“A lesson about the stones that wait to rise in our hearts”: A Review of John Guzlowski’s Echoes of Tattered Tongues


by Eric Kroczek

My first encounter with a John Guzlowski poem was as desultory as anything in life: I was eating a solitary dinner and barely listening to the news on the local public radio station one evening after work in 2007 when I gradually became aware that I was hearing Garrison Keillor read a poem, a good one. The program was The Writer’s Almanac, and the last poem’s stanza haunted me for days:

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.

At the time, I didn’t catch the name of the poet; I meant to Google it, but forgot. Life went on.

Fast forward several years. I friended this writer on Facebook, John Guzlowski, who was friends with some of my wife’s writer friends, because I liked some of his comments, and why not, right? In any case, he wrote a lot about Polish immigrants in Chicago, which intersected with a memoir-ish thing I was working on. I bought a couple of his books of poems, and I liked them. Their unpresuming, workmanlike free verse was hard and bleak, with only just enough black humor and sympathy to leaven it. From his poems, I learned that his parents had been slave laborers for the Nazis and his family had come to the U.S. after the War by way of a DP camp and settled in Chicago in the early 1950s. And in his book Lightning and Ashes, I found the poem I’d heard years before over dinner, “What My Father Believed.”

Last year, John published Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded, an experimental yet deeply satisfying mongrel at the intersection of poetry, history, biography, and memoir—in the same vein as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, but with poems instead of pictures. Many of its constituent parts have found print in other places, particularly in his previous collections The Language of Mules and the aforementioned Lightning and Ashes. But Echoes of Tattered Tongues isn’t a simple greatest-hits anthology by any means. Rather, Guzlowski resets the older material in a new framework, much as a composer might incorporate musical themes and ideas she’s previously worked out in piano sonatas and string quartets into a new symphony that coheres and magnifies her original pieces.

Echoes is largely the story of Guzlowski’s parents, as well as the story of how he came to learn  from them the parts of that story he didn’t already know. It progresses in three movements, each movement delving deeper into the past—unfolding memory and uncovering missing pieces of the historical record: from his parents’ twilight years, to mid-century—John’s childhood—when they left the DP camp in Germany and emigrated to America, and finally, to the War itself, and the root of the deep unhappiness his parents carried with them to the grave.

Book I introduces us to Guzlowski’s parents in retirement, in Arizona, and gives us glimpses of what happened to them in their early lives, how it haunts them. In “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeberg’”, a deft poem that is equal parts hilarious and horrifying, his mother, angry and sardonic, critiques John’s earlier effort at telling her story—a poem that we don’t actually read until Book III:

She looks at me and says
“That’s not how it was.
I couldn’t see anything
except when they stopped
the boxcars and opened the doors.

And I didn’t see any
of those rivers,
and if I did, I didn’t know
their names.[”]

A serious, if wry, indictment, considering the original poem begins “My mother still remembers” and goes on to catalogue everything she supposedly saw from the eponymous cattle train. But then, she goes on to tell him some of what she did see, and to say, “Even though you’re a grown man / and a teacher, we saw things / I don’t want to tell you about.’”

We come to know Guzlowski’s mother well over the course of the book—the asperity of her outlook (“Why My Mother Stayed With My Father” begins “She knew he was worthless the first time / she saw him…” and ends “She knew only a man worthless as mud, / worthless as a broken dog, would suffer / with her through all of her sorrow.”); her violent, abusive rages (“Later in the Promised Land,” “Danusia”); her sardonic bitterness (“My Mother Was 19”—the harrowing denouement of a series of poems, written at different times, that are variations on the story of what happened to her and her family before she was sent to the camps). She stands in contrast to Guzlowski’s passive, sentimental, “worthless” father, who is the viewpoint character of much of the horror we see in the wartime Poland and Germany of Book III.

But before that, in Book II, Guzlowski guides us through his family’s experience as immigrants to America, who brought with them little more than a wooden trunk full of necessities, a heavy burden of trauma, and what few skills they had. As outlined in “What My Father Brought With Him,”

He knew there was only work or death.

He could dig up beets and drag fallen trees
without bread or hope. The war taught him how.
He came to the States with this and his tools,

hands that had worked bricks and frozen mud
and knew the language the shit bosses spoke.

The family slowly finds its bearings in the Polonia Triangle neighborhood in Chicago (made famous by Nelson Algren in The Man with the Golden Arm) in spite of poverty, crime, pedophile priests, his father’s frequent drinking bouts, and his mother’s violent mood swings, in which she lashes out at John, his father, and his sister Danusia—an elusive figure who holds an obvious emotional valence for Guzlowski, but who never comes clearly into focus, and whose story, one of sweetness and innocence lost, is never resolved. Several of these poems are unsettling stories told by or about others who had fled Europe after the War, and one (the charming “Kitchen Polish”) is about being a non-native speaker, who grew up speaking Polish at home and English everywhere else:

I can’t tell you about Kant
in Polish, or the Reformation
or deconstruction

or why the Germans moved east
before attacking west,
or where I came from,

But I can count to ten, say hello
and goodbye, ask for coffee,
bread or soup.

I can tell you people die.

It’s a fact of life,
and there’s nothing

you or I can do about it.
I can say, “Please, God,”
and “Don’t be afraid.”

If I look out at the rain
I can tell you it’s falling.
If there’s snow,

I can say, “It’s cold outside
today, and it’ll most likely
be cold tomorrow.”

