by: Olivia Laramie '18
On Wednesday, Nov. 16, students and faculty met in the Malcolm X Cultural Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to watch “13th”, a 2016 documentary on racial injustice in America.
The event was presented by the Racial Justice Coalition, the Black Student Union, the African American Studies Department, and the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy.
Ro Sigle, a graduate assistant at the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS) and co-chair of the Racial Justice Coalition, helped run the event. They shed some light on the importance of this event. “The mission of the Racial Justice Coalition is to provide programming to raise awareness around racism and oppression. We chose to show [this film] because it is a new film that covers the criminalization of black people in the United States. This issue has existed in the history of the United States long before [the 2016 election of Donald Trump]. However, given the current state of the political climate, this film is especially relevant to uncover the deep roots of racist policy, legislation, and institutions.”
The documentary, titled “13th”, offers an “in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality,” according to IMDB. A mental health provider from the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health was present to assist any audience who felt affected by the film as it touched on very heavy topics and did not hold back when showing racial violence and injustice. A user review on the film’s IMDB website even remarked on the dark nature of the film.
“Word of caution, however. This documentary doesn't pull its punches. It's very dark, very disconcerting regarding politics and if it hits you right, it will make you angry and sad all at once. My two children stayed in the forefront of my mind while watching this, and my heart bled for them throughout, seeing what kind of world that awaits them. I tried to be optimistic about light being brought to this issue in such a well put together way, but I believe that we, as a country, still have a ways to go, seeing that someone like Trump could get so close to being President.” -Airborne Trooper (IMDB user)
This comment was written on Oct. 7, 2016 before the United States presidential election.
The film begins with a voiceover from the current President of the United States, Barack Obama. “So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. According to the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics, as of 2013, the United States had 478 inmates per every 1,000 people. That’s almost half of the national population in incarceration.
The documentary is titled “13th” after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment states that, “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, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction." The amendment, ratified in the states on Dec. 6, 1865, ended slavery (in laymen’s terms).
The film mentions a loophole in the 13th amendment. The 13th amendment granted freedom to all Americans; however, in the above text of the amendment, one may notice that freedom is granted unless a person is convicted of a crime in which case, freedom is stripped from them. The loophole produced a way for slavery to become legal again while still holding its illegality in the Constitution.
Michelle Alexander said, “After the Civil War, African Americans were arrested in mass. It was our nation’s first prison boom.” African Americans were arrested for minor crimes such as loitering or vagrancy. As punishment for their petty crimes, they were forced to provide labor to rebuild the post-Civil War South. These people were slaves all over again.
“What you got after that was a rapid transition to this mythology of black criminality. Go back and read the rhetoric that people used then. They would say that the negro was out of control, that there’s a threat of violence to white women,” said Jelani Cobb.Cobb, Director of the Institute for African American studies at the University of Connecticut then introduced the controversy of the film, “The Birth of a Nation”. “The Birth of a Nation” was a silent film produced in 1915 which was adapted from a novel and play entitled “The Clansman”. The film was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. The film is credited as being one of the events that inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Ironically (or not so ironically), it was also the first film to be screened in the White House under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Cobb described the film as, “a tremendously accurate prediction of how race would operate in the United States.”
After showing the film, “The Birth of a Nation”, a resurgence of terrorism against African Americans followed. The documentary states that this terrorism spurred an almost mass exodus of African Americans from the South. They spread across the country looking for safety and made their ways into cities such as New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s did not come soon enough for many victims of lynchings and murders. Though, it did spur progressive movements when it did arrive.Henry Louis Gates, a professor of history at Harvard University, states, “I think that one of the most brilliant tactics of the Civil Rights Movement was the transformation of criminality because for the first time being arrested was a noble thing.”However, at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the crime rates also began to rise due to population increase. This became an easy way for politicians to point to the movement itself and the African-American race as the reasons for the rise of crime. The 1970s thus stemmed an era of mass incarceration. This era is one we still have not exited from.
The film goes on to discuss contemporary racism within civilian society but also within the very structures of our government, legislation, economy, and others. It focuses on bills passed by Congress that have continued in this age of racism, murder, and incarceration. It questions laws in our country that have allowed the murderers of black men and women to go free. It examines the racist backbone of the “War on Drugs”.
Genny Beemyn, Director of the Stonewall Center at UMass Amherst and a member of the Racial Justice Coalition, said “I was very impressed with how it brought together so many different elements—the stereotyping of black men as criminals, police violence, the corporatization of prisons, the collaboration between conservative politicians, big business, and lobby groups on “law and order” legislation, how the war on drugs has been code for a war on Black and Latinx communities, [and more].”
This film exposes the harsh realities of America that many choose to turn a blind eye to. Following the showing of “13th”, a discussion was held amongst the facilitators and the audience.
Melina Abdullah, an activist and professor in the department of Pan-African Studies at California State University in Los Angeles, skyped in and offered insight and background information about the documentary and answered participants' questions. Melina Abdullah's presence in the space greatly added to the discussion. After speaking with her, members of the Racial Justice Coalition facilitated a group dialogue. Gaelle Rigaud, Eric Onsang, Hillary Montague-Asp, and Ro Sigle asked the participants three questions: What are your reactions and first thoughts to the film? Now that you've watched the film, how has your thinking about the criminalization of blackness shifted? What does this mean for you in your everyday life?
“We had a great turnout for this event, and a great conversation. People were able to share and express their perspectives with one another and listen to one another. In the discussion, we addressed the dehumanization of black people and the role of corporations profiting off of and investing in the prison industrial complex. We were also able to address different intersectionalities in this issue, such as the way in which trans black people are especially at risk for violence within the prison industrial complex,” said Sigle.
The Racial Justice Coalition will be hosting a follow-up caucus space for people who have a deeper interest in pursuing work around the issue of mass incarceration. It will be held on Nov. 30 from 5:30-7 p.m. in Wilder Hall 201.