My Truth, Your Truth, Our Truth
John Akomfrah, Charlie Shackleton, and Astra Taylor
A few years ago, I was teaching this undergrad class on documentary history. Every day would start with the same question: “What did you watch last night?” I remember being really amazed by how little overlap there was. I think part of it was just that there’s so much content on so many different platforms, like television, Netflix, TikTok, or actual cinemas.
Another part was that this was at Hunter College in New York City, and there’s not really any dorm culture. Students tend to come to campus for class each week and then they go home, back to their worlds. But then there was this one day where almost all of the students said the exact same thing: Oprah.
It is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice, to tyrants and victims and secrets and lies.—Oprah Winfrey
This is an excerpt of Oprah’s Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. It’s from the 2018 Golden Globes. We’re projecting it on the big screen at the front of the room because the class insisted.
I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times.—OW
I’m thinking to myself, It’s kind of pandering, isn’t it? Didn’t the Hollywood Foreign Press give her the award? But I’m not saying any of this, because I don’t want to ruin the moment. And also, when Oprah’s talking about “complicated times,” she’s referring to the #MeToo movement and she’s talking about all the courageous women who have spoken out. So I didn’t want to come off like I was hating on that either.
Which brings me to this. What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.—OW
I press pause. And this time I feel like I have to ruin the moment, because I want to make sure I heard that last line right. I scrub backwards and then I press play again.
What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.—OW
It seems like she’s basically saying that “my truth is that your truth is our truth.” I mean, OK, I’m paraphrasing, and maybe I’m reading into it more than most people, but still, it’s a pretty wild sentence to parse. How can my truth be your truth be our truth? What if I’m not OK with your truth? But apparently a lot of people watched that speech. The New York Times even published it in full the next day. And Oprah got me thinking: Is my truth the new the truth?
I’m Jason Fox and this is Trust Issues, episode 2: “My Truth, Your Truth, Our Truth.” This is an episode about the power and potential of my truth. It’s about people starting from personal experience to imagine new systems and narratives that are vying to become the truth, for better or for worse.
In the years following the 2008 financial crash, the world felt like it was falling apart. Millions of people were losing their homes, and millions more were defaulting on loans. For author, filmmaker, and activist Astra Taylor, the crisis revealed a clash of values. People were thinking about homeownership as a social value, but the banks were calculating it in a different way. Occupy Wall Street was a place for people to figure out how their own personal experiences of debt and vulnerability linked up with each other, and to discover how hard it was to translate those personal experiences into shared beliefs.
We the people . . .
We the people . . .
have found our voice!
have found our voice!
—We the People Have Found Our Voice (Occupy Wall Street)
Occupy Wall Street began on September 17, 2011. I’ll never forget that day . . . that beautiful, sunny day. I went to Wall Street early in the morning, and I went there out of a kind of sense of obligation to my friends who’d helped plan it, but not with any great expectations or hopefulness. You know, I’ve been to many protests in my life, and I just thought that it would be another one. And I thought it was very unlikely anyone would be able to stay the night, that they would be able to occupy in any meaningful way.
What happened next, though, really struck me. We did a bit of a march. We marched from Lower Manhattan up towards Zuccotti Park, maybe six or seven blocks. But then, instead of standing there and shouting and shaking our fists, or listening to speakers from a stage, we broke into small groups and we tried to answer what our one demand would be.
Hold up everything. Hold up Wall Street. Make sure it’s a frozen zone and packed with thousands and thousands and thousands of people so that they aren’t able to move and they can’t get to work on time. Hold it up again at five o’clock. Hold up the bridges. Take control of the streets.—We the People Have Found Our Voice (Occupy Wall Street)
And so that in itself was really striking to me: that instead of these conventional forms of protest that I expected and was accustomed to—walking, shouting slogans—we sat down and we engaged in thinking together, and listening to one another, and getting to know each other. After a few hours, those smaller assemblies convened into a larger general assembly. And this general assembly became the forum that Occupy was sort of famous for worldwide.
They have taken our houses!
They have taken our houses!
Through illegal foreclosure process!