Book III takes us into the nightmarish central Europe of Guzlowski’s parents’ wartime experience as prisoners of the Third Reich, and it is among the emotionally keenest of such chronicles. Few war poems I have read equal the intensity of “Landscape with Dead Horses, 1939”:

Look at this horse. Its head torn from its body
by a shell. So much blood will teach you more
about the world than all the books in it.
This horse’s head will remake the world for you—
teach even God a lesson about the stones
that wait to rise in our hearts, cold and hard.

Or of “The German Soldiers” (“We soldiers are only human. We love / to kill. It is the hidden God in each of us.”); or of the surprisingly surreal, sinister beauty of the book’s longest poem, “The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald,” about his father’s imprisonment there:

He remembers a movie he once saw
when he escaped from the camp.

In it, one of the heroes is a fat man,
the other skinny. On a boat lost at sea,
they look at each other in hunger and cry.

Then fatty smiles, and skinny cries harder.


He dreams dogs change into men
and sit at a table to discuss the war,
why it began and how it will end.

He wants to ask the dogs a question
but they can’t understand his howling.

Guzlowski’s attempt to learn and feel the origins of his parents’ pain thus brings us into closer emotional touch with the entirety of the War in Europe, widening by necessity from the particular to the general. It is a unorthodox way of telling such a story: though there are many examples of poems written by poets who experienced the camps firsthand, examples of secondhand histories told in verse are thin indeed. And yet it works, in ways that defy analysis or easy summary. Guzlowski’s empathy and imagination are extraordinary, at times truly shocking. His verse, which brings to mind variously Charles Bukowski, Charles Simic, and Philip Levine, has a vernacular concreteness and clarity that is all the more startling when it breaks sharply with realism, and he deftly captures those quirks of personality that bring characters into full view. Less than halfway through the book, I had unconsciously slipped from thinking What a novel way to tell this story to I can’t imagine how else it could be told.

And as if that weren’t enough, Aquila Polonica Publishing deserves great credit for producing a book that is a beautiful artifact, from its cloth and leather binding, to its creamy paper, to the stunning photographs that accompany the text. In every respect, Echoes of Tattered Tongues is an achievement that deserves wide recognition and long remembrance.

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By Dara Barnat:


I hear you’re gone and I fall with you.

In that place part of me stays,

like a hand in clay,

even as I make rice for dinner, boil water,

measure the grains,

pour wine, set out flowers with all their petals.

The imprint holds the loss of everything.

It holds what we thought was joy.


              Dark is just dark–

rooms and all we’ve built are nothing.

Chairs with their backs, tables with their legs, beds with their heads.

Outside, trees with their leaves.

I can’t write that wood into a vessel

that will carry us to a place

where life is a river never not flowing.

I close my hand around a filament of sun as it filters

through the window, try to catch
              its meaning,

              but light is just light.


There’s no one here, but me
alone. I close

my eyes and try
to remember your face,

its light, your
fingers, their light

touch, your laugh,
the lightness. I say a prayer

that is my own:
May we live

a thousand years together,
in another life.

Today’s poems are from In the Absence (Turning Point Books, 2016), copyright © 2016 by Dara Barnat, and appear here today with permission from the poet.

In the Absence: Dara Barnat’s In the Absence evokes a yearning of the spirit so strong that it becomes presence, its light unstopped.

Dara Barnat is the author of the poetry collection In the Absence (Turning Point, 2016), as well as Headwind Migration, a chapbook (Pudding House, 2009). She also writes critical essays on poetry and translates poetry from Hebrew. Her research explores Walt Whitman’s influence on Jewish American poetry. Dara holds a Ph.D. from The School of Cultural Studies at Tel Aviv University. She currently teaches at Tel Aviv University and Queens College, CUNY.

Editor’s Note: Dara Barnat’s first full-length collection begins by declaring that “Dark is just dark.” But the assertion casts a shadow question: Is dark just dark? For it is light that is at the heart of this work: “I close my hand around a filament of sun as it filters / through the window, try to catch / its meaning, / but light is just light.”

But “light is just light” is no more the truth of these poems — and the poet’s journey that unfolds across them — than “dark is just dark.” This work is neither a book of questions nor of answers. Instead, In the Absence is an honest experience of grief that explores the inevitable, never-ending pilgrimage inherent within loss: “I hear you’re gone and I fall with you. / In that place part of me stays, / like a hand in clay.”

Not since Li-Young Lee’s Rose have I been so slain by a book of mourning. Like Rose, In the Absence mourns the loss of a father while acknowledging that such a loss is anything but simple, that the complications of life remain a reckoning for the living. “The imprint holds the loss of everything. / It holds what we thought was joy.”

Held close within this incredibly moving and painstakingly wrought collection is a poem titled “Walt Whitman.” I had the honor of featuring this poem here on the Saturday Poetry Series in 2013 as I marked my father’s first yahrzeit (Jewish death anniversary). Tomorrow will be five years since my father’s death. What at one year could be commemorated with a single poem, five years later needs an entire book. Such is the nature of grief — it does not diminish; it grows. And in its growing it becomes more painful and more beautiful all at once.

In the Absence transforms the poet’s personal grief into communion. I will re-read this book tomorrow as I remember my father on his five-year yahrzeit, and I will grieve. But, more than that, I will say a prayer that is the poet’s and is my own: “May we live / a thousand years together, / in another life.”

Want more from Dara Barnat?
Buy In the Absence from IndieBound
Buy In the Absence on Amazon
Poems in YEW
Poems in diode
Interview in Poet Lore
Dara Barnat’s Official Website

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By Leah Umansky:


It is hard to quiet the blackberrying pain.
The little chronicles, the streaks, and the intimate workings.

I will face this by red-winging my truths.
I will push my blues into orchids.


