Books / Culture

Spend your summer understanding America’s protests by watching, listening and reading

by Dan Buyanovsky

Contributing writer

The on-camera killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer has ignited protests against police brutality across the United States and in cities around the world. Last weekend, hundreds took to the streets of Tokyo to protest the violent arrest of a Kurdish man and a reported 2,000 marched in Osaka to support the larger Black Lives Matter movement.

Demonstrators want justice for the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed when Louisville police forced their way into her home and shot her. However, the victims of police brutality in the United States number in the thousands and many are taking this opportunity to decry institutional racism in American systems of criminal justice, housing and health care, pushing not only for a retraining of police, but also a radical rethinking of the role they play in American society.

America’s unrest will shape its upcoming presidential election, and while living in Japan can create a feeling of distance from American issues, the issues at the center of global protests are human ones that deserve our understanding. So with self-quarantine precautions still in place here, and events such as Fuji Rock and the Olympics postponed till next year, this could turn out to be the summer of knowledge — a perfect time to educate yourself on the history of racism in America and the wider world, from its causes to the structures that perpetuate it. This list of films, albums and books is, like many lists like it, a starting point.

Watch

Uncomfortable imagery is something many of us try to avoid, but great American filmmakers are adept at using the medium to inform while also entertaining audiences, from Ava DuVernay’s gripping documentary “13th,” about the history of racial inequality to Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s “LA 92,” about the Los Angeles riots that erupted in 1992. Both are on Netflix. Here are two that hit me particularly hard:

“When They See Us”: Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix miniseries dramatizes the true story of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully accused of the assault and rape of a white woman in New York. The series, told in four parts, questions the inherent racism of a police force that pinned guilt onto innocent men and physically and psychologically brutalized them until they admitted to crimes they did not commit. The series’ timeline spans 25 years, ending in 2014, when the men — now middle-aged adults — received a $41 million settlement from New York City for discrimination and emotional distress. “When They See Us” stars Hollywood heavyweights Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo and Niecy Nash. (Available on Netflix)

“Whose Streets?”: In perhaps the rawest documentary about modern protest movements, “Whose Streets?” (2017) chronicles the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was 18-years-old at the time of his death. Brown was a beloved figure in his hometown and his passing caused outrage in his community and beyond, inspiring national protests against the excessive force used by police officers in the field. With intimate direction by first-time filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, and immersive cinematography by Lucas Alvarado-Farrar, the film mixes footage of protests and community meetings with character profiles of key activist figures. (Available on Dailymotion.com)

Listen

Poignant podcasts and albums are vessels for empathy, from Solange Knowles’ meditative “A Seat at the Table” to Marvin Gaye’s still-evocative “What’s Going On (Live)” to The New York Times’ podcast “1619,” which appraises the significance of American slavery. The following are some must-listens that I recommend in particular:

“To Pimp a Butterfly”: When Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize, it was in large part due to his groundbreaking work on the 2015 release, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The album is a heady, layered listen: Over 16 tracks, Lamar confronts America’s racial inequities and exploitation of black people and black culture, all while exploring the limits of black music, incorporating elements of jazz, soul and spoken word. The centerpiece is “Alright,” a catchy, Pharrell Williams-produced single that became the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2016. Five years after the album’s release, it still resonates in its pain, self-reflection and finally, hope — much like the range of emotions felt at protests across the globe right now. (Available on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon)

“RTJ4”: Hip-hop duo Run The Jewels is made up of El-P and Killer Mike, the latter of whom is an outspoken activist outside of his career as a rapper. The pair’s music has long been defined by combative songwriting and unrelenting instrumentation, putting them in the lineage of cause-minded acts such as Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine. When it came time for Run The Jewels to release their latest album, “RTJ4,” also known as “Run The Jewels 4,” they felt the world needed the offering so they decided to distribute it for free. On it, El-P and Mike take aim at police violence, racial discord and the mainstream media. The result is a pounding, dissonant listen that sounds like the front lines of a march. (Available for free download on RunTheJewels.com)

“What A Day”: It can be overwhelming to parse through the news and find relevant information about Black Lives Matter protests and police reform, but the “What A Day” podcast does a great job of providing daily updates with a touch of comedy. The show is hosted by reporter Gideon Resnick and comedian Akilah Hughes, who offer up 15- to 25-minute episodes filled with informative storytelling and witty banter. “What A Day” has been active since October 2019 and largely covered politics, current events and the COVID-19 pandemic before recently focusing its coverage on the protests and related news. (Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts)

Read

No form of media provides as much context or gets conversations started as literature. In addition to the tomes below, relevant essentials include Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and Marc Lamont Hill’s “Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond.” Get a book club started this summer and join the conversation.

“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You”: In what might be the first “remix” of a book, children’s literature author Jason Reynolds adapts writer-historian Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning” into a palatable primer on racism in America. While Reynolds claims that the work is “not a history book,” he unpacks hundreds of years of racial ideology in the United States, from the Puritan settlers to slavery to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “Stamped” reads like a dialogue with a knowledgeable educator who is able to explain difficult concepts with simple language, making it a must-read for young and old alike. (Available on Amazon Japan)

“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness”: Author Michelle Alexander shines an academic light on the inequities of the American justice system in a book that The San Francisco Chronicle called “the bible of a social movement.” It is a dense read, but a valuable one for anyone in the mood for a deep dive on legal segregation throughout American history; the war on drugs, which largely targeted black Americans; the private prison industrial complex, which motivates arrests across police forces; and the profiling of black Americans, who are arrested at disproportionate rates and given criminal records they cannot escape for many years, affecting their rights to vote, serve on juries and be actively employed. (Available on NewJimCrow.com)

“Citizen: An American Lyric”: Claudia Rankine is one of the foremost American writers and thinkers when it comes to issues of race. Her catalog spans plays, poetry and essays, but her best-known work is “Citizen,” a thoroughly modern book that combines prose, iconography and photography to deliver a meditation on otherness and the black experience. Highlights include essays about the prejudice that sports figures like tennis great Serena Williams and soccer star Zinedine Zidane have had to endure. But the book’s most powerful moments come in short-burst vignettes that find Rankine reflecting on instances when racism seeped into her daily life in small, unspectacular ways. (Available on Amazon Japan)

“The End of Policing”: In a progressive book that was first published in 2017 before being widely recirculated in recent weeks, Alex S. Vitale considers the role of police in America. Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, mixes research with opinion to question the neutrality of police, the effectiveness of community policing and the dangers of policing drug use, sex work and homelessness. He also provides alternatives, such as demanding accountability, disarming officers and overhauling mental and public health programs. With the Minneapolis City Council pledging to dismantle its police department and cities like New York and Los Angeles considering budget cuts to theirs, Vitale’s ideas may not be far from reality. (E-book available for free download on Versobooks.com)

Feel free to add your thoughts on this list and your own recommendations in the comments section.

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