VOIZES speak up against global prison industries

By Luigi Celentano On January 31, 2015

Post image for VOIZES speak up against global prison industriesFirst-person insights into incarceration and freedom, by ex-prisoners themselves, from Barcelona’s Fractures Photo Collective and its project, VOIZES.

Today in the world, there are more people incarcerated than ever before in human history. VOIZES is an international census of this prison experience. Through a collaborative archive of interviews with prisoners and ex-prisoners, VOIZES documents what prisoners have to say about the international prison industrial complex.

– VOIZES Archive

An interview with William Sands, photojournalist with the Fractures Photo Collective and VOIZES.

Luigi Celentano: A little introduction for those who do not know you at all: What is the Fractures Photo Collective and what do you do exactly?

William Sands: Fractures Photo Collective was created in the spring of 2011 here in Barcelona, and we primarily focus on long-format photojournalism and documentary work. However, the VOIZES Archive is not exclusively a Fractures’ project. In reality, only two members of Fractures are active participants in VOIZES. The rest of the VOIZES team is made up of activists, artists, and other journalists from the Groundpress collective.

What has been your main impulse in taking up this challenge of creating VOIZES? And how was the project born?

Some of us have been long time participants in a grassroots abolitionist initiative called La Biblioteca de la Evasión or the Library of Escape. La Biblioteca de la Evasión is a prisoner book-sharing program we’ve been doing for more than five years. Two weekends a month, we visit a prison near Barcelona called Quatre Camins and give books to family members entering to visit their loved ones, and they pass the books along during the visit. Using the books as a meeting point, La Biblioteca seeks to engage prisoners where they are, in a conversation about prison abolition. Inside all of the books there is a stamp that explains the project and how they can request specific literature and an address where they can write to if they have other requests or concerns. We state very clearly that we are abolitionists and seek alternative forms of conflict resolution.

After years visiting Quatre Camins, La Biblioteca organized our first public event: Voces Desde Dentro, an exhibition of artwork by prisoners and ex-prisoners from all over the world. The exhibition was hosted in an occupied social center here in Barcelona and lasted for three days. There was poetry, photography, drawings and sketches as well as a series of presentations. The exhibit finished with a round-table discussion of prison abolition, privileging the voices of ex-prisoners, current prisoners’ family members, and social workers working in prisons.

The VOIZES Archive is a natural continuation of this process. Given that today we live in a globalized world, we believe that any real lasting conversation about prison abolition has to be international in nature and has to be guided by prisoners and the communities they come from. As a result the idea of creating a global census of the prisoner experience was born, and the VOIZES Archive was created.

Looking around the internet we couldn’t find a single site that was dedicated to collecting these stories and experiences, and even less so on an international level. So it seemed the project was relevant and worth embarking on.

Are they collaborative interviews, in the sense that anyone in civil society can contribute to the project?

Yes! Anyone can participate! Our goal is to include interviews from as many countries as possible, and the only way to do so is through collaboration. We’ve launched the website with the interviews we’ve done here in Barcelona and we plan to continue to do more interviews. But in order to expand the breadth of the project we’ve reached out to specific activists, photographers and videographers, asking them to contribute. And on the website there is a how-to manual explaining the basics of a VOIZES-interview, as well as a list of other ways to collaborate with the project. So it is our hope that eventually the project will boast of broad international participation.

In order to make the archive as powerful as possible, there are some aesthetic and theoretical guidelines to all of our interviews. They are all anonymous. All interviews use the VOIZES questionnaire. And, finally we reserve the right to approve all final edits and post-production.

What has been the process of selection of inmates for these interviews? Did you have certain parameters to follow as to which kind of prisoners to approach, or was it more of a voluntary process on their part? [I talk about inmates and prisoners, but I’ve realized most of them are in the process of getting out, or have been released already]

Anyone who has been incarcerated for more than a month can be interviewed. And we define incarcerated fairly broadly: immigration detention, prison, jail, juvenile detention, court ordered psychiatric treatment in a closed facility, etc. We’ve decided on the one month minimum in order to establish a basic common denominator given that the experience can vary so much between institution, state, country, etc.

Unfortunately most of the interviews we’ve done have come from our own communities. They are friends and family. I say, unfortunately, because we all would prefer not to be so intimately affected by the prison industrial complex.

How do you think these interviews help the prisoners themselves? Is it merely cathartic for them? What has been their reaction to the interviews and to the project?

I can’t really presume how this project has helped any of its participants. I’d hope that it is in some way cathartic, however I think the experience for the interviewees varies greatly. This being said, of all the people we have interviewed ourselves, regardless of how they felt about participating before the interview started, none have responded negatively. All edited interviews must be first approved by the interviewee before they go online, and everyone has been happy with the final cuts.

While I’m not specialized in mental health, I want to believe this project has some therapeutic value. It is designed to be a safe space to anonymously share an experience that unfortunately too many people in this world have lived. Sharing is an important first step to healing any sort of trauma, and it probably goes without saying, but I consider incarceration a trauma.

Have you encountered any kind of opposition or censorship from penal authorities when coming up with this project?

So far, no. I say so far because we’ve been doing all of our interviews outside of incarceration facilities. We are currently working on getting access to interview inside some prisons, but it is a slow and very bureaucratic process. Hopefully, in the future we’ll have more opposition and censorship, because that would probably mean the project is effective.

So far we have seen interviews about Spain and Puerto Rico prisons. Which has been the most difficult to shoot? Is there any subject the inmates refused to talk about, despite the questionnaire? And, in which other countries have you made interviews or received interviews from?

All of the current interviews have been shot here in Barcelona or in the surrounding area, including the interview with the woman that was detained in Puerto Rico. Generally, the questions in the questionnaire are designed to be broad, so as to highlight parallels and accentuate the differences between individual interviews. By far, the most difficult question for the interviewees to answer is the question about alternatives.

We are currently working on coordinating interviews in Argentina, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Venezuela, and France. And in March we are planning on taking the project to the United States where we’ll be organizing a series of workshops and presentations, as well as continuing the collection of interviews.

The majority of prisoners interviewed were incarcerated for the first time and they tell about the trauma of such an experience, of being imprisoned, of regaining liberty and its aftermath. Have you interviewed recidivist prisoners? Do you think they deal differently (or better, if we can say that) with the prison system?

