I first heard of the documentary 13th on Twitter about two weeks ago. Retweets spilled onto my timeline regarding the release of what would be a Netflix documentary shedding light on the famous 13th amendment of the American constitution: an amendment that I was taught to believe enshrined freedom and liberation for slaves.
So after much Twitter scrolling, I decided my attention was caught and watched a short trailer to this documentary. To my surprise, the first few words I recall hearing were to the effect of: “Slavery was never abolished.”
I was shocked… but I convinced myself it was merely riveting rhetoric, figurative language, an overstatement at best. Perhaps we were modern slaves in some abstract form of the term: slaves to social media, consumerism or technology. Never did I think the literal definition of a slave was meant until the actual text of the 13th amendment was referenced.
“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.“
At that moment I grew angry.
I’m not American. I was born and raised in Britain and taught under the English curriculum. Nonetheless, I studied History from Year 7 to 11 at GCSE Level and took it further to A-Levels in Year 12 and 13. Without fail I recall there was always a module on either the slave trade or American Civil Rights, and for some reason, both schools I attended taught it. Britain has an affinity for American Civil Rights it seems… why? I’m not sure, but that’s for another blog. Either way I’ve always been interested in American politics – particularly it’s supposed evolution from the slave trade to the Reconstruction era to Jim Crow and now Black Lives Matter. And unlike Britain’s dirty history with the slave trade and colonialism, America’s saga with slavery has been openly discussed in all realms. Such so that I’ve watched many a documentary and film in my time about it – heck the first time I was introduced to Ava Duvernay was when I watched Selma, featuring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King.
My point being that I’m very clued up on America. So how was I only seeing this now?
Rule 101 of studying History was to study your primary document yet I’d never seen this clause in written form. Never bothered to even check. I’m a Law student now – meaning primary documents are even more key and referring back to original sources is integral to understanding the law. I can’t afford to not read original text or legislation, in fact I must be critical of it.
And so here is my analysis:
This clause has been written in plain English in a legal document that is aptly referred to regularly by Americans – the constitution.“…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This was no secret clause or add-on statement. It is smack bang in the middle of the statement: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…[insert clause here]…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” So in the same breath in which slavery is supposedly abolished for all people, criminals are condemned to slavery. The two phrases contradict. In English Literature, that’s called a juxtaposition. Moreover, the separation of criminals from the general populace through such condemnation suggests in theory that criminals are not people – in Critical Thinking, that’s called deduction.
13th highlights how this theory is substantiated by the glorified media representation of blacks as sub-human – particularly the film The Birth of a Nation in which black men were portrayed as unkempt, vicious rapists and a general threat to the white population – particularly women. Considering this film is still one of the highest-grossing films of all time demonstrates how widespread and popular this perception of blacks was – so much so that even blacks latched onto this portrayal. Self-degradation. I’ve watched Hidden Colours. I recognise how once you destroy one’s self-image and self-esteem, essentially all is lost. There’s nothing to stand up on. They are yours for the taking. Place that on top of the constitutional language dehumanising criminals and you have a recipe for disaster. After slavery was abolished, many blacks were out of work, free but poor. They were convicted of crimes (often petty) they did and did not commit – resulting in being condemned to prison labour or the vigilante justice of lynching.
Fast forward to the Jim Crow era and you see how that image manifests through segregation. Bryan Stevenson, author, attorney and founder of Equal Justice Initiative mentions the psychological effects of being demoted to second-class citizenship – how the separation of “coloured” and “whites” served to injuriously demean the black image. How such a sentiment pioneered the Civil Rights Movement is expanded upon by Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and professor at Harvard University who suggests the movement served as a “transformation of the notion of criminality… being arrested was a noble thing.” The idea of Civil Rights activists voluntarily planning a movement on getting arrested took the stigma away from it – a statement which Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow appears critical of. She reminds the viewer that what we see as rightful protest of today was not seen in the same way at the time. Politicians suggested that there was some sort of causality between the criminal behaviour of the Civil Rights movement and the population of blacks in prison going up – as if the black population was more incentivised to commit crime because of MLK and not their own personal economic circumstance *sips tea*. This token of criminality became a bargaining chip for politicians who wanted to appear tough on crime from as early as Richard Nixon’s presidential term beginning in 1969, climaxing in the Reagan era and hitting the ceiling in Bill Clinton’s term in the 1990’s.
