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What happens when your brother becomes the prime suspect in his own murder?

Yance Ford, director of true crime documentary Strong Island, on the white person who killed his brother – and the 23 others who ruled out a trial.

“If you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go,” says Yance Ford at the beginning of his film, Strong Island. There is a pause to allow viewers to walk out of the cinema. His deep brown eyes are right up close to the camera, filled with pain. It’s a vulnerable yet defiant scene, which asks why his brother was murdered without reprisal 25 years ago. The first of many questions about race in America.

The 45-year-old filmmaker wears the same expression in the London brasserie where we meet before he flies back to New York City after a trip promoting his film. Now in a smart pink shirt with woven blue cufflinks, Ford features throughout Strong Island, his face enveloped in darkness, retelling the story of the white person who killed his brother, and the 23 others making up a grand jury that decided there was no case to answer.

Yance Ford. Photo: Strong Island still

William Ford Jr, a 24-year-old teacher, was fatally shot in 1992 during a trivial verbal argument with a mechanic at a garage a few blocks from his family home in Long Island, New York. The investigation was apathetic; the case never went to trial. It was the moment that Ford’s parents, who had moved from the South to middle-class Long Island suburbia, realised how race could shape their children’s lives.

“Everyone in the street where I grew up was given the same message,” Ford recalls. “You can be anything, you can do anything. That wasn’t extraordinary; that was ordinary for us. My folks didn’t believe in black exceptionalism. There’s nothing exceptional about ‘you can have that too’ – except when it comes to justice. You can’t have that.”

“Until it stops being easy to kill black people, little will change”

Ford's family were made to feel like relatives of a suspect, rather than a murder victim, according to his mother’s testimony in the film, which is also an intimate insight into how families suffer tragedy. Piles of faded but jolly family photographs float through the documentary like falling leaves: Ford’s parents dressed up for a ball in their youth; the children pushing each other on a swing; larking about in a park as teenagers; thick glasses, baggy jeans and cropped tees. When interspersed with autopsy diagrams and identity cards, the trauma is quiet and stark.

Ford family photos, William Ford Jr. Photos: Strong Island stills

Ford, who was a 19-year-old art student at the time, laments that nothing has changed for black people since his brother’s death. “All you need to do is look at how people who die are made to be prime suspects in their own deaths,” he says, which is what happened to his brother. The grand jury decided that his killer had a “reasonable” fear for his life, and shouldn’t be tried.

“I think fear has been racialised,” says Ford. “When you get someone who says ‘I was afraid’ of a big black guy, that’s enough to say ‘okay, not guilty’, or ‘no indictment’. It’s persisted over generations and it needs to stop.

“Narratives of the fear of black people have been consistent over generations and until it stops being easy to kill black people and get away with it, very little’s going to change.”

“I feel for the Black Lives Matter families because I know what they’re going through”

The Black Lives Matter movement began four years ago, as a campaign against systemic violence and injustice against black people. It highlights modern cases similar to that of Ford’s brother. Ford didn’t have access to social media like those activists do now, and although he praises the “ability of the world to rally around families and support them in ways that weren’t possible when my brother was murdered”, he points out the lack of progress it exposes.

“I feel for the families of those dead because I know what they’re going through,” says Ford. “It’s an unfortunate club to belong to, but it also increases my determination to tell my brother’s story and to make sure that people understand that this kind of racialised violence is not new.”

The morning before we speak, Ford woke up to the news that Rashan Charles, a young black man in Hackney, London, had died after the Metropolitan Police said an officer restrained him to stop him “harming himself” by trying to swallow something. His death led to local protests and the police watchdog investigating the incident.

“I saw a very brief report on it,” Ford says quietly, his eyes widening. “I’ve been watching BBC all morning and they haven’t done a single report on it. I’m disturbed that I didn’t see more about that on the news this morning. Where is the story about this 20-year-old who’s dead? Why aren’t people talking about this? And it’s the same with my brother.”

The Ford siblings. Photo: Strong Island still

Ford, who is trans, also tells his own story within the documentary. Early in the narrative, he hints at his sexuality with a shy grin, saying he spent one summer reading all of William’s copies of Playboy. Later, we learn that he transitioned in adulthood. He laments that he never had the chance to tell his big brother about his identity, but hopes the film will give viewers a reality check in this regard too.

“People come up and say ‘thank you’ for showing a black family loving their masculine-presenting child and for undoing the myth of black people as being rabidly homophobic,” he tells me. “It’s really struck a chord with people because of a few things.”

More personal than true crime, and with a broader societal message than a memoir, Strong Island is a jumble of the political and private influences that make up Ford’s character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it comes from a director brave enough to begin his film by inviting the audience to leave.

Strong Island launches on Netflix UK on 15 September.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game