Through illegal foreclosure process!
—We the People Have Found Our Voice (Occupy Wall Street)
A huge open meeting that typically happened around dusk, so right as the sun was setting. And in those forums, everyone was equal. So there was a deep commitment to the principle of direct democracy. And that doesn’t mean that the assemblies weren’t facilitated. There would be a facilitator, and there were certain procedures to make things a bit more democratic. We tried to encourage those who might be from marginalized backgrounds, who might be less inclined to assert themselves, to actually cut to the front of the line, to balance things out. And there were some limits on how long people could hold forth, but it was essentially a forum where every voice could be expressed and heard. And this was the decision-making body for the Occupy Wall Street movement. And so these general assemblies happened every night.
We’re working in a tradition that reveres consensus based on the idea that consensus is the most small-d democratic way to come to a determination, because it encourages everyone to compromise. So, what it did was force people to work things out. That was the idea. But there were moments where 600, 700, 800 people would be gathered together at dusk in Zuccotti Park. And it was like we were a part of some giant, living, breathing poetry. It was a forum that I think both had a kind of radical provocation in it, and yet in a way also contained the seeds of Occupy’s inevitable undoing.
The politics of consensus assumes there’s a common ground to be found, but there are moments where situations are truly adversarial. One of my favorite signs at Occupy Wall Street was a sign somebody made that said, “I love democracy more than I hate this drum circle.” And that was very amusing to me and many of the people I knew because Occupy, like many protests, had a drum circle. It had a very committed drum circle that set up on one side of the park and basically played twenty-four hours a day. So, at a certain point, the issue was raised in the general assembly that perhaps maybe the drum circle could stop for a few hours a day so that people could think their thoughts, or maybe so that some other forms of expression could be heard.
And this became perhaps the most contentious debate at the general assembly. And it was quite hilarious in some instances, but also really telling because it was a true conflict. I will never forget this one moment when a drummer said, “But we’re your heartbeat. We’re the heartbeat of this movement.” And an occupier said, “Don’t call yourself my heartbeat. Who are you to say that you’re my heartbeat? There’s all these other aspects of this movement that are equally essential.”
It was a conflict that the general assembly’s consensus-based approach was ill-equipped to solve. When you have a problem where there’s real conflict, you actually need a mode of decision-making that allows for that adversarial form of politics to be expressed. Otherwise, what you’re going to do is just frustrate the hell out of people. And that’s what happened, right? For me, I was like, “I love democracy more than I hate this drum circle. I’ll come to the park for five, six, seven hours a day. But I can’t live with this constant offbeat thudding.”
It was a common refrain at Occupy to hear that our procedures were good and right, but we were operating in a broken world. And I think there was something to that. So, for example, the supposedly open general assembly wasn’t really open because some people had to take care of their children or ailing parents, or they had to work multiple jobs. Not everyone had the ability to be there and be present for those in-person debates at the specific time they were scheduled for, and so on. So anything that is “open” that is functioning in a deeply unequal society, a society separated by these various inequalities—racial inequalities, gender inequalities, economic inequalities—is never going to live up to that ideal.
The thing about finding consensus is that it does depend on a shared reality, right? That affinity, that trust, that horizon. So, we are in a moment where the sense of shared reality is diminishing. We’re in a moment of tumult, of inequality, of insecurity, and people are looking for new explanatory frameworks. And I think we need to name divisions to build not unity, but solidarity, to address those divisions and then hopefully get to a new consensus. It’s not just about the people having a meeting. It’s about the sort of frameworks or ideas we take for granted as a culture. And to get to that kind of consensus, we’re going to need a lot of conflict.
The NYPD cleared Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011. And then less than three years later, five people were in the street shouting “black lives matter” for every one person who’d occupied Wall Street. The two movements don’t seem to have much in common. But they both grew out of the 2008 crash, through people who felt like their personal experiences couldn’t be reconciled with the status quo. There’s a growing number of my truths, and eventually they became an our truth. The abolitionist scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says that Black Lives Matter didn’t start because a young black man was murdered by police. It started because there was one too many. But it’s been one too many for a long time.
