Trading On Fear
An extraordinary new documentary, ’13th’ from Netflix sheds light on a little-understood loophole in the US Constitution. The 13th Amendment says that there will be no slavery except for those convicted of a crime. The clause allowed for involuntary servitude to be used as a punishment in the aftermath of the Civil War.
America comprises just 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. 1 in 17 US whites are likely to be jailed in their lifetimes (a figure staggering in itself) but 1 in 3 blacks will go to jail, often on the kind of ludicrously minor charges that could never be acted upon here.
‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay draws a timeline from slavery through the film ‘Birth of a Nation’, which increased Ku Klux Klan membership and created the idea of burning crosses, to segregation and the concept of ‘black criminality’, here discussed with shocking frankness by Nixon henchman John Erlichman.
Just when you think it couldn’t get any more disturbing, this part-history lesson, part-call to action delivers its real shocks as big business coalitions set the agenda for laws and jails, the penitentiary system being one of the few guaranteed year-on-year profit-makers in the US.
When this came to light some companies stopped investing in Alec, the coalition acronym, so the prison system is turning to new ways of criminalising blacks – which it needs to do, to keep up the staffing levels for turning a profit.
To stop the documentary from becoming a dry compilation of data, DuVernay has mixed film footage, animation and talking heads (including Angela Davis and, with grim inevitability, Donald Trump) to make this a heartrending plea for justice.
It is of course the mark of a democracy that such a film could be made, presenting its argument so cogently, but now it must be acted upon. The Clintons have admitted past mistakes and attempt to redress the issue, but the surprise election result suggests a disastrous reversal to a land where big business will decide what democracy looks like. Do watch it if you can.