Gingrich with director Ava DuVernay
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon
President Ronald Reagan
stills from Birth of a Nation (1915)
Angela Davis from a 1972 prison interview
New York Congressman Charles Rangel
Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, social justice activist, and founder, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative
United States Senator from New Jersey, Cory Booker
The Supreme Court Building, engraved with "Equal Justice Under Law"
Director Ava DuVernay
USA (100 mi) 2016 d: Ava DuVernay
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.
—The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, ratified by the states on December 6, 1865
—The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, ratified by the states on December 6, 1865
Since the very public police murder of George Floyd and the massive Black Lives Matter protest demonstrations around the world that have followed, this film, more than any other, should be considered mandatory viewing, more relevant now than in the year it was released on cable TV’s Netflix, which was immediately prior to the Trump presidential election. Described as 150 years in the making, offering context to this current moment in time, this is the definitive film in documenting the shameful history of racism in America, investigating the issue of mass incarceration in the United States in relation to the 13th Amendment while providing ample evidence of mistreating and criminalizing black men, reframing history from a black perspective that is not taught in schools or contained in history books, yet offering a culturally impactive point of view, as it clearly draws a continuous line and shows how racism has evolved unabated since the Civil War supposedly freed the slaves, offering a disturbing yet highly evocative picture of just how we got here. Some archival footage is graphically horrifying, like the picture of an elderly gentleman being taunted and harassed simply for walking down the street, repeatedly knocked down by a mob of white attackers, acts that repeat themselves during Trump rallies where he urges his followers to be particularly rough on black protesters, seen being spit on, kicked, and pushed around, with Trump reminiscing how this used to be such common practice “back in the good old days,” like unleashing the dogs in Birmingham, with the director skillfully connecting the past to the present. Much of this film will feel singed and imprinted on the brain, using recurring rap and hip-hop songs as transitions, tracing the roots to Reconstruction era misuse of the 13th Amendment, to lynchings and the Jim Crow era, and to the coded language of law and order, which means something entirely different to black and white communities, all affecting the current policies of mass incarceration of black people. One significant factor the films fails to address is the incarceration of black women, with the numbers rising substantially since the making of the film, while it also stays away from the racial disparities that exist for those prisoners on Death Row. Former President Obama opens the film by announcing that the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population, a statistic that flies in the face of “The land of the free,” where a disproportionate majority of those imprisoned are black. While there are a wide range of talking points, using interviews with many notable experts, scholars, civil rights leaders, politicians, and activists, as well as prominent opponents, offering a range of opinion that is not over anyone’s head but feels easily understandable despite the complexity of the subject, none are more prominent than Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (2012), whose expertise paints a picture going back to the Civil War, finding a loophole in the 13th Amendment, as slavery ended for all practical purposes, “except for those convicted of a crime.” The Southern economy was decimated after the war, made worse by the fact all the free labor from slavery was suddenly emancipated, so Southern states devised a strategy of criminalizing minor offenses, then rounding up and arresting blacks with a vengeance afterwards, often for minor charges like vagrancy or loitering, imprisoned if they could not pay the fines, but once incarcerated the State was free to exploit the fruits of their labor, institutionalizing a practice known as convict leasing, or forced penal servitude, forcing prisoners to do the backbreaking plantation work done by former slaves. The practice was extremely profitable, in 1898, for instance, 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing. In effect, this systematic loophole allowed States to profit from an unwritten form of slavery even after it was abolished, mostly targeting blacks who were sent to field work on chain-gangs. The documentary film THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA (1998) reveals the largest maximum-security prison in the United States is known as Angola, named after the area in Africa that provided the slave labor, situated on an old slave plantation in Louisiana, overwhelmingly populated by black inmates and staffed by a white administration, with inmates paid 4 cents an hour to pick cotton out in the hot sun while white overseers on horseback with long rifles guard against escapes. Generations of black men have been trapped by this system, with Mississippi’s Parchman Farm penitentiary arguably the most notorious abuser, continuing this practice until WWII, thoroughly documented by Wall Street reporter Douglas Blackmon in his 2008 book Slavery by Another Name, suggesting slavery in the United States did not end with the Civil War, but instead persisted well into the 20th century.
