[26 July 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Both of us are very proud to be Americans and when you see someone is poisoning what you love, and what you believe in, I think if you allow yourself, you become someone who wants to fight against it.” As David McKay describes his thinking, you might think you know where Better This World is headed. McKay and Brad Crowley, two friends from Midland, Texas, tell a story that seems familiar: as young activists, they were arrested at the Republican National Convention in 2008, and now they’re fighting their legal cases.
But as Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s documentary reveals, the experiences of these young idealists are increasingly unpredictable. As you come to see their beliefs shaken and their self-understandings complicated, the film makes a frightening case that’s less about the laws Crowley and McKay might have broken than the infractions and betrayals by the government they challenged.
Winner of the Best Documentary Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Better This World screens on 26 July at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with Katie Galloway and premieres 6 September as part of PBS’ superb POV series. It is, in a word, a remarkable film, not only uncovering a series of disturbing events, but also show how such events are defined by and intertwined with crucial moral questions. The stakes examined in Better This World could not be higher.
Brad Crowder’s mother Twila sets a framework for her son’s involvement. “I’m not political, and I don’t really care that much, but I always both my kids to stand up for what they believed in,” she says, “You have to follow your heart and your beliefs and that’s what he was doing.” Indeed. Under a photo of the boys—looking very much like boys—Crowder explains, “We were just demonstrating to show we don’t agree with the government.” However, the film shows that their point of departure was not the same as that of the government that arrested them.
At the time, that is, after 9/11, says FBI Assistant Special Agent Tim Gossfeld, domestic terrorism was a specific target: “That is what we need to focus all our resources on,” he asserts, “to the best of our ability.” To prepare for the RNC, the agency had sent out requests to all local law enforcement organizations for information on potential terrorists headed to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Hailing from a politically conservative small town, McKay and Crowley were new to protesting when they first met the man they came to see as a mentor, Brandon Darby, a cofounder of Common Ground, an organization dedicated initially to helping Katrina survivors. As he and his coworkers were “gutting homes and tarping roofs,” Darby says in a taped interview, he was confronted daily with suffering left unattended by government agencies. And so, he says, “My question is, why do we as people allow things like this to continue?” Moreover, he asks, “Why does Homeland Security feel so threatened by our social justice movement? I’d like to know that. Why is Homeland Security harassing aid workers in New Orleans?”
The film submits that Darby’s own commitment to social justice takes a series of shapes, including conversations with wannabe protestors in Austin, Texas. As he reports, he encouraged newbies like Crowley and McKay to take action: “I told them I wasn’t there to fuck around,” his written journal records. “I stated that they all looked like they ate too much tofu and they should eat beef so that they put on muscle mass.” The instruction sounds superficial, but, as Crowley and McKay remember, they were inspired by Darby’s commitment and energy. “We are willing,” Crowley says they assured Darby, “We are honestly willing to do things for people that are going to help.”
As the film puts together the pieces of Crowley and McKay’s stories, it appears they weren’t always aware of what was going on around them. In Minnesota, they shop for Molotov cocktail makings at a Walmart (and appear shopping on surveillance tape), and put together eight of them. They never come close to using them; as they tell it, they never had an intention to do so. Instead, their rooms are raided and they’re arrested, and the FBI has averted another terrorist plot, specifically, as Special Agent Christopher Langert puts it, stopping two men who “were going to try to block delegates, cause destruction and other felony criminal activity.”
And yet, as Better This World shows, McKay and Crowley don’t see themselves as terrorists, and were not, in 2008, planning terrorist activities. As the case unfolds, Galloway and de la Vega construct the film as an investigation—one that is soon as focused on what the FBI is doing as what McKay and Crowley might have done. The film cuts between federal documents, suspects’ text messages, phone calls, and footage at the RNC, all raising questions about who knew what and when.
The filmmakers also spend time with the young men’s families and girlfriends, who express predictable upset and shock at what’s happening: David’s father, Michel, sums up: I don’t know if the FBI and Homeland Security since 9/11, they all went berserk and crazy, but everything about this case stinks.” Their outrage only expands when they must confront the government’s cases against McKay and Crowley, the efforts to turn their testimonies against each other, the manipulations of sentences and possible plea deals in order to make sure that the government’s own work is justified.
“All the dreams I have, I’m in prison,” says McKay. “Your subconscious takes on your reality.” That idea of prison—so expansive and so daunting—shapes his understanding of the system, or more precisely, what he calls “the injustice of the justice system.” In this system, he observes, he and Crowder can’t be “two kids who made a mistake” (or were lured into making a mistake), but must be instead “terrorists who want to hurt people.” This construction “legitimizes everything they’ve done,” he notes, encased in a circular logic and morality, where everything looks like prison.