Originally Published in The Daily Beast
Cassie Da Costa - September 30, 2020
The new documentary “Blood on the Wall” examines the human face and root causes of Central American migrants’ yearning for a better life in America.
Blood on the Wall, the new film from Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger, and co-directed by Nick Quested, is Junger’s most political yet. The film, out Sept. 30 on National Geographic, follows three groups in 2017 and 2018: a caravan of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico and hoping to make it to the U.S. where they can claim asylum in the wake of extreme violence due to drug trafficking; the drug traffickers themselves, usually Central Americans and Mexicans from poor or working-class families that have been left behind by neoliberal economic policy; and the townspeople and community police units formed to protect them from extortion, sexual abuse, and murder.
Rather than embed himself as a fly-on-the-wall “apolitical” observer, as Junger has previously described his filmmaking style, he and Quested allow their subjects to inform the thrust of the story while using interviews and archives to provide ample sociopolitical context to their conditions. Combining incredible access with a lucid yet standard approach to historicizing a human rights issue that’s been cynically politicized by the Trump, Bush, and even Obama administrations, Blood on the Wall is not the most compelling film about Central American immigration you’ll see, but it is thoughtfully designed to inform American skeptics and equivocators.
The U.S. has played a major role in destabilizing the countries from which the majority of immigrants risking their lives to cross the Mexico-U.S. border hail. The CIA funded and the Reagan government openly supported the Contras, a counterrevolutionary group formed to take out the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. This anti-communist activity reverberates into present-day Nicaragua, where economic degradation and community destruction has made drug trafficking one of the few realistic paths out of poverty for many while leading to turf wars that result in constant violence for locals. Reagan’s War on Drugs in the states only exacerbated the issue, since trying to take out drugs at the supply level through an extreme carceral approach rather than addressing the socioeconomic root causes of drug use and trafficking allowed for more competing gangs to form in Mexico, breaking the peace between established drug families.
Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who travel north to the U.S. are also met by corruption in their interim country where neoliberalism has won the day, and they are especially vulnerable to gang violence (hence the caravan—there’s increased safety in numbers). Just like the U.S., in Mexico, wealth is concentrated among the ultra-rich and oftentimes, government officials are getting a cut of the looted income. Still, migrants come to the U.S. from Central America, refusing to stop in Mexico, because, as one anonymous drug trafficker pointed out, Americans export violence, while “in Mexico, wars come to us."
American presidents have been crafty in making sure that the consequences of their political wargames don’t disrupt the lives of its citizens; but in order to preserve this illusion, they have made sure to demonize the very people’s lives they’ve endangered—detaining asylum-seekers, separating families, and making the path to citizenship long, convoluted, and unlikely. The migrants Quested and Junger spoke to, including the subjects he followed directly, never expressed concern about ICE detention or family separation because, according to the filmmakers, they had not yet understood the degree of the threat; America was still a refuge to them.
Blood on the Wall puts intimate human stories to this global nightmare while simultaneously zooming out to explain why people would go to such lengths to leave their homes. The film’s own ideas about migration are still somewhat tepid—its tagline, playing on clichés beloved by cable news pundits and bestselling novelists alike reads, “What would you risk for a better life?” Yet, by using a large amount of its runtime to provide historical context, Blood on the Wall inadvertently calls to attention those of us who have benefited from the undeniable yet highly contingent advantages of American citizenship or residency by virtue of being born in the right place. It’s not a question of privilege, per say, but position. In that way, the film seems to ask, from what vantage point do you see the world? Are you looking up, down, or straight ahead?
Donald Trump and his Republican allies scrambled on Wednesday to clean up comments the president made during Tuesday’s debate, when he declined to condemn far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys, and even told them to “stand by.”
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” the president declared, in what constituted an admission that he was unaware of a group that the FBI has classified as an “extremist” org. “I mean. You’ll have to give me a definition because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work. Law enforcement will do the work more and more.”
Asked plainly if he welcomed the support of white supremacists who “clearly love you,” Trump did not register the problem with that supposition. In fact, he bobbed his head in a seemingly knowing yes motion.
"I want law and order to be a very important part, it's a very important part of my campaign,” he said, taking no umbrage with the idea that he’d be loved by that community. Asked one more time, he finally gave an inch. “I’ve always denounced any form, any form, of any of that,” Trump said. “But Joe Biden has to say something about antifa.”
The remarks capped a frantic few hours, in which members of his own team insisted that he had either been set up by the debate moderator or been misunderstood, while elected Republicans—mainly Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both of South Carolina—called on him to recant his debate statement.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro placed the lion’s share of the blame on debate moderator Chris Wallace, insisting on MSNBC that the Fox News Sunday anchor was acting as Biden’s “cut man” and didn’t give the president an opportunity to disavow extremists and set him up to shout out the Proud Boys.
