The Evolution of Legalized Slavery in the US Prison System

13th

Directed by Av DuVernay (2016)

Film Review

This documentary is a thoughtful exploration of the crucial role of the 13th amendment played in the president mass incarceration of African Americans, who currently provide captive labor for major Wall Street corporations for pennies a day. Featuring such luminaries as Van Jones, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, retired Black Congressional Caucus member Charles Rangel, and former (Republican) House Speaker Newt Gingrich*, the film highlights major landmarks in the evolution of the US prison industrial complex.

According to filmmakers, the 13th amendment was the most significant in that it essentially preserved slavery as “punishment for a crime.” Having lost their four million strong slave labor force, Southern states facing economic collapse, were quick to adopt “convict leasing” systems. In this way former slaves arrested for minor crimes such as loitering and vagrancy (ie failure to carry a letter certifying employment), could be leased to plantations, mines, and developing industries.

Likewise the 2015 release of D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was instrumental in the emerging mythology of black criminality. The overtly racist films glamorizes the Klu Klux Klan, while implanting the fiction in the public mind of an irresistible African American desire to rape white women. KKK cross burning was another fiction Griffith invented, which the terrorist organization subsequently adopted. .

The film’s release, which greatly increased KKK membership, also triggered thousands of lynchings between World War I and World War II. This state sanction terrorism against Southern Blacks, rather than economic privation, would be the main driver of northward African American migration in the early 20th century.

The film also recounts Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” in which he used subtle “war on drugs,” “law and order,” and “tough on crime” rhetoric to appeal to Southern Democrats’ unease with the civil rights movement – thus persuading them to vote Republican.

Reagan, in turn, would provide the legislation and funding to prosecute the war on drugs, significantly ramping up the arrest and conviction of low income minorities for victimless crimes such as marijuana and crack cocaine possession.

The film attributes most responsibility for the America’s obscene incarceration rate (2 million+ and growing) to Bill Clinton and his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. The latter significantly increased the militarization and numbers of cops on the street. Clinton also heavily promoted “three strikes you’re out” and minimum mandatory sentencing laws that have massively increased the US prison census.


*Newt Gingrich: “No one who is white understands the difficulty of being Black in the US.”

The Ugly History of the White Rights Movement

The People Against America

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

This documentary traces the rise of the “white rights” movement that elected Donald Trump. This movement, of mainly white blue collar males, promotes the distorted image of white people as a disenfranchised minority. According to the filmmakers, it has its roots in Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. By heavily emphasizing “states rights,” Goldwater successfully exploited the anxieties of Southerners over forced integration by the federal government. It would be the first time Southern states had voted Republican since the Civil War.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy

In 1968, the Nixon campaign built on Goldwater’s success by implementing a formal “southern strategy.” By reaching out to the “silent majority,” and emphasizing law and order in the face of race riots and anti-war protests, his campaign sought to win the votes of northern blue collar voters. In subsequent elections, Democratic Party strategists would seek to win back blue collar voters by recruiting two conservative governors to run for president (Carter and Clinton).

As the Watergate scandal undermined all Americans’ confidence in government, corporate oligarchs would build on growing anti-government sentiment by massively funding right wing think tanks, lobbying and conservative talk radio. This, in turn would lay the groundwork for Reagan’s 1980 massive deregulation and tax and public service cuts.

Corporate Giveaways By Clinton and Obama

When Clinton was elected in 1992, he quickly surpassed Reagan’s record of corporate giveaways, with his total deregulation of Wall Street, his Three Strikes and Omnibus Crime Bill (leading to mass incarceration of minorities) and his creation of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These free trade treaties resulted in the wholesale export of rust belt industries to Mexico and China, effectively ending any incentive for working class males to vote Democratic.

Obama, elected on the back of the 2008 financial collapse, would prove even more pro-corporate than Clinton or Bush. Instead of prosecuting the banks who caused the 2008 economic crash, he granted them massive bailouts, while ignoring the plight of millions of homeowners who lost their homes when these banks foreclosed on them. He also significantly increasing mass surveillance and aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers. He also effectively repealed posse comitatus* and habeus corpus.**

The Rise of Occupy and the Tea Party

Obama’s pro-corporate policies led to the rise of both left wing (Occupy Wall Street) and right wing (Tea Party) popular movements. The latter received major corporate backing (largely from the Koch brothers), enabling Tea Party Republicans to shift the blame for the loss of good paying industrial jobs from Wall Street to minorities, immigrants and women.

Is the US Moving to the Right?

For me, the highlight of the documentary is  commentary by former Black Panther Party president Elaine Brown, the only activist featured. Brown, who is highly critical of the left’s failure to acknowledge the problems of poor white people, is the only commentator to dispute that the US is “moving to the right.” She points out that prior Republican campaigns used coded language (such as “state rights,” “law and order”) to target racist fears of blue collar whites. Trump, in contrast, openly caters to these sentiments. Brown reports that some blacks welcome the end of political hypocrisy and greater openness about the pervasiveness of white racism.

She believes this new openness offers a good opportunity to build a genuine multiracial working class movement. She gives the example of successful collaboration in Chicago between black activists and the Young Patriots (a white separatist group) against corrupt landlords.


*The Posse Comitatus Act, enacted in 1878, prohibited the use of federal troops to enforce domestic policies within the US.

**The right of Habeus Corpus, guaranteed under Article I of the Constitution and the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, prevents government from illegal detaining US citizens without charging them.