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‘The Ghosts of March 21’: an interview wit’ filmmaker Sam Stoker

February 28, 2014

by M.O.I. JR Valrey

March 21, 2014, marks the fifth anniversary of the police murder of Lovelle Mixon, who was killed after he murdered four Oakland police officers and wounded a fifth, around 73rd and MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland. The murder of Mixon and the cops further polarized the city, that two months prior had been rocked with rebellions related to the police murder of Oscar Grant that cost the establishment in downtown millions of dollars.

Ghosts 0314, webHours after Mixon was killed, lame-stream media started broadcasting all over the world that Lovelle Mixon was on the run for rape, although a number of journalists, including filmmaker Sam Stoker and I, were never able to make contact with witnesses or victims or the families of victims, pushing me to believe that the rape charges are fabricated to limit the amount of momentum that the people’s movement was gaining on the anti-police terror front at the time.

“The Ghosts of March 21” is a documentary about the bloodiest day in the history of Oakland law enforcement, shot by Damon “Hooker Boy” Hooker and directed, written and edited by Sam Stoker. It’ll premiere at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley on March 20.

“Ghosts” is definitely a film that you don’t want to miss because it captures exactly how the police are an occupying army in the Black communities of the United States and other places where the masses of people live below the poverty line. If you can’t catch it on that date, Block Report Radio will be hosting a tour of the film all over the country in the following months. Check out filmmaker Sam Stoker in his own words …

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to do a film on Lovelle Mixon?

Sam Stoker: The original idea for this project was to make a documentary, essentially, of Kristian William’s book “Our Enemies in Blue” and for the film to focus on the potential of police violence to spark broader liberatory movements. Originally, I was going to examine several cases from across the U.S.; however, due to logistical reasons, I had to keep narrowing down the scope of the project until eventually I was looking only at Oakland – and the Oscar Grant and Lovelle Mixon cases specifically.

A lot of the folks I was bouncing ideas off of at the time suggested I ditch the Mixon case, arguing he was too unlikeable, there was nothing redeemable about his actions and that the case wasn’t conducive for a film critical of police violence. Politically, I disagreed with those positions.

Still, they were legitimate obstacles, especially when considering how severely Mixon was dehumanized and the rape allegations that have been made against him. It wasn’t until I really started to grapple with them that I began to recognize just how powerful of a story was going untold. And while the process of pulling it out was not easy, I was captivated by its complexity and political potential right away.

M.O.I. JR: What kind of anti-police terrorism work have you been involved in prior to doing this film?

Lovelle Mixon march Oscar Grant 032509 by Dave Id, Indybay, web
Demonstrators marching on March 25, 2009, four days after the deaths of Lovelle Mixon and four cops, easily connected the dots to the police murder of Oscar Grant less than three months earlier. – Photo: Dave Id, Indybay
Sam Stoker: I’ve been involved in anti-police work for a number of years. In Oakland, I’ve been involved in a few projects. Most significantly, I was involved in the Oscar Grant Movement and helped found the Oakland General Assembly for Justice for Oscar Grant, which organized a number of the demonstrations and helped sustain the movement and gave it some direction after CAPE fell apart and the initial upheaval subsided. I learned a tremendous amount from that experience and this film is in many ways an extension of that work.

M.O.I. JR: Where did you get all of the information about the cops’ actions on March 21, 2009, as well as all of the on-the-scene footage?

Sam Stoker: The on-scene footage is from Damon “Hooker Boy” Hooker, who has been filming East Oakland street life for years. I was lucky to find him and that he agreed to let me use the footage. The bulk of the information about the police actions comes from the Board of Inquiry report that was released about six months after the incident.

It provides an official account of the police’s actions and decision-making processes throughout the day and also outlines the department’s numerous violations of its own standard operating procedures. It has been an excellent resource. And my background in firefighting and knowledge of the Incident Command System, which the police use to manage emergency situations, has been helpful in drawing out the significance of those violations.

M.O.I. JR: How do you think that the police murder of Lovelle Mixon relates to the police murder of Oscar Grant?

Sam Stoker: I think it relates in a number of ways. One of the most important, however, is also among the easiest to overlook or dismiss, and that is that both incidents are related in that they were produced by the same fundamental, systemic-level problems: exploitative, oppressive capitalist social relations and white supremacy.

It also relates in terms of the way it affected the political response to the murder of Oscar Grant. The events of March 21 jolted a lot of people and were destabilizing enough to push people toward the poles, to where they felt safest, a shift that was based on their relationship with the police.

For most whites, that meant a shift toward the state, which was evidenced by the massive outpouring of public sympathy that culminated with the funeral spectacle for the four officers, as well as the silence of the majority of the white left that had been quite vocal about Oscar Grant but found itself unable to address Mixon’s violence.

Lovelle Mixon rally Lovell's cousin 032509 by Dave Id, Indybay
Lovelle was mourned by a large and loving family. His cousin is at the mic. – Photo: Dave Id, Indybay
For people of color, and especially Black folks, the situation was more complex, but I think one of the outcomes of it was it forced people to articulate a more profound analysis on the situation they found themselves in, particularly the most marginalized. Those positions were drowned out by the hegemonic narrative that argued the police were heroes and Mixon was a demon, but on the micro level people could see who was who and what they saw made a difference.

It was a moment of clarity that advanced a revolutionary analysis and level of commitment that in the long run would shape the movement more significantly than the state or liberal left that would ultimately hurt it. The militancy of Occupy Oakland and the refusal to allow police in the camp is an example of that lineage.

