- Julie Cohenco-director of Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.
- Betsy Westco-director of Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.
President Biden is hosting an event today at the White House with victims of gun violence to mark the signing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and one of the participating high-profile shooting survivors who will attend is former Arizona Congressmember Gabby Giffords, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt. As mass shootings continue to plague the United States, we speak to the directors of “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” a new documentary premiering this week that follows Giffords as she fights to recover from the 2011 attack, and her subsequent advocacy for gun safety legislation. Giffords was just honored last week with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her activism. The film follows “the fight that this woman has had to come back herself and then to come back as a public figure fighting to try to do something about the epidemic of gun violence in our country,” says Julie Cohen, co-director of “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.” Former President Barack Obama, who attempted to pass gun safety legislation with Giffords’s help but failed, is featured in the documentary during a moment that qualified as “the most disappointed and the angriest he had ever been as president,” adds fellow co-director Betsy West. Cohen and West also directed “My Name Is Pauli Murray” and the Academy Award-nominated ”RBG.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Today President Biden is hosting an event at the White House with victims of gun violence to mark the signing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a new law meant to reduce gun violence. The measure was inspired in part by the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, and was soon overshadowed by yet another mass shooting when a gunman in Highland Park, Illinois, killed seven people at a July Fourth parade. Today’s White House event includes survivors and family members of more than 10 high-profile mass shootings. The new bill will incrementally strengthen requirements for young people to buy guns, denies firearms to more domestic abusers and helps local police remove weapons from people considered dangerous.
Well, today, as mass shootings continue to rock the country, we spend the hour looking at a new film premiering across the country in more than 200 movie theaters. It follows former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords as she fight to recover from an attempted assassination in January of 2011 and emerges as one of the most effective activists in the U.S. battle against gun violence. This is the trailer for Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: All right, ready? I’m running for Congress.
REPORTER: There is no turning it around at this point: You’ve won.
TV HOST: Joining us now is Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
BARACK OBAMA: Gabby was a star.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: If an idea is a good idea, it’s a good idea.
PETER SLEN: Your fiancé, Mark Kelly, who is who?
REP.-ELECT GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: He’s an astronaut.
MARK KELLY: I was the commander of the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the time. Gabby knew the risk involved. Turns out she had the risky job.
REPORTER: Congresswoman Giffords was the target of the mass shooting.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have just come from the University Medical Center, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover.
SPEECH PATHOLOGIST: Typically, with an injury to the brain with a gunshot wound, it’s less than 10% that they would even survive.
REPORTER: She’s beginning several months of rehab.
MARK KELLY: Give me two fingers. All right! Give me five.
SPEECH PATHOLOGIST: Gabby suffered from aphasia, which is a language impairment.
REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Uh.
SPEECH PATHOLOGIST: You are not allowed to quit on me. Look at you!
REPORTER: Good news about Congresswoman Gabby Giffords: She was discharged today from the hospital.
MARK KELLY: She said, “The people who elected me need someone who could give them 100%.”
REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Gotta step down from the work to do. Work —
SPEECH PATHOLOGIST: It’s a very unique way of communicating, with facial expression, touch and her love. It’s a gift.
MARK KELLY: She laughs at my jokes even when they’re bad.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Funny.
MARK KELLY: She thinks — she likes a good —
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Funny, funny, funny.
MARK KELLY: This is the model that they built the plate out of. Does that look about right?
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: The words are there in my brain. I just can’t get them out.
REPORTER: Gabby Giffords, making her way back to the Capitol.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.
BARACK OBAMA: Nobody could have been more compelling than Gabby was that day.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Hello, my fellow Arizonans!
I love to talk. I am Gabby.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.
