Interview: Katie Galloway, Documentarian

by Joshua Goldfond

This interview contains some “spoilers” about the documentary Better This World. It is strongly suggested that you see the documentary nonetheless, which will be re-airing on PBS on 8/30/12.

Katie Galloway is a documentarian, investigative journalist, and teacher of Media Studies at UC Berkeley. In 2011, Ms. Galloway and her creative partner, Kelly de la Vega, produced and directed the documentary Better This World, which has won several awards and has been screened at numerous festivals around the nation. The film follows the criminal actions and subsequent legal plight of left-wing radical activists Bradley Crowder (then 23) and David McKay (then 22), who were arrested in 2008 for charges pertaining to domestic terrorism at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.

The young men would claim that their behavior was inspired by Brandon Darby (then 32); a charismatic, but occasionally volatile, community organizer who gained national attention for his humanitarian activism in post-Katrina New Orleans. Darby became a mentor to Crowder and McKay, preaching a militant approach to political protest. He encouraged his followers to learn martial arts, showed them how to create riot shields from traffic barrels, and urged the need for aggressive action, even violence, in fomenting true change.

In 2008, Darby would lead Crowder, McKay, and a group of young activists to Minneapolis in order to join other protesters and disrupt the 2008 Republican National Convention. They were detained by police almost immediately upon their arrival, who seized their riot shields and issued them warnings. Incensed, Crowder and McKay told Darby that they created eight Molotov cocktails that they planned to use to disrupt the convention.

What Crowder and McKay did not realize was that Darby had long been an FBI informant, and had tipped off the authorities about the Minneapolis trip just as he would about the firebombs. McKay and Crowder were quickly arrested, and would soon face over 20 years in prison in a Federal justice system where conviction rates exceeded 90%. Both men would eventually plead guilty for reduced sentences. The case, and its subsequent fallout, has raised many critical question about the Federal use of informants, the definition of entrapment, and the state of civil liberties in America’s ever-expanding post-9/11 “War on Terror”.

Ms. Galloway spoke with me in late April of 2012.

 

First off, can you talk a little about your film background and academic focus? How did you come to link up with Ms. de la Vega?

My path to filmmaking was through journalism. I started as a print reporter working at a handful of small newspapers and magazines in my teen sand early 20s. I was also really into radio back then (I’m still a huge fan), so decided to try it out. I loved working with the sound layer, so I continued with it – Producing short and long-form radio pieces for the next several years. In my mid-20s, I began to get curious about film. I applied to a 9-month graduate program with a doc focus and have been making documentaries ever since. (Lots of unsexy paid work through all these years, by the way. Mainly waiting tables and bartending).

On the academic front, I teach occasional media studies courses at UC Berkeley – Including an upcoming documentary class this Fall. In terms of my relationship with my fabulous film partner Kelly Duane De La Vega, she and I actually knew each other at Berkley High School way back when. Though not well. Many years later we bumped into each other and realized we were both making films. And we had a pretty immediate creative chemistry.  We formed a partnership quickly and organically and it has been great so far. Nice to have a partner in crime.

 

Your 2007 documentary, “Prison Town, USA”, bears some thematic similarities to Better This World in its examination the prison/surveillance-industrial-complex of post 9/11 America. Between the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the increasing privatization of America’s prison system, the nation now has more inmates than any other country on Earth. I was hoping that you could discuss your interest in the subject, and what implications you think that this trend may hold for America? 

My father was a civil rights lawyer and constitutional law professor who carried a ragged, taped-up, vigorously underlined copy of the Constitution on him daily like others would wear a watch or wallet. Questions of justice, the inner workings of the justice system, rights and liberties of government power / abuse of power were front and center in my house.

My first time covering prison/criminal justice issues as a reporter was in radio. I produced a piece for the Pacifica Network on alleged retaliation by correctional officers at Pelican Bay Prison after inmates filed a class action lawsuit alleging abuse – in some case torture- by those same guards. For the Pacifica piece I interviewed a prisoner every 15 minutes for two full days. A sobering experience that shaped by work as a reporter and filmmaker from that point on.

 

How did the tale of David McKay and Bradley Crowder first come to your attention, and why did it hold your interest? When did you first decide to develop the documentary? How long did the process take?

 We found out about the case in early 2009 when we read a story in the New York Times. David McKay, one of the accused domestic terrorists, was headed to federal trial and was looking at up to 30 years in prison if convicted if he lost, which nearly all federal defendants do. It’s why going to trial in the federal system is so rare. His defense was entrapment and a federal trial seemed like a great opportunity  to take a close look at the type of case that we’ve seen many of since 9/11: Flash bulbs and headlines announcing the foiling of a dangerous domestic terror plot and arrest of a terrorist or terrorists bent on mass murder or destruction, followed not long after by defense claims of entrapment against a government agent or defendant.

