Review: Monstrous Regiments
15 May 2008
Gerry Fitzpatrick reviews a new wealth of US TV archive that has become available on the internet and compares US coverage of Black revolt with British coverage of the early civil rights period.
1. America 1967
In the late 1960s the student demonstrations and the Black Panthers appeared to be threatening enough to Middle America but the alpha event that had made the Omega Man vigilante was the July rebellion of 1967 in Newark New Jersey. Why? - Because that’s when the rest of the nation saw its nightmare begin or rather their fears of what they thought they saw begin.
Some of the TV film footage has been located and can be viewed on line:
I say ‘some’ for it is clear that the broadcaster WCBS faced criticism for showing just how brutal things had become in Newark. They had been accused of fuelling the violence by showing it. The WCBS online archived programme shows the station defending its own approach in the days after the riots. This programme contains very little footage of the actual violence and constantly mentions that the Station had been highly praised in the press which they believe somehow proved that they had done nothing reprehensible - other than report concerns over poverty and bad housing and what the Mayor of Newark and his officials thought about those claims. They also went out of their way to show that they had not sided with the rioters as they show that their reporters had been based inside the police and National Guard compound.
Understanding State Brutality
They also re-showed their reporter with the national guard saying that he had indeed witnessed ‘two dozen cases’ were ‘exceptional force had been used’ but that under the circumstances, it was to be appreciated that those government units who had used that force were ‘fearful’ and could not really tell who was who ‘in the dark’. That seemed to please the National Guardsmen standing directly behind him.
‘No Seven Year Old Child Was Shot…..’
WCBS also featured one of their black reporters acting responsibly in establishing that ‘there was no basis to the rumour that police had shot a seven year old child’ the black reporter is then shown interviewing an official from the local hospital to prove that their was no ‘seven year old child’ admitted to the hospital; underlining the fact that the Station had done its best to ‘challenge the rumours’ about children being shot and the ‘use of the rumour as weapon’ by agitators. There was one problem with that - the rumours did have a basis in fact as their first report on 14 July on the arrivals at the local hospital made clear a young child - Edmond Moss (aged ten) had been shot and did later die from his wounds. He was one of the first children to be shot. Joey Bass a small boy – was shot on the following day - 15 of July in the course of the police shooting of William Furr, who had lifted a case of beer from a looted liquor store. Joey Bass unlike William Furr, survived but Michael Pugh (aged twelve) did not. He had been putting some trash in the bin for his mother when he happened to see a group of State Troopers on the corner, the child shouted over a few choice remarks at the state troopers for which he was then murdered. These events were not reported or featured in WCBS’s defence of its reporting. What was reported and re?reported, was the hysterical screams of a white woman as she watches another white woman receive first aid and reassure from the police that her wound is ‘just a scratch’.
The news commentator with some emotive ‘B’ movie language introduced this, “an old car bearing a white man and woman limped out of the ghetto shot through with bullet holes – the woman had been shot.”
In other words WCBS wished to make clear that they had not gone to Newark to legitimate any black ‘revolt’ and were not guilty of what they had been accused. The defensive tone of the stations’ reporting - on its own reporting, is unmistakeable - it is whites as victims of blacks that the station wished to stress and that the WCBS unit that had reported the story had been dispatched to follow up an earlier report that a ‘negro mob’ had just killed an undercover police officer. No attempt was made to verify or comment on that report. Contrast this with the scene at the local hospital where the black victims shown are described as being injured by ‘sniper fire’ and ‘stray’ bullets. No victim who had suffered gun shot wounds was interviewed in the hospital. Only a white doctor was interviewed about the extra shifts and surgery that they had to put on to cope.