For more, we spend the hour looking at her remarkable story with the film’s directors, Julie Cohen and Betsy West. They follow the former Arizona congresswoman as she fights to recover from her attempted assassination on January 8th, 2011, when she and 18 others were shot during a constituent meeting held in a supermarket parking lot in Arizona, in Casas Adobes, in the Tucson metropolitan area. In a remarkable story, she went on to emerge as one of the most effective activists in the U.S. battle against gun violence. In fact, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House last Thursday for her work. This is President Biden.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Proof that we’ll not grown numb to the epidemic of gun violence in this nation, proof that we can channel the pain and sorrow we see too often in America into a movement that will prevail. With her husband, United States Senator Mark Kelly, who, by the way, was that astronaut you all remember — she is more consequential, I acknowledge.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s President Biden awarding the Medal of Freedom to Gabby Giffords, the subject of Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. We’re joined right now by the directors of the film, Julie Cohen and Betsy West. They’ve made many award-winning documentaries together, including Julia, about Julia Child, My Name Is Pauli Murray and the Academy Award-nominated film RBG.
Julie and Betsy, welcome back to Democracy Now! What a moment to be focusing on the life of Gabby Giffords, in the midst of this horrendous continued wave of mass shootings across the country. Take us back to January 8th, 2011, Julie, and talk about why Gabby Giffords was in this parking lot and what happened next.
JULIE COHEN: Yeah, you know, this was a meet-and-greet with constituents. Gabby was — then-Congresswoman Giffords was very much a go out to the people, meet with constituents, hear what’s on their minds. Both Democrats and Republicans were at this event to ask questions and just kind of get an update for the congresswoman, who at that time had just been reelected for her third term, when a gunman emerged — you know, it’s a morning event — just emerged and shot Gabby pretty much point blank right in the brain and also opened fire on a crowd of people, killing six of them and injuring Gabby plus 12 more. An absolutely horrendous mass shooting and one that rendered Gabby, initially, in the hospital in a medically induced coma. Unclear at first: Is she was going to survive? And then, once she was pulled through: What will her life be? Will she ever be able to walk again or talk again?
And our film sort of picks up when she’s in the hospital and shows, with the remarkable assist from Mark Kelly, who had some cinematography training as an astronaut and had the very good sense to set up a camera in the hospital to kind of give you just this remarkable inside view of every moment of this heroic and epic recovery and the fight that this woman has had to come back herself and then to come back as a public figure fighting to try to do something about the epidemic of gun violence in our country.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to that moment, because right after she was shot and a number of people killed, we interviewed Daniel Hernandez. Then he was 20 years old. He was an intern for Gabby who was credited with likely saving Giffords’ life immediately after the shooting, that, again, left six people dead and 20 wounded.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you describe what you did Saturday morning — what was it? — around 11:00 your time in the supermarket parking lot?
DANIEL HERNANDEZ: I am an intern with the congresswoman’s office, and I was helping with an event called Congress on Your Corner, where the congresswoman had the opportunity to speak with her constituents one on one. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve always admired about Gabby, that she took the time out to really listen to her constituents. And she always said, “'Representative' is not a job title, it’s a job description.”
So, we were doing this event. At about 10 a.m., we started off. I was in charge of controlling traffic and signing people in. About 10 minutes into the event, so about 10:10, the first shots were fired. When the first shots were fired, the first thought that came into my head was: If there is a gunman, Gabby is likely to be a target, and anyone around her is likely to get injured. So I then ran towards where I knew the congresswoman would be, because I was at the end of the line signing people in.
When I got there, I noticed there were a few people who had been injured, so I started checking for pulses and I started checking to see who was still breathing. The first rule of triage is, you find out who’s stable enough, get them the help that they need, and then you move on. But I was only able to get to two or three people, unfortunately, before I noticed that the congresswoman had been hit. She had been hit in the head. And because she was still breathing, she was still alert, and she was still conscious, she became my first and only priority.
