Documentary Legend Stanley Nelson is Very Proud of His Daughters Arrest At George Floyd Protests

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The acclaimed filmmaker behind The Murder of Emmett Till and The Black Panthers opens up to Cassie da Costa about the ongoing protests and the killing of George Floyd.

Cassie da Costa

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson has directed some of the essential documentaries about the history of black activism, freedom work, and culture in the United States, including: Marcus Garvey: Look For Me in the Whirlwind; The Murder of Emmett Till; a 2009 series about immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border; Freedom Riders; The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution; and most recently Vick for ESPNs 30 for 30 series.

Naturally, as a result of his decades of work, he has a lot to say about the torrent of events currently taking place in the United States, from the coronavirus pandemic, to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, to the violent reign of President Donald Trump. And its the latter that Nelson believes undergirds the protests taking place in major cities and towns across the country.

According to Nelson, its essential to remember that not only has anti-black brutality by the state existed since the U.S. was formed, but Donald Trump and the current Republican Party have resurfaced a special kind of brutality and neglect at a national level. The director believes that Floyds killingnot even the most recent in a series of police killings of unarmed black Americanshas finally popped the lid off and stirred Americans, especially young ones, to more cohesive and collective action. I spoke to Nelson about his thoughts about the protests, the pandemic, and the future of policing in the United States.

Both within the space of this pandemic and protests against George Floyds murder, theres been this kind of encouragement or drive toward productivity, particularly because many people are stuck inside or at home. Theres a focus on how you still get work done or still contribute to freedom work, for example. Thats made me think a lot about the question of how do you heal, how do you attend to yourself and to your community in the midst of active struggle? And I wondered, the Black Panthers documentary you made, a huge part of it was about how people couldnt attend to their families and be in the Panthers. The structure was not built to support care work outside of active struggle, necessarily. I wonder if you think those reflections from former Panthers could be of use today?

And Im glad that [my children] want to be part of [the protests]. You know, I remember a woman, Michelle, when we did Freedom Riders, and she came down one morning and she was 19 and one day she said to her mother, Im leaving cause Im a Freedom Rider now, and she left. And thats what happened over and over again, with some of the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthersyoung people dont ask permission, they just join because they feel they have to. So I had to think about that, and in some ways Im very proud of my children, but a little nervous too.

Hows your daughter Malana doing now?

Shes out. She got out last night, but [went back to the jail] to pick up her phone and her wallet, because they told her to come back for it, but last I heard they couldnt find them. You know, its just a big mess. But shes out, thats the main thing. Phones, you can replace them.

Why do you think George Floyds murder by police specifically has triggered such a widespread and direct involvement with young people across the country?

Weve seen it over and over again. And so theres no denying that that repeats itself over and over. Weve seen videos over and over. Were in the middle of a pandemic, so people have been cooped up for like 11 weeks or whatever it is. And I think that just the explicit nature of that videothis wasnt a shaky camera [video], we saw the life drain out of this man. We saw it. And as many times as we mightve seen people die in the movies, very rarely have we seen a video of someone dying over an eight-minute span of time. Its an incredible video that has affected people, where this man is in some ways calmly pleading for his life. And there was no emotion from the police. It wasnt like it was emotional; it was just, Were just going to kill you, you know? Of all the things weve seen because of video cameras and phone cameras, its just an amazing piece of video.

The [white] woman in Central Park [Amy Cooper] who was gonna turn in a [black] birder [Chris Cooper, ed note: no relation]she was essentially saying, I will call my dogs on you if you dont do what I want. I will call my dogs. I will call the police on you and you know who theyre gonna favor. That reminded me of incidents that have happened in my life, where white people say, Ill call security. And well settle this, because Ill call security and you know what side theyre going to be on. Youre a black man and Im white, and if they come, who knows what might happen.

That dynamic has made me think a lot about the language around policing that has repeatedly come up in the midst of various activists and media personalities responses to Floyds murder. Some people are really focused on criminal justice reform, which always comes up with every instance of anti-black police brutality. But others are saying, Actually we need to defund the police. We need to abolish policing. Or, at the very least, we need to abolish policing as we know it. But a lot of people have a hard time imagining what it would mean if we didnt have police. What are your thoughts about how we can imagine and formulate alternative strategies to policing that wont bring harm to racialized bodies?

