Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Right Side of History. 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism. Author: Adrian Brooks.


This book is a collection of historical writings about the LGBTQIA Movement. What is unique about it is that all of the writers are activists who have worked within that movement. No academic historians participated. This approach contains strengths and weaknesses. Its most favorable strength is that activists know strategies for creating and organizing movements which uninvolved historians generally do not. A historian who has not worked for social change, will usually focus upon a nation’s political office holders; examining their legislation and speeches. While that element is part of history, it is merely the end product and most visible mark of progress, thence the easiest road to travel in writing a history. Unfortunately, it creates the false impression that an altruistic notion just popped into the head of a self-interested politician; whose only real job, even in the best of democracies, is to get herself re-elected and do the bidding of those who paid for that re-election. Activists, on the other hand, know what goes into creating change. As a result, the activities of grassroots activism and behind-the-scenes organizing are ferreted-out by these writers. Published in 2015, four months before lesbians and gay men won marriage equality, The Right Side of History reveals how the movement evolved from the late-1800s to the present. The views of the activists who wrote chapters make it both a history and a primer on how to advance political rights.

Adrian Brooks, who edited this project, arranged the 31 contributions chronologically. The first 12 examine activist endeavors prior to the Stonewall Rebellion. Here the reader will begin to see some of the drawbacks of having histories written by activists unfamiliar with the process of primary evidence-gathering. Telling the whole truth is sometimes not as important as promoting the movement. Among the several chapters discussing Stonewall, none mention that the Stonewall Inn was owned by the New York Mafia. Though there are two flattering portraits of Bayard Rustin, neither mentions his later, neoconservative activism (see https://portside.org/2016-03-17/rebel-who-came-cold-tainted-career-bayard-rustin ). Such omissions, calculated to make the movement appear uncontaminated, do not advance the goal of preserving historical knowledge.

What is omitted is important. But so is what is included. There are rare histories of forgotten activists and early organizations, which the reading public would never know about without this volume. In addition, the contributors excel with later chapters involving political action in which they personally participated. Here, important events are preserved in oral histories that would otherwise have disappeared from the record. The full story of a social movement cannot be contained within one document. This iconoclastic book is an important contribution to the history of LGBTQIA success in attaining civil rights.

Brooks, Adrian. The Right Side of History. 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism. New York: Cleis Press, 2015.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

West Side Story as Cinema. Author: Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz.


A note for those who have not seen the movie “West Side Story:” The book being reviewed was written for an audience who had already seen the 1961 film. There will be spoilers by both the reviewer and the author; as well as confusion for the reader regarding plot, characters and elements discussed. If one has not seen this version, one should consider stopping here and watching it first.

“West Side Story” (WSS) was an important musical for a number of artistic and political reasons. Artistically, it was the first US musical to defy the convention that problems or tensions in the story are resolvable through song-and-dance. Here musical numbers, when not romantic, are used to illuminate conflicts or make matters worse. Importantly, musical numbers from the second half of the play which were lighter or comic, were shifted to the first half of the movie. In this way, WSS becomes a show whose lightness, humor and humanity drop away, until despair is all that is left.

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz is an associate professor and Director of Film Studies at the University of Colorado. So his book is largely a film study course enclosed by covers. His chapters are an introduction to special effects, film staging, selection of actors, transitions, and other decisions made by producers and directors. He takes the reader inside the creation of this movie. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Composer Leonard Bernstein, as well as producers Harold and Marvin Mirisch, are examined. One is taken behind the scenes to see the conflicts and choices they faced with each other and the material.

