“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
This is the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolishes slavery, or so we thought.
That “punishment for a crime” clause reads like “oh, by the way…” but it has had dramatic consequences. The nation (well, most of it) rejoiced over the first five words in 1864 but the next 6 words turned out to be the crux of the text over time. It’s an exception that assumes abuse would not occur by reasonable people. People were not reasonable.
Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th does the math for you to reveal the results of that loophole 153 years later, beginning with a quote from President Obama’s Criminal Justice Reform speech: “The U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; the U.S. keeps more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.”
The film makes the case that during reconstruction after the Civil War the southern economy was decimated when four million slaves were freed and the cheap labor workforce evaporated. Exploiting the exception in the 13th amendment allowed for replacing/rebuilding slave labor by incarcerating mainly black men for any perceived infraction, no matter how slight.
The film tracks the numbers of incarcerated over time through subsequent government administrations. The numbers climb through Nixon, Reagan, and even Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton refactored the DNC to be more centrist by becoming tougher on crime and that helped him get elected. President Clinton put the three strikes laws into place and the militarized Prison Industrial Complex juggernaut ground inexorably forward. People were not reasonable.
This is tough medicine to hear if you weren’t aware. I wasn’t aware. To be clear: I hadn’t reached this conclusion because I am in a position not to have reached it. This is privilege I didn’t even know I had. Bill Clinton is shown recently admitting he was wrong with that 1994 crime bill. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a liberal progressive.
One problematic fact the film glosses over is that during Clinton’s time crime did go up and needed to be addressed. The response however, as we see now, was out of proportion, politically motivated, and hurt primarily poorer and more vulnerable communities. This is a vicious cycle that there’s no clear solution for.
13th makes a convincing case that there have been since formal slavery ended forces at work bent on incarceration primarily of black people.
We are now seeing a very similar approach being used for immigrants by moving huge blocks of the US immigrant population into detention centers, mainly “for profit.” The Prison Industrial Complex rolls on. Of course the timely and rage/panic inducing footage is recent coverage of the 2016 Trump campaign rallies where people of color are physically abused while their fearless leader eggs them on. What have we as a nation done?
Watching this documentary makes it clear that there has been a problem with incarceration used as an economic and political driver for a long time and that action must be taken to change this.
There is an overwhelming amount of information delivered in the film that you should dig in and research for yourself, test the conclusions reached, and validate on your own the information provided. It’s an education we should all have. The issues are deep, old, and tremendously complex. There’s nothing here that fits on a bumper sticker or campaign tagline.
13th is a must-see movie and in direct competition for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar with the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. There’s a lot of overlap between them. I consider them companion pieces and strongly recommend both of these films.
13th (2016) Directed by: Ava DuVernay. Written by: Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick. Starring: Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and others.
10 out of 10
13th is available to stream currently on Netflix.