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The 13th - Documentary Discusses Contemporary Slavery in America

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The 13th

The title of Ava DuVernay's extraordinary and galvanizing documentary refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads

"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."

The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.

The film opened in a limited number of theaters two weeks ago and has been available via Netflix since October 7th.  I actually have not seen it yet, but I will.  I guess I have not been in such a rush to see it because I'm sure I'll learn nothing new.  

What made me think about it however was a conversation I'm engaged in on these forums about the prospect of Walmart boycott of shoppers, until Walmart stops using the labor of enslaved prisoners here in the United States.  

Given the virtually complete lack of support to the idea of boycotting Walmart it occurred to me that maybe some folks are not aware of just how bad things have gotten as a direct result of the privatization of our prison system.  I strongly recommend everyone watch this film.



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I would be remiss as a polemicist if didn't make the observation that, ironically,  many of the black prisoners being exploited by private prisons are incarcerated in these institutions because of gang-related offenses like the robbing, and maiming and killing of other black people whose survivors would very likely be among the ranks those who work for WalMart.  

Yes, the alliance between the prison industry and the flawed justice system is shameful.  But a callous Society warns offenders that "crime doesn't pay". When you're on the wrong side of the law these are the unfortunate consequences.  And it's not like prisons haven't always been  guilty of paying their inmates slave wages for the labor they perform while locked up.  In Illinois, prisoners making less than a dollar an hour used to makeup the workforce who produced license plates.  And might still be.  

It should be further noted that the underclass of black people working for WalMart are doing so to supplement the government benefits they receive in the form  of Section 8 rent vouchers, free health care which includes the WICCA program that make free milk available for their babies, plus the plastic "Link" cards that have replaced food stamps. These people have learned how to work The System, a system that provides employment for the middle-class blacks who have the credentials to be employed by state agencies that administer to the needy. It's just one big symbiotic entity.

I am not being judgment about any of this, however, I am just making observations as to how things go.  Reformers are to be commended for exposing things, but whether anything will change or if widespread outrage will occur is questionable because in a capitalistic country, this is business as usual.  

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I watched 13th last night.  It was well done and depressing.

Cynique, the argument you used is exactly the same one used by people like Bill Clinton who put these horrible laws in place and the right wing who want to expand them further.  Of course the argument is flawed because it completely ignores the overwhelming differences in the way the criminal justice system treats Black people.

"Poor innocent Black people are treated worse than guilty rich white people."

The biggest difference between inmates pressing license plates for the state and making products for Walmart, is that Walmart is a for profit entity.  Walmart works with other corporation to literally craft legislation to increase their profits in everything from the prisons themselves to the exploitation of the slave labor the inmate provide. 

I know it is hard to see past the marketing hype and propaganda to see Walmart for the criminals they are.  I also appreciate the terms I'm using like "slavery" and "criminal" might seen like exaggerations, but they truly are more indicative of the behavior of these corporations.  Again, it probably seems like hyperbole because we are not accustomed to the truth being told in plain terms.

But being clear is the only way "widespread outrage" will occur and change will happen.

There are signs of hope, because of film like 13th more people are being made aware of what is actually going on.



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Are you suggesting that the gang bangers who indiscriminately kill innocent and guilty people of their own race, usually in turf wars over drug trafficking, are poor innocent black people?  You are just parroting the patented old "bleeding heart liberal" argument.  Yes, the criminal justice system is biased and blacks are disproportionately jailed, and all imprisoned blacks are not hardened criminals but are, instead, nonentities who have fallen between the cracks. But it should not be overlooked that prisons are also full of white supremist skin heads and hispanic gangleaders. It also behooves critics to consider that checking the background of all the black men incarcerated, will reveal that close to 90 per cent of them grew up in families where a father wasn't present. Prisons, are just a receptacle for all the ills that inevitably plague an imperfect society.  

Much of this can be traced to the complicated issue of law enforcement whose purpose is to maintain order. Without order there would be chaos, so a very delicate balance has to be struck between keeping order and abusing power.  Easy to say, hard to do. Making things even worse is how an ongoing unstable economy exerts a great impact on crime. Jobless people commit crimes.  Law breakers are caught and sent to prison where they become exploited by unscrupulous corporations. None of this is by accident.  It is all about cause and effect. All about a world where shit happens.