Politically, WSS was the first musical to feature Puerto Rican characters as protagonists. Since it was written in the 1950s there is the inherent racism of its period. Puerto Rican commentators have been divided on their view of this seminal portrayal of their people in a successful musical. The vast majority of Puerto Rican characters, including the lead male and female roles, were acted by white people in brown-face make-up. Even Rita Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the play, was darkened with cosmetics. This is too similar to minstrel shows, exclusionary of Puerto Rican actors, and stereotyped. We only see Puerto Rican persona who are gang members or “gang girls.” Latin American viewers, who see the show as positive, point-out that the Sharks are all people with families and jobs. Both film and stage have Puerto Rican cultural elements which are presented positively. This community only establishes a gang in defense against racist violence. Bernardo and the Jets confirm twice in the film that he was “jumped” on his first day in the US. In contrast, the Jets are unemployed juvenile delinquents, whose families are broken and whose racism is blatant. The author argues that, between the two gangs, the Sharks are both more sympathetic and more culturally represented, as well as being articulate about oppression. There is a lot more written on racism that cannot be covered here. However, if one is seeking an author who can successfully moderate the two sides of the Puerto Rican conflict over WSS, one must look elsewhere. In his introduction, Acevedo-Munoz says, as a child in Puerto Rico, he “was overwhelmed and giddily proud to see ‘Puerto Ricans’ represented onscreen, however inaccurate or stylized the portrayal…West Side Story is the reason why I study films” (Acevedo-Munoz, pp. 5-6). As a result, the chapter specifically devoted to racism is weighted in favor of WSS.

But racism is not the only area where the author discusses politics and culture. Borrowing from Rick Altman and Matthew Tinkcom, Acevedo-Munoz discusses gay male expression in WSS. Altman is quoted as saying that musicals are “associated with camp, gay, utopian, ‘drag,’ and marginal sensibilities…created by gay talent because it offers a ‘place’ where sexual repression (especially in classical Hollywood) can be channeled…redress[ing] heterosexuality itself as a camp fantasy.” Tinkcom adds that “‘camp excess, masquerade and performance’ hide a gay sensibility that ultimately serves to self-consciously mock the realism of heterosexual coupling narratives” (Acevedo-Munoz, p. 154). This observation may be entirely apt since all four contributors to the creation of WSS were gay men (Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents). Professor Acevedo-Munoz also mentions that all four were Jewish, but does not explore how a Jewish sensibility might have influenced the show (Acevedo-Munoz, p. 154).

West Side Story as Cinema is a delightful and instructive book. Acevedo-Munoz is an enthusiastic Film Studies teacher. It is enlightening to have the perspective of a politically aware professor, who has much to say regarding content related to his people. If one has enjoyed the movie, this book will reveal features not previously evident, and make one want to see it again with new perspective.

Acevedo-Munoz, Ernesto R. West Side Story as Cinema. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The End of White Christian America. Author: Robert P. Jones.


The End of White Christian America was released in July of 2016. It acknowledged the now well-cited US Census Bureau statistic that, by 2042 the United States would no longer be a majority white nation. It followed-up with statistics from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), stating that the numbers of US citizens who were both white and Christian (by which they mean all Catholics and Protestants) had already “slipped below a majority” to 47% of the population as of 2014 (Jones, p. 47). The author reinforced PRRI’s findings with a 2013 Republican National Committee task force’s conclusions. It recommended Republican leaders begin “rebranding their conservatism to appeal to women, ethnic minorities, and young people, who saw the party as narrow-minded and out-of-touch” (Jones, p. 102).

However, what followed were a series of ill-advised premonitions. Chief among those was the claim that “appeals to white Christians…will likely set the GOP back when it turns to the task of reclaiming the White House in 2016” (Jones, p. 107). Four months later Donald Trump won the presidency in large part by feeding on division; using racist, sexist, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant and Christian bigotry. This event did not help the author’s book sales. Non-fiction readers quietly re-shelved their copies of The End of White Christian America, and went out to find new books explaining why God-fearing hillbillies in the middle of the country were fooled into believing that a New York billionaire would hand them jobs and money.

Despite its failed forecast of political events, the book’s sources of information appear unbiased. PRRI is a Christian organization. The author is its CEO and a religious Christian. Even though Jones is a liberal Christian, neither he nor PRRI gained anything by admitting that Christian influence or population is diminishing. Even fundamentalist Christians worry about the decline in church attendance, so the concern crosses the political spectrum. Similarly, the Republican National Committee task force had no stake in admitting that its views are out-of-touch with America. And finally, the US Census Bureau has, in the past, shown a bias against minorities. It has been repeatedly criticized for under-reporting the country’s non-white population. We know that they are not prejudiced in favor of minorities when they announce the demise of white majority status.