Typical political rhetoric used the code words of “law and order,”criminality,” and the “war on drugs” to displace “black people” and essentially openly instigate a war. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s advisers recognised how the two main enemies of the Nixon term were the anti-war left and black people. He mentions verbatim by “associating the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” In the Reagan era, racial disparity was politicised through the separation and additional stigmatisation of crack cocaine over powdered cocaine. Different offences were administered for the same drug depending on its form: crack cocaine was more common in urban communities whereas powdered cocaine was seen as more sophisticated in suburban communities. Displace urban with black and brown and suburban with white and you see the racial divide more clearly.
During the Bush and Clinton era, there was much documentation on blacks being handcuffed on the evening news. Buzzwords were thrown out to dehumanise and simplify criminals: they were no longer complex human beings but merely the initiators of their crimes. Hillary Clinton’s infamous statement that groups of kids were “super-predators” with no conscience or empathy has been held accountable and heavily criticised during her own candidature for presidency. Her belief was both influential and commonly held, thus leading to the mass incarceration of many black and brown kids as a result. Prison was seen as the answer to the problem of drugs and the individual autonomy of judges in assessing a defendant’s case was taken away. Political force oversaw the legislature. If you did wrong, the book was thrown at you at little to no discretion.
As a result, during Clinton’s presidency, the following happened:
- Mandatory minimums were passed – meaning if you committed 3 strikes, you were sentenced to life, even if these crimes were petty.
- Truth in sentencing eliminated parole meaning those convicted were to serve 85% of their sentence – undermining the principle of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system.
- The infamous 1994 Federal Crime Bill was passed – a bill that expanded the prison system which instigated much of the adverse economic and political gain we see today.
Naturally, after the passing of this legislation, the prison population shot up: doubling from 1 million in 1990 to 2 million in 2000. Suddenly there was an incentive for politicians, as ratified by the 13th amendment and the 21st century perception of the black form to exploit this huge population. 13th mentions the beginnings of slavery as an “economic system” and not just a political movement. People profited off of the unpaid labour of blacks. And the loophole of the 13th amendment provided that those in the prison labours could recompense the cash loss that the abolishment of slavery allowed – prisons that are disproportionately filled with black people. Modern day slavery personified – otherwise known as the prison-industrial complex. Suddenly corporations have an interest in keeping prisons filled.
Stand Your Ground – the Florida law on which George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin, got off on, was a law passed by ALEC – a council of corporations and politicians designed to lobby and write law. It comes to pass that much law proposed by ALEC almost always directly benefits the corporations it represents. And naturally, corporations will support the legislation which they profit from. Do the math.
- Stand Your Ground is a self-defence law which allows you to use a weapon when under threat. Walmart is one of the biggest sellers of guns in America. More gun owners defending themselves = more money.
- SECURUS Technologis is a telecommunications services which charges inmates to make calls. More inmates making calls = more money.
- Aramark is a food provider which serves food to inmates. More inmates eating food = more money.
- Unicorn made $900 million, much of which was accrued from prison labour: a modern day sweatshop.
The story of Kalief Browder was especially poignant. Young, innocent, poor and black – forced to serve 3 years in prison for a crime that there was no evidence he committed and the charges were later dropped for. Forced to live in a place that is built to destroy: prison. There is footage of him lashing out, getting into fights with other inmates and guards. A textbook case study of how prison serves to destroy humanity and not rehabilitate. Unfortunately, Kalief later committed suicide as a result of the mental health issues he experienced after his term in prison.