I decided to claim more space
         But I chose the opposite
What are the words I would go to: hunger// longing// love
         When you feel drawn to something you should.
Whatever your terrible is is up to you.
         The question is how you lead.
I lead myself to distress; I lead myself to happiness.
         This is the history of our times.
I claw my way to the surface.
         I get a hold of this world with my teeth
& wolf down what I thirst for.
         How do I take the I out of here?
(why should I take the I out?)


I am always hungry
         I am always thinking of my next meal
         Is it the preemie in me?
Is it just the want?


We all have our oddities.
         I am always trying to be practical, logical, rational,
but it doesn’t always add up.
         There is so much of my life that I am forever holding under the light.
What falls below the seam?
         What falls outside of this poem?


I want to put the happy in.
         I want to put the hard world in.
I want to say this is a ballad, and so it is.
         Let’s enter it differently.
Any mammal feeds a hunger
         Any heart needs oxygen.


Everyone is saying no to me
Just as they do now
Just as they will
A kind of civil riot
A staged parade
It makes every kind of sense
That carnage that comes with falling hard,
That carnage that hassles and times,
That carnage that language picks up;
I am wanting to be picked up.
It is rarely an accident.
Elements are employed
Pounds are ranged
The number of possible routes are lost
All to force my foot door to door
To match the heart of my drive to
Coffee after coffee after coffee.
Take me as a whole,
Take these birds outside my window
Alive with the world’s chirp
Alive with the everyday thrill of
Worm or bug or crumb. Take them,
Then remember my thrills.
Everyone is saying no to me,
And I am flummoxed each time
I ask for more; or try for more.
I strive and I strive.
That’s the 21st century calling.
It’s doable. I travel great lengths
So I can match the heart
With the focus of each and every obstacle.
Can there be a rallying point?
This is not an accident.

(Is that what I should be learning here?)

Well, isn’t that magnificent.

“Hard” originally appeared in Thrush, “Ballad” originally appeared in The Inquisitive Eater, and “Carnage” originally appeared in Queen Mob’s. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.

Leah Umansky is the author of the poetry collection, The Barbarous Century, forthcoming from London’s Eyewear Publishing in 2018, the dystopian-themed chapbook Straight Away the Emptied World (Kattywompus Press, 2016), the Mad Men–inspired chapbook Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014), and the full length Domestic Uncertainties (BlazeVOX, 2012). She is a graduate of the MFA Program in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and teaches middle and high school English in New York City. More at www.LeahUmansky.com.

Editor’s Note: It seems I can’t read (or write) anything these days without seeing it through the lens of politics. Least of all poetry. Today’s poems — at once political and private — may or may not have been crafted to address the current moment. And yet they can be read as a direct address and used, accordingly, as a salve. What can we do, we ask? “I will face this by red-winging my truths,” says the poet; “I will push my blues into orchids.” Even in an ars poetica the poet’s words can function as a mirror: “The question is how you lead. / I lead myself to distress; I lead myself to happiness. / This is the history of our times.” No matter their intent, today’s poems are in the world now, speaking to us as they will. They might incite action or nurse wounds or take stalk of our humanity. “Take me as a whole,” they say, “Take these birds outside my window / Alive with the world’s chirp / Alive with the everyday thrill of / Worm or bug or crumb.”

Want more from Leah Umansky?
Border Crossing
Poetry Magazine
Jet Fuel
Minola Review
Quotidian Bee

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A Review of American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton


A Review of American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton

by Assena Fairuz

Author and Film Co-Producer/Co-Director Lise Pearlman’s book American
Justice on Trial: People v. Newton
is a welcome exposition of the key
components in the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement. It’s also a
much needed examination of how the U.S. judicial system destabilized
freedom movements and failed its citizens– events which burn a clear
line leading to the present. The methods of planning used by Civil
Rights leaders bear a great deal of responsibility towards informing
the way we deal with the social ills continuing to plague this new

Objective and factual, American Justice On Trial gives a detailed
account of the movements and motivations of the well-known activist
group The Black Panther Party For Self Defense, while also being an
account of reactions from the public and from other Civil Rights
leaders. Voter suppression in the 1960’s, the Watts riots in 1965, and
the FBI’s involvement with attempts to destabilize movements from
within are all touched on, their connections to the larger picture of
the Civil Rights movement made plain.

The piece focuses largely upon the trial of Huey P. Newton, one of the
founders of the Black Panther Party, who in 1967 was accused of the
murder of a police officer.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just before the trial
increased the strain on the populace. The trial ended up being watched
around the world due to the public’s recognition of its potential
change the course of the U.S.

Prisoner’s rights activist and lawyer to the BPP Fay Stender, and
political essayist and one time leader of the BPP Eldridge Cleaver are
also given center stage in some areas of this book, their motives and
actions spotlighted and scrutinized with the author’s keen historical

Reporters and writers alike who supported the causes of the Black
Panthers were forced by their consciences to weigh involvement with
the movement with the possible loss of their careers. In Stender and
Cleaver we see that tenuous line between personal and professional
collapse in regards to the BPP, ultimately leading to individual ruin.

Far from glorifying the violent acts committed by the Party, American
Justice On Trial
also refuses to shy away from humanizing them along
with the other major players in this chapter of history. The book
focuses on the gains won by their much-needed fierce activism, but it
also touches–in parts–on the misogyny and non-activism-related
violence of some of the Party’s leaders.

The book’s sections are arranged in a fashion that is chronologically
loose using highlights regarding events which occur before or after
the era of the trial in comparisons with modern day events. I found
this style of arrangement made the book a bit difficult to follow in
some parts, but many other readers may have no trouble with this.

With its unflinching exposition of the U.S penal system’s treatment of
Black freedom fighters, American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is
critical reading for activists and anyone wishing to become involved
with activism in our current, turbulent political climate.


