The Bronx Mobilizes Against Multinational Media
by Richie Perez
On 1 MARCH 1980, Filming for the movie Fort Apache, the Bronx began in the South Bronx. Financed by Time-Life Films (a division of Time Incorporated), the movie was made by a team with impeccable liberal cre¬dentials: executive producer, David Susskind; producer¬in-the-street, Dan Petrie (who had also worked with Susskind on the widely-acclaimed 1961 movie version of A Raisin in the Sun); and stars Paul Newman and Ed Asner, both long associated with social causes. However, the film soon became the focus of a major controversy amid charges of racism made by a formidable community coalition.
By the time the film opened in February 1981, organizing efforts against it had spread around the country. Massive demonstrations and threatened protests forced one New York theater to close the movie and delayed its opening in Philadelphia and Jersey City. The film was also the target of protests in Hollywood, Rochester, Miami, Albuquerque, and Boston. To fully understand the events that occurred between March 1980 and February 1981, it is necessary to understand the historical and social context in which this situation developed.
The South Bronx
Over the years the South Bronx has become an international symbol for urban decay, evoking images of burned out and abandoned buildings and idle, bitter groups of unemployed blacks and Puerto Ricans. Although the rate and scope of devastation in this area are unmatched, it is not unique; its problems are repeated in declining urban centers around America. Solutions proposed for the South Bronx are clearly presented with one eye on the rest of America, and residents of urban ghettos throughout the U.S. watch closely knowing that for most of America and the world, there is little difference between the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Chicago’s South Side, and Watts.
Between 1969 and 1979, the South Bronx lost ten percent of its housing, with some districts losing as much as twenty-seven percent. Disinvestment by banks, landlord and industry abandonment, and the scorched-earth arson-for-profit schemes, coupled with white flight and “planned shrinkage” of essential government services, led to a forty-two percent drop in population and a forty percent drop in manufacturing jobs.
In 1972, the South Bronx Model Cities Neighborhood Office, a municipal agency, reported that housing was generally deteriorating and that infant mortality was fifty percent higher than the national rate.(1) In 1977, the New York Department of Health used areas of the South Bronx to make the point that communities with the most health problems had the fewest doctors and the fewest health facilities.(2) And in 1978, the American Friends Service Committee reported that conditions in the South Bronx paralleled those in the underdeveloped nations of the Third World: “Thirty percent of the eligible work force is unemployed. The infant mortality rate is higher than that of Hong Kong. Average life expectancy is lower than that of Panama. The average per capita income in 1974, according to HUD, was $2,340 or forty percent of the national average.'(3)
But this is only one side of the picture. With the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in New York, this area is also known for its long history of community organization and struggle. In the 1960s, it was one of the focal points for the struggle for community control of the schools. Both the Young Lords Party and the Black Panther Party had active branches in the area and often worked together, consciously striving to build black and Latin unity. In the early seventies it was the scene of the historic campaigns for better health care and the internationally recognized Lincoln Detox program, which pioneered the use of acupuncture to corn bat the heroin plague (and was subsequently closed by the city government). It was a community where residents successfully opposed the closing of a community college and where groups of black and Puerto Rican construction workers fought to break into the racially exclusive construction trades.
These and many other struggles left the area with not only an activist historical legacy but also with many highly politicized groups and individuals who would later become the core of the movement to stop the movie Fort Apache, the Bronx.
In the nine months preceding the first announcements that Fort Apache was going to be filmed in the South Bronx, twelve unarmed blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York City were shot or beaten to death by police, including:
—Peter Funches, a black Vietnam veteran who died on a Bronx street on 17 June 1979. Police said Funches ran through a red light, crashed into several parked cars, rammed a concrete wall, and then attacked them with a knife. Witnesses said six policemen pulled Funches from his car and beat him in the street. Two months later, the medical examiner superseded the original autopsy report and said Funches had died from a police beating that had inflicted “multiple blunt force injuries to the face, head and other extremities.”(4)
—Luis Rodriguez, who was arrested on July 17 after an argument with a Bronx grocer. Eyewitnesses testified that Rodriguez was unarmed when he was arrested. He died three hours later in a Bronx precinct. The medical examiner ruled that the blows Rodriguez suffered while being arrested “directly contributed to this death.” Ten policemen refused to cooperate with a grand jury investigation
of Rodriguez’s death.(5)
—Luis Baez, a recently released mental patient whose mother had called the policecinct on August 22 to take him back to the hospital because she thought he was suffering a relapse. When they arrived, Baez was cutting his mother’s carpet with a small scissors. The police chased him to a fire escape and knocked him down to the pavement below. During this scuffle, witnesses later testified, Baez dropped the scissors. Baez, who suffered from paranoia, tried to run. As Mrs. Baez and neighbors watched, the police opened fire. One policeman emptied his revolver, reloaded, and fired once more.
—Arturo Reyes, who, according to a Bronx policeman, was stealing two con-tainers of orange juice from a parked car. The officer said the seventeen-year-old attacked him with a knife, and he fired in self-defense. However, a doctor’s report revealed that Reyes had been shot in the back of the neck. Paralyzed from the neck down, he died three weeks later.
—Elizabeth Mangum, a black woman who was shot once through the heart inside her Brooklyn apartment. Police claimed she resisted an attempt to evict her and attacked them with a knife.