DuVernay also gives a master class dissertation on the mythology of black criminality in D. W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), a blockbuster hit that had an incredible impact on the nation both artistically and historically, viewed at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, who revered the film, but this set the tone for the stereotypical myths of how blacks are perceived in America today, particularly black men, as they were demonized as animals, rapists, and criminals, continuing a pattern of whites associating them with criminalization, where in the film the Ku Klux Klan actually comes to the rescue of a virginal white girl to save the day, like the arrival of the cavalry, the heroes on horseback in white robes. The burning of a cross was never part of their history until D. W. Griffith liked the cinematic effect, revitalizing a lackluster organization that suddenly experienced a resurgence, introducing a new reign of terror across the South, where black homes were burned, black men lynched openly in public, where the prevalence of historical photographs come from whites who were there either witnessing or participating in these atrocities. Griffith’s depiction, however, lit the fuse, openly declaring black men are criminals, a perception that exists even today, with some like the Fraternal Order of Police, but also several prominent elected officials, including Senators and a President viewing the Black Lives Matter movement as a terrorist group, though they ardently practice non-violence. These same officials are silent on the police brutality that is aimed against black victims, attributing all the aggressiveness to blacks, who are still viewed in their eyes as criminals, even when there is no evidence whatsoever of threatening behavior. George Floyd, for instance, showed no signs of police resistance, but fully cooperated. Let’s not forget, Dr. King and his peaceful protesters were similarly viewed as “troublemakers” and “threatening.” In the face of all rational reason, where does that mindset come from? Are we placing too much significance on a movie, you may ask? John Ford did the same thing with his racist treatment of Indians as savages in his westerns. What’s significant is that Griffith, like Ford, are both considered among the greatest American filmmakers that ever lived, given substantial weight in instilling moral values through each new generation from their movies, with each making films for more than half a century. Nothing exists in a vacuum, but is part of an extended pattern of principles developed by earlier generations setting the stage for this moment in time. Displaying well-researched clinical precision, DuVernay traces the root of the racist vitriol to Reconstruction, followed by D. W. Griffith’s immensely popular BIRTH OF A NATION, a box office bonanza that relentlessly dehumanizes blacks, instilling irrational fear, where this same perception led us to the 90’s term “superpredator,” with blacks continually perceived as menacing threats. The Black Lives Matter group was originated by three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, formed after the acquittal of the murderer of a 17-year old black teenager Trayvon Martin, identified as George Zimmerman, an overly zealous neighborhood watch leader who actually followed him through the neighborhood, viewing him as suspicious solely by his race, thinking he doesn’t belong, before confronting him with a gun and shooting him, claiming self-defense afterwards, though he was the pursuer with the gun. In Florida they have a stand your ground law, which allows use of a weapon if you feel threatened, so police did not initially charge him with a crime. After a public outcry, Zimmerman was arrested, but he was acquitted of all charges at trial, which makes little sense, since Zimmerman was clearly the aggressor. This typically describes what is commonly viewed as racial injustice, as whites routinely kill blacks with impunity and there are no consequences for their actions, as you can literally get away with murder. The number of unarmed black men who followed in these same footsteps go back to the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman (who years later acknowledged she fabricated her testimony), his body badly mutilated afterwards, yet his mother insisted upon an open casket funeral, as she wanted the entire world to see just how one human being was savagely defiled. There are 41 names of martyrs listed on the Civil Rights Memorial (Civil Rights Martyrs), to which we may add Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray, Stephon Clark, Sam DuBose, Tyre King, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, Reginald Thomas Jr, LaQuan McDonald, Eric Courtney Harris, George Floyd, Akai Gurley, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Breanna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, and the list goes on of countless more black individuals who have unjustly died at the hands of police.
Mass Incarceration Can't Be Fixed by Legislation ... - Bloomberg Michelle Alexander in a 2016 interview
I don’t view mass incarceration as just a problem of politics or policy, I view it as a profound moral and spiritual crisis as well. I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved simply through rational policy discussions. If we take a purely technocratic approach to these issues and strip them of their moral and spiritual dimensions, I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings.
These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.
