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Review :: GLBT/Queer : Human Rights : Labor : Politics : Race
The Movie J. Edgar; Just More Hollywood Lies
by Steven Argue
24 Jun 2012
While the movie J. Edgar ignores J. Edgar Hoover’s many successes in silencing American Blacks, leftists, and persecution of homosexuals, it starts out by “justifying” the 1919 Palmer Raids. J. Edgar Hoover’s involvement in the Palmer Raids was at the beginning of his long sordid history of carrying out political repression in the United States. The Palmer Raids, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with J. Edgar Hoover on his staff, rounded up leftists including Anarchists, Communists, and Socialists for prison and deportation. Among the many crimes committed by the government, hundreds were deported, including Emma Goldman, a leading anarchist and U.S. citizen who was deported to the USSR, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was thrown in prison, and the young communist movement was driven underground.
[Photo, the bloodied bed of Fred Hampton, Chicago Black Panther Party leader murdered in his sleep in a joint operation of the Chicago Police and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In 1968 J. Edgar Hoover infamously declared, "The Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teachings, they will be dead revolutionaries."]
The Movie J. Edgar; Just More Hollywood Lies
Including The Second Lynching of Wesley Everest
By Steven Argue
Clint Eastwood directed the movie J. Edgar. It boasts an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, and Judi Dench. DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover.
In the 1950s the anti-Communist McCarthy witch hunt removed most of the best actors and writers from Hollywood. Leftists, suspected communists, and supporters of Black rights were blacklisted and refused work. J. Edgar Hoover, in charge of the FBI, played a central role in this campaign against human rights and art. Besides ruining the careers of people with great talent, McCarthyism destroyed the quality of much of what is produced in Hollywood. Every once in a while a new movie comes out that shows that Hollywood just may have recovered from the McCarthyite with hunt. J. Edgar, unfortunately, is not one of them.
The movie supposedly follows J. Edgar Hoover’s career from his work in the Justice Department during the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 up through his work as head of the BOI (Bureau of Investigation), renamed the “FBI” in 1935, to the end of his career in the late 1960s. Key FBI operations under J. Edgar Hoover, including the FBI’s involvement in the McCarthyite witch hunt and COINTELPRO, are completely ignored. The repressive Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 are, on the other hand, “justified” by a series of blatant lies.
In 1968 J. Edgar Hoover infamously declared, "The Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teachings, they will be dead revolutionaries."
At that time, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover declared that the Black Panther Party was the “greatest threat to national security” and gave police nationwide the green light to frame and murder members of the Black Panther Party. Hundreds of members of the Black Panther Party were framed. This included Geronimo Pratt who was framed-up on murder charges and did 30 years in prison, despite the FBI knowing that Geronimo Pratt was not even in the vicinity of the murders. A judge finally exonerated Geronimo and released him 30 years late, but other framed Black Panther Party members remain in prison. Thirty eight members of the Black Panther Party were murdered in joint police / FBI actions; including Fred Hampton and Mark Clark who were shot by the Chicago police in their sleep after being drugged by FBI agents so they would not wake-up and defend themselves as police murdered them. Later, lawsuits filed by family members found FBI involvement in those two murders and the families of the victims were given some compensation.
The movie J. Edgar Hoover fails to even mention J. Edgar Hoover’s operations against the Black Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements of the 1960s, with the exception of exposing an attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into not accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. This was part of a broader FBI program to spy on and disrupt the activities of Martin Luther King Junior, including writing fake letters between leaders of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement in attempts to create divisions. Likewise, the FBI used their infiltrators in the Nation of Islam to promote the idea of killing Malcom X, an FBI operation that ultimately succeeded.
The Red Scare and Palmer Raids
While the movie ignores J. Edgar Hoover’s many successes in silencing American Blacks, it starts out by “justifying” the 1919 Palmer Raids. J. Edgar Hoover’s involvement in the Palmer Raids was at the beginning of his long sordid history of carrying out political repression in the United States. The Palmer Raids, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with J. Edgar Hoover on his staff, rounded up leftists including Anarchists, Communists, and Socialists for prison and deportation. Hundreds were deported, including Emma Goldman, a leading anarchist and U.S. citizen who was deported to the USSR.