Research shows that if prisoners don’t go on to re-offend, they often have their citizenship stripped not metaphorically but literally. After a term in prison, “ex-felons” have limited and often no access to food stamps and have to declare their record when trying to purchase a house, obtain a student loan. Their right to vote is scrapped. It is said that in America there is zero closure after paying your debt to society – in some respects, this debt cannot be recompensed.
The most disturbing part of this documentary was the voice-over footage of Donald Trump proclaiming about the good ol’ days as coloured and black and white cutaways to blacks being mistreated roll across the screen. The parallels of blacks being shoved at Trump rallies is an omen to the blacks who were mistreated in white spaces during Jim Crow. Trump declaring himself as the “Law and Order” candidate is a disturbing echo to Richard Nixon’s presidency. Such language serves as a mandate to the killing of blacks with impunity and the racial legacy of this country.
The documentary ironically ends on the note of documentation of the brutality blacks face. I learnt in History that mass media was a useful tool for the success of Civil Rights Movement. People had to see Emmett Till’s body to recognise injustice was occurring – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are modern-day mediums for this. I, like many social media users, have been bombarded for the past few years with footage of blacks being killed left right and centre. I’ve watched the media discredit them with wrap sheets of petty crimes or character-destroying attributes. It has gotten to the point that in order to not become desensitised to the destruction, I no longer watch the footage.
Speaking from a 21st century point of view however, social media has become a great tool for spreading awareness about such killings hence the Black Lives Matter movement, but the mainstream media’s use of black outrage makes me cynical to say the least. What I mean is our retweets and threads accrue national coverage to which someone else reaps the benefits from, often corporations. The embed of hash-tags and tweets in mainstream publications is just another form to exploit the black community: except instead of weaponizing our dissent, they monetize and monopolize it. Our anger, like our labour, is being still being profited, even in our anger – except this time, it’s journalists. And we don’t see a penny from it.
Overall, it goes back to Barack Obama’s opening statement in 13th: how America makes up 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s prison population. With 2.3 million people behind bars – they have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Black males make up 6.5% of the American population yet 40% of the prison system. Women like Assata Shakur (aunt of Tupac Shakur who is and has been on the run in Cuba for decades) and Angela Davis were deemed as domestic terrorists and put on the FBI List because what they had to say did not fit the status quo. And the media sought to sensationalise, politicise and capitalise on that image in their news publications and films.
For too long, I have been the naive aspiring lawyer, intent on holding those in government accountable and passing laws but I am growing increasingly aware that the translation between how the law is put in practice has become disjointed with intention. The American criminal justice system is flawed and this stems all the way back to its birthplace in the Constitution and that damned 13th amendment condemning criminals to slavery and servitude and to that I ask how? How has that part of the clause been lost in translation? It’s as if we have been playing Chinese Whispers all these years yet have not gone back to the source of the statement and asked what was originally said, despite the fact a quick Google search is all that is needed to find it.
Are we wilfully blind? Do we know that this is modern-day oppression? Provided America, and many other countries, uphold their anti-black racism and mass incarceration tactics, the ideology that criminal = sub-human will serve to destroy us all. Overt oppression has a trend whether it be in the 21st century or the 17th century and it almost always begins with a tarnishing of image and ends with a removal of citizenship . Hitler did it with Jewish people. However, I have noticed more insipid forms of oppression in this current decade that is mostly economic. It starts with poverty and ends with loss of autonomy and clout: no money, no say. This method of dehumanisation is equally if not more so abrasive in the capitalist society in which we live.
We are pawns in this society and in our current climate. And as heart-wrenching as it was to watch, I am so glad that Ava Duvernay decided to release this eye-opening documentary – with the presidential run coming to a close and the Black Lives Matter debate heating up – it seemed to be perfect timing. It has taught me that more radical and nuanced measures need to be taken when approaching inequality – legislation and campaigns are great but further direct action needs to be taken also.
The law may say one thing. But our actions may say another.