Furthermore, reforming the prison system is a goal that has been around for decades. Indeed, there are many organization dedicated to bringing about change.  We'll see whether the abuse perpetrated by privatized prisons will inspire enough outrage to finally turn things around. 

Again, I just call 'em like I see 'em.   


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Well Cynique, I'm talking about Walmart profiting off the free labor of incarcerated inmates, i.e. slavery.  But you are trying to make the an arguement about murderers.

Still, no matter how you want to twist it, Walmart should should not be making money off the free labor of locked up people.  The only encourages Walmart to pay off politicians to corrupt the system in order to enhance their maximize their revenue.  Low wage jobs and cheap products do not make up for this evil..

I don't care if it was Charles Manson doing the work.  This is not capitalism, but a perversion of it.

Meanwhile, no one is talking about all the mom and pop businesses, that Walmart has put out of business.  The mom and pop business are forced to pay a minimum wage while Walmart can use slaves.

But hey this is America and we only know how to grow our economy through slave labor...

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 @TroyI'm not just talking about incarcerated murderers.  There are also rapists, robbers, thieves, drug Lords, stalkers, child molesters, wife beaters and those guilty of attempted murder in prisons. Prisons are not Sunday school classes.  Inmates of them are the outlaws of society.                                                                                                                       

I do agree, however, that this does not absolve WalMart for callously doing what those who acquire power are able to get away with. I would also note that like all the other ills in this world, slavery is nothing new.  Just another example of man's inhumanity to man.   


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Sure there are some bad people that deserve to be imprisoned, but you have to appreciate that many of the those locked up are black people locked up low level drug offenses, or buried under the jail before of harsh mandatory sentencing.  Your know the U.S. prison population sky rocketed in the 80's all those were not the types of violent offenders you are talking about.  Indeed far more than you appreciate were completely innocent.

No slavery is nothing new. I think you try to catch 13th.

I, for example, learned about ALEC, which explains exactly how "da man" is keeping us down.

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Ava DuVernay’s 13th: It’s About Hope, Not History

 By: Martha S. Jones,Presidential Bicentennial Professor at the University of Michigan where she teaches history, Afroamerian Studies and Law. www.marthasjones.com @marthasjones_

Before you sit down to watch 13th, director Ava DuVernay’s new film about mass incarceration, take off your historian’s hat. This is no scholarly lesson about the past. Instead, DuVernay takes us on an exploration that she hopes will, first and foremost, shock. Once it has your attention, 13th mobilizes the power of the visual and the sonic, along with human stories, to teach about hope and our capacities to work toward change in a way that no historical text could.

13th is foremost an act of visual politics. When its narrator explains how images can “shock,” we learn some of what the film hopes to accomplish. The shock of horror, of recognition, of awakening to a system of racialized, inhuman degradation is what the film hopes to provoke. There is a history to this, DuVernay reminds us. Like 19th century anti-slavery advocates who used gruesome images — the former slave Gordon and his scarred back — 13thmakes us feel as well as think our way to action. As the civil rights movement relied upon images broadcast on the nightly news — young protesters set upon by fire hoses and police dogs — so too does 13th bring the inhumanity of mass incarceration into living rooms, where the sight may mobilize us. This is an African American tradition that historian Aston Gonzalez explains has its roots in the prints and photographs of early 19th century black artist-activists.

Once awake, we must choose how best to act. 13th is open-ended, inviting us to find a place among the advocates DuVernay features. In this sense, the film is more primer than manifesto. DuVernay is content to allow each of us to find a way to action. Some will choose reform; gritty, close to the ground change within the criminal justice system as embodied in the work of a District Attorney such as the late Ken Thompson. Others of us will become abolitionists, concluding that the prison industrial complex is rotten to its core and must be wiped away, as Angela Davis has long urged. Congress member Charles Rangel hints at a third path. The way forward may be by a human rights approach, one that hold mass incarceration in the United States up to international standards, monitors, and remedies.