This is the sound of the Brixton neighborhood of South London. It’s 1981. The official unemployment rate is around 40 percent, and London police have sent hundreds of plainclothes officers to the neighborhood for what they’re calling “Operation Swamp 81.” That was code for stopping, frisking, and harassing the largely West Indian population.
Unemployment, social conditions, racial disadvantage. All these are factors. None of them are an excuse, of course, for violence, and I think we’ve got to sit on that all the time.—Thames News
Brixton fought back. The uprising spread to other parts of the country, and the government needed to seem like it was listening.
A year later, Channel 4 was launched. It was a BBC offshoot, and the idea was to make more programming time for the stories and perspectives of people of color. But in its very first hour of broadcast, this is the kind of thing that went to air.
In Brixton, in South London, the police and community leaders are assessing the damage caused by last night’s sudden outbreak of violence on the streets. The headlines in some of this morning’s newspapers are reminiscent of the riots in Brixton last year.—Channel 4
Meanwhile, onscreen, there’s images from the morning papers. One headline reads “Black Mob in Fire Rampage.” Another says “Police Rout Brixton Mob.”
That same year, a group of six undergrads living in Portsmouth came together. They called themselves the Black Audio Film Collective. One of the members was John Akomfrah, a sociology student who’d come to Britain from Ghana as a young kid.
You’re sitting there listening to someone referring to “migrants” as cockroaches, and you think, OK, what’s going on here? How do people migrate from being human beings to cockroaches? What do you have to forget?
They were the first generation in their families who grew up in England. And, officially, they were welcome. As former colonial subjects of Britain, their families had a right to emigrate there, at least until white Britons needed a target for their economic anxieties.
You sensed that certain regimes of truth, which governed and overdetermined how narratives came out of this place, had a racial imaginary. And in that racial imaginary, we did not exist. I’m talking about my generation. We didn’t exist.
The uprisings didn’t end with Brixton. In September 1985, things erupted again, this time in the Handsworth neighborhood of Birmingham.
Everything happened so quickly, you understand me, because they came in on us. It was a great surprise for us to open our dining room door and see police in our house. And that’s when he came downstairs and my mum was standing up and he pushed past and knocked her over. And she fell on the floor and got up, and he didn’t even come back and say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” or anything like that. He went straight to the washing machine, started digging up. Then it’s at that point when she told me she didn’t feel well and she took her tablet, sat back down, and said she doesn’t feel well. I must phone the doctor. Something wrong. She can’t breathe.
That’s a clip from Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986), a response to the uprisings. It layers sounds and images of Britain’s colonial past with footage from the streets of Handsworth and recordings which capture the hopes and dreams of postwar black Britons.
In 1987, Akomfrah went to the Flaherty Seminar to talk about the film.
What decided the structure of the film were two events. One was a decision taken very quickly by the media—newspapers, television—to not look beyond what seemed to everybody fairly obvious causes and catalysts for the riots. And they were centered around three things: criminality, drugs, and black youth lawlessness. And so we decided that in a way, whatever we did had to say something about those three things. And initially all we wanted to do was to provide a kind of community version of the events, which would juxtapose historical memorabilia from the community, archival material taken by black people of themselves in their lives, and trying to weave a tapestry within which the riots had a kind of rationale.
The popular narrative coming from the police, politicians, and the press was that the disturbances just came out of nowhere. Take this scene that captures a local official standing on a street corner in a beige suit, talking to a reporter.
Reporter: What’s your assessment of what was the cause of the riots here?
Official: Well, you’re asking a million-dollar question.
Reporter: Something does seem to have gone seriously wrong somewhere down the line, doesn’t it?
Official: Well, again, you’re asking me very serious questions. I think, as I said, the day before, it was very nice atmosphere. I was there, you know, watching people enjoying themselves. And certainly something has come up. It must be some serious cause why it has happened. It’s a complete mystery to the police, to everybody.
He’s right. There was a serious cause. But the Collective didn’t think that making some frontline news report could possibly reveal what it was. You had to look a lot further into the past than just yesterday.