The important word here is criminalization, as blacks merely by their skin color generate a fear in whites, where they are typically viewed as criminals. Politicians have exploited this stereotype, using crime as a stand-in for race, with Michelle Alexander reminding us that Ronald Reagan politicized race when he criminalized drug offenses, implementing a war on drugs, shifting what was originally perceived as a health issue to a criminal issue, going on a Nixonian law and order tirade about locking up drug offenders, who were viewed as the scourge of the earth, yet only black offenders were targeted, as police avoided drug raids in white neighborhoods. DuVernay produces an audio tape of Reagan’s Republican political strategist Lee Atwater acknowledging their intention was to highlight crime in the eyes of the public, shifting the blame to blacks who would be the ones most adversely affected, suggesting this was by design, part of the Republican Party's appeal to southern white conservatives, a racist Southern strategy appealing to white voters by highlighting the criminalization of blacks, initiating a renewed incarceration of black men, where at the time the prisons only contained about 200,000 inmates in 1972, yet those numbers rapidly started to rise, increasing each decade. They skyrocketed, however, with Bill Clinton’s signing of the Omnibus Crime Bill (originally written by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, by the way), which provided for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons and $6.1 billion in discretionary funding for police prevention programs, which led to the militarization of police, using weapons of war to fight neighborhood crime, while also mandating a three-strikes provision addressing repeat offenders who would be sentenced to life in prison upon their third offense. When crack cocaine entered the picture, predominately distributed in urban black neighborhoods because small quantities were cheap, but overwhelmingly addictive, while the powdered substance was predominately in the white suburbs. In an epic tale of disproportional racial injustice, the sentence for one ounce of crack cocaine was the same as 100 ounces of powdered cocaine, so not only were blacks being locked up in record numbers, comprising one-third of the prison population that reached a staggering 2.3 million in 2016 (with 90% of those in state or local jails, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016 | Prison Policy Initiative), but they were sent away for long periods of time, basically disrupting the family concept, as one out of every three black men was sent to prison, while whites in the suburbs were getting away with a slap on the wrist. According to U.S. Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker, “We now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850’s.” DuVernay also exposes the influence of ALEC, American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that merges corporate interests into the political process, giving them a weighted advantage, where they’re literally able to write bills that are advantageous to their own profits, which led to the growth of for-profit prisons and massive incarcerations, including a cash-for-prisoners model that generates millions for private bail and incarceration firms, including immigrant detention centers along the border, which are prisons for profit, known for minimally low health standards and atrociously poor food. Somehow, it was not enough to send people to prisons, but they had to suffer there through inhumane treatment, where punishment became systematically integrated into incarceration, an outgrowth of ALEC, along with those crime bills signed by Clinton, and the Stand Your Ground gun laws, now expanded to 30 states. While offering a sobering look at our corrupt prison and judicial systems, perhaps the singlemost egregious offense exposing exactly what’s wrong is the case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx high school student who was imprisoned for three years, two of them in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, without being convicted of a crime. He was accused at 16 of stealing a backpack, and his family was unable to afford his bail, set at $3,000, so he languished in prison. 95% of the elected prosecutors in America are white, who typically make deals with these young kids, getting them to plead guilty to lesser crimes that they didn’t commit, simply to be released from prison. Browder refused a plea deal, convinced he was innocent, suggesting the police even invented the backpack, giving his case a certain notoriety, yet his prison treatment was horribly inhumane, not at all in accordance with his alleged crime, as he was just a kid sent to adult prison, routinely attacked and beaten up by prison guards and treated mercilessly, attempting suicide on several occasions. Upon his release, when all charges were dropped, he was permanently damaged by the abuses he endured, attempting to end his life several times before finally succeeding two years later at the age of 22. What did this kid do to deserve that treatment? To expose just how backwards our system of justice has become, you’re treated worse if you’re innocent and poor than if you’re guilty and rich, where ingrained into the judicial sentencing is the social class of the offender, where being black, exactly as envisioned by D. W. Griffith, still retains an association with criminality in the eyes of whites.
“The Black Lives Matter Movement has to be understood in the context of the historical legacy of the ill treatment of blacks by the police and the criminal justice system and American political and social institutions more generally. That legacy is a fact.”
—Daniel Nagin, 2014 recipient of the Stockholm Prize on Criminology, an elected fellow of the American Society of Criminology, Police, Violence, and Data: The Black Lives Matter Movement ...