“Doc, you gotta watch 13th!.”
I heard that a million times after the new Netflix documentary 13th (by acclaimed director Ava Duvernay) came out. It’s about how the system of mass incarceration evolved from slavery. It takes its name from the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery in the United States, except in the case of incarceration.
“I don’t need to see that stuff,” I said to myself, actually using a more earthy noun relegating the documentary to fecal waste matter. “I lived it.” I don’t watch Cops, or any other cop show. I don’t watch reality prison TV, I don’t watch Orange is the New Black, because my mentor, Glenn Martin, reminds us that “Black is the New Orange.” I marveled at the guys on my block watching the movie Life, and laughing at prison scenes. I don’t need to watch no damn documentary to learn that stuff. I lived it, teach it and teach in it. I ain’t gonna learn nothing.’
SO I thought.
I showed it to a group of university students last week. I learned a lot. No, I learned nothing new about the system, how it works, the inhumanity, the beat downs, the lockdowns, the unjust sentencing practices, the “war on drugs” which is really a war on people of color who use drugs. That’s not anything I learned. I learned just how uninformed this country is about the reality of how our criminal justice system exploits, oppresses and dehumanizes us all.
The students in the class asked good questions…they were motivated. But their questions reflected a certain sheltering from the realities of prison and jail. I won’t call it ignorance…more on that later…but I will say that we have sanitized the system through dumb, pithy phrases like “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” or through demonizing and criminalizing behaviors that require treatment and not punishment so we can “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
The buzz created by 13th lies, in part, in just how little many people know about how we got to this point. Many did not realize that the 13th Amendment makes slavery legal for incarcerated persons. Guys in the Texas prison system know it, because there, if you refuse to work– with little or sometimes NO pay– you get put in solitary. Slavery is even a part of alternative sentencing, when you have to choose between unpaid labor and jail time. People don’t see the connection between that and the convict leasing they talk about in 13th.
People know little about what it means to be human. The documentary shows Black garbagemen in Memphis in 1968 striking, marching with signs that read “ I Am A Man!” People don’t see that this is what incarcerated people are saying. It’s what you and I are saying when we get home with labels like “ex-con,” “felon,” and “ex-offender” that stigmatize us and keep us from full participation in the job market, housing and education.
And people don’t know..sorry…now it’s time for the word…people are just plain ignorant to the connection between today’s world and our history. How else can you explain the Trump phenomenon? The documentary closes with an audio of Trump calling for “the good old days,” when demonstrators got “punched in the mouth and carried off on a stretcher.” While playing Trump’s audio, the documentary shows Civil Rights demonstrators being punched, hosed, attacked by dogs, and carried off on stretchers. That’s the good old days? Ignorant.
By the way, if you can vote, and don’t, you’re ignorant, too. Forget about the two bad presidential choices, though I will vote for the lesser of the two evils. But there are Senate, House, state, county and local elections that determine who will make the next set of laws about criminalization and sentencing, supervise the prison and jails, oversee probation and parole, allocate money for educational institutions and correctional facilities. That ain’t Trump or Hillary; it’s your city council, state reps, sheriffs, district attorneys, and folks like that. I’ll take it a step further…if you can’t vote, find five people who can, and make sure they vote. You, too, can combat ignorance in the people around you. Hell, show them 13th if you have to. I’d hate to see “Ignorance” win on November 8.