So far we have only done one interview with someone that has a long history of recidivism. While I can’t point to any specific differences, other than the broader focus of the interview, generally speaking the shorter the interviewee’s sentence is/was, the more they talk about their detention and entry into prison. Whereas in those interviews we’ve done with people that have served longer sentences or have been incarcerated repeatedly, the interviewee has focused more on the experience and institution of incarceration.

Many of the prisoners, when asked about who’s inside, they all agree on the same thing: the majority of the people incarcerated are individuals without resources, the poor, people who can’t afford a good lawyer, immigrants, minorities. The mere thought of it is depressing enough, but isn’t this a reflection of our society, of its inability or unwillingness to address its flaws accordingly? Isn’t prison a mirror wherein society can actually punish these people even more and in more appalling ways, for being what they are or what circumstances made them to be?

I think this is true. But I’d add that it’s also about maintaining very specific power structures and economic structures that guide the globalized capitalist world. Prison is about control and subjugation. It is about guaranteeing the economic and political interests of those in power, those controlling the criminal justice system and the broader economy. More than punishment, I’d say prison is about maintaining white power. It is the ultimate tool of marginalization. As a result, as long as we don’t address the broader legacies of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism and understand the prison industrial complex within this framework, it will be hard to affect any lasting change.

Dostoyevsky once said that a society is best judged by the way it treats its prisoners, and there is a saying that asserts that every prisoner is political. It already says a lot about Western civilization and the society we live in. Do you think that a change in the way we deal with the established concepts of crime and delinquency and, consequently, with sentencing, imprisonment and prisoners’ reinsertion into society, ought to be a progressive and gradual one, both from the inside as well as the outside, from the prisons themselves and from society and its political structures; or should it be a radical one?

In general I think history moves slowly, and as a result so will any abolition debate or movement towards meaningful reform in the dominant logics of criminal justice. Prison abolition or any radical change of the criminal justice system will not occur in a vacuum, it must be part of a broader social transformation. As a result it is part of an extended struggle, probably longer than our lifetime. Undoubtedly, there will be moments of radical change, but I think we should all be planning on playing the long game.

Finally, considering all the accounts of detention and subjugation stemming from the prisoners’ interviews, do you see any hope in the fight against the prison industrial complex in terms of better conditions, better treatment of inmates and detainees, or do you see this business becoming more profitable for speculators and at the same time more abusive and tyrannical in its scope, in spite of all the resistance movements against it?

I have to be hopeful; otherwise there is no sense in doing this work. As a documentary photographer and photojournalist I’ve covered many topics and followed many people documenting their stories of loss, struggle, resistance, consumption, and marginalization. And I’m continuously inspired by the human spirit. Our strength, creativity, and courage are really powerful. As result, I believe strongly in our capacity to affect change. Specifically, in regards to the prison industrial complex, I believe we’ve reached a critical historical moment where the opportunity for radical change is growing.

In the United States, where the prison industrial complex was born, the economic crisis has ushered in a new opportunity for debate. For many states the economic costs of mass-incarceration have become just too much of a burden. This, coupled with shifts in the country’s feeling about current drug policy, means there is more space for debate than ever before. I think we have to take advantage of this moment. Internationally, I believe that for the same reasons there is a growing awareness that incarceration does not work, be it subconsciously or not. So we just have to keep plugging along.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. We hope to see more interviews at VOIZES in the future and we wish you all the best for the project.

Thank you for this opportunity to talk about VOIZES. We really appreciate it, and we strongly encourage your readers to take a closer look at the website and if possible, collaborate!!! Thanks again.

Luigi Celentano is an independent writer and translator based in Buenos Aires. As an advocate of libertarian (anarchist) ideas he has been contributing with his work to the abolitionist and social justice movements for several years.

All photo material taken from voizes.org.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/voizes-prison-abolition-project/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

“Better Call Saul” humanizes the smooth-talking “Breaking Bad” sidekick in a surprisingly solid spin-off

Vince Gilligan’s new antihero origin story has more in common with “Mad Men” than “Breaking Bad”

“Better Call Saul” humanizes the smooth-talking “Breaking Bad” sidekick in a surprisingly solid spin-off
Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul” (Credit: AMC/Ursula Coyote)

I’m surprised how much I liked “Better Call Saul.” We might as well start there.

“Better Call Saul” isn’t exactly supposed to be good. It’s a spin-off of a beloved television show, “Breaking Bad”; and unlike “Friends” or “Cheers,” which both spawned spinoffs, “Breaking Bad” isn’t a feel-good sitcom with a happy ending. The five seasons of the original AMC show were a slow, brutal transformation story, from Walter White the man to Heisenberg the monster, and if the drug-dealing arc didn’t interest you, the incredible direction and once-in-a-lifetime performances might.

So when AMC announced the production of “Better Call Saul,” I was skeptical—not because I thought something from Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and actor Bob Odenkirk couldn’t be good, but because I worried that the spin-off might tarnish the original. (I wish I could forget the “Star Wars” prequels. I wish I could.) The production decision is undoubtedly an attempt to make more money off of a successful franchise with an established fanbase—a situation that can privilege hacky fan service over quality and creativity. (Think “Joey,” the spinoff from “Friends,” as opposed to “Frasier,” the spinoff from “Cheers.”)

Vince Gilligan and his team, as usual, have surprised me. I haven’t totally fallen for the prequel series “Better Call Saul”—it doesn’t quite feel like its own show yet—but it did make me care about the man who becomes Saul Goodman in a way I never did in “Breaking Bad.” And though the story of Walter White is done and dead, series creators Gilligan and Gould have found a way to tell the story of Saul—currently known as Jimmy McGill, public defender—in a way that echoes and parallels White’s story without necessarily covering the same ground. The general premise is the same: The world makes it hard to be a good man (or a Goodman). But the sordid particulars will always vary.



