In her new documentary, 13th, director Ava DuVernay (of Selma fame) doesn’t let you look away. From footage from 1917's Birth of a Nation and photos of Emmett Till’s brutally beaten body to the sentencing legislation of the Clinton era and the current president-elect musing about the “good old days” (when you could punch protesters in the face and send them away on stretchers), the film confronts the chilling truth behind the path to America’s prison-industrial complex. 13th is streaming on Netflix, and to kick off its Martin Luther King Day observance, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) hosted a special screening.
There wasn’t an empty seat in the house.
An unexpected history of the 13th Amendment
With a score that is sometimes a heartbeat and sometimes a drum, 13th maps America’s mass incarceration epidemic back to the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slave labor — except for those being punished for crimes.
With compelling interviews (including The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and Senator Cory Booker), graphics, and contemporary and historical footage, 13th argues that African Americans have been allowed little progress since Jim Crow. Systematic oppression has not eased as much as mutated; the mushrooming of private prisons and their corporate entanglements (through for-profit prisons and legislation that keeps them full) means that criminalization and mass incarceration of black people are nearly as much an economic interest as was slavery.
The new war on drugs?
After the screening (presented in partnership with Reelblack), AAMP hosted a panel discussion, moderated by WURD 900AM host Stephanie Renée and featuring four black men, all formerly incarcerated activists.
Renée’s first question balanced current events and their 20th-century context. Is the current political and social response to opioid addiction (the framing of opioid addition as a disease; the development and availability of drugs to reverse overdoses) an evolution from the Reagan-era “war on drugs” and its “tough on crime” reverberations in the Clinton administration?
Panelist Mitchell Chance, author of The Great Hijack, said that during the furor over crack cocaine “we labeled people for what their disease is,” criminalizing individuals on the basis of their addiction. But when a white community suffers, “now it’s a sickness.”
Chance likened the distance between the labels of criminality and illness to media outlets calling Charleston killer Dylann Roof a “loner” instead of a terroristic white supremacist.
Fellow panelist El Sawyer, a filmmaker and social justice activist, noted that opiate abuse is not new in the black community — it just has more visibility now that it’s publicly affecting white communities. It’s never an issue until it affects a certain population, he added.
A colonization of minds
“We were being eaten alive with these mandatory minimum sentences,” added panelist Kevin Shird, a youth advocate and author of Lessons of Redemption and Uprising in the City.
“History is a current event,” said panelist William L. Goldsby, author of Reconstructing Rage. Goldsby, a Selma, Alabama, native born in 1939. We need to look at “how we’ve all been colonized in our minds,” he urged. Generations of inherited trauma and alienation within the black community mean it’s “important that we recognize we’ve been conditioned to indict each other.”
Prison, wealth, and poverty
Renée also asked what part of the economic picture people are still missing.
“Private prisons are another form of slavery,” Shir answered. He advised that as soon as a person gets caught in the criminal justice system, however powerful they might feel in the street, “you’re sending someone else’s kids to college. You’re building generational wealth for someone else’s family.” How does a person live with that — especially when a sentence for a nonviolent drug crime stretches for decades?
Sawyer likened poverty to radiation: Individuals can’t escape it without some kind of screen. “It’s not just de-carcerating,” he said. “It’s [about] where people are getting sent home to.”
Goldsby said that a miseducation in “capital” looms large: Capital isn’t finances and dollars. It’s people and resources. The only way we can escape the social and economic landscape of mass incarceration and criminalization is to help young people create a new paradigm for themselves. “They are their own capital,” he said. They must understand their own value as people; “otherwise, Clinton and Trump are the same person.”
Chance added that we must ask how much money we allocate per student, versus per prisoner. When he talks to youngsters, he said, he doesn’t tell the story of his own arrest and conviction, “because that’s what they want to glorify.” Instead, his message is about the future and exposing youth to career paths they never considered, because the economics of the current system won’t change without an education in possibilities.
One in three
Anyone who wants to look away from what the documentary calls a “scythe” cutting through America’s 20th- and 21st-century black communities should know that, although the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world's prisoners are incarcerated here. That’s a jump from a few hundred thousand inmates in the mid-20th century to 2.3 million today. Currently, the film notes, about 6 percent of the U.S. population consists of black men, but they make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. prison population. One out of every 17 white men will spend time in the criminal justice system. For black men, it’s one in three.
As Renée said in her introduction to the panel, it was a night to ask “where we are as a people, and what we can do about it.”