It's been 38 years since Roz Payne had a chance encounter that altered the direction of her life. In 1967, she was a schoolteacher walking in Manhat-tan's Lower East Side, when a hippie stranger noticed she was carrying a camera. He invited her to a meeting with about 30 filmmakers and photographers that led to the formation of a leftist collective called Newsreel. Pledging "to show people another side of the news," the nascent organization went on to document an era of social and political turmoil.
A California native, Payne is now a Richmond resident who has lived in Vermont for more than three decades. Her first Newsreel assignment was to help chronicle the 1968 student takeover of Columbia University. She later became the collective's representative to the Black Panther Party in New York City. "I would travel with a projector on the subway and show our films at Panther meetings," Payne explains.
That early connection gives her a unique perspective on the history of the militant African-American group. Payne is among the country's foremost archivists of material about the Panthers and the FBI program, Cointelpro, that was dedicated to destroying them. She created a computerized index of 350,000 documents related to that effort and, for 15 years, has been filming some of the key players.
Payne's current project, a two-disk DVD that will present her exhaustive research in an educational format, includes long-sought information that Payne coaxed from reluctant sources. "I courted one guy for two years before he would speak with me," she says, referring to a former FBI special agent who had investigated the BPP in San Francisco.
"While indexing the files, I kept coming across his initials: WAC," Payne says. "He was a dream-come-true for me. When WAC relayed his phone taps and surveillance to J. Edgar Hoover, he would use terms like 'primitive people.' But it's too simplistic to call him a racist. He was a nice man from another culture."
WAC, who has since died, agreed to talk with Payne only after learning she had received police academy training for her job as a Richmond constable from 1990 to 1994. He had never before been interviewed about his role in decimating the Panthers.
Across the Atlantic, Payne caught up with Donald Cox, a BPP field marshal who is exiled in Paris and wanted for murder in the U.S. In addition, she chatted with several attorneys who have represented other Panthers in their legal battles. One of them, Beverly Axelrod, is credited as the lawyer who got Soul on Ice author Eldridge Cleaver out of jail. She also may have inadvertently contributed to the mythos of the black power movement.
"That famous poster of Huey P. Newton sitting in a big wicker chair was shot in Beverly's living room," Payne says. "And when the Panthers were putting together the first BPP newspaper, they needed something visual to fill a space. She happened to have a postcard with the picture of a pig."
Did that single twist of fate give birth to the notorious anti-cop slogan? Payne is not sure. The DVD will include at least three Newsreel docs about the Panthers, Mayday, Repression and -- yes -- Off the Pig.
The trio of films originated on the West Coast. Back in the day, News- reel chapters were launched in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kansas, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and Ver-mont. Payne, who teaches courses on civil rights and women's history at Burlington College, is the acknowledged keeper of the flame. She distributes the 50 documentaries made by the collective in America, Cuba, Vietnam, Africa and the Middle East.
And she also has a treasure trove of still images that are suddenly in demand, thanks to a resurgence of interest in the forces that shaped the 1960s. "The Panthers are my biggest sellers," Payne notes with a wry laugh.
Her own visual work on the subject has appeared in an exhibit at New York's International Center for Photography and on the covers of two recent books about the liberation struggles of yesteryear. Payne's photos will also find their way onto the DVD, which is due for a summer release.
Meanwhile, she is fundraising. A $50 tax-deductible donation to Green Valley Media will get you a copy of the DVD. For more details, call 434-3172 or email mailto:email@example.com or visit her website at http://www.newsreel.us.