V. Fairuz is a writer at The Dog-Eared Dragon blog: dogeareddragon.blogspot.com

Lise Pearlman’s American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton is available at:



Barnes and Noble


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Yours faithful editor, with 14-month-old son in tow, visiting “The New Colossus” at the Statue of Liberty Museum, Liberty Island, NY

By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)

The New Colossus: “In 1883, a young writer, Emma Lazarus, donated a poem to an auction raising funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. ‘The New Colossus’ vividly depicted the Statue of Liberty as offering refuge from the miseries of Europe. The sonnet received little attention at the time, but in 1903 was engraved on a bronze plaque and affixed to the base of the Statue. Still, it was only in the late 1930’s, when millions fled fascism, that the poem became fully identified with the Statue.

“Between 1886 and 1924, 14 million immigrants entered America through New York. The Statue of Liberty was a reassuring sign that they had arrived in the land of their dreams. To these anxious newcomers, the Statue’s uplifted torch did not suggest ‘enlightenment,’ as her creators intended, but rather, ‘welcome.’ Over time, the Statue of Liberty emerged as Emma Lazarus’ ‘Mother of Exiles,’ a symbol of hope to generations of immigrants.”

— “Mother of Exiles” historical marker, Statute of Liberty Museum, Liberty Island, NY

Editor’s Note: Forget the wall. Lift the ban. Let Lady Liberty’s torch, once again, be a beacon of welcome. You want to make America great again?

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Cristina Deptula Interviews Lise Pearlman


Lise Pearlman


Lise Pearlman appeared in Stanley Nelson’s acclaimed 2015 film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” as the country’s leading expert on the 1968 Huey Newton death penalty trial. She then moved to the Bay Area where she attended Berkeley Law School and then clerked for California Chief Justice Donald White before practicing law in Oakland. From 1989-1995, she served as the first Presiding Judge of the California State Bar Court.

Cristina Deptula: People who remember, or have heard of, the Black Panthers can have various positive and negative conceptions of them. Could you explain who they were and what kind of social climate they were responding to, and what they did? Basically, give a more full and balanced idea of the group.

Lise Pearlman: In my book the answer to that question took several chapters. The Black Panther Party arose in 1966 after other black militants based in the South began rejecting the peaceful civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King in favor of aggressive demands for black power to oppose Southern white racists who viciously attacked protest marchers.

Inner city blacks across the country were already impatient with the snail’s pace of racial progress, erupting first in the Watts District of Los Angeles in 1965 with days of riots that prompted President Johnson to get Congress to invest far more funding in ambitious anti-poverty programs. Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were hired for the Oakland federal jobs program, specifically aimed to prevent a new Watts-type riot in Oakland. They formed the Oakland Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October of that year just after riots in San Francisco prompted by an officer killing a fleeing black teenager suspected of car theft.

The Panthers aggressively confronted Oakland’s mostly white police force, which blacks in the city’s ghettoized neighborhoods had long considered abusive and racist. Many local policemen beat up arrestees with regularity and knew they could kill unarmed black suspects with impunity.

The bitterly divisive Vietnam War brought the Panthers White Leftist support. The Panthers opposed the war as both racist in its objectives and in the way it was waged with disproportionately black draftees.  They also established large-scale breakfast programs for poor black children, which drew support from churches and synagogues, and set up medical clinics and testing for sickle cell anemia – health issues the government had long left unaddressed. The Panthers began to gain far more support from the black middle class after the death of the teenager they called their first martyr.

In early April of 1968, just after King’s assassination, Lil Bobby Hutton (their first recruit) joined Eldridge Cleaver in a gun battle with Oakland police, but when Hutton tried to surrender unarmed, he died in the street in a hail of police bullets. The police faced no charges, but many in the black community remained convinced Hutton was murdered. (This past October as part of the official 50th anniversary celebration of the Panthers’ formation, the city dedicated Bobby Hutton Memorial Grove in his honor).

Through their underground newspaper, the Panthers addressed many issues that had been simmering for two decades. Each semi-monthly paper featured the Panthers’ 10-point Party platform including demands for jobs, housing, education, trials before juries of their peers and an end to police brutality. The Panthers distinguished themselves from other black militants by openly carrying loaded weapons and urging all black men to do the same in an era when that was legal in California. The law was changed in June of 1967 to ban “open carry” in response to armed Panthers led by Huey Newton following police around on their beats to make sure they read arrestees their rights.

Many of the Panthers’ recruits were violence-prone; some were ex-felons like Newton. Contrary to their published rules of behavior, some Panthers strong-armed black businessmen for contributions to their programs; some dealt drugs. By the fall of 1967 the Panthers were still only about a score in number – counting those both in and out of jail. Those on the streets were in open war with the local police and admired as heroes by young blacks in the Oakland flatlands.

The Panthers were also already unknowingly harboring the first of many informers reporting to COINTELPRO, a secret web of state and federal law enforcement agents first formed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s during the Cold War.  Over time, some Panthers committed assaults, robberies, rape or murder—sometimes breaking the law at the instigation of FBI moles.

Cristina Deptula: Was the Black Panther Party like Black Lives Matter? Did the Panthers influence BLM?

Lise Pearlman: The Black Panthers consider themselves — and I believe are also acknowledged by Black Lives Matter spokespersons — as the grandfathers of Black Lives Matter.  Beyoncé linked the Panthers and Black Lives Matter in her half-time tribute at the 2016 Super Bowl.

The Panthers were among the first to openly take to the streets to protest police brutality and shooting of unarmed suspects and to aggressively demand major societal change to combat systemic racism.

