By Marie-Renee Goulet

These past few months have been challenging. In light of the most recent protests in support of Black Lives Matter, I’d like to bring attention to Netflix’s Original Documentary 13th, titled after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Running at only 1h and 40m, it is compelling and concise. You can watch the full movie here.

The film begins with a quote from Barack Obama: “So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population. But 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. The Senate passed it on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. In 1970, there were about 200,000 prisoners; today, the prison population is more than 2 million.

Let’s first remember recent police brutality cases: 

  • Eric Garner, killed by chokehold. Last words: “I can’t breath,” which he repeated 11 times. Crime: Selling illegal cigarettes. Police officer fired but never prosecuted.
  • Michael Brown, 18, was shot six times. His crime: stole a box of cigars. Officer resigns but not prosecuted. 
  • Tamir Rice, all of 12 years old, reported as a juvenile pointing a plastic gun is shot dead by police in less than 2 seconds after pulling up to him. Police confirmed Tamir had a toy plastic gun. No impact on the officer.
  • Philando Castile and his girlfriend were pulled over for a routine check. Castile informs the officer that he is licensed to carry and is shot immediately while reaching for the paper license. He was shot five times at the close range, two bullets missed. Their four-year-old daughter was in the back seat. The officer was charged and subsequently cleared. 
  • In March 2020, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot eight times in her bed. Police were executing a no-knock warrant as part of a drug raid. There was no drug in the apartment. The warrant was given because the police said they believed that one suspects had used her apartment to receive packages. Louisville police said they returned fire after one officer was shot and wounded in the incident. Breonna’s boyfriend said he fired in self-defense, thinking it was a home invasion. 

Almost all of these incidents caused protests, but soon most of us returned to the busy grind of life.

By May 2020, humanity’s priorities had been severely readjusted by Covid-19. The world was at home, saw what happened to Mr. George Floyd, and had plenty of time to think, react, and organize. Will there be real change? Will Floyd’s murder be the catalyst Emmet Till was for the Civil Rights movement?

I wanted to understand the reasons behind these situations. Why were police officers’ race bias so strong that an innocuous situation seemed life-threatening to them? Why were black people trying to run from officers for minor arrests? It turns out, if you are black, there is no such thing as a minor arrest. Directed by Ava DuVernay, giving voice to historians, activists, and socio-political commentators, 13th is very informative. I had to force myself NOT to look away at some of the archival footage. Is this really “who” we are? 

Using the words of a political strategist who was caught on tape: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start in 1954 by saying n*****, n*****, n*****. By 1968 you can’t say n*****, that hurt you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced-bussing, States rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now. You’re talking about cutting taxes. And all of these things you’re talking about are economic things… and the by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” That was Regan’s campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, and Trump followed this to the letter in 2016 until now. He didn’t even bother with the dog whistle for very long. He just said racist things from the onset and somehow connected with millions of Americans.

The film documents every which way the 13th Amendment loophole was used to systematically criminalize black people and remove the rights that come with being free. Whenever one suppression system would fall out of favour due to the changing times, new ways of robbing people of colour of their given rights would be implemented. Once you’ve lost your right to vote and are unemployable, what can you do? It also shows how the nightly news or Hollywood was used to shape and influence the general population’s view of minorities. It is a shocking documentary that should be part of the curriculum in all middle schools in North America. 

The worst is, it doesn’t even cover all the ways blacks have been disadvantaged. Let’s start with the 1862 Homestead Act. Any adult citizen who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. More than 1.6 million white families succeeded in becoming landowners during the next several decades. Conversely, only 4,000 to 5,500 African-American claimants ever received final land patents. It wasn’t in the law, but systematic in practice. Most of the wealth of American citizens today is linked to this law alone. Those 40 acres and a mule promised in 1965 was quickly reversed and annulled by Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor. Not to get too wordy, I won’t describe the New Deal or the GI Bill but certainly encourage you to Google both. In 2020, the number of American black-owned businesses fell 41% from 1.1 million in February to 640,000 in April, due to the fallout from the coronavirus. According to the New York Times, payments meant to support small businesses went to Investment Firms, large law firms, and companies connected to Federal Lawmakers. The socio-economical gap keeps growing. It appears that apparent enemies, low-income Trump supporters, and minorities have the most in common. I can’t credit the idea to its rightful owner as I consumed an enormous amount of news on T.V. and SiriusXM in the past weeks: should minorities and low-income Trump supporters join forces, they would have a majority party. There could be a real change in their economic situation. I guess this is why Trump uses twitter to keep his supporters as angry and afraid of the “other” as possible. 

How a person is and behaves is often a reflection of how the world reacts to them. Living in poverty from generation to generation is a never-ending vicious circle that can bring one to make terrible decisions compounding their issues. Mr. Floyd’s alleged crime was to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Does this warrant being killed on the street like a worthless being? He was a man, a father, a brother and a friend. He was entitled to due process. The officers somehow thought they could be judge, jury, and executioner. 

This year, we found that long-standing systemic health and social inequities have placed racial minority groups at increased risk of getting and dying from COVID-19. 

Many have complained that the protests against police brutality were not peaceful enough. How strangely poetic is it then that the catalyst for the recent events was a white police officer, kneeling on a black man’s neck after Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police brutality was to take a knee during the national anthem? The peaceful gesture cost him his career back in 2017.

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