what i'm watching: the u.s. v. john lennon

As Movie Season winds down, we saw another good one last night: "The U.S. v. John Lennon". It's a documentary about John Lennon's transformation from apolitical musician to peace activist, and his fight to stay in the U.S. - specifically in New York City - despite the politically motivated deportation proceedings against him. Through that lawsuit, Lennon's paranoid beliefs were confirmed: he had been under FBI surveillance.

There are clips of interviews with Walter Cronkite, Gore Vidal, George McGovern, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Bobby Seale, and on the other side of the divide, G. Gordon Liddy, and a former FBI staffer, as well as Yoko Ono and close friends of Ono's and Lennon's.

The movie is also full of archival clips from the 1960s and 1970s, but it's not the usual footage that we've all seen hundreds of times. Filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld used some eye-opening clips that really held my interest.

"Held my interest" is a bit of a euphemism there. I wept through much of this movie: hearing Nixon tout his "secret plan" to end the war in 1969, knowing in reality he was escalating the aggression and widening it, knowing how many people were yet to die - seeing the massive protests, the head-smashing in Chicago, the murders in Ohio. At least hearing that scumbag Liddy blame the protesters - "What did they expect?" - got me back from sorrow to anger. But soon tears were running down my face again. Mostly for my country, doing it all over again.

I wept, too, listening to the chants in Chicago, as the cops split heads and beat the backs of peaceful protesters, as the bloodied bodies were hauled off, the rest of the protesters chanting, The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching... I wept because the US government learned those lessons so well. Now no one can watch.

And speaking of chanting, I'm pretty sure there was footage from my first political action ever, the 1969 Moratorium. I was 8 years old. I went to Washington DC with my father, on a bus with textile workers and other union types. We held our arms in the air, our fingers signifying peace, proudly waving our arms in unison, more than a million of us, in front of the Washington Monument, chanting, All we are saying... is give peace a chance.... all we are saying... is give...

More than ever I feel that the peace movement in the US won't break wide open, won't reach the massive level too huge to be ignored, until there is a draft. And, as Allan said last night, that's why they're doing everything possible to avoid that politically unattractive necessity. Yet until young men and women are being hauled off to the Middle East in large numbers - large, middle class numbers - the peace movement will struggle for traction.

The movie also made me think about timing, about the arc of justice. All of us who are old enough to remember other movements need to help younger activists understand how long these things take - how there is no such thing as immediate results. That is, we need to talk about how a movement builds. By 1970, 1971, massive anti-war demonstrations were commonplace in the United States - but the end of the war was many years, and many deaths, away. The war ended because of the movement. The movement succeeded. But it took a very long time and a tremendous amount of work.

During Lennon and Ono's Bed-In in Montreal, a reporter asked about their billboards, how much is this costing you, where are you getting the money? He said, Whatever it costs, it's less than a human life.

I was never a huge John Lennon fan or follower, although I acknowledge his talents as a songwriter. Seeing this movie, I gained a new appreciation of Lennon's commitment to peace activism. I realized he was a true hero of social justice.

I also really appreciated the fair and admiring treatment of Yoko Ono. When I was younger, Ono was universally - and, I thought, unfairly - despised as "the woman who broke up the Beatles". People didn't understand her art, didn't seem to understand that the Beatles were obviously going to break up anyway, as they grew up and in different directions, and, amazingly to me, didn't understand that John Lennon was a grown man who made his own decisions. In "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," you see that in Ono, Lennon had found his true life partner, and as a team, they both flourished.

This movie is well worth seeing, especially if you stand for peace.

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