Socialist Worker

Story behind New film hurricane

Issue No. 1689

Story behind New film hurricane

Boxer who fought the system

By Ron Senchak

I WAS brought up as an all-American boy. Every day at school I saluted the flag, said the Lord's Prayer and sang "God Bless America". I watched TV and saw happy families-always white, married couples with two kids. I never questioned any of this until I attended a mostly black school in the heart of Newark, New Jersey. The level of poverty of so many of the kids was a revelation to me. They were literally dressed in rags.

My ambition was to become a boxer. A friend took me to the gym on Market Street where I met Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Rubin Carter was brought up in a poor area near Newark. You had to be tough to make it, and he was tough. He became a contender for the world middleweight boxing title. He was a fearsome fighter and I wanted to be like him. He came into the gym and the pool hall next door. I sat and watched him play pool all afternoon and I told him I was a fan and saw all his fights.

He was friendly and encouraging. I was just a kid and he was the number one contender. I even grew a moustache like his. This was the early 1960s. Times were starting to change. Racism dominated the US, not only in Mississippi and the South but also in the Northern cities. Anger was growing. Rubin Carter was one of many who expressed this simmering discontent. He gave voice to the bitterness and anger of the ghettos.

He went on civil rights marches and talked about black self defence. Like Muhammad Ali, he was black, political, and he did not take anything lying down. While the great civil rights marches in the South were being attacked and had dogs set on them, Malcolm X expressed the bitterness of the ghettos in the North. And in the background the word Vietnam was being heard more and more. A friend of mine was killed there. He was just 19.

In August 1965 a confrontation between white police and young blacks in Watts, Los Angeles' largest black district, ignited the fires of rebellion. Over 50,000 blacks firebombed white-owned businesses and engaged in shoot-outs with the police and National Guard troops for six days. The guards and the police killed 34 and at least 900 were injured. The police sent thousands of people to jail. But the movement went on. Black power became the rallying call in 1966. There were more rebellions. In this context Rubin Carter was a marked man.

HE WAS arrested in 1966 for a crime he did not commit. A shooting in a restaurant in New Jersey left the barman and two customers, all white, dead. An eyewitness said he saw two black men in a white car driving away from the scene. By a tragic coincidence Carter and an acquaintance were driving home in a white car. The police stopped them and were determined to pin the murders on them. There was no evidence against them. There was no murder weapon. Even one of the dying victims said it was not Carter. But both men were convicted by an all-white jury in May 1967.

The only thing the police had on Carter was from a well known local criminal, Alfred Bello. He claimed he saw Carter and his acquaintance fleeing the murder scene with guns. But Bello later withdrew his statement. He said he was under pressure from the police who offered him the �10,000 reward money and said they would treat him leniently for his other crimes.

The conviction was a racist stitch-up. But it did not stop the rebellion. The arrest of a black taxi driver in Newark in 1967 triggered five days of rebellion that culminated in the killing of 25 black people by the police. The following week Detroit rose. The riot left 43 dead and more than 1,000 wounded. Thousands more black people were arrested The ghettos exploded again in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Rebellion surged in nearly 125 cities. As Chicago's West Side went up in flames, Mayor Richard Daley ordered police to shoot to kill. In Washington, DC, more than 700 fires lit up the capital's skies. Troops in combat gear set up machine guns outside the White House. This explosion of anger was ruthlessly put down, leaving 46 dead, more than 3,000 injured, and nearly 27,000 in jail.

Newark, where I worked at the time, was one of those cities in flames. Tanks, soldiers and white supremacist groups patrolled the streets. Jimi Hendrix was due to appear in Newark the day after Martin Luther King was killed. We went to the concert in a spirit of solidarity. It was a very moving experience. It was the day that we all realised that they would not give in without a fight.

BUT NEITHER would Carter. He fought back from his prison cell. He wrote an autobiography, trained to become a lawyer, organised and campaigned to win his release. He was a celebrated cause in the 1970s and won a retrial in 1976. But the establishment was determined to keep him inside and the retrial failed. Carter nearly gave up in despair. But a group of campaigners inspired by his autobiography kept up the fight. He was freed in 1988 after 22 years in jail.

The establishment is still fighting to execute Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former member of the revolutionary Black Panther Party and a radical journalist. The burnt-out buildings in Newark remain. Funding for the poor in the inner cities is now channelled into building prisons. The rich are getting richer by the day while those in prison are poor, black and Hispanic. They face a variety of methods of execution in a society that is rotten to the core.

Here comes the story of the Hurricane The man the authorities came to blame For something that he never done Put in a prison cell, but one time he could have been The champion of the world... Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise While Rubin sits like a Buddha in a ten-foot cell An innocent man in a living hell...

From "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan, on the album Desire, 1975

Movie a fine tribute

By Martin Smith

HURRICANE IS a moving film of one man's fight for justice and his heroic battle against the US prison system. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is played brilliantly by Denzel Washington. The film contrasts the racism of the police and the brutality of the prison system with the compassion of some of the US's "most violent criminals". Carter's case became internationally famous when Bob Dylan released the song "Hurricane". Dylan's song is included on the film's soundtrack, which captures the mood of the times. The director of the film, Norman Jewison, also made the anti-racist classic In the Heat of the Night.

He says of Carter's case, "This was the time of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King-a time of tremendous social unrest, a civil rights revolution. If you were black and challenged the status quo, you were in danger." Some of the film's critics claim it does not stick to the facts of the story. This is a red herring. In many ways the full story of Carter's life is even more damning of the system. Hurricane could not have come out at a better time. It will highlight the campaign to abolish the death penalty.

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Sat 25 Mar 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1689
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