Take this other piece of archival footage from Handsworth Songs. It’s from a 1948 Pathé newsreel segment called “Jamaicans Come to Britain Looking for Work.”
The calypso music star Lord Kitchener disembarks a boat to step foot in England for the first time, when a reporter sticks a microphone in his face.
Can I ask you your name?
I am told that you are really the king of calypso singers, is that right?
Can you sing for us?
—“London is the place for me. / London, this lovely city. / You can go to France or America, India, Asia, or Australia, / But you must come back to London City. / Well, believe me, I am speaking broadmindedly. / I am glad to know my mother country. / I’ve been traveling these countries years ago, / But this is the place I wanted to know. / Darling London, this is the place for me.”
The immigrants that came to London from West Africa and the West Indies in the late 40s and 50s, they were sometimes called the “Windrush generation,” because that was the name of the first boat that came over from Jamaica. And a lot of them brought this real sense of optimism. It was a mode of survival in a way. If they were optimistic, it meant that things were going well, things were possible. Losing that optimism meant having to reckon with the decision to come over in the first place. But that optimism was then used against them whenever anyone dared to gesture at the reality of their lives in Britain.
Here’s John again.
The material always made the assumption that the only thing you can say about black people, which they should understand, is that they all came off these boats, and that’s their history. So we wanted to find a way in which you can say, “These images are important. They are part of a kind of inventory of black life in Britain,” but to find ways in which you can get them to speak other versions of personhood. And we wanted to find a form which would preserve at least some of our initial kinds of frustrations with the sorts of images being produced. But something which could stand both as a kind of testament to the events and to the inability for media work to move beyond a series of fairly constraining suppositions about black life in Britain.
The reason Handsworth Songs layers archival material and the contemporary footage of Handsworth is because that’s the way they understand history, as something that’s pieced together. Those in power narrate history in a way that appears coherent, but it’s actually a reflection of themselves.
It’s filled in by all kinds of fictions and rhetorics and tropes of denial and repression. They’re not going to fall out of place out of gratitude or, you know . . . British culture isn’t suddenly going to say, “Oh, yes, you’re right Black Audio Film Collective.” You know what I mean? It’s not going to happen.
Or it’s not going to happen without a fight, like the one that was going on in Handsworth.
I could see four policemen in the back of my house. And they pulled one lad, and they were smashing him, and he was bleeding all over his face, till he’s passed out. So I say to him, “What do you think you’re doing? What you’re beating him for? You have him, you handcuffed him.” And he says, “Why don’t I keep quiet?” I say, “This is my house. You break my gate down to come in here. Do you want to kill him? You talk about peace. That’s how you’re going to treat the lad. How are you going to expect peace when you do things like this?”
In order to challenge the popular media narrative, it was important to show Handsworth Songs on a popular media network. Remember Channel 4? The Collective had initially approached them to support the film, but the channel passed on it, even though this was exactly the kind of thing they were supposed to be showing. Then, almost two years after the uprising, the film screened at the London Film Festival, and it was widely praised.
. . . the best kind of controlled anger we’ve seen from black people for years.
But Akomfrah summed up that praise as “the best controlled anger Britain had seen from black people in years.” You know, respectable anger. So that’s how Handsworth Songs ended up showing on Channel 4 after all. Akomfrah refers to this kind of thing as “recuperating the margins.” When oppositional culture starts to get absorbed into the mainstream, dominant cultures have ways of showing that they really do tolerate the people and ideas they think are threatening. Like when Chase Bank decides it’s good PR to print a bunch of banners that say “Black Lives Matter,” and starts hosting forums on racial equality. Unity is marshaled out to cover up people’s actual experiences of oppression. And who can argue with unity?
You hear a lot of politicals, like, you know, councilors and community workers and everybody, talking about the better world, and so on. And every time they start talking about a better world, they start saying we’ve got to get rid of inequality, we’ve got to get rid of unemployment, got to have better housing, and so on. But, you know, they’re ineffective. It doesn’t matter what they do. They can’t make those things happen, because somebody else controls the purse strings. The only time I ever saw the police run, you know, terror in the hearts of those people responsible for the way the ghetto is, was on that Monday.