The 1919 Palmer Raids were part of the broader Red Scare that started in 1917 with the Russian Revolution. It was opposition by the Russian working class, soldiers, and peasantry to Russian involvement in the First World War that played a primary role in bringing on the October 1917 Russian Revolution. In response, the American ruling class, fearing a workers revolution in the United States, carried out broad repression to stop anti-war and other anti-government activities. The 1917 Espionage Act mandated imprisonment for any activities seen by the government as interfering with the recruitment of troops. Further haunted by the specter of the Bolshevik Revolution, Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1918 that made criticism of the “U.S. form of government” a felony. An additional 1918 law, the Anarchist Seclusion Act, called for the deportation of anarchists.
Early factions of the young Communist Party, inspired by the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky, were forced underground in these first years of their existence. In June 1918, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was jailed for his opposition to U.S. involvement in the First World War and sentenced to ten years in prison on the charge of “sedition”. From prison Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket and received nearly a million votes. As part of this government led “Red Scare”, in May 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two working class anarchist immigrants, were framed-up on murder and robbery charges and were sentenced to death despite their clear innocence. They were executed in 1927 for no other reason than their dedication to the emancipation of the working class.
False Portrayal of the 1919 Centralia, Washington Armistice Day Riot
J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, justifies the repression of the Red Scare and Palmer Raids with several falsehoods. One of these was a false description and reenactment of the 1919 Centralia, Washington Armistice Day Riot. The movie shows a parade of veterans “fresh back from the war” peacefully parading down the street until “radical” snipers from the roof tops open fire, killing four veterans.
The reality in Centralia, however, was completely different. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had set-up headquarters in Centralia and were working to unionize workers in the timber industry. In response, on Memorial Day in 1918, the timber barons organized a “parade” that included both the Governor of Washington and the Mayor of Centralia. This was actually a mob intent on driving the IWW out of town. They went to the IWW headquarters where they beat-up IWW organizers and destroyed their headquarters.
At that time, Washington’s labor movement did have strength in the major proletarian center of Seattle with a general strike of 60,000 workers in 1919 winning higher wages. Little Centralia, however, lacked Washington’s labor strength. Yet the IWW were determined to not back down in the face of the thuggery of the capitalists in their struggle to improve the lives of the working class. They set-up a new headquarters after the old was destroyed. On Armistice Day 1919 the American Legion planned another attack, this time on the new IWW hall. On advice from a lawyer, IWW members armed themselves for self-defense. When the American Legion mob attacked the hall, breaking into the building with IWW members inside, IWW members opened fire to defend themselves and their property. Despite having weapons the IWW members were overwhelmed, beaten, and jailed.
One IWW member who was captured was Wesley Everest. He had tried to run out the back of the hall, but was forced to shoot three people who had tried to capture and beat him, killing one. Everest was later taken from jail by a lynch mob, mutilated, hung from a bridge, and shot about 20 times. No one was ever charged for the lynching of Wesley Everest. A number of IWW members, however, went to prison under long prison sentences for their acts of self-defense.
These actual events bear no resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio’s propagandistic description of a peaceful parade being fired on and DiCaprio stating, “the revolution had begun”. Even if this was to be portrayed as the type of lie J. Edger Hoover would tell, no attempt is made to answer that lie with reality. The movie J. Edgar Hoover is, in fact, a second lynching of Wesley Everest.
False Portrayal of the Chicago Riot of 1919
Another false explanation given by Leonardo DiCaprio to justify the Palmer Raids is the Chicago Riots of 1919. DiCaprio’s character describes these riots as having been set off by a Communist led strike of coal workers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Chicago 1919 riot was actually mass murder and property destruction carried out by whites against Blacks, with Blacks fighting back. It started with a Black youth, Eugene Williams, accidentally swimming into a territory claimed by whites. Racist whites threw rocks at Williams, killing him. In response, the Chicago Police arrested a Black person. Tensions and violence rose with Blacks fighting back against white racist terror. Still, Blacks suffered the brunt of the attacks with 23 Blacks dead, 15 whites dead, 537 people injured, and over 1,000 Black families left homeless. The New York Times complained at the time, "There had been no trouble with the Negro before the war when most admitted the superiority of the white race." While it is true that the Communist program was strongly anti-racist and in support of the right of Blacks to fight-back, the descriptions in the movie J. Edger are once again completely divorced from reality.
False Portrayal of the 1919 Galleanist Bombings
Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edger Hoover gives a third “justification” for the Palmer Raids that is also untrue. He speaks of a bomb that went off at the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and at the houses of some other top government officials. DiCaprio falsely attributes these bombing to “Communist Bolsheviks”. This is another blatant lie. Those actually involved in the bombings were an anarchist group under the leadership of Luigi Galleani. Galleani believed in the “propaganda of the deed”, that is, getting rid of tyrants through direct terrorist action. This is not the Bolshevik program.