In none of these cases were any police officers even suspended.
The day after Baez was killed, black and Puerto Rican demonstrators clashed with police outside the 79th Precinct in Brooklyn. Two days later, over three thousand demonstrators rallied and marched through the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in protest. Police drove cars into the crowd and beat dozens of demonstrators and community residents who were watching the demonstration. A week later, over four hundred people attended a community speak-out where victims of the police attack testified publicly.
Sparked by the Baez killing, the Black and Latino Coalition Against Police Brutality was formed by groups from around the city “to unite our communities to fight the rise of police brutality and killings.” This group linked the rise in police beatings and killings to the “poverty,unemploy-ment, slum housing, racist education, and deadly hospitals that we are forced to live with.” The police, said the coalition, exist to maintain the status quo and thus deserved to be categorized as “hitmen for the rich.”
The police of the 41st Precinct, or “Fort Apache” as it was named by the police who worked there, had a long reputation of racist abuse in the South Bronx. In 1978, it was identified by officials in the police department itself as a “problem precinct.” Police officials noted that it was one of the precincts that had a history of ‘nonacceptance’ of civilian complaints alleging that officers used excessive force, were discourteous, or abused their authority.” It also ‘flunked’ a department integrity test, according to the report.(6)
Selling the Movie to the Public:
The Community Responds
For Time Inc., Fort Apache was part of a much larger plan. The movie, according to an article in Varietv, was part of a three-film package that marked the entrance of Time-Life Films into the film production business and was linked to their plan to produce movies that could be recycled later on television through cable, network, public broadcasting, and station syndication. ‘Their ownership of both cable mid other television outlets, of course, made this feasible.
The film’s financers and producers began to utilize their vast media resources to prepare the public for Port Apache months before filming even began. As early as January 1980, gossip columnists were beginning to mention the upcoming film. During the first week in March, stories appeared in the New York Postswank about the search for the actress who would play opposite Newman. One col-umnist described how a young Puerto Rican actress got the part as “a Cinderella story.”(7) In the following days, numerous pictures of Newman in a police uniform appeared in gossip columns, feature stories, and in photo spreads. Newman’s co-star, Ed Asner, also popped up in a number of newspaper spots.
Much of this was the work of the publicist hired by Time-Life, Bobby Zarem. The New York Daily News, in a full-page feature, described Zarem as the “super-flack” responsible for the “I Love New York” campaign, which Zarem called “the most successful public relations campaign in history. It singlehandedly put New York back on its feet.”(8)
The Community Responds:
Many community activists, especially those who had previously been involved in organizing against police brutality, had already heard of the book, Fort Apache. It was written in 1976 by Torn Walker, a fourth, generation New York cop who, after fourteen years on the force, was made a lieutenant and ” promoted” to the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx. ‘The book presented the South Bronx and its people as seen through the eyes of the police.
The Union of Patriotic Puerto Ricans, one of the groups that had formed the Black and Latino Coalition Against Police Brutality, did a ten-page analysis of the book and concluded that it was “anti Puerto Rican and anti-Black” and that the community had ample reason to be concerned about a film based on this book’s theme. They circulated a flyer that listed the objections to the book and called for the formation of a Committee Against Fort Apache (CAFA).
By the time CAFA was two weeks old, it had grown to include the Black United Front, the Black and Latino Coalition Against Police Brutality, the United Tremont Trades (construction workers), the United Bronx Parents, the Coalition in Defense of Puerto Rican and Hispanic Rights, and the Union of Patriotic Puerto Ricans, as well as many unaffiliated individuals. Many of CAFA’s members had been active in the 1973 protests that closed down the racist film Badge 373 and the more recent protests against anti Puerto Rican slurs that had appeared in and in the New York Post.
In its first meeting, CAFA agreed to send telegrams requesting an immediate meeting with Susskind, Newman and Time-Life officials. Recognizing the power of the mass media to reinforce existing stereotypes and prejudices, as well as to promote new ones, CAFA decided to set into motion a multipronged strategy. The group wanted to explore all possible avenues but believed that only a mass movement would have any effect. From the beginning then, community outreach and preparation for mass demonstrations were seen as a priority. The guiding principle was that only an educated and organized community could successfully fight this film or any other abuse.
CAFA set the following goals:
—to demand a temporary halt to filming while copies of the script were circulated to community groups, agencies, and churches for their input;
—to educate the community about the effects of media stereotyping and show the links to the overall situation we face, the deterioration of our living conditions, and the rise of racism and police brutality;
—to organize community resistance;
—to build higher levels of unity between the Puerto Rican and black communities through common struggle; and
—to develop our communities’ ability to use the media.
Selling the Film to the South Bronx Community
While we were getting organized, Time-Life was already moving into the South Bronx. They began contacting community agencies to ask for help in recruiting extras and gaining access to facilities for shooting and staging areas. At this time, no one had yet seen the actual screenplay. One of these community agencies, United Bronx Parents, a well-respected educational institution with a fifteen-year history of service, asked for a copy of the screenplay. When they received it, they turned it over to CAFA and requested a meeting with Time-Life on March 13.