When we meet Jimmy McGill—six years before the events of “Breaking Bad”—what’s fascinating about him is that he seems to know this already. Not exactly for himself, although his career has already brushed the wrong side of the law. But definitely for others. Jimmy makes ends barely meet by defending criminals in county court, where he is forced to come up with a narrative of explanation and redemption for possibly guilty defendants, multiple times a day. Jimmy’s a talker—that’s what he’s good at. That’s why he’s a lawyer, that’s what he brings to the table. But he’s not just a talker, he’s a storyteller of sorts: a salesman, a charlatan, an ad man. He’s got a plausible explanation for his clients’ many missteps, a ready tale of sympathy for anyone willing to listen—the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the woman validating his parking. And though it sounds glib, it’s not effortless—we see him rehearse in mirrors, practice in his car, work through talking points before knocking on doors. He has to work up the energy to bluster. Maybe because he just wants to build momentum, and maybe because when you’re essentially a legal con man, you have to be careful to get your words right. But there’s a hint of something more tragic, too: Jimmy has to convince himself of the truth of his words so that he can have the most impact. He’s got to believe that his clients are innocent-ish in order to fight for them; he’s got to become the lie, or to become, more specifically, the most convenient version of the truth.

It’s there, in Jimmy McGill’s fast-talking attempt to come out on top, that “Better Call Saul” really shines. Despite being a spin-off of “Breaking Bad,” McGill has more in common with “Mad Men’s” Don Draper—not the womanizing or the mythos, but certainly that same fanatical commitment to selling a version of reality that both men end up half-believing, just to survive.

By the time we meet him in “Breaking Bad,” Bob Odenkirk’s Saul is a static figure—he’s part of the criminal environment that Walt and Jesse break into. His answers and advice are all world-weary and polished. “Better Call Saul” offers the viewer a chance to see how he would become that man. It’s more than a little convoluted—there’s a brother, a situation with a big law firm that is only explained in bits and pieces, a scheme gone wrong and the familiar landscape of the desert-suburbia of Albuquerque, shot with the same golden filters and wide angles. At times, the familiarity is exciting; at other times, it’s jarring. And the rest of the time, it’s vaguely frustrating—we’ve explored this landscape of abandoned strip malls, remote gas stations and cheap flip-phones before. There are a few familiar faces in the first three episodes; at least one made me roll my eyes. But there’s something a little delicious about the continuity, too: Spin-offs are the type of weird pop-culture artifact unique to serialized forms, and television in particular. It’s absurd and intriguing to see a master of the form take it on.

So for right now, I’m willing to go along with “Better Call Saul’s” smooth-talking appeal. Gilligan did masterful work with “Breaking Bad,” telling a story not just about Walter White but also about the culture that shaped and enabled him. Now he’s taking on another type of criminal—a trickster, not a mastermind. Jimmy McGill is very good at what he does, and as the first few episodes with him show, at least several years ago his heart was mostly in the right place. But he started to believe his own ready supply of lies, and that was the beginning of the end. You can’t talk your way out of the truth forever.

“Better Call Saul” premieres on AMC at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8. The second episode will air at 10 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 9. The series will air on Mondays.

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

How the CIA made Google

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Inside the secret network behind mass surveillance, endless war, and Skynet—

part 1

By Nafeez Ahmed

INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a new crowd-funded investigative journalism project, breaks the exclusive story of how the United States intelligence community funded, nurtured and incubated Google as part of a drive to dominate the world through control of information. Seed-funded by the NSA and CIA, Google was merely the first among a plethora of private sector start-ups co-opted by US intelligence to retain ‘information superiority.’

The origins of this ingenious strategy trace back to a secret Pentagon-sponsored group, that for the last two decades has functioned as a bridge between the US government and elites across the business, industry, finance, corporate, and media sectors. The group has allowed some of the most powerful special interests in corporate America to systematically circumvent democratic accountability and the rule of law to influence government policies, as well as public opinion in the US and around the world. The results have been catastrophic: NSA mass surveillance, a permanent state of global war, and a new initiative to transform the US military into Skynet.

THIS IS PART ONE. READ PART TWO HERE.


This exclusive is being released for free in the public interest, and was enabled by crowdfunding. I’d like to thank my amazing community of patrons for their support, which gave me the opportunity to work on this in-depth investigation. Please support independent, investigative journalism for the global commons.


In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, western governments are moving fast to legitimize expanded powers of mass surveillance and controls on the internet, all in the name of fighting terrorism.

US and European politicians have called to protect NSA-style snooping, and to advance the capacity to intrude on internet privacy by outlawing encryption. One idea is to establish a telecoms partnership that would unilaterally delete content deemed to “fuel hatred and violence” in situations considered “appropriate.” Heated discussions are going on at government and parliamentary level to explore cracking down on lawyer-client confidentiality.

What any of this would have done to prevent the Charlie Hebdo attacks remains a mystery, especially given that we already know the terrorists were on the radar of French intelligence for up to a decade.

There is little new in this story. The 9/11 atrocity was the first of many terrorist attacks, each succeeded by the dramatic extension of draconian state powers at the expense of civil liberties, backed up with the projection of military force in regions identified as hotspots harbouring terrorists. Yet there is little indication that this tried and tested formula has done anything to reduce the danger. If anything, we appear to be locked into a deepening cycle of violence with no clear end in sight.

As our governments push to increase their powers, INSURGE INTELLIGENCE can now reveal the vast extent to which the US intelligence community is implicated in nurturing the web platforms we know today, for the precise purpose of utilizing the technology as a mechanism to fight global ‘information war’ — a war to legitimize the power of the few over the rest of us. The lynchpin of this story is the corporation that in many ways defines the 21st century with its unobtrusive omnipresence: Google.

Google styles itself as a friendly, funky, user-friendly tech firm that rose to prominence through a combination of skill, luck, and genuine innovation. This is true. But it is a mere fragment of the story. In reality, Google is a smokescreen behind which lurks the US military-industrial complex.

The inside story of Google’s rise, revealed here for the first time, opens a can of worms that goes far beyond Google, unexpectedly shining a light on the existence of a parasitical network driving the evolution of the US national security apparatus, and profiting obscenely from its operation.

The shadow network

For the last two decades, US foreign and intelligence strategies have resulted in a global ‘war on terror’ consisting of prolonged military invasions in the Muslim world and comprehensive surveillance of civilian populations. These strategies have been incubated, if not dictated, by a secret network inside and beyond the Pentagon.

