People of Note: James Farr, Conversation.Live

People of Note: James Farr, Conversation.Live

“I know the cadence of the baton strikes. It’s seared, seared into my memory. If you blindfold me and put me in a room and let those officers speak I’ll know exactly who they are.” – James Farr

The baton strike that James Farr, one of the producers behind the powerful new documentary Thorns on the Rose, is talking about was so forceful it broke the victim’s leg and bent the baton.

Christopher Ballew was walking from his car to the gas station when he was confronted by two police officers. He was punched in the head and body multiple times and received several blows to his body and legs by the baton in question.

“Shut the f**k up, dummy”. That’s what the officer told him. Not human being, not person, not even bro. “Shut the f**k up, dummy.”

The incident is one of many documented in Thorns on the Rose and it shows a side of Pasadena policing that many of us rarely see. I sat down with James to learn a bit about his life, his work as host of Conversation.Live, and his new documentary Thorns on the Rose.

Pride and Purpose

When you meet James you’d be forgiven for thinking he grew up in Pasadena. His love of the city is evident in his actions and words. It’s a love that has been an overarching force in his career path ever since moving from the Bay Area twenty years ago.

James was raised in Richmond, California, ‘the town,’ as it was known to all. “It’s a gritty town, it’s a working town,” said James. “There’s no glitz, glamour.”

Pride and purpose. That was the model of Richmond. It was a model that James took to heart when he began to learn about the world of journalism. His father was a pastor and used to provide the invocation for the Bay Area Black Journalists Association Annual Meeting.

James got a window into the world of politics. He saw the neighbourhood differently. He saw life as it stretched beyond the neighbourhood. And then he would go back to his world with its own joys and hardships.

The City of Angels

When James Farr moved to Los Angeles, he came as part of the entertainment industry. He worked in branding and marketing. In fact, one of his jobs was as Talent Booker for the House of Blues. When Tupac performed his last recorded performance, Tupac: Live at the House of Blues, on July 4th, 1996, James produced the show.

Wherever James worked, he never let go of his political and social connections and in it all he began to realize just how much access he had to people in his city. He saw a void in journalism and the news. He saw how the big stories were being told but nobody was focusing on the little guy, the local.

Fast forward to 2016 when James was on holiday with his wife in Denver, Colorado. A rare break from life and kids. It was supposed to be relaxing. Then three people were killed by the police in three days across the USA.

That could have been me

It shook James to the core. “I’m crying in the middle of the night, just weeping. And my immediate thoughts were ‘that could have been me’. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been a victim of police, what I felt was unwarranted police brutality.’

Very few of us whose skin isn’t black or brown will ever know what it means to think ‘that could have been me’ when we hear of a police shooting. When James got home he started meeting with other community members, other people who wanted to discuss, to understand, to find solutions to the thorns in Pasadena’s side.

And that’s where the idea for Conversation.Live developed. A conversation with a politician or activist, just like you were at a coffee shop. Only this time, the conversation would be shared with whoever wanted to hear it.

The birth of Conversation.Live

It took about five months of testing and market research. Live streaming was just beginning to grow and James had to test it all out. He used his skills in branding and marketing to produce something that people wanted.

And then just to make sure the show came out swinging, James Farr booked the first guest as none other than Lizbeth Mateo, the first undocumented immigrant named to a statewide post in California. She’s an attorney and immigrant rights activist and HBO has even produced a documentary on her life.

Well, it just developed from there. More episodes were produced. More people tuned in. The show had a direction and a purpose. It provided a place for conversations about the local subjects that mattered.

Cadence of the baton strike

Then Christopher Ballew was confronted by two police officers. Video footage filmed from a bystander’s phone came out. Bodycam footage came out later. The horror of what happened swept Pasadena.

Through a series of events, Pasadena Police Department Chief Sanchez ended up sitting down with James Farr on Conversation.Live and the two talked about police use of force, misconduct, and so much more. They were supposed to talk for twenty-five minutes and ended up near the hour mark.

From there, “it just kinda clicked,” says James. The show moved into a studio and began producing more and more. Many big-name guests came in and James made sure not to shy away from what he mentions at the start of each show is “piercing and provocative.” “The Conversation.Live,” he tells audience members, “focuses on social justice, restorative justice, inclusion, and equality.”

Fast forward to the pandemic

It was a long and busy road, producing as he did. And when the pandemic hit James Farr took a step back. By this point he had produced one half-way investigative documentary on police brutality and something like at least three hundred thirty-minute shows. He was exhausted.