So where did Jones go wrong? He failed where most statisticians fail: He was overly focused on the numbers and did not take into account human reaction or emotion. Statistics about a population’s rise or decline in percentage reveal nothing about their enthusiasm, their fears, their anger or their irrational prejudices; the kinds of things that drive people to the voting booths. A demographic that makes-up 47% of the country is still a significant number and can change an election.

But this may not be the only blind spot in the book. Although Jones’s statistics, if accurate, point to a continual decline in white Christian percentage, they fail to take historical events into account. The United States has experienced periods of religious revivalism in the form of two “Great Awakenings” (circa 1730 and 1790), and several smaller but significant bumps in church attendance (most recently circa 1980). Again, too many statistics; not enough meditation on human nature. These kinds of revivals have the potential to push our non-fictionally illiterate, scientifically-impaired fellow citizens, back into the open arms of the superstitious congregation.

It’s easy to kick a book when it’s down. So let’s focus for a moment on what is positive about Jones’s study. The End of White Christian America is an optimistic and useful book for atheists, minorities and progressives. Feminist activists seeking federal funding for battered women’s shelters learned that, when they did their own research on the numbers domestic violence survivors, they were accused of inflating the data. So they began using crime stats provided by the FBI; an undeniably male-dominated, politically conservative organization that could not be accused of promoting a feminist agenda. Similarly, atheists, minorities and progressives, can turn to Jones’s Christian, Republican and US Census Bureau conclusions, in order to both bolster their arguments and provide them with a sense of optimism for the future. After all, barring a “Third Great Awakening,” not much stands in the way of the further decline of white or Christian domination.

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2016.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

House of Wits. An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. Author: Paul Fisher.


It is unusual for any nuclear family to produce one talented child who influences their culture. Henry James Sr. and Mary James produced three: William James is often called the Father of American Psychology and was the creator of the Pragmatic school of philosophy. Henry James Jr. was a successful novelist whose works were bestsellers in the 1800s and are classics today. Alice James was an acerbic diarist, whose repressed life and insightful writing have influenced 21st Century feminism regarding its view of middle class women’s lives in 19th Century America. Many individual biographies have been written about these three siblings. But Paul Fisher does something that has never been done before; he writes a biography of the entire family. This permits a reader to see the environmental influences on these three and examine what elements came together to precipitate such intellectual talent.

At the very beginning of the book, Paul Fisher makes an important blunder that throws a damp washcloth on a reader’s enthusiasm for his project: he spends more than 100 pages on Henry James Sr., the father of this clan. Henry Sr. was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. He was a theologian, a lecturer and a writer, who was neither successful in his lifetime, nor influential after it ended. He wrote a dozen volumes of arcane religious philosophy that were little noticed when published and are of little importance today. If it were not for his three famous offspring, it is safe to say that Henry Sr. would not be remembered at all. That a figure of such modest consequence should consume so much of a book which includes his three more influential children, is a waste of time. Surely, his importance lies in his impact on these children. A more useful beginning would have involved an abbreviated chapter on Henry Sr. and Mary that discussed their individual lives and how they came together.

Fisher writes with an ease and informality which allows his book to flow. He can be amusingly sarcastic with his subjects’ flaws. When Henry Jr. squanders family money in European spas, rationalizing that he must “get thoroughly well” so he can work, Fisher writes “Harry bled with self-sacrifice” (Fisher, p. 259). When William’s insecurity causes him to continually fail with women, Fisher comments that his “would-be liaisons struck one wet match after another” (Fisher, p. 304). It is this informality and refusal to hold his subjects as sacred, which permit him to delve into their lives in a way that holds nothing sacred.

