The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. —Former President Barack Obama Our justice system is a human rights catastrophe and one of the biggest moral crises of our time. — News commentator and author Van Jones

Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary film ’13th’ reveals how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole. This clause, which allowed that involuntary servitude could be used as a punishment for crime, was exploited immediately in the aftermath of the civil war and, DuVernay argues, continues to be abused to this day. Source: The Guardian

Discuss in your groups:

  1. History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of history that our ancestors choose, if we’re white. If we are black, we are the products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it. — Kevin Gannon, 13th What are your thoughts on this quote? Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
  2. President Lyndon B. Johnson ushered in the War on Crime, Nixon began a figurative War on Drugs that became a literal War on Drugs in the Reagan era. Were you surprised to learn about the racial underpinnings of these legislative policies, and the active role of the state in criminalizing and targeting communities of color? Discuss using the quotation below: 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 blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. John Ehrlichman, Nixon Administration Advisor
  3. Super predator. Criminal. Think about the power of media and the power of words. Discuss media and how words impact the perception and criminalization of people of color, both in the past and the present (animalistic, violent, to be feared, threat to white people, criminals, etc.). Give modern-day examples.
  4. According to the documentary, President Clinton built the infrastructure for mass incarceration: mandatory minimums (taking the discretion away from judges), militarization of police (SWAT teams), three-strikes law, and truth-in-sentencing laws (must serve 85% of sentence). Discuss the role of politics and crime and how you see it impact communities today (both past and current administrations).
  5. Many politicians have apologized for their role in promoting the devasting “tough on crime” legislation. Considering the billions of dollars made off the imprisonment of people and the cases of unjust imprisonment, is an apology enough? Should these communities and families be repaid in a more material, restorative way? Why/why not?https://educationforjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Film-Discussion-Guide-13th.pdf
  6. The film argues that there is a direct link between American slavery and the modern American prison system. What is your take on this argument? Source: Discussion guide.

My takeaways:

List three ways this documentary has impacted you. Write the answers on your blog.

  1. What did you learn?
  2. What insights did it provide?
  3. What questions do you still have?

This is an adaption of Ann Michalesen’s blog post on teaching the 13th documentary: https://annmichaelsen.com/2019/01/12/teaching-the-13th-documentary/

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