Newark under Surveillance: Highlights of the COINTELPRO files, and Confessions of an Undercover Cop (1988)

It’s a good time to think about surveillance and its history. We have a nakedly racist administration escalating and further militarizing the already cruel and counterproductive monitoring, harassment, and deportation of Latino/a people. Meanwhile, in the fraudulent name of national security, they’re trying to bar people (read: Muslims) from seven nations responsible for zero acts of domestic terrorism, as part of their New Crusades Theater-spectacular. One of the first things the Trump administration did was to round up data on which federal scientists were doing their fricking jobs by tracking climate change, and if native-born white U.S. citizens somehow still think they’re exempt from all of this, oh hey, they’re also checking IDs at exits from domestic flights.

None of this is normal, that can’t be emphasized enough. But neither is it a radical break from the grotesque U.S. history of internal domestic surveillance of radicals, people of color, queer people, etc. During the Obama years, the NYPD shamefully spied on the Rutgers Muslim Student Association, and as recently as last month continued to refuse to confirm or deny its possession of surveillance records. And don’t get me started on the PATRIOT Act and its travesties.

Congressional Democrats aren’t going to save us—the very day I’m writing this, eleven of them voted to confirm scumsucking racist mouthbreather Rick Perry to head a department he literally did not remember existed in the recent past, just the latest capitulation in a shameful month-and-a-half descent into Trumpism. The only hope for American democracy to survive this onslaught comes from two sources, in my estimation: first, the resistance that has galvanized millions of Americans to put their bodies on the line in streets, airports, town hall meetings, and elsewhere; there are more of us than there are of these jackbooted fascists, and if we can stay focused, angry, and active, we have at least a chance.

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Newark Liberty International Airport, 28 January 2017

Our second—and maybe more powerful—hope is the sheer ineptitude of the national security state. Nearly all of Trump’s appointments veer toward utter slack-jawed stupidity, Perry’s not alone: Ben Carson and his mushmouthed ramblings, Betsy DeVos and her delusions that HBCUs grew out of a “choice” in Jim Crow America, and most tellingly Michael Flynn, before he was deposed by his lying: the very man who was supposed to head the NSA tweeted fake news because he couldn’t tell the difference. And then there’s Steve Bannon, a man so desperate to be perceived as an evil genius that he misuses the term “deconstruction” (not synonymous with destruction, which is what he seems to intend for the administrative state) because it sounds like . . . wait, those smarty-pants professors that I thought we were supposed to hate, and whose earlier career as a director of dud rightwing documentaries was so pathetic that a recent Film Comment podcast compared it unfavorably to the cinematic works of Alex Jones and Dinesh D’Souza. I apologize for so many italics here, but just let that sink in, seriously. I actually saw his Sarah Palin movie, and while it made me fear his ability to pander to racist, nationalist chestbeating, I did not walk away awed by his intellect, to say the least.

All of which leads back to COINTELPRO. Continue reading

Sidney Lumet’s Newark Pitstop: Find Me Guilty (2006)

To the best of my knowledge, Sidney Lumet only ever shot in Newark once, and not, lamentably enough, for his remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria (whose Newark Penn Station scene I wrote about here)–a remake whose omission of Cassavetes from the credits still perturbs me.

Instead, it was for this Vin Diesel mediocrity:

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Now, I really enjoy Sidney Lumet as a filmmaker. I always think of him as the pre-Soderbergh, reined in by a classical Hollywood leash that prevented any wildly idiosyncratic swerves like Schizopolis or Bubble, but still committed to an almost experimental craftsmanship in his willingness, eagerness even, to jump genres. We tend to remember Lumet for his gritty NYC canon, but dude made westerns, musicals, a really good and overlooked British spy thriller (The Deadly Affair, y’all!), a romcom, etc.

Of course, they weren’t all good. Continue reading