The story was fascinating in print, but when we began meeting the amazing constellation of characters connected to the story we knew we had a film. Better This World took about two years from start to picture lock. Since premiering a little more than a year ago, we’ve done a huge among of outreach and engagement, screenings and public discussions, talks to schools and policy groups, most recently developing it as a fiction film. So, wehile we’re definitely moving on in certain respects, I’d say the process with Better This World is ongoing (It will have an encore presentation on National PBS/POV This August).

 

The overall critical and audience reaction to your film has been quite positive, with numerous festivals screenings around the world. Have you received any feedback from its primary subjects: David McKay, Bradley Crowder and Brandon Darby?

David McKay and Brad Crowder both seem really happy with the film. They feel it accurately reflects their experience/the reality of the situation (insomuch as a 90-minute can tell a story of 2+ years). Both have said that, after having their stories generally mangled by the commercial media and the justice system (both of which tend to spin black-and-white stories out of much more complicated and gray truths), the film have them their “humanity back”. What better review could there possibly be? When the main subjects of a film, who’ve given so much of themselves for so long, who’ve taken this crazy journey with the filmmaker (often a huge leap of faith on their parts), whose warts haven’t been spared in the telling, genuinely thank the filmmaker in the end- is incredible.

In terms of Brandon… I assume it’s clear to any who’ve seen the film that, while he was a central character in our narrative, he did not voluntarily participate. We had no contact with him for many months prior to wrapping the film and we haven’t spoken with him since.

 

A 2009 profile of Brandon Darby in the left-leaning “Austin Chronicle” depicts him as a troubled, occasionally violent individual with a hero complex. Their thesis, in essence, was that his switch from radical leftist to right-wing ideologue didn’t represent any sort of major psychological change, just an application of his authoritarian personality to another end. What impression did come away with from your dealings with his former associates and in your limited engagements with the man himself? I understand that he was originally slated to participate in the documentary, but then changed his mind?

Kelly and I never met Brandon face-to-face. Kelly spent dozens of hours on the phone prior to him changing his mind about participating. There’s no doubt that Brandon is a complex character. But I’ll leave it at that, since all of my information is second hand.

 

 McKay, Crowder, and their supporters contend that Brandon Darby was an agent provocateur who pushed his followers to violence in an effort to entrap them; an argument that the documentary seems to implicitly support. Do you feel that this was the case? If so, did you get the sense that he was working of his own volition, or was he part of a larger plan to discredit the leftist protest movement? Certainly this would not be unprecedented (e.g. COINTELPRO in the 1960s).

A very important point that we hope comes through in the film is that there is no single agreed upon legal definition of entrapment. But from my perspective there is one legal iteration that makes the most sense:  Would the defendant have committed the crime for which they’re accused had they not been hanging out with a government agent or informant?

My two cents, this is the version that deserves to prevail in the eyes of the law. On that interpretation, I think that there’s little question that Brad and David were entrapped (which doesn’t mean that they’re angels or did nothing wrong). As to your question of Brandon acting alone or as a part of a larger plan… Well, just as there would be no domestic terror case of McKay and Crowder but for their informant, there would be no informant in this case but for the FBI. If one buys that the case of Crowder and McKay is an injustice (and reasonable people disagree on this) the responsibility should lay at the government’s feet. To demonize Brandon is, I believe, missing the forest for the trees.

As to the larger plan of the FBI if there is one? I’d argue (just as David McKay’s dad does in the film) that implicit or explicit pressure to justify the mind-boggling amount of money and time that went into the RNC prep- the tens of if not hundreds of millions, the years of preparation, the multi-agency nation-wide investigation into all manner of vegan pot lucks, war resisters and anti-death penalty groups- to justify that money and time and to keep those resources going is a very powerful motivator indeed.

 

Another recent documentary, “If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front”, documents the Federal government’s occasional use of dubious informants to make their cases. In the research for Better This World, did you find this to be a growing trend in Federal investigative and prosecutorial tactics? Or, has it always been this way? 

No question that there’s been a huge upsurge in the use of informants since 9/11 and many safeguards to civil liberties have been scaled back or eliminated altogether in the name of security. Stories of agent provocateurs are rampant and abuses of power and/or cases of entrapment and abuses of power and/or cases of entrapment are so common in the post-9/11 landscape that it seems to me that policy shifts and law enforcement trends have, on balance, likely made us less rather than war safe. And they’ve certainly made us less free.

 

Do you have any future documentary projects in the works? What are some other subjects that you would like to explore?

We’re developing several projects. One that we’re begin production on soon is “El Poeta”, on reknowned Mexican poet turned activist Javier Sicilia who, after his 24-year-old son’s brutal murder last year, ignited a mass movement challenging the government’s 5-year-old war on drugs (which has led to the murder/disappearence of 50,000+ citizens). The film will trace Sicilia’s path from poet and father to national symbol of protest, grief and redemption.


Better This World’s website can be found here

Its PBS listing can be found here.

 The website for Katie Galloway and Kelly de la Vega can be found at www.loteriafilms.com.