CAFA’s preparations for the meeting included an in-depth analysis of the screenplay and a comparison with the book. Although Time-Life had denied any connection between the book and the screenplay, CAFA concluded that, although changes had been made, they were only “cosmetic surgery.” That cops break the law is justified “because they only do it with pimps and pushers—not with decent people. As a matter of fact, there are no decent people in the South Bronx according to this film.”(9) Every woman was portrayed as either a “loose woman,” a prostitute, a junkie, a homocidal maniac, or some combination of all these. All the Puerto Rican and black characters are portrayed as either criminals or victims. They are not characters per se but are caricatures of evil. They pimp their own sisters; sell heroin to their children or sit passively by and watch it happen. (After the protests began, a few “decent” bit roles were written, but they were insignificant.)
The movie shows drugs in the South Bronx coming through Lincoln Hospital (although it is given another name in the film, it is the only hospital in the area), and the doctors and the hospital workers themselves as heroin users. It portrays community activists as buffoons and misguided kids who “make a lot of hate cop noises, preach armed revolt and all but spend most of their time ballin’ chicks from Scarsdale.”‘(10)
Although CAFA was not trying to deny that there are serious problems in our communities, this film presented a one sided, biased picture—selecting consciously the most sensational things, dehumanizing and degrading us, and ignoring the causes of these problems: high unemployment, the heroin plague, overcrowded and under staffed hospitals, abandoned buildings. The CAFA analysis pointed out that this leaves “the viewer with the impression that the people themselves create the poverty of the South Bronx. Thus, rather than win people to support our continuing struggle to change our conditions, the film will turn other people against us.”
The movie romanticized the police: “Fort Apache is shown, not as a police station, but as a fort in hostile territory . . .[where] the police can do what they want because they’re dealing with savages. It excuses their brutality while at the same time denying our humanity.”(11)
“I Love Rice and Beans More than Spaghetti”
On March 13, fifteen representatives from CAFA (including myself) met with Tom Fiorello, associate producer of Fort Apache, and Kip Watkins, a Time-Life executive. The meeting was taped with the knowledge of everyone present; we insisted on this to protect ourselves against any phony charges that we were trying to extort money from the corporation. We presented our analysis of the screenplay and our demands: that production of the film be stopped for one month and that Time-Life provide copies of the screenplay for broad distribution and review by groups and individuals in the black and Puerto Rican communities. If they agreed to this demand, we would return in one month with comments and suggestions. Time-Life refused and argued that the movie was bringing jobs into the community.
Fiorello (who, as it turned out, had a hit role in the movie) told us not to get excited: “I have the same kind of feelings you guys have. I understand. We have to talk right to each other…I personally feel hurt. I would like to see the Bronx develop. I want to buy property here. I love rice and beans more so than I love spaghetti [sic].” When this appeal to interethnic solidarity failed, Watkins, a Kennedy-type liberal, took over. He couldn’t understand why we were protesting. True, he said, the book was racist, but the film had nothing to do with the book. It had to be seen not as something political, but as a “piece of art.” He said it was a benevolent act to let us see the script because “artists” rarely do that. Finally, he told us that if we didn’t think there were “tender and humane Puerto Ricans and blacks” in the film, we were “looking at the script through jaded eyes.”
After we answered that they were looking at our communities through racist eyes, they told us they would not postpone production. “It will never happen,” said Fiorello, “but maybe we could sit down and talk some more .. . . We’ll call.”
They never did call, and we never expected them to. On the same day we were meeting with them and they were telling us about all the positive images in the film, Time-Life ran a two-page ad in Variety describing Fort Apache as: “A chilling and tough movie about the South Bronx, a forty-block area with the highest crime rate in New York. Youth gangs, winos, junkies, pimps, hookers, maniacs, cop killers and the embattled 41st Precinct, just hanging in there.” We didn’t see the ad until the next day. It confirmed our fears and showed us that the representatives that were sent to meet with us were lying all along and were just trying to buy themselves time.
After this CAFA intensified its work. We circulated copies of the ad and a transcript of the meeting with Time-Life, prepared for the first demonstrations, called a press conference for March 22, and stepped up work on the lawsuit that we were going to use to break the press blackout of our movement.
Taking It to the Streets
To avoid demonstrations against the film, Time-Life did not publicize their shooting schedule in advance. Even reporters were unable to obtain this schedule. Without advance notice, community mobilizations became very difficult. However, the week after our meeting with Fiorello and Watkins, workers in stores along Third Avenue in the Bronx (a shopping center called “The Hub”) notified CAFA that the filmmakers had offered to pay store keepers $100 to keep their stores open until midnight that Friday, March 21.
With less than two days’ notice, we called people out for 7:00 P.M. There was no sign of any filming when we got there, although people who lived in the area reported seeing film crews earlier in the day, and extra security guards were patrolling the area. It was raining, and some people got tired of waiting and went home. Then at about nine-thirty, a caravan of cars and panel trucks with film equipment began to move down Third Avenue. A lone police car drove well ahead of the caravan and turned the corner at 149th Street.
Thirty CAFA members surrounded the first car in the caravan and blocked the street. We chanted “Fort Apache, Racist Movie” and carried posters that said “Fort Apache is Anti-Puerto Rican and Anti-Black,” “Paul Newman—From Liberal to Racist for $3 Million,” “Indians Are Not Savages—Neither Are We,” and “End Media Stereotyping of Black and Latino People.”
