Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1093/31003
TV review: 13th
From slavery to Black Lives Matter - racism and capitalist injustice exposed
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.
- 13th is currently available on Netflix
In The Socialist 1 July 2020:
No going back
What we think
Lessons from history