This past week, I watched a documentary on Netflix called 13th.
I have to share it with as many people as possible, because during the time of this US Presidential Election, it’s never been so important to understand why things are the way they are.
It is named after the 13th amendment in the United States. The films tries to explain why the American political, justice and immigration systems are the way they are, and how they came to be that way.
“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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation,” is what the 13th amendment reads, verbatim.
I’ll loosely explain the synopsis of the film, for those who haven’t seen it.
Slavery, while a complete atrocity — a stain on American society, was the main economic activity of the southern states at the time. After the 13th amendment, this was no longer the case.
What were upward of four million people, formerly property, now supposed to do to contribute to the economic well being of the states, and themselves? My guess is that former slave owners weren’t excited to pay a wage.
As mentioned in the 13th amendment I quoted above, there are exceptions to freedom: such as being a criminal — criminals can be punished with labour.
Immediately following the introduction of the 13th amendment, blacks were rounded up and jailed for minor crimes such as loitering and vagrancy, according to 13th, and it was known as America’s first prison build. Prisoners were essentially slaves, once more.
If you review the rhetoric from the time, there is a lot of myth and folklore surrounding black people of the day. They were made out to be menaces of society, and thus, a myth of black criminality grew.
Then come presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton. Each was known as the “Law and Order” candidate of the day, and essentially won elections playing on fears of the American public.
These presidents were largely known for starting and continuing the war on crime and drugs, which have been ravaging communities of colour even prior to the civil rights movement, Black Panthers, etc.
The US Government opted to view drug addiction as a crime issue, rather than a health issue.
After criminalizing drug addiction, and incarcerating many of coloured communities’ men, and leaders, communities of colour have been unable to defend themselves in any sort of legal fashion, up against the full wrath of an entire justice system.
And thus, we see an inequality within the US Prison systems, and an over representation of black people.
Without getting too far off topic, we see correlations in Canada with our Indigenous communities. The atrocities they’ve experienced, decades of intergenerational abuse, and addiction issues — often labels them as criminals. There are similarities.
Though Canada doesn’t share the same history as its American neighbours, the impact of American policy into Canadian society is undoubtedly present. We have followed in the footsteps of the Americans, to a degree.
Yes, you can research stats and find out black communities are more likely to experience crime in the US, but isn’t it worth asking: why this is the case and what it actually means to be a criminal?
We’ve all been drawn into the political debates and media coverage of the US election, but many of us actually fail to understand some of the issues that are being discussed — or vaguely spoken about, I should say.
But why are things the way they are? How is somebody like Trump able to play on people’s fear of crime, in order to oppress populations? Is a choice between two people who have similar values, really all that much of a choice? How can we change it?
I can’t answer those questions, but what I can say is that education is a tool. By using education to understand the past, we can work toward a better future, but we (as a society) need to be open to it.
A good friend told me, “You can’t have a progressive future if you don’t understand why things are the way they are, now.”
I encourage everyone to watch 13th.