It wasn’t until after the demonstration had started that we realized that Paul Newman was the driver of the car that we had stopped. Rachel Ticotin, the young Puerto Rican woman who played the junkie-nurse, was with him. She sank down in her seat. As we blocked the windshield with posters and banged and rocked the car, Newman sat frozen at the wheel, looking straight ahead. Finally, the two policemen in the squad car realized what was happening and ran back towards us, swinging their clubs and pushing. They rushed Newman out, running along-side his car, with us running alongside and behind them, still chanting our opposition to the film.
Our prevention of filming partially cracked the press blackout. The Post called the confrontation “Uprising at Fort Apach,”(12) and our press conference the next day received considerable media coverage. We issued a statement summarising our meeting with Time-Life and our objections to the film; we also announced the filing of a $1 billion lawsuit against Time-Life Films for “group libel.” We knew that we would not win the lawsuit but also knew it would draw the film makers out for public debate and would receive considerable publicity.
Time-Life’s Dirty Tricks Offensive
Time-Life’s publicity campaign faltered temporarily as they were thrown on the defensive. Besides hiring a second law firm, one that specialized in First Amendment cases, they also responded by quietly withdrawing the ad campaign they had begun on March 12 in Variety.
Understanding the clout of Time Inc., we knew our challenge to Fort Apache would not go unanswered. The community grapevine had already produced numerous stories of individuals and poverty groups accepting money in return for helping to “sell” Fort Apache to the Puerto Rican and black communities. However, it was not until the day we filed our lawsuit in the state supreme court, when we also held a demonstration and press conference outside, that we had concrete evidence of Time-Life’s “dirty tricks offensive” against community opposition to their film.
While we were demonstrating, about sixty Puerto Rican and black high school students approached, carrying signs that read: “Pro-Fort Apache,” “Fort Apache Will Help the Community,” and “Don’t Mix Our People’s Progress with Communist Political Advancement.” It was obvious to us that a confrontation had been set up. We quickly sent representatives of CAFA to talk to the students and read them portions of the screenplay (which none of them had seen). The students told us they had been hired through members of a South Bronx store front church, headed by a white minister from Tennessee. They had been promised fifteen dollars an hour for three hours, plus five dollars for lunch—as well as roles in the movie—in return for demonstrating. They had also been told that CAFA members were “communists that were against the community.”
Before the day was over, CAFA’s lawyers (William Kuntsler and Anthony Roman) and reporters had the sworn testimony of the people who had hired the students for Time-Life, as well as those of the students themselves. They told of how, guided by Tom Fiorello, they signed phony press releases with the names of non-existent organizations, recruited the high school students, and wrote up the slogans for the picket signs and the press releases.
In an interview with El Diario-La Prensa and NBC-TV, Eddie Perez, a member of this storefront church, told of being sent to observe CAFA activities and meetings (Interestingly, NBC, which had conducted an exclusive television interview with Perez and other church members who acted as go-betweens for Time-Life, never aired the interview. Later it was an-nounced that NBC had purchased the television rights for Fort Apache.)
Before the day was over, the students had switched sides and joined the CAFA demonstration. Meanwhile, they spotted “superflack” Bobby Zarem, who said he had come to court to watch the demonstrations (although he couldn’t explain how he knew there would he more than one demonstration). After he was identified as working for Time-Life, the students confronted him and demanded that he pay them the money they had been promised. A heated exchange followed, Zarem’s cowboy hat was knocked off, and the angry students chased him Out of the courthouse. Zarem fled into a taxi as riot police were called to hold hack the angry crowd.
Time-Life’s plan had backfired badly. The exposure of their “dirty tricks” received wide coverage in the media. CAFA publicly denounced Time-Life’s attempt to manipulate the poverty of our youth and to set up a confrontation. Had they succeeded, seventy-five “pro-Fort Apache” demonstrators would have been trying to occupy the same space at the same time as fifty “stop Fort Apache” demonstrators. A clash between the two groups could have been interpreted as a split within the community over the merits of the film, and the CAFA demonstrators could more easily have been labeled an “isolated, violence-prone fringe group” which did not represent the community.
The Filmmakers Defend Themselves Publicly
After the fiasco at court, some of the people involved with the movie began to defend their motives. Susskind and Newman, defendants in the lawsuit, submitted affidavits arguing that the film would help the South Bronx. Both asserted their history of involvement in social causes. Both expressed outrage at being called “racists.”
At a carefully staged press conference in April—held on a small hill in an abandoned lot, against a backdrop of burned- out buildings—Newman accused the Post and The Village Voice of “irresponsible journalism.” He reiterated that “I have spent my whole life caring about what happened to the underprivileged,” adding, “This is a tough movie. It’s tough on whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans arid on lousy white cops.” He implied that the demonstrators were troublemakers and asked why we weren’t fighting for better health care instead of opposing the film.