Unlike Black Lives Matter, the Panthers quickly grew to become a single, albeit loose, organization with many chapters, all of whom studied revolutionary works, trained to use guns and wore a distinctive, intimidating uniform. The Black Panthers were a political party and ran candidates for office in alliance with the Peace and Freedom Party, and later for the Panther Party. Black Lives Matter appears to serve as an umbrella for several different black activist groups who have developed long lists of societal objectives for redressing systemic racism.

Cristina Deptula: Could you explain why the jury on the Newton trial, and Huey’s defense team, was so unusual and revolutionary for the time? What sorts of precedents did they put in place to ensure there would be less racial bias in jury selection?

Lise Pearlman: Historically, the jury “of one’s peers” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment consisted in practice almost exclusively of white men, especially in death penalty cases. Newton and his radical lawyers boldly put the American justice system itself on trial for racism.

Demonstrators drew an international spotlight to the trial, making it the first “Movement” trial –drawing wide support among college students and Leftists for the claim that no black man could get a fair trial anywhere in America, especially when charged with killing a white policeman.

Through ground-breaking techniques, including pioneering testimony of expert sociologists on race bias, the legal team managed to get most white men dismissed from the jury panel. The resulting jury consisted of seven women and five men — four of whom were minorities. Only two were white men. The diversity of the jury was extraordinary. Observers were even more astonished when the jurors chose the lone black man on the panel – banker David Harper – as the foreman, the first known black foreman of a major American murder trial. Observer Thelton Henderson (who was then a rare black civil rights lawyer and is now a federal judge) called Harper’s selection “completely revolutionary.”

Civil rights lawyer Ann Fagan Ginger, head of the Meikeljohn Civil Liberties Institute in Berkeley, recognized how ground-breaking the Newton jury selection techniques were and used them to create a new criminal defense practice guide. That handbook, Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials, quickly became the Bible for defense lawyers for minorities seeking juries “of one’s peers” nationwide.

Cristina Deptula: How did the Newton trial go beyond just influencing how we carry out jury trials to affecting our whole culture in a broader way? How/why did the trial affect race relations in our country? What about the trial influenced everyday life beyond the courtroom?

Lise Pearlman: The Newton trial was widely expected to end in a death sentence and instigate renewed riots across country like the devastating riots in Watts and elsewhere in 1965-66, in the summer of 1967 in cities like Newark, Baltimore and Detroit, and in 125 cities following Martin Luther King’s assassination in the spring of 1968.

Instead, the diverse jury came to an unexpected verdict on the conflicting evidence, concluding Newton had no gun of his own – none had been found. They also concluded that John Frey, the policeman who died, was abusive and that his back-up officer, Herbert Heanes, shot Newton first. Gravely wounded, Newton overreacted and killed Officer Frey with Frey’s own gun.

The verdict of voluntary manslaughter resulted in its peaceful acceptance by both white and black communities. It attributed fault for the shootings to both the policeman who died and to Newton. That outcome of a highly-politicized trial in such a tinderbox setting demonstrated American democracy at its best — a fair trial conducted under difficult circumstances with exemplary behavior by a judge, prosecutor, and courageous jury foreman determined to ensure justice was both done and perceived to be done. The diverse jury demonstrated that when decision-makers in the justice system reflect the communities they serve, they get far more buy-in for their actions.

Current Alameda County D. A. Nancy O’Malley, the first woman to hold that office, sums the benefits of a diversified justice system up with her motto: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

The Newton trial featured at the defense table a then rare woman lawyer, who became his principal lawyer on appeal. Fay Stender’s brilliant work led to unexpected reversal of his conviction, elevating Stender to international fame as one of the most sought-after Movement lawyers in the country.

The Newton trial also became the Panthers’ most effective recruitment tool both nationally and around the world — the centerpiece of their efforts to gain wide support for their 10-point platform. Huey’s older brother Melvin believes that the Panther Party would have disappeared quietly within a year of its creation but for that headline trial.

Cristina Deptula: Please explain more about the legacy of the Black Panthers and how they influenced African-American civil rights.

Lise Pearlman: The “Free Huey” Movement engendered branches of the Party in cities across the country and support from millions of college students on hundreds of campuses. One major outcome was the Panthers’ success in demanding that ethnic studies be taught in colleges and high schools, leading not only to creation of ethnic studies departments, but giving impetus to the establishment of women’s studies and LGBT studies in the ‘70s.

The Panthers also played a key role in establishing one of the first Citizens’ Police Review Boards, which have since become increasingly common across the country. The Panthers’ demands for police recruits to be drawn from the black community helped spur diversification of the Oakland police force. Diversity is a key feature of guardianship of the community policing promoted in many cities today. This is promulgated to replace the historic warrior philosophy with a primary duty to protect property owners – a view still prevalent in many communities today.

The Panthers’ legacy cuts both ways. They sped up diversification of the local police, bench, prosecutor and public defender’s offices. They also succeeded in pushing for more police accountability to the black community through oversight by a citizens’ review board. But in the process, the Panthers also became a lasting symbol of black militancy to many in white communities, engendering strong backlashes.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the FBI decimated the Panthers’ ranks and trashed their offices after Hoover labeled them the biggest internal threat to national security.  The FBI was responsible for at least four Panther murders and incited a violent split in 1971 between followers of Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, who had fled to Algeria to avoid prosecution in 1969 (joined by his wife Kathleen, the Panthers’ Communications Secretary). The Panthers themselves played a major role in imprinting in the public mind a frightening image that politicians have used for decades to justify harsh sentences for black convicts, to deprive ex-felons of the vote, to adopt Stand Your Ground Laws and vilify Black Lives Matter today as a dangerous group of black militants.