“When he asked the president the question about that, the president said, ‘Of course,’ he started to say, of course he would denounce that, and Wallace cut him off,” Navarro asserted. “So I’m not—I think the president has made it clear that he wants no part of that kind of stuff, what the president also made clear, I think it is a good distinction between Joe Biden and the president is that the president is for law and order.”
Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley, meanwhile, insisted that the president repeatedly condemned white supremacist and extremist groups during the debate, referencing the president saying “sure” when Wallace first asked him if he was “willing” to condemn those organizations.
Asked by CNN host John Berman what the president meant by asking the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” the Trump flack replied that the president “wants them to get out of the way” and “not do the things they say they want to do.”
Hours later on MSNBC, Trump senior campaign adviser Jason Miller gave his interpretation of what Trump meant with his “stand by” message to the far-right group. Asked by host Chuck Todd what the president wants the group to do following his message, Miller claimed Trump was calling for extremist groups to “stand by the wayside and get out of the way” of law enforcement.
“Let law enforcement do their job,” he added. “President Trump has condemned the violence from the left, from the right. He wanted them to get out of the way. He wants law enforcement to do their job."
The Proud Boys celebrated Trump’s remarks on Tuesday night, seeing Trump’s refusal to denounce them as a sign of his support. The group redesigned their logo on Tuesday night to incorporate “stand back, stand by” as a new slogan.
Others went further. Joe Biggs, a prominent Proud Boy who has worn shirts declaring “I’m Just Here for the Violence” and celebrating the executions of left-wing Chilean activists thrown from helicopters, posted that Trump’s remarks were permission to “go fuck them up.”
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up!” Biggs wrote on Parler, a social media network popular with conservatives. “This makes me so happy.”
Extremist groups like the Proud Boys saw Trump’s debate remarks as a “green light,” according to Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at the left-leaning Western States Center, which tracks the Proud Boys and other far-right groups.
“Trump is doing nothing short of setting the stage for election violence, and I think the scale of violence and voter intimidation that we could see from paramilitaries in the coming months is really frightening,” Schubiner said.
On Wednesday morning, Portland police arrested Alan Swinney, a far-right activist with a Proud Boys tattoo, on a series of felony charges related to an incident where he allegedly aimed a gun at left-wing protesters.
Trump, backed into an electoral corner with more than 200,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic and an economy in shambles as a result, lashed out in every direction on the debate stage at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a petulant performance of personal and political grievance stunning even by Trumpian standards.
According to advisers close to the president, the act was not purely impulsive, but strategic—born out of a strategy that sought to confuse and confound Biden with the ultimate goal of getting the former vice president to stumble and lose his train of thought.
But in the aftermath of the carnage, even some of the president’s own boosters couldn’t help but concede that he had spent an hour and a half acting like a feral animal.
“I think on the Trump side, it was too hot,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had done debate prep with Trump leading up to Tuesday, said on ABC. “Listen, you come in and decide you want to be aggressive and that was the right thing, to be aggressive. But that was too hot.”
Reached for comment late Tuesday night, Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who fronts the pro-Trump group Great America PAC, simply responded, “Wow. I have seen nothing like this ever. Don’t want to comment any further.” Asked if the president did a good job or not, Rollins would only reply, “No comment.”
The president, famously intransigent about traditional debate preparation and visibly antsy behind the lectern, barely allowed a single sentence before trampling over the speaker, whether it was spoken by Biden or from beleaguered moderator Chris Wallace, who appeared nearly incapable of halting the president’s trampling of the debate format. When Trump did speak, the utterances bounced between the incendiary to outright assaults on the American political system. He closed out by saying he believed the Supreme Court would intervene in the election (on ballot-related issues) and urged his supporters to go into polling locations in thinly veiled intimidation tactics.
Biden, whose weeks of preparation were clearly modeled on at least some version of the president’s burn-it-all-down debate strategy, had multiple canned rejoinders to Wallace’s attempts to corral Trump’s tirades—he employed some version of “he doesn’t know how to do that” multiple times when Trump was asked to allow him to finish his remarks. But in the words of CNN reporter Dana Bash moments after the debate’s conclusion, Biden could not extricate himself—much less elevate—the “shitshow.”
Beyond the supposed format of the debate, with two minutes of uninterrupted (dare to dream) remarks followed by open discussion, the minimal standards of adult behavior in the Trump era were thrown out of the window almost from its outset.
As Biden discussed the death of his eldest son, Beau, an Iraq War veteran who died from brain cancer in 2015, Trump interrupted to harangue Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s younger son, attacking him for his past addiction issues.
“Hunter got thrown out of the military, dishonorably discharged,” Trump said, incorrectly, as Biden and Wallace both appeared stunned that the president made his son’s struggles with substance abuse a topic of debate.
“My son, like a lot of people, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it… and I’m proud of him.”
Biden, clearly operating under no false assumption that Trump would obey the rules of the debate, of decorum, or of human decency, often responded to Trump’s interruptions with his trademark “this guy’s such a clown” grin. But as the night wore on, and as Trump’s attacks on Biden’s mental fitness and his family increased in both frequency and savagery, his smile became a grimace, and finally a scowl.