The spirit of Handsworth Songs lives on in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not about one person’s or a few people’s truth as much as it is about understanding that everyone’s liberation is wrapped up in black liberation. When black lives matter, everybody lives better. That’s the way Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it.
Now, admittedly, that society might look a lot different than the way things look today. And change can be scary.
I’ve been receiving quite a lot of calls lately from people who want to talk about QAnon, the vast, interconnected, labyrinthine conspiracy theory, which seems to have hoovered up all other conspiracy theories into one big amalgam this year and last.
That’s Charlie Shackleton. In 2017, he made a film called Personal Truth. It’s about a young man with strong convictions who felt compelled to load up on guns, get in his car, and drive to Washington, DC.
Pizzagate was a little bit more specific, alleging that a cabal of Democrat-aligned political power figures in DC were running an underground child-trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant there called Comet Ping Pong. And this had largely stemmed from the infamous leaked Democratic Party emails which contained, if you were willing to look hard enough, various supposedly veiled references to child sex rings and pizza parties and all these sorts of things. And my basic thesis was that there was something very compelling about this kind of knowledge-gathering, that you could kind of give people this bulk of material like the email dump and say, you know, there are secrets to be found here. You can go forth and find them yourself—get that kind of puzzle-solving high that I can certainly relate to myself as someone who enjoys puzzles a lot. And my idea was, well, maybe the best way to combat this—and I was making this at a time when that was really the focus of everyone’s attention; you know, “fake news” was this big, new, terrifying thing that all the mainstream media networks were talking about. “How do we fight back?” You know, “How do we maintain the liberal order?” And my basic thought was you’ve got to make the truth as compelling as this fiction. You’ve got to take the retorts and the reality behind all of these wild conspiracy theories and give them that same ring of satisfaction that one gets from solving a puzzle or filling in a crossword.
And so that’s how I tried to present the reality behind Pizzagate in the film.
Excerpt from PERSONAL TRUTH (Charlie Shackleton, 2017).
By the end of making the film, however—and it was a long process—I’d become a little more jaded about my chances of changing anyone’s mind. I went to DC and attended one of the hearings of a man called Maddison Welch, who’d become infamous for being the leading Pizzagate believer, because where everyone else just read that there was this secret child sex dungeon under the basement of a pizza restaurant, he did something about it, driving from his home in North Carolina all the way to DC and storming the restaurant with a gun to try and save the children.
Luckily, no one was hurt, but he obviously was arrested and put on trial, and my hope was that he would become a kind of perfect test case of my theory that the presentation of the truth in a compelling enough way would outweigh the persuasive presentation of fiction. You know, here was a man who’d literally burst into the location of his belief and found nothing. Surely that was enough to outweigh whatever he’d read on the internet or watched on YouTube.
Sadly, as I detail in the film, that wasn’t to be.
Excerpt from PERSONAL TRUTH (Charlie Shackleton, 2017).
But I think regardless of this quite pessimistic ending, a big part of me had really assumed the truth would sort of win out in the end, or at the very least, this particular conspiracy theory would just sort of fade into memory, as most of them have a way of doing. And in this case, that’s really not what happened. Instead, Pizzagate became the Rosetta Stone for this sprawling conspiracy theory called QAnon.
It really is impossible to kind of adequately describe what QAnon consists of. But the way people normally refer to it is as a far right set of conspiracy theories positing that President Trump is the key to bringing down this global network of variously child-sacrificing, baby-eating, Satan-worshiping, blood-harvesting pedophiles. And although it consists of many strands and takes many forms because it has such a vast number of adherents, a lot of the key elements from Pizzagate show up again and again. Indeed, Maddison Welch, the believer from my film, has become just another figure within the conspiracy theory, seen by some as a plant designed to discredit the allegations against Comet Ping Pong.
And so it’s funny, because although this really wasn’t the intention of my film, it’s become a really interesting case study in what is now the focus of a lot of my work, which is how history is made. You know, if journalism is the first draft of history, or whatever people say, and in the case of Pizzagate an often very inadequate one, then how and who writes the second draft?
