Image: Courtesy of Netflix
“The bottom line is, if you’re white in America, you have no idea what it’s like to be black,” Newt Gingrich declares in 13TH, the new documentary by Ava DuVernay now screening on Netflix. Titled after the Thirteenth Amendment, which legalizes slavery in the case of incarceration, the film exposes the way in which African Americans have been systematically criminalized in order to create and feed the prison industrial complex.
The film’s release comes at a pivotal time in U.S. history, as we are witnessing the rebirth of a new Civil Rights Movement to counter the abuses of power by the police, courts, prisons, and corporations under the 13th Amendment. While the media besieges the nation with images of lynchings sanctioned by the state, which simultaneously activate PTSD in their intended victims and thrill the bloodlust of the predators, we are inundated with the media’s fixation on Donald Trump’s calls to return to a time in our history before Civil Rights existed at all.
As the largest coordinated prison strike is currently underway with more than 24,000 inmates from at least 29 prisons in 12 states working together as a call to action against slavery in America today, a functional understanding of the deadly reality of the prison industrial complex is mandatory for any American.
Although the United States is just 5% of the world’s population, it accounts for 25% of the prisoners in the world, with 2.3 million men, women, and children currently behind bars. If these numbers are not staggering enough, the racial divide pushes it over the top. One in 3 black men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes, with untold numbers of innocent men trapped behind bars.
13TH weaves a powerful thread through the fabric of the nation, revealing the way in which black criminality has been pathologized to feed the system of modern day slavery. Featuring appearances by experts, activists, and politicians including Angela Davis, Cory Booker, David Dinkins, Charlie Rangel, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Jelani Cobb, and Newt Gingrich, among many others, 13TH begins where slavery left off.
After the Civil War, the economy of the South collapsed, as they were completely dependent on free labor to maintain their existence. The first prisons come into existence at this time, as former slaves are arrested en masse for things like loitering and vagrancy. The punishment for their “crimes” is hard labor used to rebuild the South during Reconstruction.
13TH reveals the way filmmaker D.W. Griffith exploited the myth of black criminality in the early days of Hollywood with the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman). Griffith’s film, which created the archetype of burning crosses for cinematic effect, singlehandedly resurrected the Klan from oblivion, giving rise to a new era of terrorism in the South. Tens of thousands of black men, women, and children were lynched for crimes they did not commit, while white men, women, and children picnicked and took photographs under trees filled with strange fruit.
13TH traces the thread that weaves through the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, desegregation, and the Civil Rights Movement to reach the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, legislating protection of the rights African Americans were supposedly granted a century before.
But, let’s be real for a minute. Although the film does not mention it, the United States government had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated in 1968 (a crime of which the government was found guilty in 1999). In the wake of his murder, a new wave of riots broke out and chaos filled the streets. At the same time, Baby Boomers were coming of age, and the crime rate shot up to unprecedented levels to reflect the population explosion of youth.
In response, the Nixon White House used the “Law and Order” dog whistle to speak black criminality without saying the words. The President also created a phony “War on Drugs,” which did not exist until his administration flooded inner cities with heroin in a campaign specifically designed to criminalize African Americans. As 13TH reveals, Nixon hyped the “War on Drugs” as part of the “Southern Strategy” to lure traditionally working class white Democrats in the South to vote Republican, feeding their long-held pathological beliefs about African Americans.
But it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980 that the “War on Drugs” reached a new low. When crack hit the streets in the mid-80s, all hell broke loose and the prison population to skyrocket to 759K (from 375K in 1970). The sentencing for crack was far more severe than it was for cocaine; even though they were the same drug, the users differed in race.
Now we’re getting into the thick of it, as 13TH tracks the state and federal legislation that created a phony class of “superpredators.” The image of black men is so reviled that five innocent boys, known as the Central Park 5, were convicted of a crime they did not commit. Donald Trump expressed his belief that they should be given the death penalty in a full-page ad in the New York Times, and though DNA evidence and a confession from the actual killer exonerated them, just this past Friday, Trump re-asserted his belief in their guilt.
But it is Bill Clinton’s White House that ultimately created the foundation for the prison industrial complex and the militarized police state that we live in today with the Crime Bill (1994), which called for mandatory minimum sentencing and put 100K police officers on the street with military-grade weapons, along with California’s Three-Strikes Law (since adopted by 24 states), which sent a felon away for life after the third conviction. These two initiatives caused prison populations surge to 2.015M by 1995.
Clinton has since admitted that the Crime Bill was a “mistake” and has done nothing to remedy the error of his ways. Instead, we live with the legacy of his laws, which have most horrifically spawned the privatized prison economy. This is where 13TH reveals the ghost in the machine: ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a private organization that counts corporations and politicians as its members. ALEC members have included Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Amazon.com, Facebook, General Motors, AT&T, Verizon, General Electric, and Boeing.
ALEC is a political lobbying group that writes laws and gives them to Senators and Congressmen, primarily Republicans, to present for vote. Among the laws passed as “Stand Your Ground,” which gave George Zimmerman legal grounds to stalk, attack, and murder Trayvon Martin and get away with it.
But it’s the relationships with the Corrections Corporation of America and the American Bail Coalition that reveal the way in which the system works. All aspects of the prison industrial complex have been privatized to become profitable, creating the new face of modern day slavery. “Innocent until proven guilty,” is all well and good—unless you cannot afford to prove your innocence in a court of law. Ninety-seven percent of all people arrested never go to trial; they are given plea deals that many will accept, even when they are innocent. The tragic case of Kalief Browder, in the film Browder says, “If I would have just plead guilty, my story would have never been heard. I would have just been another criminal.”
His words are a searing reminder that the legal system does not work for justice, but for something else, something far more insidious, woven into the fabric of the nation since it’s earliest days. 13TH is required-viewing for anyone who believes in “liberty and justice for all.” 13TH reminds us that though the Constitution is the highest law of the land, it was specifically designed to be revised in the event its Amendments are proven unjust. With more people enslaved today than in 1850, there has never been a cause more American than abolitionism.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.