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13th_filmLUMPENPROLETARIATNetflix has produced an important documentary film, 13TH, which was directed by Ava DuVernay.  The film deals with the issue of mass incarceration in the United States and its disproportionate impact upon people of colour, particularly blacks, tracing the roots of our contemporary mass incarceration boom, to a white supremacist national response to the abolition of slavery.

Centered on race (phenotype) in the United States criminal justice system, the 13TH is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which theoretically outlawed slavery.  DuVernay’s documentary film argues that slavery is being perpetuated, however, through mass incarceration.  The film is, largely, based on Dr. Michelle Alexander‘s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  Dr. Michelle Alexander is appropriately featured throughout the film.

13TH was made available via Netflix‘s video streaming service in the United States on October 7, 2016.  But the film, produced in secret, made its debut on September 30, 2016 at the New York Film Festival, which is being held from September 30 to October 16.  13TH currently holds a 98% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, earning near-universal critical acclaim.  Check it out. [1]

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13TH (trailer)

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Democracy Now! interviewed 13TH filmmaker Ava DuVernay, 3 OCT 2016

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Film Society of New York: An interview, including audience Q&A with Ava DuVernay at a press conference during the 54th New York Film Festival.

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Knockturnal: At the 54th New York Film Festival lobby, posted online 2 OCT 2016.

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Black Hollywood Live:  On Ava DuVernay’s 13TH

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HARD KNOCK RADIO—[12 OCT 2016]  [A discussion of mass incarceration in the United States, in the context of the recent release of Ava DuVernay’s critically-acclaimed non-fiction film 13TH.  Also, new commentary from political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal.]

Learn more at HARD KNOCK RADIO. [2]

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[1]  13TH (2016) was directed by Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma (2014), a $20 million budget film produced by Plan B Entertainment, about Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.

13TH opens with a history of the Reconstruction Era, including the impact of the film Birth of a Nation.  Since the days of slavery, blacks were dehumanised and demonised with mendacious propaganda, such as the propaganda film Birth of a Nation, promulgating a white supremacist ideology.  But, all along, the undercurrent driving white supremacist politics in the USA was a need for cheap labour, which could be gained through the criminalisation and imprisonment of blacks in work prisons and chain gangs.  Resistance was met with deadly repression.  Lynching became widespread until, eventually, they became untenable in American life.  Undeterred, the dominant Euroamerican culture transitioned toward an increasing reliance on racist Jim Crow laws to relegate blacks to second-class citizenship.  As Dr. Michelle Alexander reminded us, civil rights activists were criminalised during the Civil Rights Movement.  (c. 10:00)

And, of course, we now know in much greater detail about the long history of state repression against blacks.  Dr. William J. Maxwell, at Washington University in St. Louis, has documented how the FBI, for example, has long targeted, harassed, and politically repressed black writers, such as Claude McKay, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikk Giovanni.  This was in Dr. Maxwell’s first book, New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Warspublished by Columbia University Press in 1999.  Unfortunately, it seems the filmmakers weren’t aware of this history, as it was not mentioned in the film.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (professor of history, Harvard University) pointed out that “one of the most brilliant tactics of the Civil Rights Movement was the transformation of the notion of criminality”, or engaging in civil disobedience.  Suddenly, “being arrested was a noble thing”.  Then, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed reluctantly by President Johnson when the Civil Rights Movement gained increasing traction, after demonstrations were met with violent police repression in Selma, Alabama.

We now know the U.S. government had long been engaging in covert operations and secret surveillance programmes against popular civic leaders.  Despite the signing of some civil rights acts, socioeconomic justice was still a demand.  And, as civil rights activists were criminalised, some were outright targeted for total sabotage.  Civic leaders, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, seem to have transcended the limitations of their respective formative organisations.  They had to face the power of the state, but also the ire of their political allies when they were viewed as straying too far ideologically.  And, of course, even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had lost many of his former allies in the Civil Rights Movement, who weren’t willing to work for human rights as universally as Dr. King was starting to do when he decided to support the sanitation workers and when he began challenging U.S. imperialism.  Indeed, activists were not only criminalised.  They were politically persecuted and, even, gunned down and assassinated, especially during the height of the COINTELPRO era.

“Unfortunately,” explained Dr. Michelle Alexander, “at the very same time that the Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam, crime rates were beginning to rise in this country.”  Of course, this also corresponded with a post-WWII, dispersal of industrial jobs from central cities to rural locations, as a response by capital to break labour unions, which had benefited from being clustered together.  With industries clustered together in central cities, organised labour had gained strength as the working classes learned from each other’s working conditions to find pathways for improved wages and working conditions.  But, as the jobs were moved out of the urban cores of central cities, racial residential segregation, redlining, blockbusting, and other racist real estate and school zoning practices were imposed, which prevented blacks from moving out to where the jobs were relocated.  So, it’s not surprising that crime rates started rising, as urban cores were deindustrialised and urban unemployment skyrocketed.