A New Battle: The Battle of Interpretations And The Battle Within Interpretations
Martin Steadman, the original WCBS anchorman in Newark, had been trying to get WCBS interested in the story for weeks before the riots. When his memos on Newark were finally read out on the in defence of WCBS report special they tell of the city’s extraordinary neglect and that Newark was ready to ‘explode’. However when the report cuts to the ‘rioting’ we see no rioting, only broken glass on pavements, the transference of 14 suspects and the passive arrest of one looter. It was after this report that the Stedman’s report was originally broadcast about conditions in Newark a story as the commentator says, that they had ‘been sitting on for weeks…’
The point of this was that the station wished to show that they had legitimate concerns about what was going to happen and they had not meant the Steadman report as any form of endorsement of the revolt against the conditions he had reported on. To underline that point it then cuts to Steadman in the studio speaking on the influence of ‘outsiders’ on the Newark’s civil rights politics. In this Steadman indicates that the disturbances prior to the riots were the work of people not from Newark whose political access to the city was via the Newark Poverty Programme. First Tom Hayden (‘who had been to North Vietnam’) was ‘reachable by phone there’ (as was a self styled black general, his ten followers and his ‘second in command’ who had been ejected from a city planning meeting to discuss the building of a medical centre on the site of black properties). The report had also shown the board of education meeting, which had been disrupted following the attempt to push through a white board member over a black board member (most of Newark’s schools were black but there had never had a black head of education).
The message from this was clear as our commentator says, ‘the negroes were not to be denied’. But they were denied as WCBS go on to report the board actually compromised and reappointed the existing official – hardly the stuff of revolutionary conspiracies. However, that didn’t stop the programme from insisting that they were the first to report on the ‘anti poverty’ outsiders. The clear implications being that the outsiders were responsible for the agitation and the rioting.
We Are All Conservatives Now
This political defensiveness by WCBS about
what it thought it was doing in Newark also indicates the battle to come
over the interpretation and understanding of the Newark riots and modern
black riots as a phenomenon. How should they have been presented? What
had caused them? How should they be responded to? Black activists had made
it known that they thought the riots were a ‘revolt’ and part of a ‘rebellion’
as Stokley Carmichael had put it.
It would be too easy to call the burying of the activists story part of the established pattern of responses when clearly this media response was a rare response indeed and it indicates the rejoinder that the ostensibly liberal WCBS thought it needed to give to its conservative critics. In effect to state, that faced with rebellion, ‘we are all conservatives now’. Public housing projects in Newark and further afield may have been continually strafed by government forces with automatic weapons fire killing and maiming residents in reply to some sniper fire, but it was as the subsequent investigations showed - a very unequal contest. Yet Middle America’s perception of Newark and Detroit was that the state and the police or more correctly, the armed police and State troopers were the only thing that was between them and the society of protestors and black rebellion. And if the state could not do the job of stopping them, then the new independent vigilantes would do it despite the state. Politically it was this fantasy that fuelled the pro-Nixon movement and ensured its re-election in 1972 (government of the paranoid for the paranoid).
Race & Class
After the rebellions of the late 1960s the black movement succeeded in getting over 100 black mayors elected in US cities. Most black people understandably assumed that things would improve and for a short while they did. After the election of Roland Regan in 1980 most of the severe inequalities in housing in education and in employment for black people returned with a vengeance as the public and Federal assistance programmes were cut to shreds or abolished. The conservatives complained about the poor living beyond their means as justification to cut anti-poverty programmes. Their solution: borrow to buy a house then keep borrowing. We know were that approach to public finance has left us.
2. Ireland 1963-1969
The political parallels between Ireland and America in the mid 1960s are very strong. They occur on many levels. First there were the radical community campaigns against discrimination in the early 1960s. These have overwhelmingly been ignored in the official and revisionist histories such as the British Governments Cameron Report (they have been documented by Socialist Democracy and by the journalist Michael Morgan). The official histories begin by recording the formation of new regional organisations that began to take more radical and public actions – like picketing and marching in defiance of reactionary bans. This is then followed by violent actions from the state and its supporters against peaceful demonstrators such as the attacks Selma (US) and Burntollet (N.Ireland). The justification for this state and vigilante violence against the reformers that would later link them to their ideological apologists was this: the reformers were part of a secret (Catholic/IRA) conspiracy that would bring violence in the future. Therefore, the state and its supporters were justified in a violent preventative strike. The second important parallel is that when the period is viewed historically these ‘preventive’ violent actions disappear and we are then presented with ‘unfathomable’ hatreds producing ‘political deadlock.’