I watched 13th with the Criminal Law Society at Michigan Law where I teach. We hoped, I think, that DuVernay would point out a role for lawyers. She does. But her examples suggest that overcoming mass incarceration may require getting beyond the conventional. Lawyer and Equal Justice Initiativedirector Bryan Stevenson fuels our shock by asserting the immoral equivalence of early 20th-century lynching and today’s criminal justice system. But Stevenson has moved beyond lawyering to become a cultural worker, building a memorial and national lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Intriguing is the example of Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow has done more than any text to bring mass incarceration to light, at least before DuVernay’s movie. Alexander is the most clear and nuanced voice in the film. But, since being interviewed for 13th, she has taken off her lawyer’s hat to join New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Perhaps faith is another avenue for those moved to action. For DuVernay, the filmmaker, those who work beyond legal and policy circles have an important role to play in the fight against mass incarceration.

Most striking about 13th is how DuVernay is able to fuel hope. In many ways, this is a deeply pessimistic film, one that treats the degradation of black Americans as a permanent, intractable feature of the nation. In this are echoes of historian Mary Frances Berry, legal scholar Derrick Bell, and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, all of whom have suggested that there is little more for black Americans to hope for than struggle. Perhaps it is in DuVernay’s elegant cinematography, which renders ordinary scenes lush and deep. Perhaps it is in how she deploys music — rhythms, beats, lyrics — to punctuate and drive the narrative. Surely hope is in 13th’s final images — don’t miss them. Underneath the closing credits, DuVernay arrays snapshots. Ordinary, everyday images of black Americans at home, at play, and wrapped in joy, love, family, and the simple pleasure of striking a pose. In these are our best hopes, hopes that have seen black Americans through history’s trials. These images give us another vantage point on those caught in mass incarceration’s clutches. It is a counter-narrative of beauty as only the visual can render it. The 13th Amendment’s loophole gave license to a system that has brutalized black and brown men and women in the United States. DuVernay’s 13thresponds by asserting a fierce, relentless humanity that neither law nor the systems it has set in place can extinguish.

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Guest G. Madison

My name is Georgia Madison. I am really hoping you can answer a very important question for me. I watched the Doc. “13th“, which was extremely interesting and informative. I listened to the commentary regarding the injustice Kalief Browder had to endure in Rikers Island Jail for 3 yrs. It was really hard to hear that Kalief was an innocent 16 yr old young man who was just another victim of this corrupt jail/prison system. Unfortunately, we know this is a common story for so many black boys and men and it is quite disturbing!! Of course I cried when I saw that footage of Kalief being beat-down by a “group of inmates,” and body slammed and pinned down by several guards. It was really gut-wrenching to watch him go through that, and to know he endured both mental and physical abuse for 3 yrs was both gut-wrenching and heartbreaking and really just too much!!  My question is; did Kalief have any family and friends who reached out to show him any love and concern by coming to visit, or by calling and/or writing? I know he said his family could not afford the $10,000 to bail him out. Of course this corrupt system knows this also, which is why they target black men in the hood because they know more than likely they can’t afford the large amount of bail. Since you are involved in the Doc. and you see black boys/men go through this nightmare all of the time, you are already aware that this low-down practice put in place by the jail/prison system is quite disturbing!! Back to my question, did “anybody” whether it was family, friends, girlfriend, neighbor, coworker, “just somebody”, show Kalief any love, concern and/or human kindness while he was locked up in that living hell for 3 yrs? Thank you in advance if you respond because I am really interested in knowing the answer to my question, especially since I know Kalief committed suicide at the young age of 22 after finally being released from that never-ending nightmare. It would help me to know that while Kalief was enduring that hell on the inside of Rikers, at least he was receiving some form of love and/or concern from the outside to help him maintain his sanity and remain somewhat human rather than be transformed into a hostile animal as many of our brothas do. I did hear Liza say that Kalief started breaking down mentally, he had lost all hope and he started fighting. Question is, was he fighting to defend himself or just fighting because he had just lost it, he was broken and he became the hostile animal they pushed him to be? Of course there is no way Kalief could’ve taken on all of those inmates who had actually became animals and had targeted him, so I’m hoping in addition to the beatings he had to endure, he didn’t also have to endure being raped. This is just So Sad as I reflect back on Kalief’s story and all of the stories just like his, which as you know are way too many and again, this is quite disturbing!! Something has got to be done to right the wrong that’s going on in these jails/prisons that are really just human hell-holes. In closing, if you can just let me know if Kalief had any family, friends, etc… that reached out to him while he was in locked up in Rikers I would really appreciate it. I just have to know because I never heard anyone mention anything about his family and friends in the documentary.  Thank You. 

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