Cristina Deptula: Why would you say the Newton trial was ‘the trial of the century?’ Why more so than say, the OJ Simpson trial, or anything else?

Lise Pearlman: The best definition I have seen of “the trial of the century” was by historian Anthony Lukas: “A spectacular show trial, a great national drama in which the stakes [are] nothing less than the soul of the American people.”

The Newton trial occurred during an extremely violent year in American history when American were deeply divided politically and racially. Race war was predicted. Yet the trial ended peacefully—creating a model for prosecutors and judges handling potentially explosive political trials.

Newton’s was the first Movement trial, encouraging hordes of protesters to demand his freedom and use him as a symbol of all black men caught up in an unjust system. His innovative lawyers pioneered the use of expert jury consultants and included a woman in a key role on the defense team. They engineered — with the consent of prosecutor Lowell Jensen — a diverse jury with an unheard of female majority in a death penalty case. That jury then elected the first black foreman of a major murder trial, who used his talents at organizational management to guide the jury to consensus.

In my first book, The Sky’s the Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20th Century? I made the argument that the unexpected verdict averting national riots created an opportunity after King’s assassination for inter-racial collaboration that led to election of black mayors, Congress members, Senators and Governors that eventually laid the groundwork for the nation’s first black President.

The O.J. Simpson trial was viewed as remarkable for featuring a woman lead prosecutor assisted by a black prosecutor, almost thirty years after Fay Stender played her pivotal role in the Newton trial. It was also still unusual in the 1990s for a high-profile murder prosecution to seat a mostly black jury. That jury wound up electing a black forewoman (again three decades after David Harper’s pioneering role in the Newton murder trial).

The stakes were much lower in the mid-90s than in 1968.  Simpson himself never testified at his trial. In contrast, Newton was a revolutionary with activist lawyers who put him on the stand with his life at stake so he could educate the judge and jury about hundreds of years of racism in America – a powerful historic moment that mesmerized the packed courthouse. Also, O. J. Simpson never faced the possibility of execution; if he was convicted, national riots were far less likely than in 1968.

Unlike the O. J. Simpson case which involved innocent victims of gruesome domestic violence, the Newton trial put a dead policeman on trial as a symbol of racist abuse – gaining the Panthers an international political following when the country was already divided over a war criticized as racist. O.J. Simpson drew worldwide attention to his televised trial primarily because he was a celebrity who could afford a Dream Team to defend him.

The riveting trial acquainted millions of viewers for the first time with the intricacies of criminal procedure explained nightly on the news along with DNA evidence. The Dream Team also focused viewers and the jury on accusations of racist evidence-tampering by the Los Angeles Police. When polled after the trial, whites were split over the propriety of the acquittal verdict (42% agreed with the acquittal and 49% favored his conviction). Black viewers mostly endorsed the acquittal — 78% in favor, 10% believing he should have been convicted. Not until 2015 did a poll of African-Americans reveal a majority who believed that Simpson got away with murder.

The differing reactions to the O. J. Simpson case was an eye-opening look at the different prism through which blacks and whites view the same experience. That illustrates why diverse juries comprised of people with very different life experiences help cancel out each other’s bias and reach more defensible verdicts.

Cristina Deptula: For the younger generation, or just for everyone really, why is it important to know the history of the Black Panthers and the Huey Newton trial? How does that knowledge of history help us as we seek a more just world today?

Lise Pearlman: The Black Panthers were mostly in their teens and early to mid-twenties. They took to the streets for a cause of social justice they believed in and brought international attention to the history of racism in America. They also worked hard to start major community programs and lobby for ethnic studies programs. They trained for a revolution they could never have carried off, but were willing to lay down their lives if need be. Some did. Others went to prison.

They made mistakes to learn from, but they also achieved amazing results. Most of them never realized how much they accomplished in helping move the long arc of the moral universe toward justice, as Dr. King sought to do with his life’s work. Most Panthers considered banker David Harper an Uncle Tom. Few had any idea that the jury foreman knowingly risked his career and his life to make sure justice was done. Nor did most of the Panthers who picketed that 1968 trial learn about Ann Ginger’s resulting 1969 handbook that led to far more diverse juries “of one’s peers” for minority defendants nationwide.

Most Americans today do not know that including women and minorities among the cross-section of citizens routinely serving in jury pools got jump-started by the defense team’s aggressive efforts to seat women and minorities in the 1968 Newton death penalty trial.

Today’s issues of inequality and injustice can be addressed with similar zeal by young people focused on social justice, but it is important for them to learn from the history of this pivotal trial what worked then and what did not.

Cristina Deptula: How can we continue to further transform our legal system to treat all fairly regardless of race, class, gender etc? What reforms still need to be made?

Lise Pearlman: Oakland’s diverse police force, bench and prosecutor’s office are at the cutting edge of modern law enforcement, partly because of court-ordered reforms to the police department. Similar reforms have recently been ordered in Ferguson and Baltimore following widely publicized shooting incidents. Two black Attorneys General in a row under the nation’s first black President favored federal intervention.

This requires leadership committed to evenhanded justice regardless of race or ethnicity, class, gender, sexual identity or religion. Key reforms that should be replicated more widely are body cams for police, more cities creating police review boards with meaningful authority, and diverse police forces that mirror the populations they serve.

Oakland is also among the cities that have adopted restorative justice programs to redirect high school offenders away from the drop-out to prison pipeline, and Operation Cease Fire, an innovative program in which police, prosecutors, social workers and other government personnel sit down with gang members to intervene and give them the chance to lay down their weapons in exchange for help obtaining education, jobs, health care, and counseling to turn their lives around. This program acknowledges the handicaps that many minority youths grow up with in a society of haves and have nots and has made inroads in reducing gang membership and murders.