I then tried to do what I could for the congresswoman. The first thing I did was lift her up, because in the position she was in, there was some risk of asphyxiation, because there was blood loss, and she was starting to inhale some of her own blood. So I picked her up, and I sat her in an upright position, propped up against my chest so that she could breathe properly. I then started looking for other wounds. There was only the one obvious bullet wound to the head. So I started applying pressure to the wound, until someone else could come in and take over who was better qualified.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Daniel Hernandez. He was 20 years old, an intern for a few days at the time. We talked to him just a few days after the assassination attempt and the killing of six others. Betsy West, the horror of this. The youngest to die was little Christina-Taylor Green. She was 9. And talk about the others.
BETSY WEST: Yeah, a federal judge, John Roll, who was a friend, a Republican and a friend of Gabby, had stepped up next to her right before the shooting started, and he was instantly killed. One of Gabby’s rising, promising, young staff members, Gabriel, was also shot and instantly killed. Several other bystanders who had just come to ask Gabby questions, also gunned down.
It was — you know, one of the sheriff’s deputies who arrived on the scene early told us how horrific it was, that the bullets had gone through the glass windows of the grocery store and all the way to the back. It was horrific. Luckily, several of the bystanders were able to tackle the gunman and get the gun away from him before more damage was done. But, you know, it was very shocking. And I think we all remember in America. Even those of us who didn’t know who Gabby Giffords was were just horrified by this mass shooting, which really was one of the first to grab people’s attention back in 2011.
AMY GOODMAN: And isn’t true that Mark Kelly, who’s now a senator, is an astronaut, was in Houston, hears about the shooting, the horror, and as he’s flying to be with her in Arizona, he hears the media reports that she has died?
JULIE COHEN: Yeah, that’s right.
BETSY WEST: Yeah.
JULIE COHEN: A friend had a plane on which he was flying, and he was watching television news, trying to get every ounce of information he could about what was going on with his wife. They had only been married for a little more than three years at this point, you know, these romantic newlyweds, and the unimaginable happens. All he really knows is that she’s been shot.
And a number of news outlets, you know, based on the chaotic situation in an incident like this, where people are hearing from people on the ground, and, of course, she looked extremely severely injured, so several news outlets started reporting that she had died, officially. And Mark Kelly, her young husband, sees this on a news report on an airplane, is absolutely devastated by this news, and for a full half-hour he thinks his wife has died, until he sees again on a news report, still on the plane — like, you know, we have some of the news reports in our film — somebody saying, “Oh, no, wait, you can report she’s alive.” And yes, you know, OK, she’s alive, in surgery. So, then his plane lands. He rushes to the hospital in Tucson to see how his wife is doing, and get a sense: Is she going to survive, and can she recover?
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is truly remarkable, the video footage you have. And this film is about gun control and fighting to end this scourge in this country, alone in the world in dealing with these mass shootings, well over 300 — not killings of people, but mass shootings this year alone. Far more number of people died. But it’s also a story about this woman who it was believed she would absolutely die, but she doesn’t, and her fight against aphasia. But let’s even go before that. This is a clip from your film, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, of President Barack Obama, president at the time, reflecting now on seeing former Congressmember Giffords after her tragic shooting. He visits her with Michelle in the hospital in 2011.
BARACK OBAMA: When we heard that Gabby had been shot, we were heartbroken and scared. I already knew Gabby well, knew Mark. And when I visited with Gabby, she was out and uncommunicative.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A few minutes after we left her room, and some of her colleagues from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.
BARACK OBAMA: Even in the darkest, most difficult times, there is always that glimmer of hope that we can cling to.
AMY GOODMAN: Betsy West, if you can talk more about that moment that she opened her eyes for the first time? And also, they had removed a part of her skull.
BETSY WEST: Yeah, they had removed some of her skull in order to allow the swelling of her brain and really to save her life.