Established under the Clinton administration, consolidated under Bush, and firmly entrenched under Obama, this bipartisan network of mostly neoconservative ideologues sealed its dominion inside the US Department of Defense (DoD) by the dawn of 2015, through the operation of an obscure corporate entity outside the Pentagon, but run by the Pentagon.

In 1999, the CIA created its own venture capital investment firm, In-Q-Tel, to fund promising start-ups that might create technologies useful for intelligence agencies. But the inspiration for In-Q-Tel came earlier, when the Pentagon set up its own private sector outfit.

Known as the ‘Highlands Forum,’ this private network has operated as a bridge between the Pentagon and powerful American elites outside the military since the mid-1990s. Despite changes in civilian administrations, the network around the Highlands Forum has become increasingly successful in dominating US defense policy.

Giant defense contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and Science Applications International Corporation are sometimes referred to as the ‘shadow intelligence community’ due to the revolving doors between them and government, and their capacity to simultaneously influence and profit from defense policy. But while these contractors compete for power and money, they also collaborate where it counts. The Highlands Forum has for 20 years provided an off the record space for some of the most prominent members of the shadow intelligence community to convene with senior US government officials, alongside other leaders in relevant industries.

I first stumbled upon the existence of this network in November 2014, when I reported for VICE’s Motherboard that US defense secretary Chuck Hagel’s newly announced ‘Defense Innovation Initiative’ was really about building Skynet — or something like it, essentially to dominate an emerging era of automated robotic warfare.

That story was based on a little-known Pentagon-funded ‘white paper’ published two months earlier by the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington DC, a leading US military-run institution that, among other things, generates research to develop US defense policy at the highest levels. The white paper clarified the thinking behind the new initiative, and the revolutionary scientific and technological developments it hoped to capitalize on.

The Highlands Forum

The co-author of that NDU white paper is Linton Wells, a 51-year veteran US defense official who served in the Bush administration as the Pentagon’s chief information officer, overseeing the National Security Agency (NSA) and other spy agencies. He still holds active top-secret security clearances, and according to a report by Government Executive magazine in 2006 hechaired the ‘Highlands Forum’, founded by the Pentagon in 1994.

Linton Wells II (right) former Pentagon chief information officer and assistant secretary of defense for networks, at a recent Pentagon Highlands Forum session. Rosemary Wenchel, a senior official in the US Department of Homeland Security, is sitting next to him

New Scientist magazine (paywall) has compared the Highlands Forum to elite meetings like “Davos, Ditchley and Aspen,” describing it as “far less well known, yet… arguably just as influential a talking shop.” Regular Forum meetings bring together “innovative people to consider interactions between policy and technology. Its biggest successes have been in the development of high-tech network-based warfare.”

Given Wells’ role in such a Forum, perhaps it was not surprising that his defense transformation white paper was able to have such a profound impact on actual Pentagon policy. But if that was the case, why had no one noticed?

Despite being sponsored by the Pentagon, I could find no official page on the DoD website about the Forum. Active and former US military and intelligence sources had never heard of it, and neither did national security journalists. I was baffled.

The Pentagon’s intellectual capital venture firm

In the prologue to his 2007 book, A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity, John Clippinger, an MIT scientist of the Media Lab Human Dynamics Group, described how he participated in a “Highlands Forum” gathering, an “invitation-only meeting funded by the Department of Defense and chaired by the assistant for networks and information integration.” This was a senior DoD post overseeing operations and policies for the Pentagon’s most powerful spy agencies including the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), among others. Starting from 2003, the position was transitioned into what is now the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The Highlands Forum, Clippinger wrote, was founded by a retired US Navy captain named Dick O’Neill. Delegates include senior US military officials across numerous agencies and divisions — “captains, rear admirals, generals, colonels, majors and commanders” as well as “members of the DoD leadership.”

What at first appeared to be the Forum’s main website describes Highlands as “an informal cross-disciplinary network sponsored by Federal Government,” focusing on “information, science and technology.” Explanation is sparse, beyond a single ‘Department of Defense’ logo.

But Highlands also has another website describing itself as an “intellectual capital venture firm” with “extensive experience assisting corporations, organizations, and government leaders.” The firm provides a “wide range of services, including: strategic planning, scenario creation and gaming for expanding global markets,” as well as “working with clients to build strategies for execution.” ‘The Highlands Group Inc.,’ the website says, organizes a whole range of Forums on these issue.

For instance, in addition to the Highlands Forum, since 9/11 the Group runs the ‘Island Forum,’ an international event held in association with Singapore’s Ministry of Defense, which O’Neill oversees as “lead consultant.” The Singapore Ministry of Defense website describes the Island Forum as “patterned after the Highlands Forum organized for the US Department of Defense.” Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that Singapore played a key role in permitting the US and Australia to tap undersea cables to spy on Asian powers like Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Highlands Group website also reveals that Highlands is partnered with one of the most powerful defense contractors in the United States. Highlands is “supported by a network of companies and independent researchers,” including “our Highlands Forum partners for the past ten years at SAIC; and the vast Highlands network of participants in the Highlands Forum.”

SAIC stands for the US defense firm, Science Applications International Corporation, which changed its name to Leidos in 2013, operating SAIC as a subsidiary. SAIC/Leidos is among the top 10 largest defense contractors in the US, and works closely with the US intelligence community, especially the NSA. According to investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, the first to disclose the vast extent of the privatization of US intelligence with his seminal book Spies for Hire, SAIC has a “symbiotic relationship with the NSA: the agency is the company’s largest single customer and SAIC is the NSA’s largest contractor.”

CONTINUED:  https://medium.com/@NafeezAhmed/how-the-cia-made-google-e836451a959e

He’s not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let’s not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet

Populist State of the Union with a fiery tone has liberals excited. They’d be wise to remember Obama’s true nature

He's not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let's not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet
Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Reuters/Bob Strong/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Charles Dharapak/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech capped an epic political makeover. In two months he went from the living avatar of the political and economic establishment to a self-styled populist scourge. It’s as if he walked into a plastic surgeon’s office after Election Day and said “make me look like Bernie Sanders.” No president has ever tried to alter his image so drastically or so fast. I wonder if he’ll pull it off.