The author exposes the worst about the Jameses, holding-up each nasty secret like an exterminator bringing a homeowner every poisoned rat: William is “living with depression” (277), has “quirky, skittish methods of human interaction” (442), and was “cut off from reacting, empathizing, and relating to others’ emotions” (Fisher, p. 439). Henry Jr. is a vain, self-involved social climber, “tipping his hat like a marionette” in high London society (Fisher, p. 432). Alice is a neurasthenic shut-in, whose fits of “hysteria” are part of a “long career as an invalid” that brings her “much attention and solicitude” (Fisher, p. 461). With such debilitating psychological problems, one wonders how they accomplished anything.

None of these revelations are new. Biographers have been analyzing this family for over 100 years and, given William James’s vocation, a number of those have been psychologists. So throughout the book Fisher is reaching for new insights that, due to the competence of his competition and the obsessive letter-burning practices of the Jameses, may simply not be available.

But because this author is examining the family as a whole, he has the benefit of everyone else’s biographies and his own research. He does spend time on the two ignored James sons Wilkie and Bob, which adds an interesting dimension to the family dynamic. Early in their lives, Henry Sr. and Mary determined that those two had little intellectual promise and were cut-out for the world of commerce. So they did not receive the privileged educations of William and Henry Jr. In addition, the two less promising Jameses both serve for the Union in the Civil War, whereas Henry Jr. and William dodge service with ailments. The war service and unhappy journeyman lives of the two unsuccessful Jameses leave the privileged sons with lifelong guilt.

Fisher does have an evolved social conscience through which he views the Jameses and their period. He spends a good deal of time on Henry Jr’s alienation due to his being a closeted gay male. Henry’s fears of discovery affect his responses to his sister’s “Boston Marriage” with Katharine Loring. A special focus on the status of women is unavoidable given Alice’s penetrating diary. But even with avoidable issues, like anti-semitism and the condition of the poor, the author makes sure to expose the era’s injustices.

Occasionally, Fisher can be a bit melodramatic in pursuit of deeper Jamesian problems. He uses the word “incest” or “incestuous” so often that one is certain he’d love to discover some. In one silly passage, the author describes seven-year-old Alice selecting colors for a new hat with a London milliner. He characterizes the resulting color clash as causing “distress and confusion” (Fisher, p. 132). The shopping trials of an over-privileged child seem hardly worth mentioning in a city where her fellow seven-year-olds were working in factories and wearing rags. Fisher also uses literary devices to create dramatic tension. Sections often end with premonitions of doom as entrees into the next section: “Quincy Street harbored a grim secret” (232), “The winds were already gathering” (422), “a more immediate drama was unfolding” (510). Such breathless, gothic style can become tiresome.

But, for all of his melodrama and faux suspense, Fisher strives with some success to pierce through the Jamesian wall of stolid Puritan/Victorian repression and self-regard. One feels a sadness pervading the book as the Jameses struggle against their common, depressive, inner darkness. Because they are not portrayed as the paragons of their earliest biographies, one sees them as human and roots for them to succeed in love and work. The author’s unique approach, to the household as a whole, reveals how the environment produced three individuals who were highly intellectual, driven and emotionally problematic. His angle has produced a compelling read.

Fisher, Paul. House of Wits. An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements. Editors: Clifton Ross & Marcy Rein.


Until the Rulers Obey is a selection of interviews with South American social activists from organizations that are not affiliated with any government or party. Occasionally, their concerns and resulting popularity have resulted in their becoming an opposition party, but that is a rare occurrence. This is an extensive project involving 400 pages of interviews with individuals and groups of courageous activists. Their differing issues cover a broad range which includes indigenous rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, LGBTQIA rights, and poor people’s movements. Almost all of the interviewees have faced violence from governments, paramilitaries, or thugs hired by multinational corporations. Without these interviews, their concerns, persistence and contribution would have remained unknown outside of their own nations. Some remain anonymous so that their activities cannot be tracked by the state. The interviewers themselves faced significant danger in their efforts to gather some of these stories.

Each chapter represents a different South American country. After a brief overview of the social issues facing the populace of that nation, a series of interviews with activists working on those issues follows. Their approaches are creative, and as wide ranging as their topics: opposition newspapers, underground abortion services, protest, sabotage of mining equipment, occupations of land, public anti-homophobia education, creation of worker cooperatives; these are just a few of their differing responses to oppression.  

