(1) 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.
(2) Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
That’s the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. You may have seen a few movies dealing with it. As a Canadian, I don’t know the ins and outs of the U.S. Constitution, so it’s always interesting to learn a little about how the U.S. system works. Yesterday I learned that the U.S. system has an extremely dodgy concept of freedom from slavery. 13th is a documentary from Ava DuVernay that sheds some light on the systematic oppression of black people using the gigantic loophole in the middle of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The Thirteenth Amendment clearly states that slavery is allowed as punishment for crime. Not coincidentally, once slavery became illegal, former slaves were rounded up, arrested for petty offences, and imprisoned. As these methods slowly fell out of favour, the tactics to oppress former slaves became a little less obvious. For example, Richard Nixon’s “law and order” methodology was designed to target black civil rights activists in order to gain white support in the south. Guess what? The plan worked exactly as intended, quelling the movement for equality by killing or imprisoning tons of black leaders.
Similar results were obtained through Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” (which imposed harsher penalties on crack than cocaine in powder form) and Bill Clinton’s 1994 “tough-on-crime” legislation (a crackdown on violent crime enacted during a period when such crime was decreasing). Donald Trump perfectly illustrates how the same approach is alive and well today.
Since the abolition of slavery, it has been terrifyingly easy for politicians, backed by corporations, to continue to oppress an entire class of people.
Worse, continuing this oppression is economically advantageous and politically effective, because it keeps prisons stocked with cheap labour and earns votes from people who wish we could turn back the clock to simpler times.
Worst of all, the Constitution not only allows prisoners to be treated as slaves, it also permits prisoners to be permanently stripped of the right to vote. That’s right: VOTING IS NOT AN INALIENABLE RIGHT IN THE UNITED STATES. Living in the wrong state can cost you your vote, forever, because of a crime you committed and served time for. That fundamental failure of democracy has occurred more than five million times over in the “land of the free” and, of course, disproportionately affects minorities because that’s who the system has targeted for imprisonment since the abolition of slavery.
Bottom line: the U.S.A. is broken. Your elected officials aren’t interested in fixing the problem. If anything, Corporate America is lobbying to worsen the divide. Change must be demanded by the voters, and for that reason alone 13th is a must-watch. It’s available on Netflix. Add it to your list.