October 2nd, 2016


Earlier this year, Dan Baum, writing in Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs for Harper’s Magazine revealed that:

In 1994, John Ehrlichman, the Watergate co-conspirator, unlocked for me one of the great mysteries of modern American history: How did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results?

What did Ehrlichman unlock? This:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

This revelation was, of course two years into the first term of President Bill Clinton. On 13 September of that year, Clinton signed a bill, titled An Act to Control and Prevent Crime authored by then Senator, now Vice President, Joe Biden, that went further to creating our present incarceration state than Nixon ever dreamed possible.

Film maker Ava DuVernay has just released a film documenting the rise of the incarceration state so powerful that for the first time a non-fiction film will open the New York Film Festival. I wrote about DuVernay’s film, 13th last week and I look forward to watching 13th this Friday on Netflix.

This morning I’m reading Jamiles Lartey’s Ava DuVernay: ‘The black body is being used for profit and politics’ in The Guardian. Lartey writes:

DuVernay’s 100-minute voyage through the legacy of the criminalization of black Americans does more than rattle off statistics. Weaving a historical narrative from slavery through the present, the film and its contributors trace in stark relief, the various transmutations that the oppression of the black body in America has taken, and the ways that criminal justice has been recruited to that end.

Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow, explains in the film how in the post-civil war south, petty offenses were used to recapture newly freed blacks and force them into free labor under convict lend-lease programs that functionally reconstituted chattel enslavement. Indeed the film’s title is drawn from the caveat in the 13th amendment […except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted… JH], presumed to guarantee freedom for enslaved blacks, but also legalizes the slavery and involuntary servitude of convicted criminals.

What 13th is, at the core, is a history lesson. A lesson that is woefully absent from America’s history books.

DuVernay said the film was conceived around the idea of telling the story of how privatization and profit drove much of the expansion and development of mass incarceration. “There is a really clean clear line of the black body being used for profit and for politics.

“But as we started working on the film we quickly realized in order for that to really pack a punch you had to understand the historical and cultural context,” DuVernay said.

A number of high-profile criminal justice reform advocates, like New Yorker columnist and UConn professor Jelani Cobb, former Obama adviser Van Jones and civil rights icon Angela Davis lend their voices to the film, along with some seemingly less likely figures.

Republican Newt Gingrich and conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist also make appearances, in part highlighting the bipartisan consensus that has begun to built around issues of criminal justice reform– but also, according to DuVernay, some of the points of disagreement which still exist, and some of the potential land mines.

“I wanted to explore the question of why all this bipartisanship now … and we found a surprising answer that may not necessarily be positive,” DuVernay said.

Lingering on the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), 13th looks hard at how corporate interests have shaped public policy on criminal justice, and adapted to developments in the national consensus on crime and punishment. The film warns that as liberal and conservative opinion coalesces around the need to have less people in jail and prison, what’s likely to follow is a new wave of technology-aided supervision, like GPS-based monitoring of criminals.

“How much progress is it really if communities of color are still under perpetual surveillance and control, but now there’s a private company making money off the GPS monitor, rather than the person being locked in a literal cage?” Alexander asks in the film.

From where I sit, not much progress at all.

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