Though their issues and approaches differ, there are some commonalities among them. Aside from the aforementioned autonomy from government, these groups are, almost uniformly, opposed to multinational corporate interference in their national economies. This opposition was expressed by interviewees whose issues were not necessarily economic. LGBTQIA and feminist organizers also expressed that international capitalism was harming their nation. The authors employ the term “neoliberalism,” a re-emergence of 19th century classical liberalism which embraced free market capitalism and, in its South American iteration, included a component of colonialism. It is understandable that activists with compassion for the local people would oppose multinationals regardless of their area of work, given the pervasive damage caused by these companies. These giants, with the assistance of local oligarchs, have displaced indigenous populations from their homes, extracted minerals or agribusiness products and polluted the environment.

But be aware that the selection of anti-corporate interview subjects was a conscious choice on the part of the editors. They avoided interviewing organizations and individuals who lacked such a critique, and even subtlely derided activists who did not include anti-multinational ideas in their program. For example, Adrienne Pine, who wrote and performed most of the interviews for the Honduras chapter, stated “groups dealing with gender and sexuality issues organized primarily around a nonprofit model in the 2000s, and often found themselves limited by the priorities of their funders. Much feminist work focused on documentation of and service to women victims of domestic violence, ‘empowerment,’ sexuality trainings, and other narrowly defined women’s issues: LGBTQ organizations found themselves working primarily  on antihomophobia and HIV/AIDS prevention educational outreach work. (Ross & Rein, pp. 62-3). Pine’s statement is condescending towards South American activists, indicating that these people were not sincerely interested in correcting social problems like domestic violence and homophobia; but were “limited by the priorities of their funders.” One is lead to presume that, if not for their funders, these individuals would have been working on economic, anti-capitalist issues. The author gives no credit to the organizers themselves for having independent wills and perhaps choosing to fight domestic violence or homophobia because they or their populations were harmed by these problems. Pine’s statement also demeans the importance of LGBTQIA and women’s issues. Though the author may think of these concerns as “narrow,” or imported from above by white western funders, many women and LGBTQIA people feel that their rights and survival depend on solving these problems.

There is nothing wrong with having a book that primarily examines economic issues and takes a stand against the damage done by multinationals. In addition, the editors are to be complimented on their open-minded inclusion of women’s and LGBTQIA concerns. However, intersecting with other movements requires respect for, and sensitivity towards, their issues. At times, it appears as if some human rights concerns are drawn into the narrative as a way to entice readers for whom those issues are a priority. In another situation, editor Clifton Ross interviews Paraguayan feminist Liz Becker. Becker opens with a two page criticism of government and neoliberalism before even beginning to discuss women’s rights. She then gives women’s issues slightly less than a page of analysis (Ross & Rein, pp. 351-4). Again, this is a book intended to combat international capitalist abuses. But there is a strong flavor to this discussion reminiscent of a doctrinaire 1970s Russian Communist Party technique: they would send-out female comrades to women’s organizations, allegedly to discuss feminism, but with talking points about how capitalism enslaves women, whereas the Party’s program would make women free. It is propagandistic, co-optive and disrespectful.

The pictures of these mostly tiny, non-violent, autonomous organizations, (struggling against worldwide capitalist money, wealthy oligarchs, colluding governments; who employ violent paramilitaries and armies), is compelling. Occasionally, we see victories: The retaking of land by indigenous communities, the defeat of a mining or hydroelectric project, an autonomous movement fielding an independent parliamentary candidate who wins. But, if there is an eventual victory against this array of powers, it’s a long way off and a long shot. This overview of South American anti-multinational struggles is a window on a set of movements rarely seen outside of their localities. It broadens our world, opens our eyes, and provides perspectives from individuals working in small, sometimes anonymous ways, to carve-out a little justice.

Ross, Clifton & Rein, Marcy (eds.). Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements. Oakland: PM Press, 2014.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Haiti. The Aftershocks of History. Author: Laurent Dubois.