Legislatures committed to reform are also key. In the past few years there have been bipartisan proposals to reduce prison populations for nonviolent crimes, a population that is disproportionately minority. There have also been efforts to address racial profiling in arrests. Since Trayvon Martin’s death Black Lives Matter protesters have dramatically increased media attention to police and vigilantes killing unarmed black suspects. But sniper attacks on police are also disturbingly on the rise, exacerbating a racial divide and a split among those employed in law enforcement on how to proceed to best ensure the safety of our citizens.

To become more representative of our citizenry, the justice system needs more women and minority judges and prosecutors. Some states still seat almost all white male judges; nationwide, about 80% of elected prosecutors remain white male. We need to choose more prosecutors who emulate Newton prosecutor Lowell Jensen’s commitment to jury diversity and to doing justice rather than winning at all costs.

We need to change the macho culture of too many criminal justice personnel, including the continued hiring of predominantly white prison guards who often maintain a dehumanizing “us” versus “them” attitude toward incarcerated minorities.

The transformation of warrior-policing to guardianship of the community policing occurred in Watts in Los Angeles and is currently under way in Baltimore. After the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore police hired a female trainer and more recruits with a background in sociology. Prosecution of police for misconduct remains rare and convictions are often elusive.

But the public demands more accountability; police departments are increasingly using body cams and implementing other reforms under the leadership of progressive police chiefs and/or federal oversight in civil rights cases brought by legal specialists. Implementation of such reforms requires judges who care about achieving those goals.  Many states have been moving in that direction; the federal courts now may be headed in the opposite direction.

Cristina Deptula: Well, we certainly hope that the moral arc of the United States judicial system will continue bending towards justice for all, regardless of race. And we thank you for your time and encourage people to order and read American Justice on Trial.

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Against Provocation: a Roundabout Response to John Sanford Friedrich


by Eric Kroczek

On Inauguration Day 2017, a meme was born. Actually many memes were born that day, but the ones I’m thinking of featured noted white supremacist Richard B. Spencer getting punched in the jaw as he was giving a typically oleaginous response to an interviewer’s question about his Pepe the Frog lapel pin. His attacker, a masked, black-clad individual, escaped on foot as quickly as he had entered the camera’s frame. The Internet went wild, or at least the left half of it did. Everyone suddenly had an opinion about the morality, ethics, aesthetics, and optics of punching a Nazi. Was it always wrong? Was it usually wrong, but sometimes tactically or strategically justified? Was it okay in most cases? Or was it always just totally fucking awesome?

I offer my mea culpa: My first reaction to the video was to laugh harder than I had laughed all week. Then I ran into the other room to show my wife, who attests that I said (or yelled) something along the lines of, “Oh my God! This is so fucking cathartic! I feel so much better!” So, in the case of this particular assault, I admit I was firmly and earnestly in the “fucking awesome” camp. Or maybe earnestly isn’t the right word: I am a natural-born iconoclast. My heroes include Paul Krassner and Noël Godin; nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see a pompous, hateful gasbag get a chuckle-worthy comeuppance. I was sure my enthusiasm for watching Spencer get clocked (and watching it again, and again, and again) wasn’t about the violence—I doubted I could have stomached watching him get shot, or stabbed, or stomped; in fact, I was sure I would have been horrified by it. It was the justice of it! I was taken up in the completely unexpected—that was what made it so funny!—humbling of an arrogant race-baiter who believes he is so superior, merely by virtue of his race, to so many people—entire classes and categories of people—that he gets to decide whether those people should be allowed to coexist with superior beings like himself. My laughter was the laughter of the just, watching justice get meted out to the unjust.

But within 24 hours I wasn’t so sure of myself anymore, and after another 24 I was deeply confused and conflicted, and in 24 more my mind had changed completely. I questioned my most basic motives and feelings. This had less to do with the attack on Spencer itself than on the dynamic that was occurring on the Internet, around the meme (or memes—there were dozens, hundreds of them now) of Richard B. Spencer getting punched. Richard B. Spencer was no longer Richard B. Spencer, tiresomely proselytizing neo-Nazi nobody, or Richard B. Spencer, hapless butt of a good prank, or even both of those things put together. Richard B. Spencer was now a celebrity. Richard B. Spencer was a symbol of our left-wing righteousness and victimhood (“We showed him!”), and of their right-wing righteousness and victimhood (“Leftist violence and censorship! The horror!”). Richard B. Spencer was, in other words, blood in the water, exciting everyone’s most antisocial instincts. All because three elements came together in one time and place: Provocateur A (Spencer), Provocateur B (his assailant), and, of course, a video camera. (The camera is, as always, important.)


This brings us back to that time and place: Inauguration Day, downtown Washington, D.C. This is where John Sandford Friedrich begins his essay “The New Age of Political Protest,” a defense of so-called “Black Bloc” protesters. It is incorrect, Friedrich informs us (and I take him at his word, as he has spent considerable time among some of them), to think of Black Bloc as an organized group, but rather as individuals sharing a common set of tactics and—perhaps—goals. The tactics he mentions include wearing bandanas or balaclavas to disguise identity and maintain anonymity, staying mobile and loose within the group to allow individuals to “leave the bloc and perform a direct action as they see fit” while evading capture, setting off fireworks, breaking windows and causing other types of property damage and destruction (video of the protest shows trash cans being set ablaze), and generally wreaking havoc and causing chaos. It’s probably reasonable to assume that the man who punched Richard B. Spencer identified as Black Bloc; he certainly used their tactics.

