"This Is A Rebellion": July '64 Director On The Lessons Of History


(WXIR-Rochester) In the wake of last weekend's Black Lives Matter protests, many in Rochester have been trying to make sense of the unrest that has gripped the city and the nation.

But this is not Rochester's first urban uprising. And history has many lessons to teach--that is, if we can get past the dominant media narrative.

Carvin Eison is the director of July '64 (2006), a documentary about one of the first urban uprisings of the Civil Rights era that took place right here in Rochester NY.

Eison says he made the film partly to set the historical record straight, and to provide context for what he describes not as a "riot," but as a "rebellion."

In this interview with WXIR's Darien Lamen, Eison discusses making the film and the lessons history has to teach us in the current moment of renewed anti-racist mobilization.

July '64 is available for free online. Citizen Action of New York-Rochester Chapter is also hosting a virtual screening and facilitated discussion Sunday, June 7th, starting at 4pm.



(this is a rush transcript)

MAN IN NEWS INTERVIEW: Something had to be done. I mean we can't get our rights. So I mean if you can't get your rights, you just gotta take them some kind of way now, don't you? Don't you?

DARIEN LAMEN: A clip from the 2006 documentary, July '64. In the wake of last Saturday's Black Lives Matter rally, the link to that film has been making the rounds on social media, as many in Rochester are trying to make sense of the unrest that has gripped the city and the entire nation. Carvin Eison is the director of July 64. He's also the general manager of Rochester Community Media and WXIR, and he's joining me now by phone. Carvin, thanks for joining me.

CARVIN EISON: I'm delighted to be with you. Thank you so much.

DL: So when you first started work on July '64, was there a specific question that you were setting out to answer?

CE: Well when [producer] Chris Christopher and I began, actually in summer of 1998, the issue was people had started to pass. And there was a fear that we would never get that record. We would never get the actual reality of people who lived through the struggle and the strife. So that's how it began, as an attempt to record history.

Because the newspapers almost always--and that's how history is written, mostly in the newspapers, contemporaneous history--the local newspapers would always characterize it as a riot. And they would sensationalize it in the most dramatic way every five to ten years. They would never give context and that was the one thing that we wanted to do is to try to provide context.

We joke, Chris and I joke, that if we knew this film was going to be so, last so long we would have made a better film. But the truth is it gets at the DNA of what happens when people are repressed. When people are pushed down, they rebel.

DL: So, can you talk about both what took place in 1964 and why you describe it as a rebellion and not, as the local media put it, a riot?

CE: Well the term riot suggests momentary agitation and frustration. Riot is like when you can't get into the football game or your team won and they're so happy that they wrecked the whole place. In Rochester that is not what happened. And I would venture to say in the United States right as we are recording this, riot is not what is happening. Rebellion is what is happening now.

And I say rebellion because rebellion is when any people are repressed to the point that every opportunity they seek for redress, they can't get it. And there is always a trigger mechanism.

In Rochester in '64, the trigger mechanism was the police arresting Randy Manigault at the Northeast Mothers Association street dance. They weren't particularly rough on him by today's standards but what people remember were the many countless times that Rochester Police roughed up people with their dogs, bringing police dogs into churches on Sunday morning services. That's what people remembered. So they saw this and they thought it was going to happen again.

There was a rumor that a police dog had bit a young child. The factual record shows that they could find no evidence of such an event occurring. But in the collective memory of people, if it didn't happen then, it had happened in the past. And that's what I think is happening now.

The trigger mechanism is not only the on-camera murder-execution of George Floyd, but it's also the killing the stalking and hunting down of Ahmaud Arbery. It's also the recent issue in New York City where Amy Cooper accuses on the telephone and on video Christian Cooper of menacing and threatening violence against her and her dog. And fortunately there was video to show the difference. So these trigger mechanisms now... and also the repression of the country for the last 90 days as a result of COVID virus. And also the national lack of leadership at a time when this country needs leadership most... these are all trigger mechanisms that feed into the hostility and feed into the rebellion that many Americans are feeling. Not just black Americans, right?

When people are beat down and downtrodden, and they can't get a job, and they can't get education, they can't get healthcare and all the amenities that normal society should provide for their residents, they rebel. So this is real. This is very, very real. This is a rebellion.

DL: Well, I wanted to end by asking you what role you think the media should be playing in our current moment.

CE: Well the question of media in time of unrest and at a time of anxiety, this is so critically important that we have voices that are examining what's going on.

I read this morning that Twitter uncovered an organization passing itself off as Antifa actually turns out to be a right-wing organization, using inflammatory language talking about "we're going to go into white neighborhoods and take what's ours." They traced it back and it turns out to be a white right-wing organization, paramilitary organization. So the media is significant and its importance at this time cannot be overstated.

So it is critical to have many voices and that's where we come in in community media. It is essential that all voices are heard. Not just the corporate media but also community media like Rochester Community Media and WXIR. So that citizens get an opportunity to lend our voices and our observations, and our impressions about what's going on in our community. This is critical and that's what media should be doing.

And I'll just end with this: I often think of a song that Bob Marley wrote. And it's just such a powerful piece of work: "Until the philosophy that holds one race is superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned," Bob Marley says, "there'll be war."

I'm hoping that we won't have war, but we certainly have inequality. And so it is essential that we are contribute to the good of our society not just to the individual interests of the wealthy and the corporate interests that basically run this country.


Darien Lamen is producer/director at WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com.