The Achievements of the Forgotten Vigilantes
Among those actions that have been forgotten or treated as having no historical significance are: 1.The brutal ambush of the People’s Democracy marchers by armed Loyalist and special reserve police officers at Burntollet Bridge in January 1969 and the second ambush which took place on the approach to Derry 2. The bombing campaign begun in March 1969 against water and electricity supplies by the pro British Ulster Volunteer Force.
These actions are never taken to be as significant as the formation of the provisional IRA one year later, nor were their political consequences: in the first instance Burntollet was concrete proof that the police were an actively, violent, sectarian, oppressive force. Following the January demonstrations and the widespread Loyalist hysteria that they were the work of a new IRA conspiracy, a new far right group of Stormont government MPs was formed in February 1969 to remove the Stormont Prime Minster O’Neil. Known as the ‘Portadown Parliament’ - they succeeded within a few months. But they only were able to succeed after O’Neil’s position became untenable following the UVF bombings that occurred at the end of March and through out April, which halted water and electrical supplies (stand pipes were introduced). The bombings were accepted as the consequence of appeasing the IRA conspiracy but which was in fact ‘part of a campaign by Loyalist groups to destabilise Terence O'Neill, then Northern Ireland Prime Minister, and bring an end to reforms.’(CAIN Archive Chronology 2002)
Having secured O’Neil’s removal the Stormont parliament acted as if the IRA campaign had already begun – before it even existed. When in fact it was facing a bombing campaign conducted by it’s own paramilitary supporters.
Erased From The News Erased From History
As far as the local reporting and media coverage of the events is concerned the pattern is no better than American coverage, as BBC broadcaster David Dunseith stated in a recent lecture broadcast on Northern Visions Television; that during the first period of the troubles, “the BBC was the political arm of the Stormont government”. Whereas, in America the battle to control the meaning of the political and the violent upheavals, happened after the event, in Northern Ireland the state (and its supporters) were commonly not shown to have committed any aggression. There was no local media investigation into the UVF bombings or the police violence. Like the rest of the Unionist political establishment; most journalists accepted that the IRA had been responsible.
The States ‘Conspiracy of Silence’
Similarly when armed Loyalists mobs began systemically burning Catholic homes in the summer of 1969 the BBC refused to say who had been responsible, reporting the events as ‘disturbances’. Only the aftermath of the attacks were extensively filmed. No local TV news report or news feature attempted to establish who had been responsible for the attacks. In addition no media investigation of the failure of the police to stop the attacks, or to block the progress of the mobs was ever attempted. The photographs that do exist of the Loyalist mobs show the police at the head of the mob(s) while they made their way to attack Catholic homes and businesses. During a subsequent police investigation into the police invasion of Derry’s Bogside, the then Chief Constable Sir Arthur Young admitted that there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ that faced investigating officers. The official Report into the death of man who was beaten by the Police - Mr Deveney - was not published until 2001.
No officer was found to be responsible for the death of Mr Deveney or the attack on his family (his two daughters were also severely beaten). Again there was no local (official) media investigation of the force that could commit such outrages. Once again it must be stressed that the silence surrounding these Loyalist and State outrages was not total, Irish and British and minority liberal media – Granada’s World In Action, and Thames This Week programmes did report on how the impact of Loyalist and state violence shaped the conflict. The Sunday Times Insight team reports and subsequent book were perhaps the best. But the work that should be read and can be read here:
Extract form Max Hastings Ulster: The Fight For Civil Rights (1970)
In forty years this conservative journalist has not changed his view that
The British, whatever their politicians may say publicly, will shed few tears when that distant but inevitable day arrives, and Ulster and the Irish Republic are reunited as logic dictates
That view was forged on the Falls Road as Hastings watched Loyalists petrol bomb catholic homes and the RUC’s armoured cars repeatedly strafe catholic houses and apartment blocks.