You know, I think that Gabby’s shooting was a singular moment for Barack Obama in his young presidency. He flew to Tucson, visited Gabby, had that very emotional meeting with the Tucson community, and then really put himself behind the issue of trying to do something about gun violence. You know, when we interviewed him, you could see how much emotion there was there. I mean, you know, former President Obama is not that, generally, an emotional person, but you could feel his feeling for Gabby, who he knew and really understood was a very promising, rising star in the Democratic Party, I think, in some ways, like Barack Obama, someone who was bipartisan, had reached across the aisle and just was a natural politician. To see her cut down in the prime of her political career, and then, of course, you know, two years later, when the Newtown shooting occurred and all those young children were killed, Barack Obama tried very hard to pass gun safety legislation, and Gabby threw herself into that effort, and it failed. He told us it was really the most disappointed and the angriest that he had ever been as president.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about Sandy Hook, and she does, too. It is hard to believe that within something like two years, she will be addressing Congress. But I want to turn back to a short scene from your film, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, showing Gabby Giffords’ remarkable recovery.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk.
NURSE: [singing] Happy birthday to…
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS and FRIENDS: [singing] Happy birthday, dear Gabby!
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Now I’m giving speeches again.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS and FRIENDS: [singing] Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu…
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: I am studying for my bat mitzvah.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS and FRIENDS: [singing] … asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav…
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: And I’m riding my bike for 25 miles in El Tour de Tucson.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Julie Cohen, you can’t speak in soundbites here, since we have the whole show. But this recovery is truly remarkable. People hear the lighthearted singing. But if you can talk about the human brain and Gabby Giffords being shot in the left side of the brain, losing access to her ability to speak at the beginning, and why singing was such a critical part of speaking?
JULIE COHEN: Yeah. So, music has been a huge part of Gabby’s life her whole life. She loves to sing. She loves every kind of music, show tunes, pop music. When she was in high school, she played Annie in the school production of Annie, and she loves singing that song. She knows kind of every ’80s hit, always has.
But after she was shot, music kind of took on a different and more serious role in her life. Yes, you know, the language center is in one very concentrated part of the brain, but music centers are all throughout your whole — the whole workings of your brain. So, for Gabby, but also for others, music is a really good way back to language. And when they were first teaching her to speak, when the sort of expert and heroic speech pathologists that have worked with her throughout, and which are actually a pretty major part of our film, were teaching her how to speak again, they did it with music. You’re going to hear, when you go see the film, people working with her, and they’re not just teaching her to say her name again. They’re saying — they’re giving it a little tune: “My name is Gabby,” or, like, “Where are my glasses? How are you?” They give everything a little tune, because that allows the music center of the brain to be activated, and then that channels — allowing you to channel back into the language, you know, using the music centers of your brain through neuroplasticity — and, you know, I’m not a scientist here, but I’m giving in layperson’s language the basic way it works, that your brain can adapt itself. And Gabby’s brain did, so that the music centers of her brain learned to be activated to help her get back to language.
And the remarkable thing now is, as she has recovered so much of her language ability, although it’s still a struggle every day and she still works with speech pathologists quite regularly, as language recovers, singing has remained just absolutely central. And while putting together a sentence is a challenge that involves, you know, finding all the connective words, that involves often quite a bit of work with the speech therapist, Gabby can extremely fluidly sing the words to, I don’t know, hundreds or maybe thousands of songs. And she really pops into song in almost any circumstance. Right, Betsy?
BETSY WEST: Yeah, I mean, when we were filming, lots of times we were singing, as well, because Gabby would just start up with a tune. It really is extraordinary to learn how the brain works. As Gabby says, “The brain, who knew?” And I think music has not only helped Gabby get back to language, but it’s also just given her a lot of joy in her life.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Julie, we’re going to go to break, Julie and Betsy. And, Julie, can you actually introduce this U2 break, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”?
BETSY WEST: Oh yeah.
JULIE COHEN: OK, so this flows right out of what Betsy was just saying. It was one of our days filming with Gabby where we had a plan that we were going to film a scene of her riding on her recumbent bike, which she does almost every day, even in Tucson, where it’s often over 100. Like, she’ll get up earlier in the morning so that she can ride while it’s still cool enough. And we were out in her garage with her as she and one of her nurses were getting ready to go on a bike ride. And because part of her body is paralyzed, it’s a little bit complicated to strap her into the recumbent bike.
And she’s getting ready, and it’s — in some ways, it’s a serious procedure, but Gabby pretty quickly went to her voice-activated music system and said, like, “’80s on 8,” you know, the Sirius XM channel that plays '80s tunes. U2 starts playing, and Gabby, with just sheer — you know, sheer joy, sheer freeness, just starts belting out “Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For.” I think, for Betsy and I, it was really one of the most memorable moments of filming, and really a moving one.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of the new remarkable documentary, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, opening in theaters across the country on Wednesday. Let’s go to that break. And when we come back, we focus on her activism against gun violence, the fact that she’s testifying before Congress within a few years of doctors wondering if she would ever speak again.
AMY GOODMAN: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2, favorite of Gabby Giffords. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the directors of the new documentary Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, opening in theaters across the country on Wednesday, which follows Gabby Giffords as she deals with aphasia following the attempted assassination in 2011 in a parking lot in Tucson when she was meeting with her constituents. She was the first Jewish congressmember from the state of Arizona, now one of the most effective activists in the U.S. battle against gun violence. Today she’ll be at the White House to mark this day, the celebration of the first gun legislation of significance in 30 years, though many say it’s certainly not going far enough.
I want to go back to another scene from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, where the former congressmember testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a hearing on preventing gun violence in 2013. It was shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, which took place on December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people were killed, 20 of them children aged 5 and 6.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: We have a former member of Congress here, Gabby Giffords, who is going to give a brief message. Ms. Giffords.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Thank you for inviting me here today. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. We’re speaking to the directors, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who have made many award-winning documentaries, including Julia, about Julia Child, My Name Is Pauli Murray, that just won a Columbia-duPont Award, as well as a Peabody, and the Academy Award-nominated RBG. The new film about gun control is called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.
Julie Cohen, if you can talk about this moment, about her testifying? Today she will be back at the White House. And again, last week, she was just honored by President Biden, given a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that goes to a civilian in this country.
JULIE COHEN: Yes. The moment of that testimony was something that took a tremendous amount of work for Gabby. That was the first time that she was going to be giving a major public address. Many people — it was about two years after she had been shot, and many people weren’t really sure what her language ability was going to be, which is why that felt like kind of a suspenseful moment as she’s sitting down to testify before the committee, with Mark Kelly, her husband, not yet a senator at that point, by her side.
She and her speech pathologist, Fabi Hirsch, who is kind of a major character in our film, they had started working together for the purpose of putting that speech together, and had worked on it for weeks for her to perfect saying exactly what she wanted to say and then getting it down and memorizing so that she would say it correctly and, as I think you feel in the scene, really saying it with so much feeling that members of the Judiciary Committee, both Democratic and Republican, appear to be very moved — although I will add that most, if not all, of the Republicans on the committee weren’t quite moved enough to vote for the legislation that she was there to endorse. So, really, the beginning of her enormously impactful activism and work to try to prevent gun violence in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I wanted to go now to the head of the center that she has established. Right after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May, we spoke to Robin Lloyd, the managing director of the gun violence prevention group that’s simply called Giffords, of course named for Gabby Giffords. She co-founded the anti-gun violence group. And this is what Robin Lloyd had to say.
ROBIN LLOYD: So, here in the United States, we don’t have strong gun laws at the federal level. There’s very few updates to federal gun regulation in the past 20-plus years. The last kind of significant push occurred in the early 1990s. At the state level, it’s a different story. Some states, like New York, have very strong gun laws, but they are still susceptible to the lax gun laws of their neighbors, and it’s very easy for firearms to travel across state lines and to get into the hands of those that shouldn’t have them. Other states, like Texas, have virtually no strong gun laws.
Texas, unfortunately — at the Giffords Law Center, we give a letter grade rating to every state in the country. Texas has an F, which is probably not very surprising. But as you heard in the clip from Beto O’Rourke earlier, all Texas has done in recent years, despite the tragic shootings that have occurred — El Paso, Sutherland Springs, Odessa, just to name a few — they’ve only rolled back gun laws, and they’ve actually made it easier to carry concealed weapons, no questions asked, no training, no permit, no requirements whatsoever for anybody to carry a concealed firearm in Texas. So, that’s all they’ve done in recent years. They’ve made it easier to do that.
And really, this is by design. The American gun lobby, which is supported by American gun manufacturers, is alive and well. The National Rifle Association, the NRA, has been weakened due to self-inflicted wounds of greed and mismanagement of funds. But other organizations, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is the lobbying arm for the gun industry and gun retailers, is alive and well. And actually, the National Shooting Sports Foundation spends more on lobbying against gun violence prevention measures here in Washington than the NRA does. So, they’re the true face of the American corporate gun lobby. And quite frankly, there’s a lot of money at stake. There has been an incredible surge of gun sales in the past decade, largely driven by fear and conspiracy promulgated by the corporate gun lobby here in the United States, and that has meant an incredible increase in their bottom line.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Robin Lloyd, managing director of the gun violence group Giffords, co-founded by former Congressmember Gabby Giffords. It is her life mission right now.
Betsy West, you know, after the Buffalo shooting killed 10 African Americans — white supremacist 18-year-old with an assault weapon, and then another 18-year-old in Uvalde that killed all of these children and their two fourth grade teachers — still, all they could get — but it was very significant, because after 30 years, nothing was accomplished, like after Newtown, hard to believe, Sandy Hook. They couldn’t get the assault weapons ban. But now with what happened in Highland Park next to Chicago — and, in fact, it’s hard to believe, but July Fourth, more people died of gun violence in Chicago than Highland Park. Do you think it’s possible — or, I should say: Do you think Gabby Giffords thinks it’s possible to get an assault weapons ban, something she has been fighting for for years?
BETSY WEST: You know, Gabby Giffords is a very optimistic person, and I do think she thinks it’s possible. But she’s been — ever since Sandy Hook, she has been very strategic about her work in curbing gun violence. And she takes the long view here. I mean, it has been almost 10 years since she started this organization. And as Robin said, they have had some success on the state level. Gabby’s strategy is really to talk to gun owners, like herself, people who — even NRA members, but people who are in favor of reasonable gun legislation. And Gabby has traveled all around the country and points to over 400 state laws, red flag laws and others, which have made some progress. Obviously, on the federal level, it’s been very discouraging. Some people say that this recent legislation is very modest and doesn’t really do enough. But I think Gabby would say, and those in her organization, that it is a first step, and they’re hoping to keep pushing.
I mean, I want to just say one other thing is, you know, last year we were with Gabby when her organization set up an installation in Washington to memorialize the 40,000 people who die every year in this country of gun violence. And that’s not just from mass shootings. This is from one-on-one shootings and from other incidents and, of course, suicides — over 40,000 people last year. And this year, the number is 45,000 people. So, it’s a huge problem and one that Gabby is really determined to tackle. I mean, she’s just somebody who doesn’t get discouraged. She’s just, keep on pushing.
AMY GOODMAN: Julie, you have been following Gabby Giffords now for a few years. Talk about how you first decided to make this film.
JULIE COHEN: Yeah. So, we were introduced to Gabby by a producer named Lisa Erspamer, one of the producers of our film along with Sam Jinishian. And Lisa had the thought that the combination of us and Gabby might really make for a pretty amazing documentary. So she set up a Zoom call with us — this is at the very beginning of COVID — and we had a conversation with Gabby and then-Senate candidate Mark Kelly about their lives, thinking, you know, “Is this someone — can we make a full feature film about someone when language is such a struggle and a challenge?”
Those concerns, I would say, were alleviated pretty quickly by the forceful personality of Gabby herself, who lifted her foot — I’m not going to do the gymnastics required to put my foot by your camera — but who lifted her foot directly to the camera of the Zoom to show us that she was wearing RBG socks. She is a connector with and without words, and that was just indicative. You know, within about a minute and a half of this Zoom call starting, Betsy and I were texting each other, like, “Yes, like, we are making this film.”