However, the Time-Life public relations campaign to dust off the movie’s and Newman’s image was undercut at every turn. The Post ripped the script in a full- page article, “What Paul Didn’t Tell Us About Fort Apache.”(13) Newman’s press conference itself was disrupted by four CAFA protestors who received almost as much coverage as Newman himself. Finally, even the police attacked the film. The head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (the police union) publicly called Newman a “money-hungry mongrel” and a “bigot” for referring to “lousy white cops” in his defense of the movie. Later, the Hispanic Society of city police officers, including some who were assigned to guard the film site and others who were sent undercover into CAFA, attacked the film publicly, saying it presented a “one-dimensional” and “slanted view” of Hispanics and blacks. Tom Walker, the author of the book Fort Apache, accused Time-Life of stealing the plot for their movie from his book, and he filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
But what set the context and gave all this real impact was the continuous opposition to the film in the streets of the Puerto Rican and black communities. Hundreds continued to march in “Stop Fort Apache” protests. Thousands signed petitions against the film. Tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed at beaches, community block parties, and at any activity where people gathered. Musicians and poets staged a “Stop Fort Apache Cultural Arts Festival,” attended by hundreds. Physical disruptions occurred whenever protestors were able to find out the shooting schedule in advance.
When a hospital scene was filmed in East Harlem (after Time-Life was refused access to Lincoln Hospital by outraged workers and administrators), eighty demonstrators crashed the film site, and filming was only able to continue after hundreds of police were called out. This confrontation was reported and shown on television news. Despite Time-Life’s continuous claims that there was no “real opposition” to the film, protests and growing opposition kept breaking into the news.
Moreover, while producers hinted (in a magazine article) that the problems were due to local gangs trying to extort money,(14) they were offering to buy off protestors by suggesting, through a well known figure in the Puerto Rican community, that CAFA should be realistic and try to get something out of all this that would “benefit the community”—such as a writers workshop funded by Time-Life. (This offer was angrily rejected by CAFA.)
Following this, Time-Life and its Fort Apache team seemed to have made a decision by the end of April to take a low profile. Time-Life, Susskind, and Newman all turned down offers to debate CAFA on Herman Badillo’s local TV program “Urban Journal.” They also refused to attend a city council hearing where the General Welfare Committee was considering a resolution to withdraw permits for the film. (The committee passed a resolution condemning the racism of the screenplay and calling on all New Yorkers to boycott the movie.) Although demonstrations and opposition continued, Time-Life was silent. By June, they had finished filming and left New York.
Some Reflections on the Media Battleground
From the beginning, we understood the necessity of dealing with the electronic and print media. We were very conscious of presenting CAFA as a broad, community-based coalition. In every press conference, for example, we chose representation that would reflect our composition: Puerto Rican and black, women and men, young and old. Although our membership included every sector within our communities—including workers, students, parents, professionals, clergy and politicians—we were described as “black and Puerto Rican militants.” In press conferences and interviews, many reporters became impatient with our explanation of how we saw the issues. They only wanted to know if we were going to use violence to stop the movie.
Besides a preoccupation with violence, we found that the structure of television news itself worked against us. In-depth analysis is, for the most part, absent on the nightly news. We could prepare a ten-minute press statement, explaining carefully why we opposed the film and answering the arguments of our opponents, but only a very small fragment would ever he televised. A sympathetic television reporter once told us, right before the cameras were turned on, “Say everything you have to say in sixty seconds because that’s the most you’re going to get on the air.” Other reporters told us that without any violence or any arrests, their assignment editors “just weren’t interested.”
Despite these and other difficulties, we were determined to, as much as possible, “use the media.” To keep our public statements consistent, CAFA chose specific people who would represent us to the media. Others were assigned to develop and cultivate contacts in the media and to stay abreast of moves by Time-Life in this area.
At the end of March, Time-Life hired a second public relations firm, Lisboa Associates, to offset the favorable coverage we had received from the Spanish-language press. They succeeded in getting two full-page articles of favorable coverage in El Diario; the exact process by which this came about became the source of considerable controversy in that newspaper. We later demanded and got “equal time.” In an important victory for us, El Diario eventually published an editorial condemning the movie.
The “Freedom of Speech” Controversy
CAFA came under attack from civil libertarians as our efforts to stop the movie mounted. Nat Hentoff, in The Village Voice, called us “thought police,” cormparing us to the Nazis. The ACLU filed a “friend of the court” brief to oppose our lawsuit—as if we had the power to deny Time-Life’s freedom of speech.
While we did not pretend to have all the answers to this complex question, we were not deterred by these attacks. We were fighting against the vilification and slander of our people. Fort Apache imposed on us, and most importantly on our children, negative racial stereotypes that incite hatred towards us, reinforce existing prejudices, and thus contribute to the denial of our civil and human rights.
To the absolutists who said freedom of speech means people can say anything, we raised a number of questions. Does freedom of speech mean that someone has the right to infringe on our rights? Does this mean our right to live free of libelous stereotyping and racial attacks is subordinate to the right of multinational corporations like Time-Life to make more money? Does freedom of speech mean that huge corporations that control the mass media have the right to portray us as less than human, thus denying our children positive role models and simultaneously “teaching” white children about “black and Puerto Rican inferiority”? Do those with a lot of money have more freedom of speech than those who are poor and cannot buy it?