However, the 13TH filmmakers do not seem aware of this history of racist discrimination in the housing markets, which is well-documented in books, such as Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development:  The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 (2002: State University of New York Press) by Dr. Kevin Fox Gotham.  The case study of Kansas City, shows how it became a model, which other cities followed in their efforts toward racial residential segregation.  Dr. Gotham built on the work of Dr. Douglas S. Massey and Dr. Nancy A. Denton, authors of American Apartheid (1993, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press).  Massey and Denton (1993) drew attention to the “missing link”, which had been lacking to help explain the persistence of multi-generational poverty—that is, segregation.

Dr. Gotham’s book proved what many of us had long suspected about ghettos.  Ghettos have been institutionally (and intentionally) created, and not only through the violence of segregation laws, Jim Crow laws, and the lynchings of the 1910s and 1920s.  After all, segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional by 1916.  And racially restrictive covenants were also ruled unconstitutional by 1947.  Yet, most of the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north, occurred during the second wave, known as the Second Great Migration, when the industrial city started to become the corporate city after the 1940s.  When the state was unable to keep all of its racist laws on the books, as blacks migrated north, the state, mostly governed by business elites and their representatives, was able to turn to the private sector.  Thus, the real estate industry was able to continue the project of segregating U.S. cities for profit.

Dr. Gotham has laid out, with rigorous evidence, how ghettos were created through the callous profit motive of the real estate industry, which exploited and exacerbated existing racism, phobias, and prejudices among whites to use blockbusting, and the use of agent provacateurs to induce panic sales of properties, and other unscrupulous means to destabilise housing markets.  The more people buy and sell houses, the more money, the real estate industry makes.  So, the real estate industry actually fomented fear of blacks moving into, or near, white neighborhoods to induce white flight, so as to increase their own profits.

In Ava DuVernay‘s film 13TH, professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University, Dr. John Hagan, seemed unaware of such work, as that of Dr. Gotham, Dr. Massey, Dr. Denton, et al.  Without drawing attention to the anti-labour dispersal of industry or racial residential segregation, Dr. Hagan simply attributed the rise in crime rates, to which Dr. Michelle Alexander referred, to a rise in population during the baby boomer generation.  “So, just through sheer demographic change, we had an increase in the amount of crime,” said Dr. Hagan.  (c. 13:38)

Dr. Alexander explained how this rise in crime was blamed on the Civil Rights Movement by mass media and then used to criminalise the Civil Rights Movement and activism, generally.  By the time Richard Nixon became the 37th U.S. president, there was a general trend in state policies toward a war on crime.  Of course, this coincided with a crescendo of covert COINTELPRO policies targeted at activists.  We may recall, as Dr. Noam Chomsky has recently reminded us, the fact that mass anti-war protests didn’t really get underway until 1968.  The Civil Rights Movement had helped raise the level of political consciousness and civic engagement across the nation.  But the state responded with political repression.  Dr. Angela Davis, professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, in a brief sound-bite, described Nixon’s law and order policies of the early 1970s.  Nixon’s rhetoric about his fight on crime, was coded language meaning a fight on blacksDr. James Kilgore, the formerly incarcerated author of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, and others interviewed for the film, also emphasised the importance of “dog-whistle politics” during this period of American history.  (c. 15:26)

Notably, COINTELPRO is not mentioned in the film, only its public mask, Nixon’s War On Drugs.  Instead, 13TH filmmaker, DuVernay, delved into Nixon’s Southern Strategy to recruit southern whites, formerly staunch Democrats, into the Republican Party by using the thinly-coded language of crime and a War On Drugs to appeal to the racist sensibilities of southern whites.  And this new meme of a War On Drugs was also less nebulous than the previous rhetoric about a fight on crime.  So, it was able to spread ideologically more effectively with its moralistic veneer.  Dr. Michelle Alexander is quoted citing Nixon’s repressive policies as a “backlash” against the Civil Rights Movement.  But the filmmakers avoided the issue of the decades-long covert antidemocratic, anti-activist, COINTELPRO, focusing instead on the overt, rather than the covert, state policies.

To give us a sense of the Nixon Administration’s attitudes towards the Civil Right Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and activism, generally, advisor to President Nixon, John Ehrlichman is quoted:

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 then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.  We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and villify them night after night on the evening news.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course we did.”  (c. 18:31)

By 1970, the film reports, the U.S. prison population had climbed to 357,292.  By 1980, in the wake of doubled federal spending on law enforcement, the U.S. prison population almost doubled to 513,900.  And, then, came the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  (c. 18:51)

As Dr. Michelle Alexander explained, Reagan turned Nixon’s publicly rhetorical War On Drugs into a literal one.  (Of course, now, we know that Nixon’s rhetoric was underpinned by COINTELPRO, which many experts think has continued in new forms to this day.  But, here, the film seems to gloss over the issue of political prisoners and, again, the profound impacts of COINTELPRO.)  “The modern War On Drugs was declared by Ronald Reagan in 1982″, noted Dr. Michelle Alexander.  Of course, it was done so, in the context of capitalist crisis.  As Ronald Reagan was forced to publicly admit:  “I regret to say that we are in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.”

