Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 1 July 2020

TV review: 13th

From slavery to Black Lives Matter - racism and capitalist injustice exposed

The 13th

The 13th   (Click to enlarge)

Barbara Clare, Stevenage Socialist Party

I was encouraged to watch this documentary by my daughter who has recently been motivated to go to her first protest, the Black Lives Matter demos against racism.

The documentary opens with a statistic that the US is home to 5% of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's prisoners! It has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, rising from 357,292 in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014.

The Bureau of Justice reports that one in three young black males is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime, an unbelievably shocking statistic (one in seventeen for white males). Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, yet 40.2% of the prison population!

The 13th Amendment to the American constitution made it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave, granting freedom to all Americans. There was an exception, however, for criminals and this 'loophole' was used in the south of the US where the economy had been based on slavery (four million people had been slaves). These former slaves were arrested, en masse, for extremely minor crimes such as loitering and vagrancy. They basically became slaves again ('convict leasing'), working to rebuild the economy while imprisoned.

Rhetoric created the image of 'black criminality', rapacious and violent, an evil that had to be banished. This was magnified with the 1915 film 'The Birth of a Nation', a major blockbuster at the time. Every image of a black person was demented, cannibalistic and animalistic. The film "was also an accurate prediction of the way in which race would operate in the United States." It was also partly responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and another wave of lynching and terror.

Around the same time, the Jim Crow laws were created, which enshrined segregation in law and relegated African Americans to permanent second class status. The activists of the civil rights movement were portrayed in the media as criminals deliberately violating the segregation laws.

The documentary explains that up to 1970, the US crime rate was roughly flat for decades. Following a big population rise, however, crime rates rose through sheer demographic change. But politicians claimed the civil rights movement itself was contributing to rising crime rates, and that if African Americans were given freedom the US would suffer more crime.

During Richard Nixon's presidency 'crime' became a code word to refer to black political movements of the time like the Black Panthers. Nixon fought against this and other social movements: "There can be no progress in America without respect for law". He doubled federal spending on the 'war on drugs', treating it as a crime rather than a health issue. Low level offences, such as marijuana possession, were punished. The documentary quotes John Ehrlichman, Nixon's adviser: "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black... but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities... Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Ronald Reagan later turned the rhetorical 'war on drugs' under Nixon into a literal one. In 1982 he launched a national crusade, determined to define it as a problem. There was a crisis in the US economy, the worst since the Great Depression. There were cuts to the welfare state alongside tax cuts for the rich and more funding for prison facilities. Crack cocaine came on the market and was more accessible to the black, Hispanic and Latino population. It was distinguished from cocaine, and possession of crack carried longer sentences: "What Reagan ultimately does is take the problem of economic inequality, of hyper-segregation in America's cities, and the problem of drug abuse, and criminalises all of that in the form of a war on drugs."

One interviewee says: "Black people in general are overrepresented in news as criminals. When I say overrepresented that means they are shown as criminals more times than is accurate that they are actually criminals based on FBI statistics." The term 'super-predators' emerged, implying they are not just gangs of kids. Five innocent teenagers were put in prison in the Central Park jogger case and served between six and eleven years before DNA evidence proved they were all innocent. At the time, Donald Trump wanted to give them the death penalty and took out a full page ad to put on the pressure!

Under Bill Clinton's presidency there is the building of the prison infrastructure that exists today. His 1994 crime bill included almost 60 new capital punishment offences, longer sentences and 'three strikes and you are out'. (If a third felony is committed a person goes to prison for the rest of their life.) Mandatory minimum sentences are introduced which means judges cannot consider the circumstances around a crime. Instead, the work falls to elected prosecutors, 95% of whom are white, (throughout the US). This bill was heavily loaded towards law enforcement and incarceration and $30 billion was given to build the necessary infrastructure.