I dont think police abolition is going to happen anytime soonit happens in stagesbut, we just finished up a project on the crack epidemic that will be on Netflix in a couple of months, and part of the trajectory charts the police going from the beat cop, to the war on drugs and the militarization of the police, and millions of dollars beginning to go into police departments. Theres this image early in the film when you see New York cops walking the streets, swinging their batons, and by the end of the film there are military vehicles with body armor and machine gunscrazy equipment. We can start out by thinking about defunding the police, demilitarizing the police. And then theres also the idea of retraining the police so that they are not this occupying force with this kind of warrior mentality, because it creates this us-against-them mentality that we now exist in, in black communities and some other communities. Theres another way to be. It doesnt have to be that way.

That brings up the various trainings that have been suggested for other kinds of public servants and workers in the public sphere. You directed the Story of Access training film for Starbucks after the infamous event where a black man had the cops called on him by an employee for simply being in the space while he was waiting to meet up with a business partner. The film you made constitutes a kind of anti-bias training and involves understanding personally what black people go through when they are policed and targeted in public and commercial space. And so I wonder about the education that police receive in relation to the education that workers receive before we go into vocations. Is there reason to think that police can unlearn the harmful ideas they are taught about community safety and law and order?

Yeah. Theres so much that can be done if were talking about retraining the police. Were also talking about something that could be so much better for the actual police. I read something a police officer wrote about the feeling that they have of every time they step out of their car, theyre the enemy and the hate thats generated when people see cops. I mean, could you imagine living through that, that being your life? Theres all kinds of studies about the trauma that police go through and then take back home to their families. So, police are already operating on this level [of instability]. So all it takes is [a police officer] whos just a little bit off, you know, to take [an interaction with a civilian] to a higher level. So we gotta start with a low level of cooperation with people in the community so that the police are part of the community and not an occupying force.

But Im thinking about how in your Black Panther documentary there are quite a few police officers, local police officers, who are unwilling to even admit on a basic level that theres brutality in the force. Theres an FBI agent who ironically seems more willing to acknowledge the moral compromise of the COINTELPRO program, and that what they did was unethical and recklessly violent. Whereas it seems like a lot of the local police officers in the filmwith the exception of a black former Chicago PD officer who commented on Black Panther Deputy Chair Fred Hampton's murder by police (though he was not present for it) it seems like a lot of those policemen, white policemen for the most part, are very defensive about their choices, no matter the degree of violence. And that really took me aback in that they were given this opportunity to reflect on their experiences and their actions, and yet they were very defensive.

I wouldnt say those police officers we interviewed for the documentary were defensive. I think, as you said, they just werent very reflective. You know what I mean? Its not that theres some part of them that believes what they did was wrong. I think police are not the most reflective group of people in the world. And in many ways they felt that they were following orders and what they did was the right thing to do. Its funny because one of the cops who in the film says something about how, We had to go out there and show the Panthers who were the dominant force, thats the same language that Donald Trump is using now.

Right. And for that reason there are a lot of people who are skeptical about police reform, because so much of this thinking is embedded within a structure of white supremacy. And the idea is that if youre going to take a reform approach, youre still going to end up with a police force that exists in a society thats dominated by white supremacy. Do you really think we can reform the police through a series of programs or measures?

Im not sure how far reform can really go. But we do have to make it so that they stop killing us. Thats the first step. And to understand that if you create violence that theres a good shot that you will go to jail just like anybody else, that you cant kill innocent people. Thats the start and who knows where it can possibly go. But in the future, somewhere where we have to have a whole different form of policing than we do now. Do you need somebody at this point, given human nature, to keep the peace? Yeah, probably, but I think we have to take it a few steps at a time. Did the civil rights movement [give] African-Americans equal [status] in this country? No, but it certainly was a beginning.

What were saying now is that you cannot kill us, and everybody has to look at the way that police do their jobs and the police have to look at the way they do their jobs, and think about the fact that theres a better way. And if youre gonna do it as a military force, and youre going to confront people and hurt people and create actual violence, then there will be consequences. Thats the first step, and then we can go from there.

A scene from The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution


For you in your documentary film practice, is there anything in the events right now that has inspired your perspective going forward or how you might make films?

PBS has re-released The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution for streaming on their platform as part of a slate of new and existing programming about race in America.

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