Popular culture is the site of complex struggles between the forces of repression and those of liberation, British critical theorist Stuart Hall argued two decades ago. Movies and music, television and books all constitute the raw material of political imagination. Such cultural products not only engage the present but craft a narrative of the past. And what better way to blend past and present, culture and politics, than an animated documentary of the (in)famous Chicago conspiracy trial, one of the most well-known events of the 1960s?
From Art Spiegelman's Maus to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, the graphic form has proved a powerful narrative tool. Combining memoir and social commentary in a visually appealing package, such illustrated stories blur the boundaries of art and history, reality and fantasy. It should be no surprise, then, that social movements-those rare hybrids of reality and fantasy-are finding themselves increasingly illustrated. Walter Benjamin's argument that radicalism politicizes art seems more relevant now than ever.
Struggles over civic status have been said to characterize youthful rebellion, especially that of the Sixties. Such battles over who counts as worthy of which human rights are, of course, all the more urgent in times of war. So it is worth interrogating the concepts of youth protest and radical citizenship as we plot our way out of the course set by the current power brokers.
It is particularly appropriate to be having this conversation today, December 4, the thirty-seventh anniversary of the Chicago police murders of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two young, energetic, and brilliant organizers who gave life and meaning to what society is supposed to be about: empathic people deeply engaged in how the world does and could function. A dynamic speaker and humble leader, Hampton was 21 years old and poised to enter the national leadership of the Black Panther Party at the time of his murder. His murder in 1969 had a chilling effect on not just the Black Panther Party but the radical movements of the period overall. The blatant pride with which the Chicago police carried out the murders was the visible manifestation of J. Edgar Hoover’s then-classified note in an FBI memorandum around the time saying that African Americans needed to understand that a Black radical was a dead radical, as far as the state was concerned.
From a speech given in Gainesville, Florida, August 5, 2006
Thank you all for coming out today. It’s a real treat to be back in Gainesville talking about the Weather Underground, because this is the place where my book on the group began. This is also the place where my understanding of and involvement in the U.S. radical legacy didn’t start but did take shape. So it is wonderful to be here today with people who were and are my friends and mentors, in and out of the classroom. In particular, I want to thank the Civic Media Center and all connected to it, for providing not just a space but a home for so many wonderful ideas, projects, and people. And I want to thank professor Louise Newman, whose support, encouragement, and brilliance are responsible for a lot of things for a lot of people, not least of which was the initial push for me to write this book.
For five weeks in the late spring of 2006, we toured the eastern half of the United States to promote two books–"Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out" (Nation Books, 2005) and "Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity" (AK Press, 2006)–and to get at least a cursory impression of sectors of the movement in this country. We viewed each of the twenty-eight events not only as book readings but as conscious political conversations about the state of the country, the world, and the movement.
Political prisoners, if largely unacknowledged, are at the crux of debates over incarceration. Their presence testifies to the ongoing legacy of social problems, which in itself is central to the cycle of crime and punishment. As the anti-prison movement continues to grow in strength and stature, the question of political prisoners demands attention because these movement veterans remain part of current endeavors for social justice.