An educated reader, seeking to expand their understanding of Haitian history, will likely not be expecting a light romp through the centuries. The first half of this book covers from Haiti’s war of independence in 1804, up until its occupation by US forces in 1914. This was a nation born out of the world’s first successful slave revolution. It was surrounded by powerful slave-owning nations who took turns invading with the intention of reintroducing slavery. Those efforts were repelled with great loss of life on all sides.

In addition to external enemies, the majority of the population was oppressed internally by successive military dictatorships. These regimes functioned from the very inception of an independent Haiti until the US invasion. The original leaders of the revolution, Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, became despotic. They created a tiny, wealthy elite of Haitians, by holding agricultural workers in a state of semi-slavery and forcing them to remain on plantations. Anyone attempting to escape was punished severely. Rebellions were crushed mercilessly.

Laurent Dubois manages the difficult assignment of presenting multiple points of view that currently exist within Haiti regarding that nation’s early history. The author presents equally the thoughts of patriotic apologists who felt that money from plantations was necessary for defense against invasion; and the depictions of suffering under this semi-slave condition. Of course, all ideas are not equal. Louverture and Dessalines committed a grave injustice when they forced people, who fought and sacrificed for freedom, to work the plantations. An obvious solution would have been to offer the euphemistically-named “cultivators” more money to remain on the land; but this solution would not suit the greed of the dictators or the elite.

The second half of the book examines the early 20th Century up until 2012. It begins with the US invasion of Haiti in 1914, which initiated a 20-year occupation. This period was marked by violent suppression of Haitian revolts for freedom, individual acts of brutality against black citizens by racist white soldiers, and the policies of forced labor. A moment of hope occurs in the narrative when Haitian resistance finally breaks the grasp of US domination, and Haiti is regained by the Haitians. But euphoria quickly reverts to terror, with the re-emerging pattern of dictatorships. These bring with them modern, Orwellian trappings: control through propaganda, secret police, torture of opposition and murder for the slightest (even unintended) provocation. The Duvalier dictatorships represent the last of this harrowing period, ending in the 1980s. They are followed by Aristide’s election, and a depiction of Haiti’s condition into the 21st Century. That condition is not a happy one, even without the presence of frightening despots. The country remains in poverty with all of the associated problems of health, housing, nutrition and education. The environment is unforgiving, with natural disasters and depleted soil, creating an unfriendly situation for human habitation. “State institutions are weak and largely unresponsive. And the population has no control at all over foreign governments and organizations, which in many ways call the shots in contemporary Haiti” (Dubois, p. 365).

Throughout the book, Dubois maintains a stubborn optimism. He invokes the persistence of the Haitian citizenry: “Generation after generation, they have demonstrated their ability to resist, escape, and at times transform the oppressive regimes they have faced” (Dubois, p. 369). Hearkening back to the nation’s birth, he states “out of a situation that seemed utterly hopeless, they created a new and better world for themselves…if it happened once, perhaps it can happen again” (Dubois, p. 370). What else can he do? As an author who has invested both years and emotion in a project, delving deeply into a devastating history of slavery, dictatorship and poverty, he has two choices: He can intone a splendidly jejune “tomorrow is another day,” or find a high ledge for an air dance. One can empathize with the choice he has made. However, a reader, whose investment is considerably different, may experience a more reserved enthusiasm based on her perusal.

While the circumstances and history of Haiti may cause one to question Dubois' optimism, it also gives us reason to admire the people of Haiti. They have struggled against powerful forces, within and without, that have attempted to control their lives, their nation's resources and their political freedoms. This book shows that they have consistently fought those forces through rebellion and resistance; from their nation's founding to its present. Their history is a lesson in fortitude.

Dubois, Laurent. Haiti. The Aftershocks of History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Unquiet Grave. The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. Author: Steve Hendricks.