M.O.I. JR: What do you think about Oakland’s on-going war against police terrorism – i.e. Oscar Grant campaign, Lovelle Mixon, Occupy etc.? What is different about the people in Oakland in your opinion?

Sam Stoker: I think the war against police terrorism is resistance to white supremacy, suffering and, ultimately, liberalism. It is part of a process that began a long time ago and is destined to continue until the contradiction is resolved in some way.

Unfortunately, because the collective common sense of the United States is rooted in liberalism – that is, it largely denies the existence of structural inequality and attributes all success or failure to the individual – the vast majority of suffering produced by structural inequality is internalized and endured alone. But the fact that it is made largely invisible doesn’t make it unreal, and unfortunately most people won’t understand that until they are faced with the consequences of it, which is how I’d define the events of March 21, 2009 – a consequence of oppressive social relations. In this respect I don’t think Oakland is all that different than most cities.

I imagine there are a number of factors that contribute to the political culture of Oakland, but I suspect that one big one is the fact that there is a well documented history of oppression in the city as well as a formidable tradition of resistance, particularly around the problem of police violence, that has elevated the community’s fundamental political consciousness and helps legitimize resistance that in other cities may be far more marginalized.

That history is important because it gives meaning and direction to people’s lives, and when that consciousness, which is self-respect and the demand to be respected, is combined with all the negative implications produced by the structural inequality of a system the police enforce, that history provides a notion for what needs to be done.

Lovelle Mixon v. OPD cops swarm hood 032109
On March 21, police swarmed the hood, a mass of confusion.
Putting it into action is the revolution, which itself is an evolving, living process that is constantly transforming; and I think it is important to look at resistance to police violence in this way. It is also the case that it is almost always the commitment and uncompromising demands of the few, not the many, that plant the seeds that become the catalysts of change. And one thing that is unique about Oakland is its ability to consistently nurture and develop the few.

M.O.I. JR: Can you describe where you got the title and your creative process with this documentary?

Sam Stoker: From the beginning of this project I have been captivated by a sense that there was something of great value buried beneath the story’s complexity – beyond the so-called facts. I was convinced it was there because I could feel it, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. The process of understanding and then conveying that notion defined the creative process and it took a long time.

The reason why is actually reflected in the name. The film was first called “Lovelle Mixon, Politically,” and that version framed and defined the events of March 21, 2009, in relation to the police execution of Oscar Grant and the political movement that was taking place, which anyone familiar with the subject matter knows is an important part of the story.

What I began to realize, however, is that it wasn’t Lovelle Mixon’s story, but rather an interpretation of the political situation that was built on an analysis of the world that Lovelle Mixon, in all likelihood, would have defined in a completely different manner. That didn’t make it incorrect, but it felt tired. It was his story that needed to be told if the film was to have any value, and by that I mean, if it was to harness the transformative power of cinema.

From that moment onward, I was chasing a ghost. Attempting to decipher Lovelle Mixon’s consciousness from its absence and by tracing the various manners through which it was erased. It was a significant change in approach, which can be summarized as the difference between using a generalization to define the specific and the specific to define the general.

And while the film is still, ultimately, my argument, it was a shift that equated to letting Lovelle Mixon define himself – a process that, I’ve learned, is less about methodology than it is developing a fundamentally new perception of reality. One not unlike that described by Huey Newton in the epilogue of “Revolutionary Suicide” when he writes of the ancient African tribes that, when asked who they were, would reply, “I am we.”

Lovelle Mixon march, rally 032509
By March 21, Oakland had seen several mass marches for Oscar Grant, but the march for Lovelle Mixon on March 25 was a little different: It was almost solidly Black and it was in East Oakland, where Lovelle lived and died and where the politics of police terrorism are well understood.
To understand March 21, 2009, is to see how the past shapes the present; it is to see ghosts, lots of them. It was this process that sparked the name change and also significantly transformed my perception of reality and how I understand political struggle. I’ve tried to construct the film to maximize its potential, not simply to show a different way of seeing, but to fundamentally reframe the viewer’s perception.

M.O.I. JR: What did you learn about the situation that shocked you while you were doing research about this film?

Sam Stoker: What shocked me was hearing about the last hour of Lovelle Mixon’s life and learning of the calmness and resoluteness with which he faced his death and what it says about society and the power structure when contrasted with the chaotic, revenge-driven activity of the police that were hunting him down – all of which is the opposite of how people understand the situation. It is horrifying to find out how fragile reality really is.

M.O.I. JR: What do you want people to get out of this film?

Sam Stoker: My hope is the film helps people grasp a deeper comprehension of how power flows, functions and distorts our perceptions of reality. Equally important a goal has been to legitimize the Black experience by 1) making it visible; and 2) contextualizing it structurally; and 3) illustrating white supremacy in a clear and coherent way and inspiring people to act.

M.O.I. JR: Are you working on any other projects?

Sam Stoker: Yes, my partner and I are currently researching our next project, which examines contemporary working class conditions in the Central Valley, but I can’t say more about it until production is complete because it could blow the opportunity. We are also busy building /CRONISTAS/, a radical film collective inspired by Third Cinema. And this summer I’ll be helping Jacob Crawford from wecopwatch.org edit together a film chronicling police violence and the anti-police movement in Oakland since Oscar Grant.

M.O.I. JR: How do people keep up with you in regards to this film?

Sam Stoker: The website is the best way: www.theghostsofmarch21.org.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

 

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