In February 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida. The police could not arrest him under the 'stand your ground' law. This event ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. It also exposed the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council. This is a political lobbying group which writes laws and gives them to Republicans. It is a private club and its members are politicians and corporations. This means that, through the council, corporations have a huge say in US law making. 'Stand your ground' was written by the council.

The documentary highlights how many black people take plea bargains to avoid mandatory minimums, even when innocent. They would face a far greater sentence if they went to trial and they can't afford to pay bail. Kalief Browder was innocent of a minor offence and spent two years in prison. He later committed suicide aged 22. Prisons are like warehouses, in which people experience sensory deprivation and dehumanisation. On release they are still denied citizenship, they cannot vote, many doors are closed to them.

This documentary graphically exposes the way in which the US capitalist state has criminalised the black population in particular, but also other minorities, the poor and those prepared to rise up and challenge the system. Now, in the Black Lives Matter protests which have swept the US and the world, a new generation is rising up against racism economic inequality and the crimes of capitalism. To end that system a united working-class struggle will be necessary.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation


Your message: 


In The Socialist 1 July 2020:

No going back

A socialist NHS fit for heroes

Workplace news

PCS: Change in leadership needed to secure union's future

Come to the NSSN conference

Sunday trading: Government blinks first

Trade unionists stand in solidarity with Maxine Peake

Equity union president elections

Tower Hamlets council strike

MoJ cleaners' covid outbreak

What we think

Workers need a new mass party to defend their interests


Tories put profit before lives

Boris's new big deal

Tory full return to school plans gamble with lives

Yes to self-identity: Fight for trans rights

Benefits system being used to force return to unsafe workplaces

Leeds City Council in danger of bankruptcy

Capitalism and corruption go hand in hand

Plastic waste ignored

News in brief


I left Labour and want to end capitalism - join us in Socialist Party

Cardiff community fights nursery closure: Council must step in

Fighting Fund: Target smashed by half time

Black Lives Matter has not stopped - protesters flock to Socialists

Selling the Socialist

Red flags line road for Ken Douglas

Lessons from history

75th anniversary of the Attlee Labour government

Readers' opinion

From slavery to Black Lives Matter - racism and capitalist injustice exposed

Readers' opinion


Home   |   The Socialist 1 July 2020   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleTV review: Mrs Thatcher vs the miners

triangleTV review: Three Families is excellent. But protest movement is missing

triangleTV review: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain

triangleTV Review: It's a Sin

triangleTV review: Red, White and Blue


triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: Origins and abolition of slavery

triangleCaerphilly and RCT Socialist Party: How slavery was really abolished

triangleCardiff West Socialist Party: How was slavery abolished?

triangleReform or revolt? How was the slave trade abolished?


triangleDea-John Reid murder: Jobs, homes and services, not racism

triangleGet up, stand up - don't give up the fight!

triangleSocialist Party black and Asian members discuss history


triangleUrgent need to build alternative to pro-capitalist politicians

triangleReaders' comments

Black Lives Matter:

triangleNews in brief


triangleSouthampton Socialist Party: The life of Black Panther Fred Hampton


triangleBook review: Shuggie Bain


triangleAre Biden's immigration policies a break with Trump's?


triangleWomen and the criminal 'injustice' system


triangleBobby Sands - Nothing but an Unfinished Song

Reviews and comments

Reviews and comments



Book review: Shuggie Bain



Women and the criminal 'injustice' system


Robert Tressell

Books that inspired me: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists



Readers' comments



Response to Observer article on China



TV review: Mrs Thatcher vs the miners



Readers' Opinion



The Socialist Inbox



Film review: Nomadland



TV review: Three Families is excellent. But protest movement is missing



Readers' opinion



Readers' opinion



Bobby Sands - Nothing but an Unfinished Song



The Socialist Inbox



The Socialist Inbox

triangleMore Reviews and comments articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793



Alphabetical listing

June 2021

May 2021

April 2021

March 2021

February 2021

January 2021