His campaign began emphatically on Nov. 5. Instead of the ritual submission the media demands of defeated party leaders, Obama used his post-election press conference to renew his vow to enact substantial immigration reform by executive order. Days later, he announced a major climate accord with China and finally came down foursquare for net neutrality.

These were big moves, but Obama was just warming up. In December, he announced the surprising end of our miserably failed Cuban trade embargo. Earlier this month, he unveiled a bold bid to make community college free for millions of students all across America.

Still not impressed? On Tuesday night he called for paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, a minimum wage hike and a tripling of the child tax credit to $3,000. He’s also pushing a $500 “second earner” tax credit and wants to give college students up to $2,500 apiece to help with expenses. The best part is how he’d pay for it all, mostly by taxing big banks, raising capital gains rates and closing loopholes that allows rich heirs to avoid capital gains taxes altogether.

A not-so-subtle shift in tone followed. Gone, for now, is Obama the ceaseless appeaser. He’s been replaced by a president with a more combative stance, as befits a true people’s champion. At times on Tuesday Obama even seemed to taunt his tormentors. In the last two months he has threatened five vetoes. In the previous six years he’d issued just two; that’s the fewest since James Garfield. Garfield, by the way, was president for six months.

What should we make of this new Obama? Are he and his new agenda for real? For liberals, these are tender questions. When Obama first appeared, their response was almost worshipful. Even today, many liberals treat Obama’s progressive critics as apostates. Given their deep investment in him, the vitriol of Tea Party attacks and the looming specter of GOP rule, it’s easy to understand why. But it’s crucial now for his liberal critics and defenders alike to see him as he is.



Obama’s new program seems real enough. We can’t gauge its full impact without more numbers, but this much is clear: Do it all — equal pay, minimum wage hike, community college tuition, family leave, middle-class tax credits and taxes on big banks and the superrich — and we’d make a very big dent in income inequality. Add the financial transaction tax Ralph Nader and Rose Ann DeMoro’s California nurses have long been pushing — and that some House Democrats now embrace — and you have enough money on the table to reverse decades of wage stagnation.

It may seem a big claim but the numbers are close to consensual. The transaction tax would raise a trillion dollars in 10 years, in which time a modest minimum wage hike would put $300 billion in the pockets of the working poor. Equal pay for equal work could do as much. Even without Obama’s numbers, we know the ideas gaining ground among Democrats could solve one of our biggest problems. As the president said apropos of just about everything, “this is good news, people.”

So what’s not to like? The bad news is there’s quite a bit. The problem is that Obama’s deeds so often contradict his words. Indeed, examine his actions over these same two months and one could also construct a compelling counter-narrative to this tale of populist transformation.

Consider climate change. While negotiating his China deal, Obama was also busy auctioning off drilling rights to 112 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the deal was done, he was on the phone urging Democrats to back a bill that cut EPA staff, let the Export-Import Bank fund coal-fired electric plants and blocked enforcement of new rules for energy-efficient light bulbs.

In his first term Obama passed the word to his top hires to quiet down about global warming. He likes fracking and brags about increasing oil production. He won’t let Congress approve the Keystone pipeline, but he may approve it himself. In short, he’s a study in mixed climate messages.

The net neutrality story is even more confounding. The statement Obama released was one of the more thoughtful of his presidency. But he’d already made Tom Wheeler, CEO of the most powerful lobby opposing net neutrality, head of the Federal Communications Commission. And they decide the issue. It’s an independent commission that does what it wants. Its members may be moved by Obama’s eloquent words, or just confused.

Perhaps the most troubling contradiction lies in foreign policy. Obama began his speech on Tuesday by saying “tonight we turn the page.” As evidence he cited our newly reduced role in Afghanistan. As he put it: “For the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman… who has served to keep us safe.”

Obama’s relative restraint is such an improvement on George W. Bush’s bellicosity that we can’t help but judge him on a curve. That he’s bogged down in Afghanistan is no surprise, as these wars are always easier to start than finish. (It’s why they call them quagmires.) But in fact there are more than 15,000 Americans still left there. There are, for instance, the private contractors, whose number tripled under Obama. In early 2014, the last time figures were reported, there were 24,000. Obama says the “combat mission” is over — but the combat isn’t finished and neither is the mission.

On Wednesday, Mother Jones ran a story by Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com reporting that in 2014 Obama deployed U.S. Special Ops forces to 133 countries. That’s more than two-thirds of all the countries in the world; it’s a disturbing number and one that also grew exponentially on Obama’s watch. Even more disturbing are the drone strikes Obama has authorized, more than 10 times the number authorized by George W. Bush. American drones have now killed an estimate of more than 4,000 people. At least 20 percent of them were innocent civilians; less than 2 percent were high-value military targets.

In case you thought our combat mission in Iraq ended, buried in Obama’s speech was a call for Congress to pass a “resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” That was it — no explanation of vital interests at stake or limits to set. It was strange coming from a man who wouldn’t be president but for a speech he once gave against a war into which we were tragically conned.

Our war with ISIL proceeds under cover of our original Iraq war resolution, the exhaustion of which Obama concedes by implication. Someone should tell him the same resolution is used to justify drone strikes in nations we’re not at war with. Someone might also mention that use of “private security contractors” — the word “mercenary” stirs indignation — ill befits a democracy; that sending special ops forces to 133 countries also requires authorization and that if you declare an end to combat operations in two wars, your next budget should declare a peace dividend.

Obama’s failure to reconcile words to deeds detracts mightily from the grab bag of ideas he offers under the catchy title “middle class economics.” As noted, these policies could really improve people’s lives. But while he’s out thumping for them, he’s in hot pursuit of what he hopes will be his last coup, approval of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. It’s such a popular idea he chose not to breathe its name in his speech. What he did say was worth sampling if only to savor its cleverness: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. We should write those rules… That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

He doesn’t want another free trade fiasco like that awful NAFTA, just “trade promotion authority to protect American workers.” Surely we can all be for that.

Nearly all left-leaning Democrats oppose the TPTP: Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Bob Reich, Elizabeth Warren. One can’t imagine Obama changing his mind on it any more than one imagines him asking any of them to help craft his new populist agenda. As he likes to reassure his donors, “I’m a market kind of guy,” meaning he comes as close as a Democrat can to being a market ideologue. And yes, there is such a thing.

