In the lobby of the Walter Reade Theatre, where the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is being held, waiting to see the New York premiere of “Better This World,” I’m writing in my journal and people watching. There’s a guy in dress slacks and a white shirt, with a badge around his neck and blond hair that’s cut so close it looks like there are glittering yellow seeds growing out of his head.
The guy, I learn later, is Bradley Crowder, one of the subjects of “Better This World.” He’s part of the question and answer session when the film is over, along with documentarians Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega. Crowder and his friend, David McKay, were protestors at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN, when they were arrested for building Molotov cocktails, which according to sources in the FBI, they intended to set off with the goal of injuring police. The film is a troubling and complicated story of betrayal, identity and loyalty, as well as the role of paranoia and scapegoating in the post 9.11 United States, especially of the Muslim and activist communities.
Crowder and McKay, in their early twenties at the time of their arrest, met radical activist Brandon Darby in Austin in the months before the convention. Both men were frustrated and angered by the Bush administration, and wrestling with their own activist identities. (Crowder: “I just couldn’t not do anything.”) In a moment that elicited gasps from the audience (myself included), Darby is revealed to be an FBI informant, who may or may not have involved Crowder and McKay in entrapment, inciting them into building the cocktails. (There’s an episode of This American Life about the case and Darby, notorious for his post Katrina organizing with Common Ground in New Orleans. He’s now a right wing commentator.)
During the q/a, Crowder reflected on the impact of what happened to himself, McKay, and their loved ones in the aftermath of the protest and legal battles. (Crowder spent 2 years in jail and McKay 4; he’ll be released in 2012. The two are not allowed to speak directly to each other.) He’s triggered by certain sounds, the result of violence at the protests and what happened to him in prison-“There’s such dehumanization in the criminal justice system, and most people in prison don’t get to be seen as humans.”
When asked by an audience member if the system is innately flawed or if he sees what happened to him and McKay as an isolated incident, Crowder said, “Poor people have to deal with entrapment and informants all the time. If you don’t want to see (the system) as flawed, you don’t really want to see what’s going on.” His current activism is in Texas around immigration, budget cuts and police violence. He’s now critical of mass mobilization movements that aren’t also predicated on day to day community organizing and confronting issues of class, race and power. “You have to work hard, think hard, ask hard questions…you have to fight with people.”
“Better This World” will premiere on PBS’s POV in September 2011. The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, featuring 18 films from 12 countries, runs June 16-June 30th at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.