13th – A Documentary on the Unjust American Prison System

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/

The Constitution and the Supreme Court

Bilderesultat for picture founding fathers

The US Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified (accepted by all the states) in 1789, making it a 230 years old document…Needless to say, there have been many changes to it after that. In order to change the Constitution, the Congress needs to pass an Amendment. Another way of changing thhe Constitution is if the Supreme Court rules the law unconstitutional.

Look into the process of how the American Constitution was made and the process required to change it. What are the 10 first Amendments called, and why? What other important amendments have been made? Choose 1-2 of these and write a little bit about them.

Look into the role the Supreme Court plays in the American political system. What powers does it have? Find examples of important Supreme Court decisions that have made an impact on how the Constitution is interpreted.

Group Photo of Nime Justices

Dreams

From M.L. King Jr.’s I have a Dream to Theresa May’s British Dream- a slight difference in content, country and decade. One from 1963, the other from 2017. Today’s task:

Compare and contrast the two speeches in terms of content (message) and identify the literary/linguistic devices May uses to enhance her message to the participants at the Conservative Party’s conference.

For background information, see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/04/theresa-may-british-dream-cap-on-energy-bills-housing-tory-conference-speech,

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-41506032

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdMcbLT3jSY

Selma

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Amendment 15
United States Constitution
Ratified February 2, 1870

As it is Black History Month, we will be working with the movie Selma (2014) directed by AvaDuVernay. In groups of three or four, you should be working with these tasks after watching the movie. Read about the historical background here. 

Answer the questions from map 1. Look at the Alabama Literacy Test. What do you think of the questions? Sum up your thoughts on the questions in a paragraph or two.

President LB Johnson ensured the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here you can read more about his presidency. Watch his civil rights speech (parts of it) and read the full transcript here. What American ideas, ideals and values are expressed? Look for literary and/or language devices that are used to enhance the message of the speech. Sum up your ideas in a few paragraphs.

The 13th amendment

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War, abolished slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment states: “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.” (Source: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/thirteenth-amendment)

Before watching the Netflix documentary, you should revise a little about slavery in the US. Then watch this to learn about the impact of the 13th amendment.

Discuss the power of the media: 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.

Discuss prisoners for profit: Were you aware of the Prison Industrial Complex and how corporations are profiting from incarceration?

Were you surprised to know about ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council—a committee of politicians and corporations influencing laws that benefit its corporate founders and pushing forth policies to increase the number of people in prison and increase sentences)?

Talk about CCA (Corrections Corporations of America, leader in private prisons that is required to keep prison beds filled—the leading corporation responsible for the rapid increase in criminalization) and how that impacts our communities. 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?

“Noone in the hood goes to trial.” Discuss your understanding (or what you learned) about bail, plea bargains, and refusing to settle your case. How did the story of Kalief Browder impact you?

“You immediately become numb. That’s what jail does to humans, that immediate dehumanization, and sensory deprivation that nobody can really understand unless they live through it.” Discuss the impact this has on those currently incarcerated and what this could look like upon release.

Source: https://schd.ws/hosted_files/nywcmemphis2017/7e/13th%20Film%20Discussion%20Guide_By%20Amy%20Williams.pdf

Comprehension questions:

  1. What is the 13th amendment loophole?
  2. What was the Birth of a Nation? How were colored people portrayed?
  3. Explain what the Jim Crow laws were.
  4. Which president signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act? When?
  5. What was President R. Nixon’s main aim?
  6. Explain what the Southern Strategy was.
  7. Who initiated the War on Drugs and what was it?
  8. Why did the presidential candidate Dukakis lose the presidency, and to whom?
  9. What bill did President Bill Clinton ensure? And what were its consequences?
  10. What is Stand your Ground and where does it take place?
  11. Who was Emmett Till?
  12. Source: https://schd.ws/hosted_files/nywcmemphis2017/7e/13th%20Film%20Discussion%20Guide_By%20Amy%20Williams.pdf i

Practice vocabulary from the documentary by working on this: https://www.vocabulary.com/lists/2811635

Write a blog post where you list three ways this documentary has impacted you. What did you learn? What insights did it provide? What questions do you still have?

A New Nation

In order to better understand US society, values and politics, we will be looking back to history and learn about the British settlers who established the first colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Watch these videos:

Discuss with a partner and find answer to these questions:

  1. Why did the Americans decide not to have a king, do you think?
  2. In 1865, slavery was abolished, but racism still happened. Which Amendment abolished slavery? Can you think of examples of racism in America today? Give examples.
  3. What was the impact of the Civil War?
  4. The 15th amendment gave some people the right to vote. Who was eligible to vote, and who was not?
  5. What were the Jim Crow laws?
  6. When and why did the US enter WWI?
  7. Explain what Prohibition was all about.
  8. When did women gain the right to vote? And which amendment stated this?

The American System of Government

founding fathers.jpg

American politics can be fascinating, but to better understand what is going on in the US, we need to understand what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they agreed on the Constitution in 1787. In groups of 3, work with these sources:

Discuss: what are the advantages and disadvantages of the US political system? Do you know of instances when the branches of government have come into conflict with each other?  Discuss whether the Supreme Court has too much power in the US or not. Do you think this is an extremely democratic form of government? Why/why not?

In pairs, take turns and explain the system of checks and balances. Then explain the role of the federal government.

Work with this exercise to learn relevant vocabulary to this topic: