Chaos

Did you know that Charles Manson and his followers were arrested and released multiple times not long before the Tate-LaBianca murders? What was the motive behind these killings? Why are files about Manson still secret, 50 years after the crimes?

I’ve just finished reading Tom O’Neill’s fascinating and compelling new book about Charles Manson and his followers, Chaos – Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. If you are interested in understanding US culture and politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you’re going to have to spend time with this book and consider its implications. Chaos does a splendid job documenting in compelling detail how Manson and some of his followers had “get out of jail free” cards. The book also proves Manson’s prosecutor, Vince Bugliosi, to be a self-promoting sociopath and a completely unethical lawyer.

Chaos doesn’t quite connect Manson to known US Intelligence operations such as COINTELPRO. However, the book does make a compelling showing that the Manson pattern of local law enforcement being countermanded by “higher authorities” from the federal secret police (FBI-CIA) is consistent with these covert domestic operations. Manson and his followers are treated differently from other criminals. There are significant irregularities. Did you know that, at the time Manson was putting together his little cult, he was under federal probation? Did you know his probation officer, a guy who was studying connections between drug use and violence, had only one person under his supervision?

The author spent 20 years on this book. It started as a magazine piece and morphed into a life-dominating experience in street-level journalism. Part of what makes this book so useful is that the author doesn’t take the easy way out and engage in reasonable-but-salacious theories about “what really happened.” Instead, he shares his reasoning with us, his motivations for pursuing various leads and asking specific questions. Many of these questions remain unanswered. Chaos helps us consider important issues – both about the Manson case and about current events. This book puts a remarkable degree of order to a multidimensional spiderweb of connections, and helps us make better sense of them.

Law enforcement in southern California has been making a dog’s breakfast of hugely important cases for decades. Anybody who studies the murder of Robert Kennedy soon sees that the LAPD’s handling of the case was wildly improper. Bobby Kennedy’s family has argued in public that the convicted assassin could be factually innocent of his murder. That killing was just a bit more than a year before the Tate-LaBianca crimes. The LAPD “police spying” case was litigated for years in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Again, tons of horrifying information about illegal police and prosecutorial policies and practices came out. A few  years later, nobody close to southern California law enforcement or the criminal justice system in LA was surprised by the Rodney King beating.

Thinking about Patty Hearst in the 1970’s, or OJ Simpson much more recently, one doesn’t have to look far to see that the cases are irregular, that there’s quite a bit more going on than meets the eye. In all these cases, we see compelling evidence of corruption in high places across law enforcement and the news media. At the same time, we also see that some of the most important sources for tracking down important leads come from sincere “by-the-book” members of law enforcement and journalism. In the end, it comes down to each of us thinking critically and with heart, but without succumbing to the temptations of overreaching. Tom O’Neill serves as a fine role model for this approach to journalism.

The 50-year anniversary of the Manson murders finds the USA perhaps as upset and divided as it was in 1969. The historical record proves that America’s most bitter divisions in the 1960’s were made worse – consciously – by the federal ‘intelligence’ agencies and by their local agents and colleagues. Nobody doubts that these agencies are vastly more entrenched and powerful today than they were 50 years ago. So to me, the most important question implied by Chaos – Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties isn’t about Charlie Manson or the 1960’s, but about today: To what extent are America’s current violence and culture wars the deliberate work-product of US domestic covert operations?

My takeaway from all of this is a sense that modern America is far more like the former East Germany than anybody wants to admit. I say we should all demand a Truth and Reconciliation process, right here in the good old US of A. We need to open our military and intelligence files and take a good look at what happened – is happening – to our society.

Surely we can do better. 

Reflections on Chaos – Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring

1971 Diane Webber Flashback

Here is another view back through the mists of time…

This video is the product of clips from several different super-8 movies my father and I shot back in May of 1971. This is the second 1971 performance I’ve cut together from old home movies and published on-line. The other one was shot at the main stage of the Renaissance Faire during the same month, back in ’71 (see below).

Here’s a short piece I wrote about being on stage with Diane and Perfumes of Araby in the following year, 1972. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll get back into the archives and see how much footage there is from 1972. It is quite possible there will be stuff in there that is at least as good as the material from ’71.

Here’s the first clip of Diane from the Faire, on the main stage, in May of 1971:

1971 seems like a long time ago…except when it feels like yesterday.

Black Lives Matter!