Market ideologues aren’t the sort to throw bombs or ruin dinner parties but they’re ideologues nonetheless. Their solution for every problem known to mankind is to adopt “market principles.” Their influence on Obama’s generation of Democratic elites has been profound. It’s why so many of them apply market theory to issues to which it is ill-suited, such as carbon reduction, health care and public education.

Obama doesn’t get that free trade can be as good as he says for business and still be a terrible deal for workers. He doesn’t get that markets by their nature do a great job of creating wealth and a poor one of distributing it; that absent a strong government to encode and enforce a social contract there is no middle class; that pitting our workers against those lacking such support will eventually impoverish them. It’s why he opposed raising the minimum wage when he had the votes to do it in his first term. It’s why he bailed out banks but not homeowners, and abandoned the public option.

Missing from Obama’s speech, as from his presidency, was any mention of public corruption. Countless polls attest to the depth of public revulsion at the domination of government by moneyed interests. Obama’s silence allows the Tea Party to fly the flag of “crony capitalism.” Most progressives miss the criticality of this issue that social change movements the world over put at the very top of their agendas.

It makes it really hard to enact new government programs, which is one reason Obama didn’t propose any new federal programs, just tax cuts, private sector mandates and grants to states. There are things the federal government does better, but voters won’t hand over the keys to a car with a cracked engine block. A real populist would fix what we all know is broken.

Betting on what a politician truly thinks is a high-risk business. Some say Obama has changed. Perhaps so; maybe a friend gave him a Krugman book for Christmas and midway through it he had an epiphany. Others say he feels liberated; that’s a popular hope among liberals in that it implies he really did love them all along. Still others say he wants to shape his legacy or the next debate.

But in studying Obama, one discovers a man of markedly fixed views. His take on issues has barely budged over a lifetime. Once he sets a course he sticks to it. We saw it in 2008 when Hillary Clinton rose from the dead sporting a new populist persona. It surprised many to see her peddling her wares to the working class. It shocked them when she won the Pennsylvania primary. John McCain shocked some by running even with him up until the Wall Street crash. We don’t know if either shocked Obama, but we do know he never once changed course.

On Tuesday he devoted an astonishing 20 percent of his time not to global warming or “middle-class economics” but to a defense of his 10-year pursuit of the holy grail of bipartisanship. For six years Obama played Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy in budget battles. In December he took another crack at the football. Is his new populism such a far cry from his 2008 rhetoric of transformation, or just a bit more specific to satisfy the hunger still rising for change? Do we really think it arose from somewhere other than the usual focus groups and polls?

There’s good news in all this. Someone changed, and if it isn’t Obama it must be us. It isn’t any politician but the power of public opinion that drives this debate. Republicans feel it. Hearing just an outline of a populist message scares them. Pundits say they won’t pass any part of Obama’s agenda but if they’re smart they will; perhaps a lesser minimum wage hike and something just for women. But we’ll never win the victory we must win without a strong progressive movement because neither this system nor those who run it will ever really change.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/25/hes_not_suddenly_paul_krugman_lets_not_morph_obama_into_elizabeth_warren_quite_yet/?source=newsletter

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

Why didn’t we listen? The fourth season of The Rockford Files, arguably the greatest television show of all time, features a “futuristic” storyline about a terrible threat. What if a private corporation used computers to gather personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans? Could we trust them with that data?

I know, it’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening — a private company, collecting private and personal data on ordinary Americans and other people around the world. It sounds far-fetched, right? But Jim Rockford, the toughest and most incorruptible P.I. ever to live in a trailer with his dad, teams up with a younger detective to investigate the suspicious death of an old friend, a private detective named Tooley, in the episode “The House on Willis Avenue.” (This episode is written by the show’s co-creator, Stephen J. Cannell, who also gave us The Greatest American Hero.)

And what Rockford finds in his investigation is baffling — a mysterious set of real estate developments, with lots of suspiciously huge air-conditioning units attached. What’s going on? Turns out that a corporate scumbag, amusingly played by Jackie Cooper, is creating a secret computer system to spy on ordinary Americans and sell the info — or ruin your reputation — for profit. It should be illegal for corporations to spy on ordinary Americans, Rockford protests. You can see the highlights above.

It all leads up to this solemn cue card at the very end of the episode:

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

The Rockford Files really wants you to know that corporations should not use computers to collect your personal information. Those final words, “Our liberty may well be the price we pay,” seem especially prophetic nowadays.

The other amazing part of the episode is all the parts where Rockford and his temporary sidekick pretend to be computer experts, and spout ridiculously made-up computer jargon, to try and fool people in the facilities they’re sneaking into. Here are the two best examples of that:

http://www.viddler.com/embed/21c50871/?f=1&autoplay=false&player=mini&disablebranding=0;offset=0&autoplay=0

http://io9.com/jim-rockford-warned-us-about-google-and-facebook-back-i-1681231028

“River’s Edge”: The darkest teen film of all time

“River’s Edge” understood ’80s kids — and what they’d do to combat that horrible feeling of emptiness

"River's Edge": The darkest teen film of all time

Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge”

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed Daniel Waters, screenwriter of the enduring and dark teen comedy and media satire “Heathers” for the book (“Twee”) I was researching at the time. The conversation was genial and funny, and I could tell he was what we used to call at my old employer Spin magazine a “quote machine.” Soon, the subject got around to films of the late American auteur John Hughes, particularly his iconic high school trilogy of “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and “Pretty in Pink” (the 1986 romantic comedy that he wrote but did not direct). “I felt like Hughes was trying to coddle teenagers and almost suck up to them, idealize them,” Waters said, with almost no fear of reprisal from the many millions who hold these films (and Ferris Bueller … and even, to paraphrase Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale,” minor Hughes efforts like “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “She’s Having a Baby,” dear), “[With ‘Heathers’) I was more of a terrorist coming after John Hughes. What drove me nuts about the Hughes moves was the third act was always something about how bad adults were. When you grow up your heart dies. Hey, your heart dies when you’re 12!”

