s really great, actually, I think, as a point of conversation. I’ve also considered at what point I’ll show it to my son. I think it’s a movie that he should see, ’cause it’s a movie that influenced me as a young person.
One of the questions that comes up, that I often ask my son—he’s in love with Marvel superheroes. [Laughter] And we went to go see the Black Panther movie, and at the end of it, he and I had the same reaction, the same question. Basically, he was like, “Why do superheroes always have to use violence and fight people to solve problems?” And I don’t necessarily consider myself a pacifist, but I do ask that question. In a violent world, where is the place for creativity? And how much more powerful is creativity than violence as a solution to a violent world?
So I guess I pose that question in the space of this movie. This movie is essentially a Black Panther Party fantasy. At some point, I’ve heard that there were intended conversations between Fred Hampton Sr. and Jeff Fort, leader of the Blackstones, about that same question, about organizing a militia to directly go into combat with the Chicago police. And there are other people who have questioned that, the idea of an organizing strategy to go directly into combat. We don’t necessarily have any superheroes with superpowers on our side. So the question is: Where is the place for living as a strategy? With that same sort of creativity, if we could fantasize what a world would be like where we fought the police to the death of who knows, ’cause we’ve seen them bomb entire neighborhoods, what are the ultimate fantasies? [Laughter] I’m sorry, that’s a long question.
DL: I won’t give a really long David Lemieux answer. I’ll try not to. So this is the thing. One methodology doesn’t exclude another methodology. There will always be artists, there will always be musicians, there will always be dancers, there will always be people that make things that entertain, or make things that inspire you, there will be doctors. Everybody has their own part. That was one of the things that we dealt with in the Black Panther Party. I mean, we had a health clinic. We weren’t training people to use what we used to call “technical equipment.” That was our responsibility to learn how to deal with that.
As far as the thing with Jeff and Fred and the different gang people, I mean, one of the reasons that he was killed was not so much the whole concept of him organizing the gang structures to make war on police, it was organizing gang structures not to fight with each other. It’s amazing how autonomous a group of people can be if we are at peace with one another. Now, should your enemy attack you, that’s completely different. Because it’s your right as any living creature to protect yourself. And what you have to do to protect yourself can take different levels. But the biggest thing around organizing is that we are at peace with one another. That we don’t let our various isms and schisms make us want to—
—Malcolm, although he was assassinated in ’65, so keep in mind, we’re talking about me in seventh grade, eighth grade, into high school, right? But I was one of the people that were calling Dr. King a Tom, Uncle Tom, this and that and the other. “They’re not revolutionary, they’re not this and that and the other.” So I had the experience of being in Atlanta, I was down there for a graduation, and I went to the King museum down there, right? Peace Museum, I think it’s called? I don’t remember the exact name of it. But they have one of Dr. King’s suits, just one of his suits that he wore down there. And he was not a really big person in size, he was kind of short, you know. And I was looking at this suit, and I had taken the whole tour of where he was born, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and this and that and the other.
And for those of you that are older, you’ll get this: Dr. King had it made. He had his divinity degree from Morehouse College, he was going to inherit the Ebenezer Church. He was going to be the successful, safe Negro that was gonna get the pick of the choir, that was gonna get to drive a Cadillac, even in the southern town, because after all, he’s a colored preacher, and as long as he didn’t stir up no mess, he could have been fine. Even old Billy Bob White Sheriff wasn’t gonna bother him, because he’s a colored preacher, they go to church on Sunday, they don’t bother nobody. He would have been able to live his life out in, for that time period, bourgeois splendor, without any real economic worries or anything else.
But you had this little short stature person agree to philosophically embrace something that put him in front of a sea of hatred at a time when people that were peaceful—we mad at people walking around with their butt hanging out, looking thuggish, this and that and the other. Look at some of the pictures from the Civil Rights Movement, like they call it, and here’s these black men and women dressed like they’re going to church. Suits and ties and total conformity to the standards of this particular American culture. But yet they still killed them, and spit on them, and sicced dogs on them. Well, that’s not my methodology, I don’t agree with that methodology, but that didn’t make him a Tom, or a coward, or anything else. Because they did accomplish things with mass movements, mass civil disobedience, boycotts. It does mean something, it just isn’t the methodology that I necessarily share. But we spend a whole lot of time and energy ridiculing one another, when we should have just been, “You do what your camp is doing,” “You do what your camp is doing.” And when we come across each other, “Hey, I love you brother, I love you sister,” and keep it moving.
SJ: I think we should probably end on that note of a medium-sized David comment. And I’d like to thank you all for coming, for being a part of this event.