Rating: 5 Stars
This is a documentary about the mass incarceration of predominantly men of color since the 1970’s.
To a large extent, if you’ve read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, then you know where this movie is going. In fact, Alexander is one of the people interviewed for this film. Even if you have read The New Jim Crow, then the film is still an emotionally searing experience because you visually see the horrors that the last four decades have levied on the black community.
The film features a number of black professors, writers, and intellectuals that you can tell are trying their best to dispassionately describe the causes and effects of the mass incarceration movement, but just barely under the surface you can feel the rage that they all share at the utter injustice of it all.
The film discusses the start of the mass incarceration movement. It starts with the Nixon Southern Strategy. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war protests, there was a dramatic rise in civil unrest in the 1960’s. In that unrest, Nixon saw an opportunity to move historically democratic voters over to republicans.
Nixon’s enemies were hippies and blacks. If he could harden the drug penalties for drugs and then associate marijuana with the hippies and heroin with the blacks, then he could crack down on his enemies via entirely legal means. There’s a quote from his chief domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, that openly, blatantly admits this. In detail, the quote is:
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.
This tactic becomes tremendously successful for the Republicans and they continue to use it. Again, they are completely aware of what they are doing. Here’s a quote from Lee Atwater, campaign manager for the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.
The Republicans use this as a weapon to bludgeon the Democrats. As Newt Gingrich says in the film, “you want to be on the side of the murderers rapists”? The Democrats learn this lesson and in Clinton’s campaign and later presidency, the Democrats come down hard and strong with such things as the three strikes you’re out law and mandatory minimum sentencing.
So, for a forty year period, you have politicians that built political capital by throwing people, predominantly people of color, into prison.
And what’s the consequence of that?
Sadly, many members of the black community have bought into the myth of black crime and have supported the need for increased incarceration of its own people.
Thirty percent of black adult residents in Alabama have lost the right to vote.
With the brutal reality of having to face draconian prison sentences, 97% of all defendants plea bargain, guaranteeing that some non significant percentage of people in prison today are innocent of whatever crime that they were initially arrested for.
Many people languish in prison because they do not have enough money to post bail. This is even more incentive to plead to a lesser charge, even if you’re innocent, just so that you can get out of jail. Of course, by pleading, many times you end up disenfranchised and you have a scarlet letter next to your name on all future job applications, college applications, and aid applications. Again, in many cases the defendant is factually innocent of the original charge but feels that he has no choice but to plead.
All of this incarceration growth has resulted in the development of a prison industrial complex. Prisons have become privatized. States enter into agreements with corporations to house a certain number of inmates. Therefore, a state government is now incentivized to convict and imprison its own citizens so that it can meet the terms of the corporate contract. Corporations band together and lobby for stricter penalization laws so that they can house more prisoners.
Towards the end of the film, it juxtaposes scenes of civil rights violence with scenes from Trump rallies. It’s truly heartbreaking to contemplate how barely below the surface overt racism continues to be.
The sole encouraging light is that in the last year or two, the incarceration rates have dipped slightly. However, for obvious reasons, all of the black speakers in the film look upon this with deep suspicion. For 250 years, America had slavery. The slaves were then freed and there was rejoicing. This was followed by 100 years of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act was passed and there was rejoicing. This was then followed by over 40 years of mass incarceration. Yes, maybe this too shall eventually pass.
But what will follow it?