Filmmaker Sam Stoker, We Copwatch‘s Jacob Crawford and Block Report Radio‘s JR Valrey presented The Ghosts of March 21st in a crowded room at Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center Thursday night. [See Valrey’s interview with Stoker here.] The screening was held on the eve of the Mixon battle’s fifth anniversary. On that day–named the “deadliest day” for the Oakland Police Department– what began as a traffic violation pullover ended in a fire exchange that left four police officers and Mixon himself, dead. [Read more background here.]
Valrey opened the evening at La Peña with props to the Mixon family–many of whom were in attendance and spoke– and the movements that have continued following the Mixon street battle. He also challenged the Associated Press‘ coverage of the day, calling them the “public relations team for the state,” adding that they acted in their typical role of defending police terror. He pointed out how essential it is to understand police brutality, not as an isolated incident, but as systematic terror. Sam Stoker, the director, gave a humble greeting, saying it was his first film and that he was curious to hear feedback and other thoughts.
The film itself was well-researched, fast-paced, inspiring and constructed with unedited, bare-bones honesty. Stoker used what he called the Richard Wright approach–taking a supposedly unlikable character and illuminating his humanity. He did this by highlighting the street-level reaction to the event, interviews with the family and the brutal, irresponsible actions of the OPD. Stoker operated in the highest form of journalism: letting the community tell their own story and then artfully presenting it.
The documentary narrated the events of the day by compiling family accounts, police scanner segments, sensational news clips, official documents, and neighbors’ descriptions. Over and over community members told the camera what they thought of Mixon. “He’s a straight up soldier,” said one teenager. The sentiment was repeated by everyone from the elders to the teenagers. Their own stories of police brutality began to bubble up: loved ones murdered by the police, a rib broken and lung collapsed during an encounter, harassment, lists of those slain by OPD, the rider scandal and other instances that have fueled their distrust and hate. “An eye for an eye,” said one person. “The chickens have come home to roost,” said another.
Through the narration of the community and footage of people on the street heckling an Associated Press reporter at the scene, the documentary has a simultaneous theme critiquing the media. As Valrey pointed out after the screening, this is not just a critique of the mainstream media, which is always used as a tool of repression. There is also a condemnation of the liberal media members who failed to show up that day and fell completely silent around the Mixon events. Valrey compared the film to Hollywood’s Fruitvale, the recent movie about Oscar Grant and its narration of the murder as an isolated incident. Fruitvale focused only on Oscar as an individual, left out any systematic analysis and omitted the community’s riotous, righteous, street-level response. Stoker’s documentary and the discussion did the opposite, placing the Mixon battle in a historical sociopolitical context that stretches from rape accusations against Nat Turner to present day anti-police sentiment/rebellions and the media’s propagation of, or silence about the empire’s narratives. Rather than making another hero out of an ordinary complicated individual, Stoker shows how Mixon inspired the community by going out like a warrior and attacking an evil system that has monopolized violence for centuries.
Unlike the media at that time, Mixon’s family was able to speak out both in the documentary and after the screening. They spoke of the Mixon they loved, as well as the parole officer whose neglect and abuse fueled anger leading up to the street battle. The family also talked about the media’s character assassination via rape and other accusations.
We won’t give away everything, as you should take the opportunity to attend one of the screenings and discussions that will be held all weekend:
Friday, 21 March, 7PM: Qilomobo (2313 San Pablo, Oakland)
Saturday, 22 March, 1-3PM: Koret Auditorium, SF Main Librariy (100 Larkin St, San Francisco)
Sunday, 23 March, 4-6PM: Arlene Francis Center (99 6th St, Santa Rosa)
April 4, San Leandro, Oakland International Film Festival
Watch the trailer: