Kennedy tells story of local rebellion

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Bruce Kennedy, a filmmaker now editing a documentary about rebellion and the Anti-Rent War, smiles after being groomed by his wife, Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, for a picture.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Hardscrabble hill: Cows graze on a steep rise facing Irish Hill Road in Berne, where the initial unrest for the 19th Century Anti-Rent War rumbled. Documentary filmmaker Bruce Kennedy believes the difficulty of certain types of agriculture with the thin topsoil in parts of the Hilltowns played a role in Berne being a focal point for the farmers’ revolt. 

BERNE — Cars covered in a veneer of frost and snow from the Hilltowns can be seen this time of year driving among dry and gleaming ones on the roads below. Bruce Kennedy thinks the distinct environment up here, with stony land unsuited for agriculture, was a major reason the Anti-Rent rebellion of the 19th Century started in the Helderbergs.

Kennedy, a filmmaker and descendant of one of the rebellion’s leaders, arrived in Altamont last summer after a year of intense research and a lifetime of awe at the story of justice.

“I’m looking up at this and I realize, that’s the Helderberg, that’s it, that’s the escarpment,” said Kennedy, who lives in North Carolina. “I was thrilled. I was actually very excited. It’s a pile of rocks, but it’s amazing because I knew what it meant. It was a key player in this whole process.”

Large swaths of land owned by the Van Rensselaer family were first given over to farmers in the early 1600s. The tenants had no timber, water, or mineral rights. After having developed the land for years, or even generations, the tenant farmers had perpetual leases requiring them to pay rent in bushels of wheat, four fowl, and a day of labor with horses and wagon.

If tenants wanted to release what they had to another tenant, the patroon, or owner, would get a quarter of the sale. The Dutch patroon system is often described as semi-feudal.

“So here, the lords here had this tremendous amount of power and they could compete with the government,” Kennedy explained. "The government couldn’t undo them.”

Once a book designer, an ad-agency manager, and a commercial photographer, Kennedy, at 64, is now making films, sculptures, and paintings. He was celebrated by around 150 spectators in the Knox Octogan Barn on Oct. 30, when he showed a rough cut of his documentary on the tumultuous period of the Anti-Rent War that eventually spread through several counties in the state.

Kennedy hopes to present his Anti-Rent rebellion project to a television network for a series.

Sitting by the window of the FoxCreek Market with his wife, Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, a political activist, Kennedy described his first efforts to seek out material for his documentary, Righteous Rebellion: America’s Anti-Rent War on Privilege.

Kennedy walked into the same market in Berne and asked the first person he saw what he knew of the Anti-Rent War. He was given a list of names.

“I asked the kid I bought my pizza from,” Kennedy went on. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah, my history teacher, Andy Wright.’”

Wright is among several local descendants who appear in Kennedy’s film, which, he says, has a central message about humans that casts light on “corporate feudalism” of today and activities like the Occupy movement started in 2011.

“My intent is to link the fact that rebellion is in people's blood,” Kennedy explained. “That message is, I believe, largely suppressed. We’re not supposed to know that. You're not taught that in school, that people can rebel and get what they want, and yet it happens all the time and has happened all the time.”

Ancestral quest

Kennedy was born in Troy and grew up in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware where he graduated from high school. “My dad was a difficult, brilliant man,” Kennedy said of his father, an engineer and researcher with a Ph.D. from Yale.

As a boy, Kennedy said he was told stories of his great-great-great-grandfather, Smith Azer Boughton, a country doctor who led rallies and was known in Calico Indian disguise as “Big Thunder.”

The Anti-Renters, like the more famous provokers of the Boston Tea Party, wore Indian costumes as they rebelled.

“I think he was instrumental in developing the idea of paralleling the Boston Tea Party,” Kennedy said. “He certainly was part of that planning of, ‘OK, let’s disguise ourselves.’ Because what they were doing was illegal and they were resisting the sheriffs.”

During his six-week trip packed with interviews and visiting historical societies, Kennedy went to Alps in Rensselaer County, where Dr. Boughton lived. When he visited his grandmother as a child, Kennedy said, he and other children in the family would be obligated to walk around the corner to their ancestor’s old house, stand, and listen to the story of Dr. Bouton.

“As a kid, it intrigued me not so much, except for the disguises and riding-around-on-horses stuff,” said Kennedy. “But later, as I got older, I realized that this was really about justice. And here was a man who didn’t really have a dog in this fight.”

Kennedy said he has a letter from Dr. Boughton to his grandson, titled “My interesting life,” from which he learned some of his story. His ancestor also appears in the iconic volume telling the history of the Anti-Rent War, Tin Horns and Calico by Henry Christman, which Kennedy said is a authoritative source in his research.

Roots of rebellion

Studying fine art at the Pratt Institute in the late 1960s, Kennedy became frustrated with the system of schools and designated curricula. After learning that a friend was studying silkscreen printing because he was in a separate school within the institute, Kennedy said he posted signs, asking fellow students whether they felt the same way, and would they meet — 150 people gathered.

Kennedy was encouraged by the institute’s administration to take up the issue with the head of the School of Fine Art.

“He said, ‘I understand your frustrations and I sympathize, but, you know what, I’m not giving up any of my power,’” Kennedy recounted. “And that cynicism to my idealism was so crushing, so awful, that that was one of the major things that said, ‘I’m out of here. I can’t put up with this.’”

Kennedy didn’t graduate, leaving the institute in 1969 to establish a book-design studio. That same year, he said, a group of students went on strike, sitting in the deans’ offices, their issues focused on the structure of their institution.

“By the second year, I had $10,000 in debt, which seemed an incredible amount of money,” Kennedy said of his finances as a student.

Kennedy later went on to earn more money in magazine publishing, as a marketing consultant, and with ad agencies in California.

“Advertising isn’t about telling the truth,” Kennedy said of his discouragement with the industry. “It’s about telling enough to interest people in buying something, something they probably don’t want or need, but you want to convince them to.”

After a long road trip with Ramos-Kennedy, the couple settled in Asheville, N.C., where they live now.

Ramos-Kennedy has since been involved in political campaigns, including the 2008 presidential bid by Barack Obama. She said she is now on the advisory board for the Campaign for Southern Equality, focused on lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender issues in the South.

Kennedy has developed his fine art and teaches middle-school students in movie-making.

“I’m trying to help them tell their stories,” he said.

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