“Would you shut up, man?” Biden said at one point. In the debate’s second hour, his eyes shut in clear frustration, Biden fumed that “it’s hard to get any word in with this clown—sorry, this person.” During a spat about racial biases in policing, he turned to Trump and declared him a “racist.”
In the Trump administration’s fourth year, it is universally acknowledged that the president will always be himself—he knows no other speed than breakneck, no other mode but attack. But in the midst of the melee, some moments of grievance managed to shock even the most jaded Trump observers.
At one point, the president refused to condemn white supremacists, instead calling on Proud Boys—a violent ultranationalist club for hipster racists that takes their name from a cut song from Disney’s Aladdin—to “stand back and stand by” for civil unrest. That moment was almost immediately turned into a rallying cry by the group, which has begun policing Trump campaign events and has vowed to “monitor” polling places on election day. Later in the debate, he appeared to confuse Hillary Clinton’s famous “superpredators” quote with something that Biden had said.
During an exchange about the pandemic, Trump interrupted his own rant with a mini-rant gleaned from Fox News about Biden misidentifying his alma mater.
“You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me,” Trump said. “Because you know what, there’s nothing smart about you, Joe.”
As a moderator—working solo due to coronavirus restrictions—Wallace had all the influence of a windsock in such situations.
Despite the vast gap between his and Biden’s effective speaking time, Trump avoided directly answering many of the questions, including two that are generally not difficult for American presidents: “Will you condemn white supremacists?” and “Will you accept the results of the election?”
“I guess I’m debating you and not him,” Trump said after his first of many tangles with Wallace about interrupting Biden, “but that’s OK.”
“Do you realize you're both speaking at the same time?” Wallace said weakly in the debate’s first half-hour. When the debate’s second section, devoted to discussing the coronavirus pandemic, began, Wallace pleaded with the candidates to “try to be serious.”
Trump’s entourage, at least, did not see the issue as particularly serious. Despite urgings from the Cleveland Clinic, which advised the Commission on Presidential Debates on health guidance to avoid spreading the coronavirus, that all attendees observe social distancing rules and wear facial coverings due to coronavirus restrictions, more than half of Trump’s guests, including all four of his adult children, did not wear facial coverings.
Across Trumpworld and the president’s re-election effort, however, the evening’s shouting and the belligerent cross-talking was, in large part, precisely the point. According to two sources familiar with the president’s preparations, it has long been Trump’s stated intention to try to knock Biden off his game by flooding the debate with personal and family jabs, subject change, and indignant-sounding interruptions. Part of the president’s thinking, the sources said, was to attempt to get the former veep to start faltering on live national TV, thus reinforcing Team Trump’s narrative of a doddering, “sleepy” Democratic opponent.
For the most part, it didn’t seem to work on Tuesday night. Some Trump advisers and confidants cheering on the president as the debate aired resorted to making the Fox News host and moderator the primary object of derision, instead of Barack Obama’s vice president.
“Wallace is Trump’s real adversary. Biden is a mumbling footnote,” Rudy Giuliani, a Trump attorney and lead Biden antagonist who the president brought along to Cleveland Tuesday, messaged The Daily Beast as he watched the debate. “Look how aggressive Wallace is with Trump. And he’s beating Wallace, Biden’s kind of disappearing. Trump is in command of both and Wallace is more effective than Biden.”
John McLaughlin, a top pollster for Trump, also seemed eager to work the refs and make the Fox News Sunday host the villain, saying shortly after the debate ended that the “president dominated. Wallace was [the] loser. Biden got away with calling the President a liar and clown and Wallace asked Trump about taxes but never asked Biden about Hunter and family corruption.”
The Trump campaign, apparently so confident of the president’s victory in Tuesday night’s debate that the debate itself was irrelevant to that conclusion, blasted an email to Trump supporters forty minutes before the debate began lauding the president’s performance.
“I showed the American People that I will ALWAYS fight to put America First no matter what,” the Trump-signed email read.
Still, not every Trump ally and operative was pleased with how the leader of the free world handled himself, arguing that the president was too grumpy, to the detriment of his strategy to humiliate or trip-up his liberal opponent.
“They both yelled too much and were too angry,” one Republican close to the Trump campaign told The Daily Beast shortly before midnight. “Biden’s entire theory of the case and pitch to voters is his calmness and a return to normalcy and I think he undermined that pitch with this performance. On the other hand, while Biden was clearly struggling throughout, every time he began to fumble the football, Trump would throw him a lifeline and interrupt him before the fumble was completed. It wasn’t a debate that either side should be proud of.”
Near the end of the televised event, Trump implied ominously that the violence and tumult in American streets, and the deep divisions in the nation, that were discussed at the debate were just a sample of what was to come on and after Election Day.
“This is not going to end well,” Trump vowed. “This is not going to end well.”