But then came the shootings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and a wave of anger and sadness again swept the nation. The conversation had clearly not run its course.

James remembers his mentor telling him,“Until the issue is resolved the issue is never old, it is never stale, it is never dead.”

And so Conversation.Live began again.

“I aim to have a perishable relationship with [reporting on the Pasadena Police],” says James. “I don’t want to cover this. I choose to cover it but in a perfect, whimsical world this isn’t an issue and I can tell stories about travelling.”

The current discussion

In his latest season of Conversation.Live, James talked with Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon and Police Chief John Perez about the current state of policing in Pasadena. One of the things DA Gascon brought up was that police shootings can be unnecessary, but still lawful. I asked James what he thought about this seemingly strange law.

“Officers are able to use force when affecting arrest when they are in fear of their life or the life of someone else,” he tells me. “It’s not illegal to shoot someone in the back. It’s not illegal to shoot someone fleeing, as long as the officer can articulate the threat.”

Bias and perspective

The challenge here, he tells me, is in our bias. “It’s tough on both sides. Really I think what is at play is you can’t legislate a heart. We hear a lot about implicit and explicit bias and what usually happens in my experience is long before the officer gets there they carry certain thoughts and beliefs and perceptions about coming into contact with people.”

That’s one side of the coin. The other side comes down to how we experience the police. For people with black or brown skin in America, the police aren’t seen as serving and protecting. “They only see the uniform and that uniform represents a threat, that uniform can trigger trauma, that uniform can trigger fight, flight, or freeze.”

“Other groups don’t perceive the police as a threat – they’re there to help you. So they’ll never understand the shoes that an African America wears because they see the two situations differently, they experience the police differently.”

There’s a lot going on here. The idea of running from a threat is hardwired in so many of us. Fight, flight, or freeze. And yet, when Anthony McClain ran away from the threat, he was shot twice in the back.

The city of roses has some thorns

Anthony McClain, Christopher Ballew, and others like Reginald Thomas who we haven’t mentioned yet. Their stories are all laid out in Thorns on the Rose. The documentary is an emotionally raw, challenging hour to sit through but the story of these individuals, these citizens of the USA who are supposed to have the same rights as everyone else, needs to be told.

For someone like James Farr, who calls Pasadena home and who so intimately knows its streets, making a documentary like this was an incredibly taxing experience. He found himself fighting to develop forms of self-care just to stay afloat. He fell back in love with landscape photography, went on nature walks, and just tried to find space to recharge.

It was “extremely difficult, extremely triggering.”

Which isn’t surprising at all. There’s a moment in Thorns of the Rose which shows footage of the coroner driving away with Reginald Thomas’s body after his encounter with the police that ended his life. People line the streets, wailing and crying, asking why this happened, why someone who was seeking help from the police ended up dead.

James Farr shot that footage. He was there. He felt and still feels the waves of emotion that were crashing around everyone. He’ll never forget that day.

Sometimes you just need to get “mad as hell”

In a protest rally surrounding police violence in Pasadena, when James got up to the mic he told the listeners that he was “mad as hell.” At the end of Thorns on the Rose a piece of text fills the screen. It tells the audience that James is still “mad as hell.”

“I had to honour my feelings,” he says when asked about it. “I understand that I am a man, a human being, and I have emotions. To deny them is not healthy.”

But it is about more than that. “I wanted to honour what so many were feeling. And that’s just raw anger… If you didn’t get anything else, this film was me being mad as hell.”

There is something about local journalists, local filmmakers, producing these documentaries. There is an emotion to their storytelling, a connection. James has two kids. He is raising two black kids in an American where racial bias is everywhere. He wants to make a better world for his family. He tells me it’s selfish but if he thinks creating a better world, a more inclusive world, for the next generation is selfish, then I don’t think he’s got a very good dictionary.

Either way, it’s an important message. James is a black man. It is the first thing people see when they see him. They don’t see father; they don’t see husband. They see black man. He is one the many on the streets of Pasadena trying to change that.

“I look at it that if my home is a reflection of the community, then the community is always welcome in my home, so I have to be the change I want to see.”

And that just about sums it up. Thorns on the Rose is available to watch here. Oh, and proceeds from the film are being put in a scholarship fund so make sure you buy and rent the film as many times as you can. The scholarship is currently at $7000 but I’m sure we can bump it up a few more digits.

*Photo Credit: Devonna Banks-Law

*Story first published on on May 18th, 2021