The Movement Against Fort Apache Grows
The attacks on us by civil libertarians had no effect on our support within our own community. While grappling with this question in forums and in interviews, we continued the fundamental work upon which our campaign was built—educating, uniting, and mobilizing our people. CAFA members spent much of their time organizing on a one-to-one basis; literature tables were set up, and periodic community leafleting and door-to-door offensives were carried out. We had also selected certain groups for special outreach, including community planning boards, district school boards, parents associations, day care centers, educators groups, church groups, unions, rank-and-file groups within unions, student organizations, media and arts groups, and health workers.
On April 12, Bronx City Councilman Gerena Valentin conducted a public hearing on the movie attended by over 125 people, including more than thirty who spoke in opposition to the film. A week later, 350 people marched through the streets of the South Bronx in a concrete reflection of the growing opposition to the movie. At the rally that followed the march, Rev. Neil Connolly, the Roman Catholic Vicar representing twenty-four churches in the area, read a statement that condemned Fort Apache as “obsessed with scars only,” never mentioning “the thousands of church-going people, dedicated community workers, self-sacrificing parents…. We are outraged at the Time-Life Films for continuing to heat the drums of racism and classism for the price of a dollar.”
The next week, the state supreme court threw our case out of court. Without reading the screenplay upon which our complaint was based, the court dismissed our charges as “speculative connotation” and “ideological innuendo.” Because we had not expected the court to rule in our favor, we considered it a victory to have kept Time-Life in court for weeks and forced them to defend themselves publicly and hire a second law firm.
While the struggle against Fart Apache was sharpening in New York, links were being made with other groups across the country. Forty chapters of the Chicano student group MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aldan) passed a resolution against the film during a California-wide conference and vowed support in any boycott or other actions taken if it was produced and released. Representatives of CAFA also met with activists in San Francisco’s Chinatown who were protesting derogatory Asian stereotyping in a new “Charlie Chan” film. In New York, a representative of the black groups that had been protesting NBC’s “Beulah’s Land” addressed a meeting of CAFA and called for better communication and coordination among groups fighting media racism.
Preparing for the Opening
Opening After the filmmakers quietly left New York City in June, we prepared for the next phase of the struggle: consolidating the groups and individuals that had already become part of CAFA, broadening our outreach to bring in new forces, and preparing for the boycott itself.
We developed an internal newsletter, the CAFA bulletin, which kept people informed of new developments, provided analysis of Time Inc. and research on Time’s push into the movie and cable arenas (thus placing Fort Apache in a larger context), and mobilized people for pickets and call-in protests. We also made presentations and showed a slide show on media racism to as many organizations and groups as possible—each time enlisting further support for the planned boycott of the movie when it opened.
During the summer of 1980, we also emphasized setting up literature tables and poster-photo exhibits at large outdoor gatherings in the Puerto Rican community. We put out a special leaflet which answered common questions about our opposition to the movie and stressed the growing broad unity against it. Significantly, CAFA had grown by this time to include over twenty organizations, community agencies and institutions. In addition, the film had been condemned publicly by several public officials, media outlets, religious leaders, professional associations and other organizations. The momentum was growing.
The momentum was growing. In November 1980, there were signs of a new Time-Life publicity offensive. A sneak preview was held in St. Louis, Missouri, an area with few if any Puerto Ricans. Liz Smith, the Daily News gossip columnist, reported that Newman got “rave reviews.” A week later, she reported that he was “coming up strong as a contender” for an Academy Award for his role in the film.(15)
In December, New York magazine ran a feature story about the two policemen whose real-life exploits supposedly provided the basis for the movie. The thrust of the article was that the film’s story was a good, tough, and true one, and that Newman’s presence would guarantee its box office success. The article, quoting the cops, repeated the racist stereotypes of the South Bronx and generally trivialized protests against the film (although it flippantly mentioned that “There were so many protestors even the press agents had to have a bodyguard”).(16) In another interview with the National Star the two cops justified the “street justice” they had meted out in the South Bronx.(17)
CAFA recognized that it could not respond to every step in Time-Life’s extensive publicity campaign but called on supporters to seek ways to demand equal time. The November 1980 bulletin announced a demonstration at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York, where David Susskind was to be honored by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for his “contributions to the revitalization of New York’s film industry;” two call-in protests to ABC and CBS opposing Newman’s appearance on the Barbara Walters and Mike Douglas shows; and the first press conference to be held by the newly formed Philadelphia CAFA.
In January 1981, Time-Life Films and Twentieth Century Fox (TCF), which was now handling the distribution of the movie, held a special screening of Fort Apache in Atlanta, Georgia, for reporters from around the country. As part of an all expenses-paid “press junket” to win favorable reviews, reporters were flown to the Atlanta Hilton where they were wined and dined by a TCF publicity team. Because CAFA did not have enough money to send a group, it was decided to send one person person and arrange for some local backup. A group of black activists in Atlanta command post outside the Hilton, and legal support if necessary. Despite pressing security concerns of their own—they had been targeted by local racists—they risked exposing themselves to further police “attention” and, by their actions, advanced the cause of black and Latino unity.
CAFA’s representative registered at the Atlanta Hilton for one night. Friendly reporters tipped him off to the publicity party’s schedule. After an extended “cocktail hour” the reporters were to hoard a bus that would take them to the screening itself. The CAFA rep, in suit and tie, stood outside the bus and distributed CAFA press packets which included press releases, newspaper clippings, statements of opposition to the film, and leaflets. Most of the reporters thought he was part of Twentieth Century Fox and gladly accepted the packets.
