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Duvernay's 13th highlights a quandary for black voters

Stuck in the middle

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Although I fully intend to exercise my right to vote in the upcoming presidential election, I am not pleased with the two candidates of choice. This quandary became even more exasperated for me after recently viewing Ava DuVernay's provocative documentary, 13th, a film that chronicles in great detail the intersection of race and mass incarceration in this country.

The film title references the 13th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865 and stating, "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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Now you might say, "What does that have to do with the voting process?" I will tell you, but first, let's have a talk about mass incarceration.

Michelle Alexander, noted author of The New Jim Crow, does an excellent job of breaking down how a loophole in the 13th Amendment created the blueprint for mass incarceration. Some white folks were pissed off that there were a bunch of free slaves running around, which, in their eyes, brought the entire South's infrastructure to a grinding halt.

The 13th Amendment loophole should have jumped out at you when you read the language stating that slavery and involuntary servitude are wrong, "except as a punishment for crime." In order to continue to practice legislated white supremacy, the powers that be had to criminalize black folks, jailing them for minor stuff like loitering. This was the first wave of mass incarceration of black folk, all for the sole purpose of using them as cheap labor.

Criminalization has played perhaps the largest part in this evolution of white supremacy, and prisons have now become cash cows — keeping them at capacity a priority. There is a direct relation to how blacks are treated by authority figures and the pressure to fill prisons. The pervasive and consistent narrative of black folks being violent justifies the power structure to lock them up en masse. Mass incarceration authorizes aggression against brown bodies.

The film 13th shares some staggering statistics on America's prison population. Peep this: the U.S. represents only 5 percent of the world's population but holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners. One in three prisoners are black men and more than 60 percent of American prisoners are people of color. This has resulted in a new slave labor force where prisoners are forced to work for 12 cents an hour for corporations like Victoria's Secret and Walmart. Sobering stats, but what took me to task in how this relates to the election is how the Clintons and Trump are depicted in the documentary and the roles they have historically played.

You see, Ronald Reagan and his boo Nancy — with her historical "Just Say No" catchphrase — may have started the War on Drugs, but it was the Clintons who provided the weapons needed to fight it. In 1994, President Clinton signed an infamous federal crime bill that decimated already-marginalized communities by tearing families part and leaving countless children without parental support. Hillary may not have signed the law, but her now infamous characterization of urban youth as "super-predators" kept in step with the historical characterization of black men as violent and predatory.

Trump's less than stellar history is also revealed in his reaction to the case of the Central Park Five. Trump took out ads denouncing five black teenagers who were falsely imprisoned for raping a white woman in 1989. He called for the execution of the young men, who were later exonerated. The most disturbing visual of the film, however, as it relates to this election season, shows Trump sharing statements at recent rallies like, "In the old days protesters would be carried out on stretchers." Trump continues to share incendiary statements as DuVernay shows angry white Trump supporters being violent against black protesters. These contemporary scenes of aggression are juxtaposed against archival footage of civil rights protesters. The result is both chilling and repugnant.

Some critics say 13th does not offer solutions. I find it amusing that the mainstream always expects the marginalized to fix systems created and controlled by the oppressors. What DuVernay does is silence the voices in our heads that tell us that we as people of color are being paranoid about historical policy and issues of race that aid in our oppression. However, it should also make us even more vigilant in holding those who seek our vote to task.

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