One could make an argument for Waters’ “Heathers” (directed as a gauzy, occasionally surrealist morality play by Michael Lehmann) as the darkest teen film of all time. The humor is pitch-black, there’s a body count, a monocle, corn nuts and an utter excoriation of clueless boomers who wonder, as the supremely camp Paul Lynde did a quarter of a century earlier in the film adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie,” what (in fuck) is the matter with kids today?

But it’s not. Not even close, when compared with a film that preceded it by only three years, the Neal Jimenez-penned, Tim Hunter-directed 1986 drama “River’s Edge,” which is released this month on DVD after years of being difficult to find for home viewing. No other film captures more accurately what it’s like to be dead inside during the end of the Cold War, the height of MTV and the invasion of concerned but impotent parents. “River’s Edge” was the one film that seemed to understand that it wasn’t the rap music, heavy metal music or even drugs that made ’80s kids, it was … nothing. As in the feeling of searching your soul for what you should feel and finding it empty, and slowly, horrifyingly getting used to it to the point that at least one, maybe more of us, will do anything, even commit murder, in order to combat that horrible void. I didn’t want to kill anyone or even myself, but I wanted to disappear, or at least be frozen and wake up in art school in the early ’90s, when bands like Nirvana gave that feeling a voice, and a few anthems.



There’s a lot of Nirvana in “River’s Edge.” Most “what’s the matter with kids today?” films have their juvenile delinquents in some kind of drag: black leather jackets (“Blackboard Jungle,” “The Wild One”) or spiked hair and safety pins and pet rats (“Suburbia,” “Next Stop, Nowhere,” aka “the Punk Rock Quincy episode”). But the kids in “River’s Edge” dress in ripped jeans and T-shirts and chunky, shapeless sweaters. It’s sexless (the only sex scene takes place under a shitty maroon sleeping bag with bullfrogs croaking in the distance and a dead body being simultaneously disposed of not too far off). “The thing about a shark,” Robert Shaw famously observed during the “USS Indianapolis” speech in 1975’s “Jaws” just before all hell breaks loose, “is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… till he bites ya.” The kids who populate “River’s Edge,” Keanu Reeves’ Mike, Ione Skye’s Clarissa, Daniel Roebuck’s Samson, etc., don’t seem to be living, buzzed on sixers, many of which they must steal from a harried liquor store cashier (the great, recently late Taylor Negron), as they’re underage. Until they bite you. It’s hard to capture boredom on film without boring an audience (Richard Linklater’s “Suburbia,” for one, tries and fails). What keeps viewers of “River’s Edge” on, well, edge is the sense that these black-eyed, dead creatures in inside-out heavy metal tees (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, even the band logos are muted) is that they might bite. It’s a sickening feeling and you cannot turn away.

The first thing we see is a preteen kid, Tim (Josh Miller), a juvenile delinquent fast in the making, with an earring, holding an actual doll. We notice, with a little required deduction as he barely reacts, that he is staring across the river at a murderer and his naked, blue-ing victim, while holding the doll he stole from his sister: All four have doll eyes, the corpse (Danyi Deats’ Jamie), the killer (Roebuck) and the doll, which Miller casually drops into the river despite knowing well it’s his little sister’s security object and probably best friend. We are soon with Jamie and Samson after the crime has been committed. Samson is smoking. Despite the occasional feral howl that he knows nobody will hear (except Tim, which is the same thing), it feels like some kind of test for the audience. How much apathy can we weather? How many dead eyes can we stare back at? This is, of course, a testament to the young cast, all of them brilliant and committed (it can’t be easy to portray those bored soulless, can it? You want to react, you want to break). Jamie, a stunned look on her face, lies there, in the cold, also a committed actress, and there is simply nothing like this in any other teen film, or even a teen-populated horror film. Horror films, as the “Scream” franchise would soon remind us, have rules. I wanted to enter the screen, like Jeff Daniels’ genial explorer in Woody Allen’s charming comedy from the previous year, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and cover her body somehow. But Hunter forces us to look, which could not be easy for him as an artist, and must have been a challenge for him to ask it of his young cast. In his review, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “The difference is that the film feels a horror that the teenagers apparently did not.”

“Where’s Jamie?” Samson’s crew asks once he leaves the crime scene (for more beer).

“I killed her,” he says.

Most don’t believe him but Layne (Crispin Glover, top billed but unmistakenly launching his freak phase, only a year after playing Michael J. Fox’s bumbling dad in the blockbuster “Back to the Future”). Layne sees the event, the tragedy, as both fait accompli (“You’re gonna bring her back? It’s done!” he squeals in a reedy, wired voice) and a life-changing (and -saving) break in the day-in, day-out living hell; a kind of moral test. He believes Samson, he rallies around Samson, and he tries to motivate his crew to do the same. The corpse is a gift to Layne and Layne returns the favor by pledging his loyalty. He can’t help stifling a smile when he is led to the site. “This is unreal! Completely unreal. It’s like some movie, you know?” Layne enters the movie, doing a reverse “Purple Rose …” Even Samson doesn’t want in. He wants out … of the world, and yet he becomes strangely proud when he displays the body to his group of friends, who borrow a red pickup truck to end their suspicion that they are being jerked around. Most of them instantly recoil at the site of the corpse (still naked!) and cannot get back to the torpor (arcades, sex, beer) quickly enough. Only Reeves’ Mike is conflicted and contemplates going to the cops. Similar terrain was covered in the hit “Stand By Me,” which was released the same year. “You guys wanna see a dead body?” Jerry O’Connell’s Vern asks his pals River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Wil Wheaton, but they are clearly spooked and remain so into adulthood (as the narrator, Richard Dreyfuss, attests). The kids of this bumfuck town go about their bumfuck business, sleeping through class, hating their non-bio broken-home inhabitants (“Motherfucker, food eater!” Reeves yells at the slob who’s moved in with his mom). They’re not stupid. They’re just … unequipped for reality that does not repeat on a loop, sun up and sun down. Layne, in his makeup, watch cap, black clothes and muscle car is the only one among them who wants to feel “like Starsky and Hutch!”