There is no question that those who Galleani targeted were tyrants, but the “Bolshevik Communists” did not believe Galleani’s tactics were useful. It’s not that the Communists had any sympathies for those who Galleani bombed. Those bombed, like Palmer, were carrying out repression, defending exploitation, and were part of a system that sent millions to die in the First World War. The objection of the Communists to these sorts of bombings is that they accomplish nothing. Worse, such acts of terrorism tend to demobilize the working class who may begin to look to small military units to carry out the revolution for them rather than knowing that revolution is a task that they themselves must carry out through methods that include strikes, mass protests, and the building of a revolutionary vanguard party.
In addition, acts of terrorism can always be used by the state as an excuse for political repression. This was the case with the Galleani bombings that were used to intensify attacks on the free speech rights of the entire left, most of whom had nothing to do with the bombings. Hundreds of leftists, like anarchist Emma Goldman, who were not involved in any way with the bombings were arrested and deported and, to this day, the movie J. Edger is blaming “Bolshevik Communists”, people who also literally had absolutely nothing to do with the bombings.
The Deportation Hearing of Emma Goldman
The movie J. Edgar Hoover portrays Emma Goldman as refusing to answer any questions regarding her deportation proceedings. While it is technically correct that she refused to answer verbal questions at the hearing on the grounds that she had committed no crime and had the right to her opinions, she did submit an eloquent rejection of the proceedings concluding:
“Under the mask of the ... Anti-Anarchist law every criticism of a corrupt administration, every attack on Governmental abuse, every manifestation of sympathy with the struggle of another country in the pangs of a new birth--in short, every free expression of untrammeled thought may be suppressed utterly, without even the semblance of an unprejudiced hearing or a fair trial. It is for these reasons, chiefly, that I strenuously protest against this despotic law and its star chamber methods of procedure. I protest against the whole spirit underlying it--the spirit of an irresponsible hysteria, the result of the terrible war and of the evil tendencies of bigotry and persecution and violence which are the epilogue of five years of bloodshed.
“Under these circumstances it becomes evident that the real purpose of all of these repressive measures--chief among them the Anti-Anarchist law--is to support the capitalist status quo in the United States. Vain is the pretence that the safety of the country or the well-being of the American people demands these drastic Prussian methods. Nay, indeed, the people can only profit by a free discussion of the new ideas now germinating in the minds of thinking men and women in society. The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society. In truth, it is such free expression and discussion alone that can point the most beneficial path for human progress and development. But the object of deportations and of the Anti-Anarchist law, as of all similar repressive measures, is the very opposite. It is to stifle the voice of the people, to muzzle every aspiration of labor. That is the real and terrible menace of the star chamber proceedings and of the tendency of exiling and banishing everyone who does not fit into the scheme of things our industrial lords are so eager to perpetuate.
“With all the power and intensity of my being I protest against the conspiracy of imperialist capitalism against the life and the liberty of the American people.”
A fairer portrayal of events would have included something of this statement. It is for Emma Goldman’s eloquent words and popularity that she and Alexander Berkman became a personal crusade of J. Edgar Hoover, with J. Edgar Hoover declaring them to be "beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm."
Instead of portraying the crude and indecent repressive activities of J. Edgar Hoover in silencing political expression in the United States, the movie lies about those events and does its best to justify political repression.
The Attempted 1934 Coup against FDR and the McCarthyite Anti-Communist Witch Hunt.
The movie J. Edgar moves away from the political during the period of the 1920s and 1930s. Completely ignoring huge political developments that J. Edgar Hoover was in the center of, the movie instead puts J. Edgar Hoover in glowing light fighting gangsters and catching the apparent kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. While focusing on these activities of the FBI and J. Edger Hoover, and exposing Hoover’s megalomaniacal attempts to take credit for each arrest carried by his BOI (the FBI was called the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) before 1935), the movie pretends that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI moved away from being America’s political police during this time period. This is another falsehood.
In 1934 J. Edgar Hoover helped put the brakes on a coup attempt against the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Major General Smedley Butler, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, contacted Hoover about a coup plot by the fascistic American Liberty League, a group with important government insiders and heavy financing from prominent American capitalists. In return for stopping the coup, Roosevelt gave J. Edgar Hoover free reign to carry out surveillance against leftists and anyone considered subversive. None of this is mentioned in the movie.