Friedrich is a bit hazy as to their goals, except insofar as those goals are coterminous with their tactics; he admits that “[p]erhaps the Black Bloc mentality has become detached from specific causes”. And a few lines earlier, he notes that “[t]o break the window of a corporate person as political theatre is to face multiple years of incarceration.” (I’ll come back to that last part.) I detect here the existential frustration of atomized, decontextualized individuals struggling to find meaning and agency, and isn’t that practically the definition of the human subject under neoliberal capitalism? (I could write another, much longer essay about that.) But I sense that insofar as there is a point to the mayhem—besides mere retaliatory spite against a machine that grinds societies into lonely naked particles—it is a cathartic and theatrical one. It is Art of the Spectacle, it is Theater of Cruelty.

Friedrich hints at this when he says that Black Bloc activists are less concerned with advancing a political agenda than committing acts of violence against property as “political theatre”; that they are “more akin to Civil War re-enactors” than political activists. He does cite a recent documented instance in which a Ku Klux Klan rally was cancelled due to the presence of several hundred Bloc counter-protesters—an interesting case of Left political theater preempting Right political theater before the curtain even rises. But that case seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Much more often, violence erupts, although as Friedrich points out, it is usually violence against property, not persons. And he gives a fair argument in favor of this approach: peaceful protesters (who Friedrich characterizes—with a hint of derision—as “overtly feminine”) who do things like chain themselves to pipelines, fences, and earth-moving equipment to make a point are often charged with serious crimes and go to prison; if you’re risking imprisonment no matter how you protest, why not make a spectacle and have some fun? It is a slightly more humane version what conservative thinker Allan Bloom characterized as “joy of the knife” logic: when the deracinated, disfranchised individual is faced with a conundrum whose only solutions are forbidden by social norms—like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, like Nietzsche’s “Pale Criminal,” like Brecht’s Mackie Messer—his only way out is “to see what the volcano of the id will spew forth.” Act disruptively, and—if you want to be noticed at all—act bigly, and in front of a camera. Provocation becomes violence, becomes self-actualization, becomes a kind of meaning, becomes art.

This all sounds a lot to me like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, which, if I remember correctly, was about a mild-mannered fellow whose self-alienation ran so deep that his psyche constructed another, more “masculine” persona around his id, a persona who built a fascistic army of atomized individuals who went around sowing very dramatic, very telegenic mayhem. And that didn’t end well. As Susan Sontag wrote, quoting Genet in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism”: “Fascism is theater.” It is certainly theater of a particular species, and that species bears a remarkable resemblance to Black Bloc.

So it’s obvious that my initial response to the video of the assault on Richard B. Spencer was not rational or considered. What’s less obvious, but became clear to me with time, is that it wasn’t even fully emotional—by which I mean it contained no curiosity, no sympathy, no empathy. Oddly, I think it contained little real hate, at least at first—by which I mean that to feel hatred toward someone there needs to be an emotional context, a history. When I first saw the video, Richard B. Spencer was nothing to me other than “Oh, yeah, that idiot who elicited Nazi salutes by saying ‘Hail Trump!’ in a video I saw two months ago.” He was a provocateur, and what I felt was more simple than hatred. It was sensational, reactive, a reptilian-brain response to sudden, violent spectacle. I laughed because I was provoked; I partook of a vicarious joy of the knife.


A different kind of theater happened the day after Inauguration Day, a “peaceful, overtly feminine” theater, Friedrich would say: the spectacle of millions of women in solidarity all over the world, crowding city squares and parks in protest. Unlike Black Bloc, they came openly, making no attempt to conceal their identity. No property was damaged. No one was hurt. Not a single arrest was made. But a point was made—This will not stand—and the world took notice. Whereas the D.C. Black Bloc disruptions of the previous day seemed to consist mostly of handfuls of protesters knocking over newspaper vending machines, shattering the windows of a few businesses, and standing around trying to ignite trash cans, while far larger groups of police, National Guardsmen, legal observers, and reporters stood around waiting for something truly newsworthy to happen—Sad!—the Women’s March protests were remarkable for their dignity and self-possession. Maybe more to the point, they were noteworthy for their sheer numbers, the brute fact that such a large portion of our polity (and even large numbers of people in other countries!) participated in or supported an act of explicitly political protest. They said: This is what democracy looks like. This is what the citizenry in solidarity looks like. We are watching our government. Take notice. Whoa.

The United States is a profoundly conservative polity. By “conservative” I don’t mean in the sense of Red State conservative or Fox News conservative, but in the sense that our most venerated and salient traditions can be found in the text of two documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and we fiercely believe in and defend those texts, or think we do. We have no state religion. We have few legends or myths that transcend a particular region of the country or a certain ethnicity, aside from the idea that anyone is welcome here who comes in goodwill, that one can prosper here. These universal myths have worn thin, certainly, but they are still held as true by most Americans. It is difficult, probably impossible, to convince a majority of voting-age Americans that it is in their best interest to align themselves with the aims of anonymous and often violent provocateurs who break windows, even if those windows belong to corporations that do public harm. Another of our handful of universal myths is that everyone has the right to own property and hold it safe.

Black Bloc tactics may convince some of the young and the dispossessed, but ultimately, unfortunately, it is the older, propertied class that holds the majority, that votes in numbers, that needs convincing of whatever of the Left’s aims they might be willing to accept. This requires slow work, a gradual warming of the water, for they are deeply skeptical of the new. The vast Center of the country is not amused by political spectacle, by joy-of-the-knife-by-proxy, by the politics of provocation. They see it as an existential threat to their version of the American founding myths. Yet they might still be convinced by knowing that we are their neighbors, that we are legion, that we come in peace and empathy, but we stand firm by our principles.

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