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of RBG, let’s not forget, I mean, Gabby Giffords not only works on the issue of gun violence. The Supreme Court has just lifted a gun ban based here in New York, making it easier for people to get guns at this unbelievable, horrific point in U.S. history, but, of course, also overturned Roe v. Wade. What, Julie, was Gabby Giffords’ response to that?
JULIE COHEN: Yeah. So, Gabby, you know, like a lot of progressive politicians and humans, has been a strongly pro-choice person for years. We happened to see Gabby on the day that the Alito — the draft opinion was released of Dobbs, giving a sense of the rollback that was about to happen. Gabby, despite struggling to speak, is often incredible with language and came sort of running up at an event that we had come to a bit early, and just said — you know, with something, really, that she wanted — that she really wanted to express, and just said, ”Roe v. Wade, 50 years, backwards. Backwards.” And of all the conversations that I had with people that day, I felt like Gabby expressed the most eloquently what the stakes were and what we were about to lose in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, you did the documentary — the two of you did the documentary Julia that aired on CNN, and one of the things you focus on, Julia Child — right? — the world-renowned chef, but she used her celebrity to support Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. But I wanted to go, at the end of this hour with you two, to go to My Name Is Pauli Murray and talk about — it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. We had a long discussion at the time about it, a whole show. It’s gone on to win a Peabody and a duPont, the film about one of the most pivotal figures in history, Pauli Murray, a trailblazing Black, queer, feminist poet, lawyer and legal scholar and priest, who was discriminated against from childhood because of their race or gender, or both, went on to question systems of oppression and conformity with a radical vision ahead of their time that influenced landmark civil rights decisions, influenced RBG, influenced Thurgood Marshall. I just wanted to play a clip, the trailer of My Name Is Pauli Murray.
PATRICIA BELL-SCOTT: There are some people who now argue that you cannot teach American history without teaching about Pauli Murray.
SONIA PRESSMAN FUENTES: Pauli was a writer, a lawyer, a priest, a poet.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Pauli was a feisty woman.
PAULI MURRAY: My name is Pauli Murray. My whole history has been a struggle in a society dominated by the ideas that Blacks were inferior to whites and women were inferior to men.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Pauli was way ahead of the times.
PAULI MURRAY: I chose for my senior paper: Should Plessy v. Ferguson be overruled? My little argument went to the Supreme Court.
BRITTNEY COOPER: Y’all see all of the different folks that are in this room? That is made possible by Pauli Murray.
PAULI MURRAY: If you rip away everything, oppression is the business of not respecting one’s personhood. For my first two years, I was the only woman in the law school. They didn’t even let me talk.
BRITTNEY COOPER: Thurgood Marshall was talking about Jim Crow. And she says, “What I’m experiencing is Jane Crow.”
DOLORES CHANDLER: Pauli Murray was not just an amazing lawyer or a badass feminist, but also a queer and nonbinary person. Sitting in front of Murray’s notes, the turmoil and the suffering, this is a feeling I know well. Scholars who have written about Pauli largely still use feminine pronouns. I don’t know what pronouns Pauli would say.
BRITTNEY COOPER: Trans and gender nonbinary people have always been a part of our American context. So, did y’all just think that your generation invented it?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a part of the trailer for My Name Is Pauli Murray. And, Julie Cohen, as we wrap up — and for both of you, your remarkable body of work — if you can comment: Since the film, what has happened with awareness around Pauli Murray in this country?
JULIE COHEN: I’d say awareness of Pauli, which was growing already — that’s part of what we were trying to document in our film — and has been something forwarded by scholars, particularly Black women scholars, for many decades, but awareness is growing more. And Betsy and I have been thrilled, and so has Pauli Murray’s family, to see the name get a little bit of the recognition that it so richly deserved.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. We have to leave it there, but I encourage people to go to the hour we had speaking about Pauli Murray. Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.