Episode Recap: “Clarence Montgomery,” Alcatraz

You wouldn’t know from looking at the first seven episodes of the new series Alcatraz, but Alcatraz prison incarcerated black inmates–in segregated cell blocks. Finally, after being delayed two weeks by an unholy conspiracy between NASCAR, rain, and the FOX scheduling department, audiences got to see the other side of the color line at Alcatraz. In “Clarence Montgomery,” we follow, you guessed it, Clarence Montgomery, a newly returned ’63 who might be one of the most important Alcatraz inmates we’ve met yet. In the interest of shielding innocent eyes from spoilers, follow me behind the jump.

Why is Clarence Montgomery so important? For one, he was the only innocent man at Alcatraz. After his white girlfriend was murdered, the police looked no further than Clarence and a racist (I should say, more openly racist) justice system sent him to prison. That’s how he ended up at Alcatraz, where the warden took an interest in Clarence’s cooking skills and appointed him head of Alcatraz’ kitchens. Clarence was reluctant to take the position (even though he didn’t have much of a choice), wanting to serve his time with his head down. His friend, Emmitt Little, a younger man involved in the Black Power Movement, argued that Clarence taking this position would mean a lot to the Black community in Alcatraz and across the US. Clarence’s first service as head chef at Alcatraz went as well as he expected: the white inmates refused to eat, inciting a riot, and Clarence was beaten.

Back in 2012, Doc is monitoring police reports for crimes that fit the MO of potential ’63s. He notices that a white woman’s throat was slit on a golf course–the same mode and setting of the murder of Clarence’s girlfriend. A check-in with Nikki, our nerdy medical examiner, suggests that Clarence’s girlfriend and the recent murder victim were killed by different people. The cut on Clarence’s girlfriend’s neck was a hack job, while the more recent slashed throat was obviously performed by someone with excellent knife skills–like a professional chef. Also, the knives were held in different hands, indicating that the two murderers had different dominant hands. Doc and Rebecca go to Emmitt Little’s house in Oakland and ask him what he remembers about Clarence Montgomery–not knowing that Emmitt is harboring his old Alcatraz friend. He asserts that Clarence was innocent of murdering girlfriend.

However, further forensic evidence ties Clarence to the 2012 murder. A hair found on the corpse had traces of the medicine Clarence has to take regularly to manage a chronic illness. Clarence murders another white woman on a golf course, leading Team Nucatraz (because they work at the new Alcatraz) right to him. He manages to escape, but the Team traces his prescription back to his safehouse, Emmitt’s apartment. Team Nucatraz has the place surrounded despite Emmitt’s gunfire. Knowing that he can’t stop himself from killing and never wanting to go back to the Rock, Clarence begs for Emmitt’s help. Emmitt understands and shoots Clarence in the chest.

How did this happen? How did the only innocent man in Shawshank on Alcatraz turn into a murderer? Let’s go back to the ’60s. Following the riot, our sinister, chain-smoking Dr. Beauregard invited Clarence in for a little elective, electro-convulsive, behavior modification therapy. Without Lucy’s knowledge (we assume), Beauregard used the good doctor’s methods to turn the only innocent man on Alcatraz into a cold-blooded killer unable to stop himself from repeating the crime he didn’t commit. Later on, back on laundry duty, Clarence took out Ernest Cobb’s overly talkative cellmate, William Gant, by slashing his throat and placing the corpse in the same position as his girlfriend’s body was found in.

If you had any doubt that the administration of Alcatraz are the villains of this show, you can free yourself of it now.

In contrast to my last post, where I unpacked some of the problematic symbols and imagery in a fantasy setting, today I’m going to focus primarily on Alcatraz‘ faithfulness to history and the material conditions of oppressed people today. Here’s what the show did right.

This episode had two–count ’em, two!–people of color with disabilities in it. And not as twofer tokens! Well done, Alcatraz.  What’s this? One of them was a Black Panther? Be still my beating heart. After his release from Alcatraz, Emmitt Little acquired a spinal cord injury when a cop shot him for exercising his second amendment rights. A little historical context: the Black Panther Party encouraged Black people to arm themselves so they could defend themselves against police violence. Going back to the turn of the century, Ida B. Wells wrote that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.” So, Emmitt’s rifle-carrying is less Charlton Heston saying, “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands” and more about preventing police violence and lynching. Owing to this historical context, Alcatraz viewers are given the treat of a gun-wielding, wheelchair-using, Black Panther badass.

