In this critical time it’s necessary to understand both the historical and present analysis of our oppression. It is connected to this country's long history of police brutality, as well as its flawed legal system and the evils of mass incarceration within. There is an overall framework of anti-blackness and white supremacy that has been imbedded in the US since the colonization of African people.
The documentary 13th, recently released on Netflix and directed by Ava DuVernay, was unapologetic in its critique of the white political structure that implemented 'law and order' politics, as well as the War on Drugs, which shapes our current justice system. The film also takes on the involvement of some Black leaders within the system as well. It exposes the capitalistic framework that drives much of the prison industrial complex, as well as the partnerships between corporations that seem hell bent on increased capital through prison labor. The documentary portrays politicians who essentially seem to serve up Black and Brown folks as tribunal sacrifices for political gain.
However, there was a lack of analysis on how mass incarceration affects women, particularly Black women, and there was also no mentioning of Black Queer and Trans folks. These experiences within prisons are extremely important and go a long way in challenging the narrative that prison is full of cis-heterosexual Black men. We must include the stories of Black women and LGBTQ folks within carceral spaces, otherwise we risk erasure of these identities within our analysis.
There was also no mentioning in the film about the many prison rebellions that took place in this country. George Jackson, one of the most prolific prison activists and revolutionaries of the Black Power era, was not mentioned. His assassination as well as the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 are integral in explaining the level of consciousness and self determination that was the direct result of prison organizing. Folks inside have always resisted their captivity and perhaps another documentary is needed in order to tell that story and connect it to the National Prison Work Strike that is occurring now.
It is my hope that The 13th challenges how we view punishment in this nation. That, in my opinion, would be its greatest accomplishment. Prison abolishment is not an action, rather a state of mind in which our values are challenged to their core, and new notions of community are established. This documentary hopefully will spark much needed conversation on the social construct of crime and the nuanced term of "criminal" in the racial context of "black criminality."
Kadeem Fuller is a co-organizer for the Black Lives Matter chapter in Champaign-Urbana. He is also a graduate student at the University of Illinois studying education policy. You can find a podcast produced by the BLM chapter Fuller is a part of, here.