A few words about 13th

I stayed up way too late last night watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th. You don’t have to read what I have to say about it; in fact, I’d rather you just watch it.

Please just go watch it. Conservatives – there are about 40% conservative interviews, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. This doc does not let Democrats and progressives off the hook, as you can tell by this trailer.

For those of you who are familiar with the realities of mass incarceration and its historical evolution since the Civil War, there may not be a lot of new information, although I will say that despite having done heavy reading on the subject, I learned a bit (particularly about ALEC). I also found, as did some other friends that are informed on the subject matter, that the way DuVernay presented the narrative visually was so compelling that it brought it home in a truly urgent way.

One thing that I have been meditating on recently is a statement from a Eula Biss piece in the New York Times called “White Debt.” In it, Biss recounts a story of being interviewed at the Amherst police station for pasting posters all over town for a talk she and some other college students were hosting. She says, “The first question the Amherst Police asked was whether I was aware that graffiti and ‘tagging,’ a category that included the posters, was punishable as a felony. I was not aware. Near the end of the interrogation, my campus officer stepped in and suggested that we would clean up the posters. I was not charged with a felony, and I spent the day working side by side with my officer, using a wire brush to scrub all the bombs off Amherst…Even as the police spread photos of my handiwork in front of me, I could tell by the way they pronounced ‘tagging’ that it wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

“It wasn’t a crime invented for me.”

That statement reminded me that laws are human creations and subject to human fallibility. Obvious, I know. (“But they are criminals – they broke the law.” No longer any need to racialize our complaints; there is an easy, objective way to justify any kind of treatment of those that broke our laws. But who wrote the laws?)

Beyond this obvious statement, that laws are human creations, was for me a clarification of the insight that laws are created with specific demographic targets in mind – sometimes, as my husband pointed out with the example of the Rico laws, with specific individuals in mind. Those specific individuals are not the only ones caught up in the nets of those laws, because once they exist, they can be used however law enforcement wants – and herein lies the flexibility of making race implicitly rather than explicitly targeted. But the laws were designed to punish someone in particular. The laws against tagging and graffiti were not designed for young white female college students. Clearly not. They could have been charged, but the police recognized that perhaps they were not the intended targets and let them go.

I’ve been talking with some friends who are concerned about the path of the current administration. As I have explained, my position is that we as a country have begun down the path of authoritarianism. My friends reference Japanese-American internment camps of the WWII era, and many other historical precedent across the world and time of detaining people who fall outside our concept of “our people.” They say, Could it happen here, do you think?

I say, It would look like a new law. It would not mention race or ethnicity, but rather a broad spectrum of behavior that falls along racial or ethnic patterns that allows law enforcement to target people based on race and ethnicity. We would fill up our detention centers and jails and need to create new ones, private ones. It would be the same thing as internment camps with the most recent fashionable veneer of legitimacy.

It would, theoretically, look like that.

But then I realize, almost as I say it, with shame and horror, that this is not theoretical, and it is not new.

It is already happening. It never stopped happening.

Please go watch 13th.

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