That Emmitt was a Black Panther with a disability in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s made the little wheels in my head start turning. Given who, where, and when he was, it’s not too far a leap to suggest that Emmitt participated in the 1977 occupation of the Health, Education, and Welfare offices in San Francisco. Okay, here’s some more historical context: in 1973, US Congress passed an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, which included Section 504, an under-the-radar civil rights law that made it illegal for programs receiving federal funding to discriminate against people with disabilities. To quote Vice President Biden, this is a big fucking deal. Qualified people with disabilities could get jobs at federally funded institutions. More basic than that, they could get in the front door and even use the bathroom. Huge deal. Well, it would have been if the federal government enforced it. After four years of government inaction and handwringing about implementation, the American Coalition of Citizen with Disabilities orchestrated nation-wide sit-ins of HEW offices in April 1977. The San Francisco sit-in and occupation lasted much longer than the others (for weeks, actually) because it was well-supported on the in and outside by a variety of social justice groups in the Bay Area. This “included the Butterfly Brigade, ‘a group of gay men who patrolled city streets on the lookout for gay violence,’ who smuggled walkie-talkies into the occupied building; Glide Church; local and national labor organizations; members of Delancey Street, the famous grassroots rehab program for substance abusers and former felons, who brought breakfast into the building each day; the Chicano group Mission Rebels, who also provided food; and the Black Panthers, who publicly endorsed the action and provided hot dinners for the duration of the sit-in” (Schweik). Black Panthers, including Brad Lomax and his attendant Chuck Jackson, were also inside the HEW offices for the duration of the occupation. In a fictional world where the “San Francisco Transit Authority” replaces BART, Emmitt Till might be Alcatraz‘s version of Brad Lomax, a wheelchair user who was crucial to connecting the Berkeley disability rights movement to the Black Panthers in Oakland. It took a little digging, but we might have a disability rights hero/Black Panther on FOX.

Whether or not he was involved in the 504 protests, Emmitt’s life in 2012 is not as those protesters might have imagined it. Emmitt is incredibly isolated from his community and the world at large. He lives in a second-story apartment in a building that does not appear to have an elevator. Perhaps owing to such, we never see the older Emmitt leave his home or even his living room. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Emmitt should be able to find accessible housing, but his access to resources is mediated by his age, class, race, and criminal background. He might not be able to afford to live in a newer apartment complex that has accessible units. He might not have access to the Internet or understand it well enough to find accessible housing or connect with disability rights organization or a Center for Independent Living. Given his time at Alcatraz, Emmitt might not pass a criminal background check for housing. All of these factors work together along with racism and ableism to prevent Emmitt from having an accessible home. Emmitt Little provides a sobering reminder that disability rights laws are limited and the movement needs to consider factors beyond disability to achieve full participation of people with disabilities in their communities.

Moving on to the other character with a disability in this episode. If you recall, Clarence had Wilson’s disease and took medication to prevent iron from accumulating in his liver and brain. Alcatraz had me worried there for a minute when it mentioned that, if left untreated, Wilson’s disease could have psychiatric symptoms. Here we go again, I thought. This is going to be just like Revenge. The bad guy loses access to his medication and goes on a killing spree. The he-must-be-off-his-meds villain is a particularly aggregious trope, doubly so in the case of Revenge where the character’s prescription ran out and couldn’t go to the doctor but still had the financial resources to buy his psych meds on the street but somehow despite being a criminal mastermind he never thought of that. Ahem. Anyway… Alcratraz subverted my expectations. I thought for sure that Clarence’s killing spree was going to be explained by his invisible disability, but Alcatraz took the more realistic, Clockwork Orange-y road, which brings us to the episode’s villains.

Unlike The HelpTo Kill a Mockingbord, and even Hairspray, this episode tackled segregation and racism without making the whole story about one brave white person standing up and saying, “Hey, maybe we should re-think this racism thing.” The show actually played on this trope, portraying the warden as someone who could see past Clarence’s race to his cooking talent and/or a social engineer willing to risk temporary backlash to integrate his prison. We even have a bit of good white person/bad white person going on with the warden’s relationship to Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller. Tiller is skeptical about making Clarence head chef and does his best to intimidate the man. Eventually, the episode subverts this dynamic and the myth of the white Civil Rights hero by revealing that the warden ordered Dr. Beauregard to frell with Clarence’s head just to see if an innocent man could be made into an unstoppable killing machine. We’re not shown how Clarence’s appointment to head chef is related to this, but I imagined the warden arranged the whole mess to either justify Clarence’s new violent, erratic behavior or put him under enough stress to make him susceptible to the doctor’s treatment. Possibly both. Either way, the warden is no benevolent, white patriarch (and certainly no spunky, outcast ingenue) out to end racism. White people don’t get to be the heroes of this story. Now, you might argue that casting the white folks as villains is a manifestation of white guilt, but I find white guilt more blatant in stories that re-write history to absolve white folks of their complicity in racism.

In addition to calling out white Americans on their racism, this episode issued a vote of no confidence for the prison-industrial complex. Up until now, Alcatraz (and, by extension, the American prison system) had been portrayed as merely ineffective at rehabilitating criminals. This episode showed Alcatraz as terribly effective at creating criminals. The recidivism rates in this country concur.

This entry is brought to you in part by Lomax’s Matrix: Disability, Solidarity, And The Black Power Of 504 by Susan Schweik, a really awesome English professor and disability studies scholar at UC Berkeley. I highly recommend her as a professor.

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People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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