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Want to know what it’s like to be black in America? Watch the movie 13th

Laren Tayyip June 3, 2020
Want to know what it’s like to be black in America? Watch the movie 13th
Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Now, more than ever, is the time to educate yourself and learn about the true history of African Americans and their treatment in the US.

The 2016 Netflix film 13th derives its title from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which saw the abolition of the slave trade in 1885 but arguably turned African Americans from slaves into people viewed as a criminal class.

This thought-provoking documentary is a must see for anyone who wants to learn more. Although the Civil Rights Movement ended involuntary servitude, punishment for conviction of basic crimes enabled police to arrest freedmen and force them to work for the state.

This led to suppression of African Americans through lynching and disenfranchisement. In the 20th century, presidents and politicians declared war on drugs, which targeted the black community more than white Americans.

Criminal justice system

The documentary explores race, the criminal justice system and incarceration in the US. It won the Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding documentary or non-fiction special.

The documentary also explores the force behind the Black Lives Matter movement and screens the long list of names of African Americans who have been murdered by the police. 

The US has the highest ratio of incarceration in the world. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of prisoners increased from 357,292 to 513,900. In 2000, there were a staggering 2,015,300 people in jail in America, a great many of them African American men. By 2001 there were more than 800,000 African Americans in US prisons.

The documentary includes interviews with activists, academics and political figures including Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones and Cory Booker, who talk about what followed the Civil Rights Movement.

Photos from Minneapolis Credit: Priya Thoresen

Arrested by white people

Henry Louis Gates Jr, professor of African American research at Harvard University, says in the film: “Being arrested by white people was your biggest nightmare, still is for many African Americans.”

Dorsey Nunn, executive director of legal services for prisoners with children, adds: “We have been consistently murdered as a result of police aggression. They generally excuse it by calling us criminals.”

What Gates and Nunn say emphasises how the criminalisation of African Americans in the US is still used as an excuse for their murder across the country. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Donald Trump advocates death penalty for black teenagers

The shocking clip of a young Donald Trump advocating the death penalty for black teenagers and the image of his signature on a full-page advertisement supporting it is a truly terrifying concept.

Trump says on camera: “In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very very rough and, once they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.

“I loved the good old days. Do you know what they use to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? Be carried out on a stretcher. I am your law and order candidate.”

Today, Trump wants a ten-year prison sentence for looters during protests over George Floyd’s death. 

Eric Garner and Kalief Browder

Floyd’s death comes after many other African-American deaths such as Eric Garner, who also said “I can’t breathe” 11 times while detained by a white police officer. Garner was accused of selling loose cigarettes.

Then there’s the incarceration that led to the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder in 2010.

Browder was detained on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, aged 16, for a robbery he insisted he hadn’t committed. He then spent more than 1,000 days in prison waiting for a trial that never happened. 

After being released, he committed suicide two years later as a result of the mental, sexual and physical abuse he endured in prison.

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Shine a light

While some African American murders have been caught on camera and shared with the rest of the world, how many haven’t? With the help of technology, we are able to shine a light on racism but we aren’t able to catch everything happening all the time.

It is equally as shocking these injustices have to be videoed for the horrors to be brought to light.

“Police violence isn’t the problem in itself, it’s reflection of a much larger, brutal system of racial and social control known as mass incarceration, which authorises this kind of police violence”

Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colour Blindness

Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colour Blindness, powerfully sums it up: “Police violence isn’t the problem in itself, it’s reflection of a much larger, brutal system of racial and social control known as mass incarceration, which authorises this kind of police violence.”

The documentary draws to a close by showing numerous shootings of African Americans by white policemen while bystanders film the horror. What happened then is still happening today. 

George Floyd’s death has sparked so much anger around the world it might be a historical moment in which we can incite change, a change that should have happened a long time ago.

If you wish to show support for the black community in the US and George Floyd’s family, you can donate to the Black Visions Collective via the links below. 

https://www.blackvisionsmn.org Minnesota Freedom Fund: https://minnesotafreedomfund.org or Until Freedom: https://www.untilfreedom.com and sign the petition: https://www.change.org/p/mayor-jacob-frey-justice-for-george-floyd

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NCTJ Qualified Journalist with experience across both print and online. Enjoy writing long form pieces on topics such as lifestyle, health, fashion and features. (@larentayyip)