The Unquiet Grave begins with the 1976 discovery of a body in the South Dakota Badlands. She was Anna Mae Aquash, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist. She was executed by fellow AIM activists, allegedly on orders from the organization’s leadership, because she was falsely believed to be an informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The rest of the book describes how AIM, an ardent Civil Rights entity, arrived at a place where it could order and carry-out this murder and several other acts of violence.

The author, freelance investigative journalist Steve Hendricks, is well-versed in the historical and current injustices against Native Americans. Throughout his narrative, readers see ample illustration of betrayal and genocide directed against the original population of North America, along with the poverty of modern reservation life. Hendricks makes no secret of his sympathy for the Civil Rights goals of AIM. But he follows the evidence where it leads. Though Hendricks does not absolve AIM of violent, criminal behavior, he presents the FBI as an intentional contributor to AIM’s descent.

During the 1970s, the goal of the FBI regarding political movements was to quell what they saw as insurrection. In doing so, they frequently violated the constitutional rights of citizens seeking social justice. Most of the book’s activity occurs in the vicinity of the Pine Ridge Reservation. There, Hendricks offers a portrait where repressive forces are aligned against AIM: Tribal President, Dick Wilson, is a corrupt leader who creates a “goon squad” that terrorizes residents. He sees AIM as competition for leadership on the Reservation, which results in violence between supporters of Wilson and supporters of AIM. The Bureau of Indian Affairs Police, charged with maintaining order, viewed AIM as a disruptive influence. The FBI used both Wilson’s gang and the local police to dismantle AIM. They colluded with Wilson by refusing to prosecute his employees when they injured or murdered AIM supporters, but arrested AIM activists who retaliated. Several instances of FBI agents directly threatening the lives of Native American rights activists are recounted. In addition, the FBI planted agents provocateurs within the Native Rights organization. These individuals disrupted AIM by agitating for greater violence, accusing innocent people of being FBI snitches, and performing actions that would cause residents and Wilson gang members to despise AIM.

The environment was clearly one of suffocating repression, paranoia and violence. Still, AIM could have made different choices. When AIM activists (Leonard Peltier, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau) had a shoot-out with FBI agents, they did not have to walk several hundred feet down a hill to execute the two wounded agents who were begging for their lives. When AIM thought that Aquash was an informer, they did not have to murder her. In fact, AIM did not have to be at Pine Ridge Reservation at all. They were, and still are, a national organization. There were numerous reservations throughout the country, without oppositional goon squads; reservations where the vast majority of residents and leaders were in alignment with AIM’s program. The FBI would have had fewer allies among the populace. Activists could have remained focused more upon their pursuit of justice, rather than defending themselves against violence. In effect, AIM members sat in one end of a canoe, rowing in one direction, while Dick Wilson and his gang sat in the other end rowing in the opposite direction.

Some apologists for AIM have said that “the stratum of Indian Country from which AIM sprang was too angry, too ‘ghetto,’ in the words that AIMers often used, to answer the provocations of the FBI by turning the other cheek” (Hendricks, p. 360). But that is a racist argument: it requires a belief that the cultures of “Indian Country” are inferior, in both morals and intellect, to other cultures who also faced oppression and whose movements for justice did not become paramilitary. While one cannot always control one’s circumstances, one can control how one responds to them.

Hendricks’ conclusion is a balanced assessment of accountability. He begins by writing “Aquash was murdered because the government of the United States waged an officially sanctioned, covert war on the country’s foremost movement for Indian rights” (Hendricks, p. 360). He finishes that paragraph by writing “AIM leaders” were “criminal not merely in the legal sense but in their betrayal of the thousands of their race who had entrusted their hopes to AIM. When AIM’s leaders killed Aquash, they killed their own movement as surely as the FBI did” (Hendricks, p. 361).

The Unquiet Grave is a warning to Civil Rights organizations to remain steadfast about their goals while facing both covert and overt opposition. It is also another reminder to the citizens of the United States that they cannot uncritically trust the FBI; and to citizens of all nations that they cannot uncritically trust their governments. Hendricks’ thorough, carefully researched inquiry, is an engrossing read with much to say about politics and abdicating responsibility.

Hendricks, Steve. The Unquiet Grave. The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.