So, once again, economic conditions of capitalist crisis were spurring, both, popular and state responses.  Since the deindustrialisation of urban cores of central cities in post-WWII America, the working classes had suffered stagnant or declining wages and painful unemployment, as the nation had transitioned away from an agrarian economy and a manufacturing economy to a predominantly service sector and information economy.  But these jobs were, either, inadequate in terms of wages, or in their inaccessibility to working class families.  Meanwhile, Reagan was arguing against state expenditures for social services and the social safety net, basing his arguments on faulty economic theories about balanced national budgets.  (See heterodox economists, such as the University of Missouri-Kansas City‘s Dr. Stephanie Kelton on modern monetary theory, or modern money theory, which explain why balanced budgets are unnecessary and even harmful to American society as well as how the state can end involuntary unemployment as we know it with a job guarantee programme.)

Of course, another important aspect of this history, which would strengthen DuVernay’s narrative in 13TH, comes from the social science of economics.  Reagan’s presidency and his economic policies, like those of Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., in the early 1980s came about as a planned long-term corporate-political reaction against the Keynesian economic policies, which had helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, but had also seriously reined in income inequality, which, of course, impacted the wealthy and powerful elites of the capitalist owning classes.  It’s important to note that the capitalist crisis, through which Reagan led the American people, was gratuitous.  At the ideological level, ruling elites are opposed to relative income equality and full employment.  This has been a long-term historical struggle between workers and employers, between organised labour and organised capital.  So, here, we encounter an intersectionality between race (phenotype)/ethnic conflict, labour, capitalist employers, economic policies, mass activism, social struggle, and contending economic theories.  (c. 22:00)

But the film can’t quite capture this economic history.  It, instead, touches upon some major historical flashpoints, such as the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic.  Notably, the emphasis is placed upon the state’s draconian response to the rise in crack cocaine consumption, avoiding the origins of the crack cocaine imports into the United States.  (Of course, now, we know, thanks to the intrepid work of the late Gary Webb, that the CIA and the federal government was involved in helping flood U.S. streets with crack cocaine.)  Reagan, Oliver North, and others may have been responsible for helping flood the streets with crack cocaine.  But that didn’t stop Reagan from using the crack epidemic as a pretext for harsh, and racist, drug laws, such as mandatory sentencing, life without parole, and harsher sentencing for using crack cocaine than for using the powdered form, which, being more expensive, was used more commonly in suburbia and among whites.

Since at least the 1980s, racial disparities (more precisely, ethnic disparities) in drug sentencing laws managed to disproportionately incarcerate people of color for petty drug law violations.  (Oddly, this film employs commentary from conservatives Newt Gingrich and, even, Grover Norquist, who is perhaps most well known for remarking:  My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.)  (c. 24:57)

The film draws an effective link between Nixon’s and Reagan’s campaigns of ongoing repression against those two aforementioned threats to the state: “the antiwar left and black people”.  But, important information is left out regarding the Gerald Ford presidency as well as that of Jimmy Carter; the state’s imperial capitalist motives remained quite unabated throughout, both, Republican and Democratic administrations.  And, indeed, as Dr. Webster Griffin Tarpley has argued elsewhere, the Gerald Ford presidency is associated with a worsening of the repressive and antidemocratic state policies of earlier decades with the development of what Dr. Peter Dale Scott has coined the deep state.  (We now know, for example, that Ronald Reagan was vetted by powerful elites at the secretive Bohemian Grove club.  This would be a manifestation of the deep state.)

Grover Norquist is featured arguing that it was Democrats, such as Democratic Senator Charles Rangle, who pushed for harsher drug sentencing laws:  “Ten years later, there was an effort to rewrite history that racial disparities were put in by mean white people.  That’s not where it came from.”

Professor Angela Davis:  “In many ways, the War On Drugs, was a war on communities of color, a war on black communities, a war on Latino communities.”

Dr. Michelle Alexander:  “And you see a rhetorical war, that was, you know, announced as part of a political strategy by Richard Nixon, and which morphed into a literal war by Ronald Reagan, um, turning into something, that began to feel nearly genocidal in many poor communities of color.”  (c. 25:34)

[Further notes pending.]

[2]  Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving:  Hard Knock Radio, one-hour episode co-hosted by Anita Johnson and Davey D, Wednesday, 12 OCT 2016, 16:00 PDT.  [For some unfortunate reason, Hard Knock Radio removes their audio archives from public access two weeks after initial broadcast.]

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[Image of film poster by Source, used via Fair use.]

[12 OCT 2016]

[Last modified  15:57 PDT  14 OCT 2016]

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