More recently, I made a film called Lasting Marks (2018), which was about a high-profile police investigation of the late 80s and early 90s, called Operation Spanner, in which a group of sixteen gay and bisexual men were put on trial for their involvement in these sadomasochistic sex parties. As you might expect, the tabloid news coverage of the story was pretty sensationalist. But what was dispiriting to me, as I looked further into the case, was the extent to which the broadsheet press, notionally more liberal, hewed to that version of events even as it defended the men against the prosecutions. So they would take this line of, you know, “This is an unjustified incursion into people’s private lives and a violation of civil liberties,” but at the same time would be careful to note that they didn’t approve of the men’s behavior . . . that this was beyond the pale in some way.
And surprise, surprise, that’s the thing that stuck over time. The version of events that went down in history was this one that very much favored the police and the state basically saying, “Oh, well, these prosecutions might have been of their time, but the men’s behavior was so extreme that the police really had no choice but to intervene.” In my film Lasting Marks, I present onscreen this paper trail showing how the legend of the case was enshrined in public understanding, while on the soundtrack, you hear the testimony of one of the men prosecuted, offering a more humane interior view of what took place.
Excerpt from LASTING MARKS (Charlie Shackleton, 2018).
Obviously, in making a film like this, my hope was to some extent to correct the record. And no doubt the people who actually saw the film, if they knew anything about the case before, did leave with a better understanding of it. Or at least a fuller understanding of what took place. But the problem I butted up against, again and again, was that even in writing about the film, people would refer, not to the film itself, but to the Wikipedia entry on the case. And so I’d read these reviews of the film which reiterated and reenshrined a version of events that the film was designed expressly to refute.
And after a while, this led me to the conclusion that if I actually wanted to have any impact on the historical understanding of the case, I really had to go there, where that battle over the truth was really being fought. And so over a period of a couple of weeks, I painstakingly rewrote the entire Wikipedia entry. And it felt very satisfying. It felt like I was really righting a wrong in a way that I hadn’t really been able to through the medium of film. But at the same time, I was struck by how incredibly fragile that whole system was. You know, the fact that I could just go on there as someone who happened to have an extraordinary amount of information about this case, and define the understanding of potentially thousands of others, an understanding that would inevitably be filtered through all of my biases and preconceptions. And that could just as easily be filtered through those of another person. So while it was a gratifying experience, it was ultimately also an ambivalent one because I felt like I had to sort of assent to the authority of this very fragile system in order to exploit that authority.
At the 2017 Oscars, Warren Beatty, or Faye Dunaway, or someone got a pretty crucial fact wrong.
There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke. I’m afraid they read the wrong thing. This is not a joke. Moonlight has won Best Picture. Moonlight, Best Picture.—2017 Oscars telecast
Coincidentally, it was the same Oscars, that one right after Trump’s presidential inauguration, that the New York Times unveiled a new ad campaign.
The truth is our nation is more divided than ever. The truth is alternative facts are just plain delusional. The truth is the media needs to be held accountable. The truth is locker room talk is harmless. The truth is we . . .—“The Truth Is Hard,” New York Times advertisement, February 2017
Sobering piano notes pierce through the noise. Against a white background, text set in the paper’s familiar Georgia typeface reads: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important than ever. The New York Times.”
These last lines only appear as text onscreen. And I think that’s the point. Like, you’re supposed to hear it in your own head because you, the reader, are the one who knows how to independently verify the truth. You know because that’s what you’re doing whenever you read the New York Times. Truth breaks through the noise. That’s the subtext of the ad, anyway. And maybe it’s also part of the problem, because it suggests truth can be independently verified. But Astra Taylor and John Akomfrah suggest that it can’t; that truth can only be verified interdependently.
Maybe the whole Maddison Welch Pizzagate thing is a case study in self-verification taken to an extreme. Welch’s personal truth didn’t set him free. It landed him in jail. Only time will tell what grows from the seeds planted by Occupy, Black Lives Matter, or a rising fascist right. Movements build across individuals, struggles, even generations. It remains to be seen which of these narratives will become true.