“River’s Edge” is based, loosely, on reality. In late 1981, a 16-year-old student, Anthony Broussard, from Milpitas High School, near San Jose, California, led a group of his friends and his 8-year-old brother into the hills to see the barely clothed body of the 14-year-old Marcy Renee Conrad, whom he’d strangled days before. “Then instead of reporting the body of their dead school chum to the police,” reporter Claire Spiegel wrotein her coverage of the case, “they went back to class or the local pinball arcade. One went home and fell asleep listening to the radio.” She added, “Their surprising apathy toward murder bothered even hardened homicide detectives.”

Jimenez, then a college student in Santa Clara, California, read about the events and was inspired to begin working on a story based on this behavior. In the age of “Serial,” it’s hard not to see “River’s Edge” as prescient, and when I listened to the podcast last year, I thought a lot about the film. But its power comes not from reality, but from its craft: the script, the performances and the cinematography by David Lynch collaborator Frederick Elmes, who shot “Blue Velvet,” another milestone ’86 release. The beauty of the exteriors (the grainy opening, the murky drink, the perfect blue and shadows when Layne half-heartedly disposes of the body in it) make the ugliness of the behavior all the more disturbing.

Director Tim Hunter knew his way around a “youth gone fucked up” film by ’86. He was the co-writer of “Over the Edge,” known mostly as the film debut of then 14-year-old Matt Dillon who utters the pull-away line, “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” Loaded with excellent power pop (Cheap Trick’s “Downed,” and “Surrender,” especially), Dillon and his J.D. friends spoil the planned suburban community of “New Granada” on their dirt bikes, shooting off fireworks and BB guns. Dillon starred in Hunter’s directing debut, 1982’s “Tex,” based on a book by go-to wild, but sensitive, youth writer S.E. Hinton. Who knows why he didn’t appear in “River’s Edge.” Maybe it was too easy to see the heart beating under his flannel. Even Judd Nelson’s John Bender has a heart under his, and at the end of John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood,” Ice Cube’s scowling gang member Doughboy has a monologue that provides evidence that he’s got a big one. (“Turned on the TV this morning. Had this shit on about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places, where foreigners live and all. Started thinking, man. Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”)

The parents of New Granada are pretty pissed that their utopia has been vandalized and rally in protest, but the boomers of “River’s Edge” don’t even have the fight in them. There’s no Ms. Fleming from “Heathers” among them. Nobody will call when the shuttle lands. “Fuck you, man,” one of them rages in vain at his class. “You don’t give a damn! I don’t give a damn! No one in this classroom gives a damn that she’s dead. It gives us a chance to feel superior.” “Are we being tested on this shit?” a student asks. Even the media don’t really care. And if the kids themselves are apathetic (“I don’t give a fuck about you and I don’t give a fuck about your laws,” Samson tells Negron’s clerk before brandishing a gun), the new generation cares even less. Not even teenagers; they smoke weed, pack heat and drive big gas guzzlers they can barely see out of, when not speeding through nowheresville on their bikes or shooting trapped crayfish in a barrel, literally. Full disclosure: I was friendly with Josh Miller in Hollywood in the early ’90s. For a time, he was going to star in and produce a pretty decent screenplay I’d co-written, which eventually fell through. In person he was sweet, generous and caring, but I always, always looked at him sideways because he was also … Tim, who utters the following line: “Go get your numchucks and your dad’s car. I know where we can get a gun.”

There’s irony and black humor in “River’s Edge.” I don’t want to portray it as some kind of Fassbender-ish downer, 90 minutes of misery. Samson promises to read Dr. Seuss to his incapacitated aunt. And there’s, of course, Layne, who doesn’t even seem to realize that nearly every line out of his mouth is absolutely ridiculous (which makes him beyond endearing, sociopath that he likely is). When he is rewarded his sixer for chucking the corpse in the river, he complains, “You’d think I’d at least rate Michelob.” I wonder why Reeves became a star (this is only his second film, after a small part in the Rob Lowe hockey drama “Youngblood”) and Ione Skye, more briefly a sought after actress. Perhaps because his albeit belated actions make him as close to a hero as the film has … discounting, of course, Feck.

You know you are dealing with a dark film when its only true beating heart belongs to a crippled biker, weed dealer and fugitive murderer who is in love with a blow-up doll, having blown the head off his previous paramour. Feck lives alone. Feck, at the behest of Layne, briefly hides Samson. And, realizing he is dealing with a soulless and dangerous generation, Feck does what dozens of teachers and parents cannot, and will not do. He reacts. Perhaps it’s a testament to his skill, but Dennis Hopper the man looks genuinely heartbroken at what’s happened to the youth he fought so hard to liberate with his “Easy Rider.” In the midst of a glorious comeback (he’d appear in “Blue Velvet” and receive an Oscar nomination for the basketball film “Hoosiers”). It’s Feck that Samson finally opens up to (“She was dead there in front of me and I felt so fucking alive”). We don’t know why Feck shot his ex, but we do know that he maintains that he loved her. He sees none of that emotion, no emotion at all, in Samson. “I’m dead now,” Samson says. “They’re gonna fry me for sure.” Thanks to Feck, they won’t get the chance.

“River’s Edge” doesn’t end in a trial, but rather a quiet, plain, sparse church funeral and a bit of long-absent dignity returned to the victim. It somehow relieves the viewer. Sanity, as it is, has been restored. No one would call it a feel-good ending but somehow, strangely, bloodily, perversely, love wins in the end. “There was no hope for him. There was no hope at all. He didn’t love her. He didn’t feel a thing. I at least loved [mine],” Feck explains. “I cared for her.”

Released in May of ’87 in limited theaters, the movie quickly made a mark with critics, if not audiences, and began to amass a loyal cult of viewers who appreciated its unique and revolutionary qualities. It beat out Jonathan Demme’s “Swimming to Cambodia,” the acclaimed Spalding Gray monologue film, at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as John Huston’s final film, “The Dead.” And while far from a box office hit, it effortlessly set a precedent for films about teens. They no longer had to be either good or evil or anything at all. They didn’t have to dress or look like James Dean or Droogs or get off in any way on their heroism and their villainy. “River’s Edge” made all that seem quaint. It’s a singular film that foresaw the ’90s and freed the cinema teen to be a loser … baby.

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