When the woman in charge for TCF finally realized what was happening, she threatened to have CAFA’s representative arrested. By the time hotel security arrived, however, the CAFA “publicity team” was back in his room, reporting in to the outside support group. On the bus, sympathetic reporters confirmed that there was a lot of discussion as the press people went through the CAFA material. After the screening, there was continued discussion and some debate among reporters over dinner.
The next day, a major press conference with Paul Newman was held in the hotel, half of which was taken up by questions about the protests and the extent of cornmunity opposition to the movie. CAFA’s representative was followed from the moment he left his room by a team of plainclothes detectives. When reporters left the press conference, he was waiting in the lobby with press packets. As the reporters recognized and moved toward him, their tape recorders ready, a squad of plainclothes Atlanta police surrounded him and used their massed bodies to strong-arm him away from the reporters. Threatened with arrest, despite his arguments that he was a registered guest in the hotel, he retreated after giving the room number to interested reporters. The CAFA representative got to talk with reporters from several newspapers, many of whom confided that they risked losing the privilege of these junkets to important screenings if they gave TCF a hard time.
A month before the announced opening, CAFA began to focus on theaters that had announced they had hooked Fort Apache. After an unsatisfactory meeting with a representative from United Artists and the manager of U.A.’s Gemini theater in midtown Manhattan, we hit the Gemini with an unannounced pre-boycott demonstration. One hundred people participated in five-degree weather. Less than a dozen people crossed our militant picket line, and police were called in. During a tense confrontation inside the theater, we told the Gemini’s manager that he would have to surround his theater with police to show Fort Apache.
On 22 January 1981, Time-Life and TCF made their final attempt to divide the community by holding a screening at Lincoln Center for some South Bronx community groups and leaders. CAFA got hold of the invitations, reproduced them, and sent members to the screening. We distributed leaflets outside (and inside) the screening and held a community meeting immediately after in nearby offices of Channel 13.
The press had hinted that the screening would be an opportunity to have some community leaders endorse the film and attack CAFA as a “small, unrepresentative group.” Afterwards, however, more than forty representatives of community planning hoards and educational, media, religious, and civil rights groups angrily denounced the movie and its promoters. They publicly endorsed CAFA’s efforts and threw their support behind the boycott. This was a major victory for us and meant that when the movie opened, a united Puerto Rican community would respond.
In the final weeks before the opening, CAFA stepped up its efforts; thousands of “Boycott Fort Apache” stickers were printed and distributed; leafleting was carried on around the city; and we continued to get press coverage. During this period, committees to oppose the movie were also formed in Jersey City, Boston, and Albuquerque.
Fort Apache opened in 800 theaters across the country on 6 February 1981. In its first week:
—In New York, the Gemini theater cancelled the movie, and fourteen blocksaway, 350 people picketed the Orpheum on opening night. Hundreds of people marched in ten demonstrations over a three-day period, and extensive media coverage educated hundreds of thousands more about the protests.
—In Philadelphia, the opening was postponed for a week because of militant pickets. Philadelphia CAFA was so effective that eventually it was hit with an injunction that said we could only have four pickets 100 feet away from the theater.
—In Jersey City, the threat of demonstrations postponed the opening of the movie. When it did open, CAFA members from New York joined the Jersey City CAFA on the picket lines.
—In Hollywood, a demonstration was organized by the Chicano group MECHA on opening night.
—Organizing efforts and protests took place in other cities as well, including Rochester, Boston, Miami and Albuquerque; students at SUNY-Binghamton and SUNY-New Paltz also stopped showings of the film.
CAFA recognized that it was fighting, not only the giant media conglomerates which financed, produced and distributed Fort Apache, but also the growing right-wing sentiment in America. We were demanding respect and reaffirming the strength and beauty of our history and culture—at a time when our past gains were being eroded and we were increasingly being used as scapegoats for the nation’s economic and social failures, at a time when many American liberals were embracing the “solutions” of the reactionary Right.
Recognizing this reality, our goals were primarily educational and organizational: to educate our community about the effects of media stereotyping and show its links to the overall situation we face—the deterioration of our living conditions, the destruction of survival programs like bilingual education, the rise of racism and police repression—and to challenge with our presence and strength the movie’s racist messages that we were inferior peoples, incapable of organizing ourselves for change.
The secondary focus of the boycott organized by CAFA was economic. While we realized that we did not yet have a movement that could shut this movie down nationwide, we could have some impact at the box office—and we did! Fort Apache made $13 million in domestic rentals, but Variety reported that even this was “way below expectations for the costly, controversial picture.”(18) After this (and the failure of their other two films), Time-Life Films went out of the movie business.
The education conducted around Fort Apache was tremendous and invaluable. Hundreds of thousands of people were alerted to our charge that this movie was anti-Puerto Rican and anti-black, that racist films like it feed into the rising right-wing tide in America, and that these films have a detrimental effect on our people’s fight for survival and advancement.
