The Washington Socialist <> March 2017
By Kurt Stand
“History is not the past.
It is the present.
We carry our history with us.
We are our history.
If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.”
Those words by James Baldwin are spoken toward the end of Raoul Peck’s documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro. It is no coincidence that they could be used to describe the truth at the core of 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about mass incarceration, shown as part of the Metro Labor Council’s Bread & Roses series at Busboys and Poets in Takoma on Tuesday, February 21. The title of the film refers to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which abolished slavery -- except for those in prison. The danger of that exception should be treated seriously because of our past which saw the possibilities of freedom opened up during Reconstruction quenched in blood through systems of convict labor, segregation, and lynching. Systemic repression in each instance laid bare the racism our society has never confronted in its full magnitude.
And that repression allowed for the creation of the system of mass incarceration which has the United States locking up people on a scale that dwarfs every other country in the world. Guided along by commentators like Michelle Alexander (whose work, The New Jim Crow, provides the conceptual framework of DuVernay’s film), 13th takes a look at how Nixon’s Law and Order policies followed by Reagan’s War on Drugs used policing as a means to roll back the gains made by the civil rights movement, much the way that lynching and legal segregation had been used to undo advances the black community had previously made in asserting rights denied. Bill Clinton’s criminal justice reforms intensified that process, with African American rights sacrificed in the quest for electoral gain.
Many people of good will wonder how others in times past could accept the openly brutal discriminatory treatment to which African Americans were once subjected. The often unarticulated racism behind “tough on crime” policies, however, leads many of the same people to accept without question mass incarceration and its aftermath of continuing civil penalties around voting rights, housing, employment, education. None of this would have surprised Baldwin, who is heard to say in Peck’s film:
“.. like most Americans I have encountered ... I'm sure they have nothing whatever against Negroes, but that's really not the question, you know. The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. That's what segregation means. You don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall, because you don't want to know."
Peck’s film is built around an unfinished work by Baldwin in which he sought to express his feelings about the murder of three friends: Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in 1968 – their respective lives cut short by an assassin’s bullet before any of them reached the age of 40. These become a lens through which he comments on the interweaving of racism and the dynamics of US society within the framework of the constant striving by the black community for autonomy and freedom. In this, Baldwin saw his role as witness -- witness not as an outsider who stands apart but a witness who in his very being is part of the pain. His writing is filled with hope of possibilities lost as well as those which remain even when hanging by a thread. He tells the story of playwright Lorraine Hansberry confronting an uncomprehending Robert Kennedy over his and JFK’s unwillingness to bear witness in that manner to drive home the point of how necessary a role it is. Baldwin’s capacity to do so enabled him to express truths hidden in plain sight, filled with the knowledge of how connected we are through the horrors and injustices that are in equal measure intrinsic to our country. As he says,
“One of the most terrible things is that, in fact, whether I like it or not, I am an American. My school really was the streets of New York City. My frame of reference was George Washington and John Wayne. But I was a child, you know, and when a child puts his eyes in the world he has to use what he sees. There's nothing else to use. And you are formed by what you see, the choices you have to make, and the way you discover what it means to be black in New York and then throughout the entire country.
“I know how you watch as you get older, and it is not a figure of speech, the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you. And not for anything they have done. They were too young to have done anything. But what one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world."
Which returns us to 13th, for the history given is one that shows the process of the criminalization of black people as a people, of creating images that make young black men appear as dangerous. The process of repression that sets in motion is used to justify repression of Latino communities and is used to justify repression of the left -- and was particularly used to repress those within the black community who organize politically, to make connections to other communities, who fight for equality and freedom -- Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, to be sure, but the Black Panther Party with Fred Hampton’s voice --killed by Chicago police when he was only 21 -- heard loud and clear on the film. Angela Davis (amongst the many experts -- formerly incarcerated persons, activists, and academics – interviewed on screen) explains how this has turned into the “prison industrial complex.”
The connection between repression and profit is further demonstrated by DuVernay’s exposure of ALEC -- the American Legislative Exchange Council -- as being the force behind the expansion of private prisons as well as Citizens United, right-to-work anti-union bills, “stand your ground gun” laws, and a raft of other measures designed to use racism to strengthen corporations and undermine democracy. That this has culminated in Trump is plain to see, a connection evident in both movies.
Confronting this is political; it is also cultural. Or, to return to Baldwin:
"I have always been struck, in America by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life. The failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct, and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have become so dependent on what they call ‘the Negro problem.’”
His observation is reinforced by film clips made up of liberal platitudes, patronizing images, and a consistent retreat from real life. Baldwin was an astute cultural critic, seeing through the banalities (and repressions) in how sexuality is depicted as itself a reflection of the dishonesty which racism creates and spreads like a virus through all manner of life. I Am Not Your Negro uses clips, speeches, and archival footage to draw attention to the different dimensions of Baldwin’s thought, while the almost invisible movement through time reinforces the reality of the past as present, and the need to challenge the overarching system root-and-branch if changes made are to be substantive and not superficial. 13th ends on a similar note, pointing out how past reforms have proved insufficient, warning of how current reforms proposed by ALEC and others to reduce the numbers in prison may just prove a means of introducing new forms of isolation and segregation unless the underlying logic and structures are changed.
The Bread & Roses screening was introduced by Carlos Jimenez, DC Metro Labor Council’s Executive Director, and by Carmen Berkley of the AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Director. They spoke to the 50 people in attendance about the growing awareness within organized labor of the need to end mass incarceration, as a matter of justice, as a working-class need -- a need seen in the continuation of the Baldwin quote with which we began:
I attest to this:
the world is not white:
it never was white,
cannot be white.
White is a metaphor for power,
and that is simply a way of describing
Chase Manhattan Bank.
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