Workers Vanguard No. 1139
7 September 2018
Spike Lee Says Racist Cops Can “Do the Right Thing”
Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman opens with powerful images of racist terror and violence in the United States, from the Confederate slavocracy to Klan lynchings, as well as white-supremacist nostalgia depicted in Gone with the Wind. Timed for release on the anniversary of the 2017 fascist rampage in Charlottesville, the film ends with chilling footage of the murder of Heather Heyer and the beating of black hip-hop artist DeAndre Harris by a gang of club-wielding fascist thugs. Yet the truth of these searing scenes is used to promote the grotesque lie that the racist police are allies in the fight against fascist terror.
Loosely based on the story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who initiated the infiltration of the Klan in Colorado Springs in the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman presents the cops as heroes. Needless to say, this requires not a little fabrication. To invent the supposed risks taken by the police, the white cop who in real life stood in for Stallworth at KKK meetings is portrayed as a Jewish cop who narrowly escapes being exposed (circumcision and all) by a Klansman. A similarly concocted scene toward the end of the movie shows Stallworth and his fictitious black radical girlfriend teaming up with the chief of police and other “good” cops to set up and bust a white racist “bad” cop. That never happened and never would. But it serves to excuse cop terror as simply that of a few hardcore racists. In fact, the cops, as a core component of the capitalist state, are the main perpetrators of daily racist violence in this country. The victims of cop terror—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and countless others—are blatantly disappeared in Lee’s film.
Hip-hop artist Boots Riley, whose recent semi-surrealist movie Sorry to Bother You is an explicit commentary on race and class oppression in capitalist America, issued a scathing rebuke of BlacKkKlansman. Immediately summing up his critique of Lee’s film in a #quickfilmreview tweet which read, “Fuck the police,” Riley later wrote a more extensive exposé, commenting: “It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression. It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental.” Pointing to the fact that Spike Lee was paid $200,000 by the New York Police Department to collaborate in an ad campaign to supposedly “improve” police relations with minorities, Riley remarked that BlacKkKlansman “feels like an extension of that ad campaign.”
Of course there is an element of revenge fantasy in the idea that Stallworth, a black man, was in real life able to dupe the Klan and that one of the chumps was none other than former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. But that is only one piece of the story. Lee’s cop hero served as a police operative who spied on leftist organizations. In his memoir, Stallworth recounts his investigation of the ostensibly communist Progressive Labor Party (PLP), which he describes as “extremely radical, organized, and dedicated to their conviction of ultimately ‘smashing’ the Ku Klux Klan.” Stallworth would alternate between going undercover in PLP meetings to gather information about anti-Klan actions and acting as a security detail for David Duke himself. He informed both the Klan and the police about PLP counterdemonstrations against Duke, protecting the Klan from those who intended to stop its race-terror provocations.
The only hint of Stallworth’s infiltration of left-radical organizations in BlacKkKlansman is when he spies on a Colorado Springs meeting featuring Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). Lee uses this scene to portray Stallworth as both a cop doing his job and a black man drawn into Ture’s “black power” message. The scene also serves to develop a fictional romantic relationship between Stallworth and a radical young Black Student Union leader. Unbelievably, she sticks with Stallworth even after learning that he is a cop, something no self-respecting leftist would do. Toward the end of the movie, Stallworth and his girlfriend are propelled together down a hallway, guns drawn in unison pointed at a white-supremacist cross-burning. The purpose is to peddle the lie that black cops and black radicals have a common interest.
It is not a secret that police agents have a sordid history of derailing, disrupting and “neutralizing” left and black radical organizations. Stallworth’s real-life surveillance of PLP was consistent with the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO, which in its official form ended in the early 1970s. Launched in 1956 against the Communist Party, COINTELPRO later unleashed a savage campaign of racist sabotage and murder against others deemed subversive. Its deadliest fire was aimed at the Black Panther Party, which defiantly organized armed self-defense against the racist cops. Panther leader Fred Hampton and 37 others were killed, and hundreds imprisoned. Today the FBI continues to target left groups and activists around Black Lives Matter, branding them “Black Identity Extremists.”
BlacKkKlansman buries the deadly history of collusion between the cops, government and the Klan. State agents who infiltrated the Klan were often active participants in racist terror and murder. One infamous FBI informant, Gary Rowe, was involved in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young black girls. Two years later, Rowe was in the car and may have been the actual triggerman who shot civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo on the highway outside Selma, Alabama.
Federal as well as state and local police agencies took part in the 1979 KKK/Nazi murder of five union organizers and anti-racist activists associated with the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, North Carolina. A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent helped train the fascist killers and a police/FBI informer rode shotgun in the lead car while a local police car followed behind. The ensuing massacre was carried out in broad daylight and in full view of TV cameras. Nonetheless, the fascists were acquitted by all-white juries. In 2014, one of the Greensboro killers, Frazier Glenn Miller, gunned down three people outside Jewish community facilities in Kansas.
At least Spike Lee’s earlier movie Do the Right Thing showed the NYPD in true form, e.g., getting away with murder. Now he uses his filmmaking talents to push the myth that the racist police can “do the right thing.” Responding to Riley’s criticisms of BlacKkKlansman, Lee retorted: “Look at my films: they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of color…. I mean, we need police.”
And, it’s not just the police that Lee thinks “we need.” Lee opined in a CNN interview that he hoped the movie would inspire people “to register to vote” (Democrat), arguing that Trump’s presidency is evidence of “what happens when you don’t vote.” At various points, BlacKkKlansman draws a connection between the fascist Duke and Duke’s hero president. That Trump is a raving racist who has coddled and encouraged the fascists is hardly news. But the Democrats no less than the Republicans represent the interests of racist American capitalism. The only difference is that the Democrats serve it up with a hefty dose of hypocrisy aimed at obscuring the racial oppression and brutal exploitation of the working class that are inherent to this system.
While BlacKkKlansman is movingly dedicated to Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer, one need only fast-forward one year to last month’s anti-fascist protests to puncture the lie that the cops are anything but the enemies of black people, the working class and oppressed. An open letter to Spike Lee from “The Young People of the Charlottesville Attack” (21 August) contrasts Lee’s rosy depiction of the cops with the reality of Charlottesville this year and last year, where police escorted and protected the fascist killers while repressing anti-racist activists. The letter writers noted: “We were met by a force who sought to control, suppress and attack us. And it wasn’t just the ones who showed up with hoods and torches. Most of them wore badges.”
As we said in the aftermath of Charlottesville last year (WV No. 1116, 25 August 2017):
“The outrage against the fascists needs an organized expression: a disciplined, militant and military mobilization of the social power of the multiracial working class. It is this power that is feared and hated by the bosses, their kept labor lieutenants in the trade-union bureaucracy and capitalist politicians of all colors and genders. The working class has the power and the objective interest not only to stop the fascists but also to overturn the whole capitalist system that spawns these vermin.”
Rather than the shell game of voting for the capitalist Democratic Party, what is needed is to build a revolutionary party that will wield workers’ social power in the fight for black freedom and the emancipation of all the oppressed. It will take nothing less than a socialist revolution to break the chains of racist capitalist rule and bury the fascist gangs for good.