Through information gathered by Hoover’s FBI, the McCarthyite witch hunt was carried out in the 1950s, blacklisting workers from jobs who at some point had communist, leftist, or anti-racist affiliations or associations. Most of the best leaders of the American labor movement were removed from their posts through government actions, greatly weakening the unions then and to this day. The best actors, song writers, and script writers were blacklisted in Hollywood, both destroying people’s careers and leveling a giant blow against the quality of work that comes out of Hollywood, a blow from which Hollywood has never fully recovered. None of this is ever mentioned in the movie.
During the McCarthyite era, J. Edgar Hoover also began the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) used to infiltrate, spy-on, disrupt, harass, frame, and murder socialists, civil rights, black liberation, anti-war activists, and others. With the exception of one of J. Edgar Hoover’s operations against Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., these operations are not even mentioned. While the movie completely ignores the FBI’s most important operations from the 1930s to 1972 under the control of J. Edgar Hoover, it focuses on an apparent secret gay love affair between J. Edgar Hoover and fellow Agent, Clyde Tolson.
J. Edgar Hoover and Homosexuality
What is portrayed quite deeply through the movie is J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged gay love affair with Clyde Tolson. Also portrayed is the alleged disapproval of his mother towards any homosexual activity. Hoover lived with his mother until he was 40. This could be a touching portrayal of a homosexual love affair at a time (1950s and 1960s) when homosexuality in the United States was punishable by arrest, confinement in mental facilities, and all kinds of barbaric psychiatric tortures. An enduring love affair of two men forced into the closet during such hard times.
Yet, whatever the case of J. Edgar Hoover’s personal sexuality, that didn’t prevent him from seriously persecuting homosexuals. Hoover banned homosexuals from joining the FBI. Likewise, coinciding with the McCarthyite crackdown on communists, there was a similar crackdown on homosexuals in the government that Hoover participated in. The fear was that since homosexuality was illegal, homosexuals would be open to blackmail, so the theory went that homosexuals needed to be removed from the government.
Like communists and suspected communists, thousands of homosexuals were purged from government jobs ending careers and driving many to suicide. FBI director J. Edger Hoover participated in this crackdown. In addition, Alfred Kinsey’s scientific sexual studies could have been used to show that there were indeed thousands of homosexuals in the State Department as well as throughout the government to boost J. Edgar Hoover’s position of the need for the crackdown against homosexuals. As a result, J. Edger Hoover tried to get Kinsey to testify. Kinsey rightly refused. None of J. Edgar Hoover’s participation in the repression of homosexuals made it into the movie.
Governor Adlai Stevenson Was Also a Target
According to Hoover’s files, in Chicago he assigned Agent M. Wesley Swearingen to the task of going to Gay bars that were frequented by Adlai Stevenson. Adlai Stevenson was the governor of Illinois and a presidential candidate.
Of the investigation, Agent Swearingen himself said it took up “thousands and thousands of man hours. It was just unbelievable. It's none of the FBI's business. So I thought it was a little strange. But as I said, Hoover wanted us to do it, so I went along with it."
In Hoover’s files he referred to Adlai as Adeline referring to him also as "the sex deviate...governor of Illinois." Hoover spread rumors that Stevenson was homosexual. Stevenson, for his part, came out publicly against the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunt. None of this made it into the movie, only the alleged nearly life long gay love affair between Hoover and Agent Clyde Tolson. Brief mention was also made of Hoover’s discovery of a lesbian love affair involving Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wife. In 1978, love letters between Eleanor Roosevelt & Lorena Hickok were released that did prove a love affair between the couple.
To the extent the movie does to some degree portray the crimes of J. Edgar Hoover, when it isn’t lying about them or ignoring them, it portrays J. Edgar Hoover as some rogue and eccentric agent within the U.S. government who had too much power. Yet, in carrying out oppression and repression against the working class, the left, Blacks, homosexuals, and others, Hoover was actually merely carrying out the wishes of America’s racist, homophobic, and anti-worker ruling capitalist class. After Hoover was gone, continued spying and harassment of the left along with racist and political murders by the FBI on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in Greensboro, and in Dearborn, the FBI frame-up of Leonard Peltier, and the FBI bombing of Judi Barri, all point to the fact that J. Edgar Hoover was not some rogue agent of the capitalist government, but was instead carrying out the actions demanded by the capitalist class who rule America. The repression the American people suffered under J. Edgar Hoover did not end with his death, but will only be ended with the death of the capitalist system.
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