Cell phone video is a powerful force for Democracy.

Alton Sterling’s life matters as much as mine does. Philando Castile’s life matters as much as my wife’s does. The racial problems in US law enforcement are not new but they are becoming less deniable by the day.

This human catastrophe stems from problems that are deeper and more serious than the current debate suggests.

For further disturbing reading, see:

Racial injustice has played a decisive role in my life and in my legal career. I write to offer a few ideas and a prescription to address some of the most corrosive social ills of our time.

In the late 1960s, as a child I got to take some enrichment classes at Los Angeles Community College. Today it is hard to imagine the political ferment on college campuses 50 years ago. I remember being a 9 year-old kid, walking down a long row of tables at LACC, each one of which represented a political cause. I looked up at a tall black college student with sunglasses and a big afro hairdo.

“Why are you so angry?”

He took off his sunglasses and sat down to look me in the eye.

“We’re angry because the cops hurt us. We are getting drafted to fight in Vietnam. Do you know about little black kids, younger than you, getting arrested just a couple years ago for sitting at lunch counters?”

“I heard of it, yes. There is a lunch counter at the Thrifty Drug Store on Sunset and Fairfax. My dad says its too expensive, but I think black people are allowed to eat there.”

“America is a lot rougher than Hollywood. You should think about it.”

In the spring of 1984, I worked as a Certified Law Clerk for the Los Angeles County District Attorney. I got to appear in court and put on felony preliminary hearings. The first words I ever spoke in court on the record were, “Scott Pearce, for the People.” After reading dozens of identical police reports on different drug cases, I went to my supervisor.

“These cases have problems,” I said. “I don’t think the cops are telling the truth. Shouldn’t we be worried about putting on false testimony?”

“Sworn police officers are our colleagues. We have plenty of conflict with them over which cases to file, believe me, but we are confident of the cases we do file. You’ll see. No go back to court.”

A couple years later, I joined the office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender, proud of the work and looking forward to “working within the system” for justice.

Scott Pearce in Division 40

July 1986: A Dashing Defender of Just-Us, in Division 40 of the LA Criminal Court House

I was horrified by what I saw. Going into the central jail to visit clients, I noticed that I was a 27 year-old white man in an expensive suit. Walking down a long line of cells, dozens of brown arms reached out from behind the bars to shake my hand or touch my sleeve and ask for help or to make a phone call to a relative. “Is this South Africa?” My honest reaction was that about 95% of the people behind bars shouldn’t be there at all and the other 5% shouldn’t ever be allowed to get out.

My transactional experience in Hollywood legal work prepared me well for work as a Deputy Public Defender. I was a natural at plea negotiations. My colleagues and I would try to stack the trial courts with lots of cases that had to be tried that day or dismissed, and then go in and work out superb plea bargains.

It did not take me long to realize that pleading defendants guilty – even for a “superb deal” – wasn’t in their interest. At the same time, the trial courts did not seem preferable. Most of the judges were ex-prosecutors or insurance company lawyers, and the evidentiary decisions tended to go against the defense. Sentencing was brutal, even before “Three Strikes” laws led to the wholesale warehousing of criminal defendants.

I admired the tough public defender trial lawyers. I still do. Even so, I knew I coudn’t survive for long as a witness to the daily injustices, and the occasional good I could do for people didn’t seem enough to compensate. I told people I felt like the train conductor to Auschwitz. “This is systematic injustice. It can’t be cured or improved from within. What is the satisfaction in being a Constitutional patina of “due process” when the substance of the criminal justice system is a race war?”

Straight Outta of Compton came out in 1988, not long after I left the public defender’s office to practice on my own and to get into corporate bar exam review and teaching. N.W.A. earned its spot in the Rock and Roll hall of fame with “Straight out of Compton” and “F— the Police.” I spent a little time in the Compton Courthouse in the 1980s, and if anything the N.W.A. album is sentimental and optimistic. Listening to the first couple of cuts on that album felt exactly the same as the first time I heard the Sex Pistols.

30 years later, 1986 seems like a gentle, bygone era. Incarceration rates have exploded during these years. Inequality and injustice in many other forms are obvious, too. What is to be done? Well, for a start:

In the summer of 2002, a couple of videotaped incidents of police violence were global news. One of the incidents happened in Inglewood, California, where I worked as a law professor. I was interviewed on TV2, Denmark’s national television station. Here is the five-minute interview: