Ava DuVernay’s Film, “13th”: Don’t Miss It!

13th-netflix-documentary

Did you know that the U.S. Constitution still allows African Americans to be legally enslaved?

I didn’t.

That’s one of the many reasons I found 13,th, Ava DuVernay’s new and explosive Netflix documentary, so enlightening and shocking.

Following up on her civil rights drama, Selma, DuVernay’s film dissects the prison-industrial complex and shows how this profit-from-prison system results directly from a little-known clause in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution ratified in 1865. The amendment states:

“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.” (Emphasis added)

Through a series of brilliantly juxtaposed interviews, bold graphics and hip-hop lyrics, the film demonstrates how the 14 words highlighted above led to a chain of events that provided former slave owners with the legal justification they required to retain the tremendously profitable free labor slaves provided the ante bellum South. The events in question:

  • Saw former African chattel convicted of “crimes” such a loitering and vagrancy.
  • Led to their imprisonment and return to chain-gang servitude.
  • Expanded such practice through the passage of modern crime bills that now serve a highly privatized prison-industrial system that massively re-criminalizes and disproportionately incarcerates black and brown-skinned Americans.
  • Reactivated the exception clause of the 13th Amendment to provide free labor for Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and many other firms.

However, 13th goes much further than exposing past and present forms of legal slavery. It also traces the shocking expansion of the U.S. prison population itself. Forty-five years ago, there were about 200,000 inmates in U.S. prisons. Today inmates number more than 2 million. Although the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s population, it has about 25% of the world’s prisoners.  One in three behind bars is black.

Going even further, 13th connects the general criminalization of African Americans with political strategies that disenfranchise people of color. The connection highlights Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the militarization of police forces, and voter-suppression measures in general.

In Kentucky those strategies end up robbing 22% of African Americans of their right to vote. That’s because law in this state insists on depriving convicted felons of voting rights even after they have paid their “debts to society.”

All of this serves the purposes of right wing racists who admit in the words of conservative ideologue, Paul Weyrich, that they don’t want everyone to vote. High voter turnout, Weyrich has argued, works against the G.O.P.’s chances of winning. So besides disenfranchising former felons, Republicans implement voter I.D. laws, under-supply voting machines to African American communities, and otherwise make it difficult for people of color to vote.

However, Republicans are not the only ones indicted in 13th. The documentary also identifies Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1990s Crime Bill as responsible for the explosion of prison populations.

Most chillingly, though, 13th fingers the rhetoric of Donald Trump repeatedly presented as referencing “the good old days” when protestors against the measures criticized in the film would be “punched in the face,” and “carried out on stretchers.”

I highly recommend 13th to counter such uninformed nostalgia for the segregated past. I also hope DuVernay’s work will be duly recognized this year at the Academy Awards. (She’s on the short list for best-documentary nomination.)

Name and Shame Republican Attempts at Voter Suppression

Gerrymander[1]

It is interesting to watch the Republicans floundering about wondering how to deal with the rebuke of the last General Election and with the country’s changing demographics largely responsible for that rejection. Some in the party recognize the mistake of having surrendered so completely to the Tea Party faction and to the “Christianist” extremists who like their “Islamist” counterparts live in the distant past and refuse to address the post-modern world on its own terms.

For one, Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, has urged his party affiliates to stop being the Party of Stupid. He expressed dismay at candidates, for instance, who in the last election adopted the position that women using contraceptives are “whores,” and that female bodies automatically prevent pregnancies resulting from rape. He might have added that denying climate change and evolution is also part of the Republican image of Know-Nothing ignorance.

However, others Republicans want to double down on their party’s extremism, shift even further to the right, and seek election victories by changing the rules of the electoral game rather than responding to the game changes that are represented by the post-modern spirit of the 21st century. These others now want the battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia to allocate Electoral College votes not on the traditional winner-take-all system, but according to victories in the congressional districts Republicans have so successfully gerrymandered in recent years.

Such reallocation would mean that Mitt Romney would have won the election last November despite being decisively beaten by more than 5 million votes. The changed way of apportioning electoral votes would allow the Christianist-dominated party to win elections the way they’ve won control of the House of Representatives – on procedural technicalities rather than by winning voter approval.

This choice of procedure over necessary political change mirrors and carries to even further extreme Republican attempts at voter suppression that backfired so disastrously last fall. There they chose misinformation, crooked machines, long waiting lines, and voter intimidation over meaningful response to the legitimate concerns of women, minorities, the unemployed, gays and immigrants. Such procedural choices culminating now in this Electoral College gambit project an image of elderly, out-of-touch, bitter and desperate white people who no longer believe in democracy.

Apart from being a sad display of cynicism, the Republican’s is a strategy that small “d” democrats cannot allow to succeed whatever their party tendencies might be.
Recently John Nichols has advanced three suggestions for thwarting the Christianist extreme’s clear assault on democracy (http://www.opednews.com/articles/2/Three-Strategies-to-Block-by-John-Nichols-130126-217.html).

The first is to “Name and Shame,” i.e. to bring this issue out of the shadows and publicize its cynicism. The blog posting you are now reading is an attempt to lend my small voice to this process. The hope is that it may stimulate thought and debate among the readers of this blog and their friends and acquaintances.

According to Nichols, the second way to combat this latest form of voter suppression is to join the campaign to eliminate the Electoral College. This should have happened following the fiasco of the 2000 election. But inexplicably, Democrats did not push the issue. Of course, setting aside the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment. However the campaign is already underway and is advanced by FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.

The third approach to Republican anti-democracy strategies is to make the gerrymandering of congressional districts a public issue. For a long time the courts have frowned upon the practice of drawing district lines to strengthen the hand of the majority party in Congress. However the judicial branch has been lax in giving legal implementation to its disapproval.

Granted, Congressional districts need to be redrawn on a regular basis. But redrawing should be accomplished with the goal of securing representation more reflective of the electorate’s make-up, and not in order to win elections for the majority party. To this end, the legal criterion of “compact and contiguous” should be reasserted as the fundamental guiding principle. All of this should be brought to the fore in public debate.

Now is the time to act on Nichols’ suggestions – while the memory of Republican voter-suppression tactics is still fresh in the minds of scandalized Americans. The electoral system needs reforming. There is no time like the present for beginning that process.