The year-long struggle created a context within which Fort Apache had to be evaluated by the people who insisted on seeing it. Our community’s collective efforts turned it into an important social issue and made it easier for viewers to recognize the racism in the film. We also set the framework for movie reviewers—many of whom borrowed directly from CAFA’s analysis in writing their reviews—and had a strong impact on filmmakers. Another exploitation movie about heroin wars in the South Bronx was cancelled, and a television documentary about “cops fighting crime in the South Bronx” was shelved in what the Daily News called a reaction “to the backlash from the controversial movie ‘Fort Apache, the Bronx.’ “(19)
Beyond that, we are encouraged that some filmmakers have taken progressive positions. The producer of Ragtime told The New York Times that when he was filming on the Lower East Side, he consulted community groups because “I didn’t want another `Fort Apache.”(20) In a more critical statement, Constantin Costa Gavras, director of Missing, said in a Rolling Stone interview, “Recently I went to see Fort Apache, the Bronx and I was surprised to see two actors in there who are considered ideologically left. … I think Fort Apache was racist—anti-black, anti-Puerto Rican.”(21)
CAFA was a broad coalition which united different sectors of the community and different political perspectives around a single issue and utilized a wide range of tactics. We widely challenged the film’s racist explanations of poverty, unemployment, arson and police brutality. We publicized and defended the community’s justified concern about “street justice” at the hands of racist policemen. We challenged the movie’s degrading images of Puerto Rican and black women with the reality of proud and militant women of all ages in the movement.
The organizing against Fort Apache also contributed to the unity of Latin, black, Asian and white activists for social change. In addition, it helped us identify many progressive media activists, as well as people inside the establishment media, and formed important bonds of unity for future struggle. Finally, this struggle helped deepen our community’s understanding of the media and showed how we can deal with it effectively.
We believed that the best way to build on this movement was to deal with media racism on an even higher level. This included strengthening existing groups like the Puerto Rican Institute for Media Advocacy (PRIMA) and carrying out on going community education around this issue. CAFA officially dissolved itself in March 1981, after voting to work with the First National Puerto Rican Convention (held in the South Bronx on April 25-26, 1981). The National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, a permanent body formed at the convention, resolved to form a Mass Media Task Force to continue the struggle for change in the mass communications industry.
The campaign against Fort Apache was a genuine mass movement which understood that the fight against media racism is part of our overall struggle to change our conditions. It was a fighting movement which engaged the enemy on a number of fronts, added to the historical legacy of past battles, and advanced the starting point for the next struggles against media racism and for freedom.
The National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights can be contacted at: NCPRR, Post Office Box 453, Williamsburg Station, Brooklyn, New York 11211.
1. Neighborhood: The Journal fin- City Preservation-the South Bronx, August 1982.
2. Ronald Sullivan, “A Virtual Lack of Doctors Found in Some Slum Areas of New York,” The New York Times, 13 December 1977.
3. American Friends Service Committee, “The Third World Here at Home: The South Bronx,” Actionletter, April 1978.
4. Earl Caldwell, “Widows Have Grisly Pictures and Stories to Match,” New York Daily News, 9 November 1971.
5. “10 Cops Refuse to Testify in Fatal Beating of Rob Suspect,” New York Daily News, 16 November 1979; Daniel O’Grady and Don Gentile, “Quizzes 10 Cops with 1 Lawyer,” New York Daily News, 1 December 1979; Earl Caldwell, “It Matters That the Eyes of the Law Keep Justice in View,” New York Daily News, 24 November 1979.
6. Leonard Buder, “Police Find 7 Precincts Brush Forth Public Complaints About Officers,” The New York Times, 6 March 1978.
7. “Late Night with Martin Burden: Cinderella Story,” New York Post, 6 March 1980.
8. Jan Hodenfield, “A Life in the Day of Bobby Zarem,” New York Daily News, 25 September 1980.
9. Committee Against Fort Apache, “Analysis of the Screenplay ‘Fort Apache, The Bronx,’ ” 12 March 1980.
10. From the screenplay, quoted in CAFA, “Analysis.”
11. CAFA, “Analysis.”
12. Eli Teiber, “Uprising at Fort Apache: Angered Residents Demand Newman Film Be Stopped,” New York Post, 22 March 1980.
13. Joe Nicholson, “What Paul Didn’t Tell Us About Fort Apache,” New York Post, 28 March 1980.
14. “Intelligencer: All Quiet on the Newman Front,” New York, 31 March 1980, 6.
15. Liz Smith, New York Daily News, 4 December 1980.
16. Marie Brenner, “City Lights: Stardom in the South Bronx,” New York, 1 December 1980, 14.
17. ” ‘Fort Apache’ Cops Tell of Real Exploits in New York Jumble,” National Star, 3 February 1981, 17.
18. Lawrence Cohen, “40 Features Await Spring Debuts: Hope to Beat Poor ’81 Record,” Variety, 27 January 1982.
19. George Maksian and Brian Kates, “PBS Cancels ‘Bronx Detectives-Rap Program’s ‘Negative View,’ ” New York Daily News, 2 April 1981, 7.
20. Richard F. Shepard, “Filming of ‘Ragtime’ Restores 1906 to Block on E. 11th St.,” The New York Times, 28 July 1980.
21. Peter S. Greenberg, “Art, Lies and Reality: An Interview with Costa Gavras,” Rolling Stone, 13 May 1982, 15.
*This article was originally published in Cultures in Contention, copyright c. 1985 by The Real Comet Press, Seattle WA. firstname.lastname@example.org