Black History Month: 13th

If I say “prison-industrial complex,” do your eyes start to glaze over immediately? Then 13th is the documentary for you. Ava DuVernay intentionally made a primer on this issue, a well-researched but still easily digestible 1 hour and 40 minute introduction to the history of the American problem of mass incarceration. It’s a hell of a history.

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DuVernay and her interview subjects draw a clear line from slavery through to the present day prison set-up. I know a lot of (white) people think discussions of racism and structural discrimination focus too much on slavery, and can’t we as a country just move on? But people have been saying that since emancipation, and at no point have we ever reckoned with this foundational part of the United States, which means the underlying issues of systemic racism and oppression are never fully addressed, and we keep repeating the same terrible shit over and over.

The throughline runs from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow and lynching to prisons and the disenfranchisement and lack of possibilities upon release. The 13th from the title is the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery and forced servitude — except as punishment for a crime. What the documentary makes crystal clear is that much of the oppressive, inhumane treatment from slavery carries over through these other forms, and the thing that allows that is the phrase in the 13th Amendment “except as a punishment for crime.” Just rebrand people as criminals and you can have much the same effect. It’s devastatingly simple and clear when you say it like that, and the rest of the film shows how it was done.

First, arrest people for vagrancy and put them to work rebuilding the South after the Civil War. Then push the idea of the black man out to rape white women, and the dangerous, immoral nature of black people in general; public lynchings are celebrated and black people move from the south to northern cities in the Great Migration, fleeing a life of terror. Set up an entire system to keep black people separate, second-class citizens under Jim Crow; the very fact that they are forced to use separate facilities for everything marks them out as alien and less than human. When the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s successfully breaks up this segregated system, and you have to drop the explicit racial talk, immediately implement coded terms so that “criminal” almost always means “black.” Start a “war on drugs” that punishes black people disproportionately, based on the drugs used overwhelmingly in poor black communities (crack cocaine) as opposed to rich white communities (powder cocaine). Represent black people on TV as criminals disproportionately. Introduce mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing and a 1994 crime omnibus bill that put more black people — especially men — in prison than ever before. Privatize prisons so that, through contracts with the prison corporations, the state is incentivized to jail people. Allow prison corporations to be part of a task force that writes legislation for lawmakers, so that laws favorable to the prison companies are put into place and those companies can profit from punishment. Put prisoners to work for little to no pay, producing many of the “Made in America” goods we’re proud to buy, and making it more difficult to extricate profit from the prison system (and here we see “prison-industrial complex”). When enough people get angry about the set-up of the prison industry, start “reform” movements that keep profit in the hands of the few and keep black people disenfranchised and not at liberty, for example by introducing more GPS tracking. Whatever strides black and brown people make toward true equality, adapt the system to disallow that. And always deny that any of this has to do with race.

DuVernay and her crew interviewed leading thinkers in American history, prison abolition, and race over the course of two years. She also interviewed people who may not agree with much of what her documentary is saying, including conservative politicians and a particularly hapless ALEC member. She apparently spent two hours talking with each interviewee, which is much longer than interviews usually go on for, and in this way she got more honest and in-depth conversations from people who might otherwise dissemble or evade. One of my favorite subjects is Angela Davis, who has made much of her life’s work about prison abolition, and other speakers who made me think and write down word for word what they’d said include Malkia Cyril, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, and Michelle Alexander (whose book, The New Jim Crow, I have on hold at the library).

DuVernay’s artistry shows mostly in how easy to understand and yet challenging the documentary is, and how seamlessly she moves from one topic to the next, all within the larger topic. There are also some particularly affecting moments, like when the camera lingers on a photo of Trayvon Martin for a long time, burning this murdered child’s face into our retinas. Another is the heartwrenching and enraging sequence wherein she alternates between scenes of groups of white people at Trump rallies pushing and hitting black people and scenes of groups of white people pushing and hitting black people from the time of the civil rights movement and before, all while Trump talks to the crowd saying things like “Knock the crap out of him, would ya?” and “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough.” It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking and it places white people firmly in the spotlight: this behavior in 2016 is the same as the behavior in 1956, so everyone saying they would’ve been on MLK’s side back then, where are you now, when it’s just the same?

Today, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white men in the United States is 1 in 17. For black men, it’s 1 in 3. ONE THIRD. Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. That’s what is meant by disproportionate. That is what is meant by an epidemic. That is what is meant by a broken system that systematically breaks down communities of color and steals the futures of generations of children.

Bryan Stevenson points out that “the presumption of dangerousness and guilt follows every black and brown person everywhere”; it’s this criminalization of an entire group of people that makes it possible for the majority of the country to care less about them — “oh well, they did something bad, they’re criminals” — and to ignore what’s done to them. As Jelani Cobb asks, “Whose life do we recognize as valuable?” The answer may well be in prison abolition — not reforming the system, but breaking it apart completely and finding a different way of approaching law, order, criminality, and the people involved. And it certainly lies in retraining the country to see people of color as valuable human beings, not as criminals or statistics or a problem that can’t be solved and doesn’t need to be heard. Malkia Cyril says, “Black Lives Matter… is about changing the way this country understands human dignity.”

13th is essential viewing for anyone who lives in the United States, but especially those who don’t see a problem with the prison system or who think #BlackLivesMatter is an overreaction — let this be the film that you watch in an evening and ponder for weeks to come.

 

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Black History Month: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’s YA book The Hate U Give is one of those rare books that is perfect for all audiences — for black folks who want an honest reflection of daily reality for many of them, for white folks who want to be better allies in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for white folks who don’t understand why #AllLivesMatter is bad. 

Starr is a wonderful main character, full of verve and love. She witnesses the brutal, sudden murder of her friend at the hands of a cop, and spends the rest of the book grappling with the fallout of that event. Starr is a black teenager living in the city and commuting to a nearly all-white prep school in the suburbs, and much of the novel involves Starr navigating those two different worlds and figuring out her relationships in both of them. She’s also a teenager figuring out romantic relationships, and a sister joking around with her brothers, and a dutiful daughter in a family that expects a lot from her. There’s a lot of easy humor and genuine affection in this novel.

Starr’s family and friends are well-drawn characters as well, written with a complexity supporting characters aren’t always given. But it’s important that they be complex, because this book is so grounded in the real world that if there were any false note, you’d notice it immediately. Instead, I cried and feared for Starr and her loved ones as they helped each other through some of the hardest things people have to experience.

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#BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe: Resources for a Post-Ferguson America

Watching the murderers of Mike Brown and Eric Garner walk away unpunished in any way has been infuriating and heartbreaking. These two cases (and there are more cases coming to light every day, such as that of Tamir Rice) highlight the extreme racism and injustice at the root of American law and culture. Following people on Twitter and reading blog posts and articles linked from Facebook has helped me learn more and direct my energies and monies to movements that are responding on the ground (since I’m in London and can’t be there in person to march).

From blacklivesmatter.com

I’ve compiled some pieces here for Learning and Taking Action. This is mostly for my fellow white people, since a lot of this is explanatory in a way that people of color don’t need to hear because they’re living it. There are a range of pieces, from beginner to advanced stage anti-racism, so don’t be scared if you’re new to listening and talking about race in an informed way. Certainly I’m not any kind of expert, but a lot of the writers here are, so please take a look. I can especially recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jay Smooth, Janet Mock, and Latoya Peterson as people to follow, read, and learn from.

Let’s not look away. Let’s look this straight in the face and tell it where to go.

Please go to the comments to share any other links you’ve found helpful.

From blacklivesmatter.tumblr.com

LEARN

If you’re only going to read one link from this post, read this one by the excellent Luvvie. It’s smart and comprehensive but succinct, and she uses funny GIFs.

White and not really understanding why people are so upset about Ferguson and Eric Garner? It’s probably because you’re mostly talking to other white people–that’s the norm in the US, as this article explains. Time to broaden what you read and who you talk to.

Here’s an even more accessible article on how acknowledging white privilege and working against racism doesn’t mean you have to hate white people, just the terrible racist system that white people put into place and now perpetuate.

The devastating new rules for being black in the United States. My friends have a baby not yet two months old, and knowing he’ll learn these rules makes me furious.

Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw, is not accepting the apology of her husband’s killer. She’s furious, she’s grieving, and she’s not letting Pantaleo make himself feel better by getting her to forgive him.

Bevin’s great collection of resources and reflections over at Queer Fat Femme highlighted this article, which reveals that #BlackLivesMatter is a specific movement founded by queer black women. It’s good to be aware of the origins of this widely-used hashtag.

Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to be one of the foremost writers on a lot of things, but especially race. Here he talks about Obama’s reaction to Ferguson, and what the system is set up to do and not do.

One piece of laminated plastic means this Vassar College professor experiences humiliating, dangerous situations rather than life-threatening situations –and he’s never allowed to forget it.

Don’t repeat the ignorant ‘but what about black-on-black crime?’ question. Coates has you covered.

The last words of some black and brown people murdered in the United States, in artwork.

We like to think that the non-indictments in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown case (and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin) are evidence of flaws in the American justice system, but this straightforward piece argues that they’re just links in the chain of a justice system doing what it’s designed to do–oppress people of color for the benefit of white people in this country.

From blacklivesmatter.blogspot.co.uk

ACT

Steps to take as a white person if the Ferguson case is just shaking you awake to the trenchant racism alive and well in the United States. Self-educate and get involved! (I especially like the intro, in which the author Janee Woods wonders why so few reactions to the case appeared on her Facebook wall–something I wondered about when looking at my wall, too.)

You want facts to convince you of the unfairness of what happened? You want convincing that protests are worthwhile? Check out this post on how to talk about Ferguson and the aftermath.

Support people taking anti-racist action in the aftermath of Ferguson by making a gift to various organizations. ‘Tis the season, right?

Do you interact with kids as a teacher, parent, guardian, relative, friend? Here’s a great resource on how to talk with them about what’s been going on.

If you already consider yourself an active ally, take a look at this piece that challenges us to be accomplices rather than allies.

Don’t contribute to #CrimingWhileWhite–keep the focus on #AliveWhileBlack.

Visit Ferguson Action and Ferguson Response for actions you can join in on.

AND SOME HOPE

Look, redirect your money for militarizing police forces to these trainings instead, and eliminate police killings of citizens in under a decade! It truly is a culture we can change, not a given we must resign ourselves to.

Don’t Shoot rally at Howard University (From http://www.cbc.ca)