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My cousin died seven years ago after being restrained by 11 police men whilst in a mental health institution he’d voluntarily checked into for help. He collapsed and never regained consciousness. He died four days later. The CPS ruled that there was insufficient evidence that the collective action of 11 policemen to restrain one man, using batons and handcuffs on him, was enough to cause his death. Essentially, in the eyes of the law, his death was justified through use of “reasonable force” to control him. Reasonable force. In April 1993 Stephen Lawrence was murdered by five white thugs in Eltham whilst waiting at a bus stop for a bus home. The attack was unprovoked. He was simply trying to return home to his family, to make curfew. The investigation in the aftermath of his death found that the actions of the police from the moment they arrived on scene where Stephen lay dying to the investigation of the crime against him, was so deeply flawed it would be eighteen years before two of the five killers were brought to justice. Three still roam free. Following public outrage, an inquiry was carried out to look into the handling of the case by the Metropolitan police. In its conclusion, The Macpherson Report was published and it found the Met to have failed the Lawrences through incompetence stemming from institutional racism. It was a key moment in race relations in Britain, if not a reformation. Today, Stephen Lawrence, his parents Doreen and Neville Lawrence, represent an aspiration to fight for justice and to do right.
The relationship with the police and Black community in the UK is controversial, to say the least. Fraught with tension and mistrust, stemming from years of prejudice.
In 1985 during a search of Cynthia Jarrett’s house on Broadwater Farm estate, she suffered a heart attack and died. Mrs Jarrett’s son, Floyd, was arrested on suspicion he was driving a stolen car. It was not stolen. A culmination of the tense relationship between the police and the Black community, and the death of Mrs Jarrett during the search, resulted in one of the worst riots in London’s history and it was during this riot that PC Blakelock was killed. Broadwater Farm is a council estate built in the late 60s on old slum lands, marred in vandalism and high crime, and was mostly inhabited by Blacks. It is also where Mark Duggan came from. After a hard stop in Tottenham, Mark Duggan was shot and killed on his way home by the police whilst being arrested. It was falsely believed he had a gun on him. He didn’t. It was falsely reported by the press as a shoot out with the police. It wasn’t. The police would later apologise for giving inaccurate information about the incident yet his death was upheld despite an inquest jury finding that Duggan was unarmed and the reports of the police was inaccurate. In the days that followed we were given every detail of Duggan’s life by the police in a bid to justify his killing; from a thug to a gangster he was called, and his history with the the law was detailed for all to read, as is the practise in cases like these involving men and women from ethnic backgrounds, as if that should be justification for taking a human life. Whatever his background, whatever his faults, Duggan did not deserve to die in the way and manner he did.
What is this mentality that when people grow up with a different reality to others, they are criminalised for it?
Whilst reports like McPherson is not an indication of the entire police force, not so isolated incidents like those mentioned highlight an ongoing problem and an urgent need for change. Dialogue is productive but counter without action which can bring about change but like justice, that change is often too slow to come.
The 13th Amendment of 1865 abolished slavery in America but with a crucial proviso: no one can be held as a slave except as punishment for a crime if he or she is seen as a criminal in the eyes of the law. Hence free Black people who were previously enslaved were the primary target; it would start a wave of mass criminalisation and incarceration of Black men who were found guilty of the pettiest of crimes, and exploited for the growth of the economy. In 13th Ava Duvernay gives us a history lesson on the relationship between Black Americans and the American justice system; the Jim Crow laws of the south, heavy handed policing, and policies that targeted black men all of which harken back to this loophole of crime and slavery. It is about change, the urgent need for it, but also about understanding how the use of coded legal speak by elected officials made it illegal to be Black and free, and what it means to be Black in America today.
5% of the World’s population live in the United States. 25% of the world’s prison population is held in the United States. 40% of the inmates are black.
From iconic activists like Angela Davies, to journalists like Van James, Duvernay presents a compounding series of defining moments in America’s race wars; the trial of Angela Davies, the assassination of Fred Hampton by the FBI, of course the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, the exile of Assata Shakur currently in Cuba etc. Archive footage of the original race baiting D.W Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation, a film that so outrageously demeaned the Black man, to modern day protests at Trump rallies, Duvernay marshals out facts and backs them up with realities of the world today. In the wake of a US election that has revealed the underbelly of the global society, this documentary comes at a most precise time. It serves as a challenge to create a better future for young Black men and women. To enforce a new dialogue that first and foremost humanises them, and consequently holds accountable a system that refuses to do so.
Every frame is emotional, every truth is shocking, as the cycle repeats itself.
Kalief Bowder was 19 years old when he was wrongly arrested incarcerated in Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit. It took the system three years to release him. Bowder committed suicide two years after his release. His mother died last year. Another is the story of Emmett Till, the fourteen year old boy who was killed by two white men for the offence of allegedly staring at one’s wife, Carolyn Bryant, cat calling, and speaking lewldy to her. Bryant recently confessed that her story was untrue. Mrs Till’s decision to show the world what exactly was done to her son is in itself an indictment of the American justice system and indicative of a society that accepts discrimination of one because of the colour of their skin. The grave miscarriage of justice in the case of the Central Park five where Donald Trump called for the death penalty against five innocent teenagers imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. It would be more than a decade before they are cleared of any wrong doing after DNA evidence proves their innocence. No apology issued by Trump or any of the media outlets who were so quick to call for their deaths. In their minds they remain criminals.
“Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the the police can bother me” -Changes, Tupac
The Law and Order mandate introduced by Nixon and furthered by Reagan, in the war on drugs manifesto introduced a wave of criminalisation of black men steeped in the concept of slavery, a movement that systematically targeted constitutional rights and introduced hateful rhetoric against the Black community. Racism. Bill Clinton and the 1994 federal crime bill not only boosted the prison system but enforced such rules that made it easier for a black man or woman to be arrested and imprisoned for a long time, in some cases without release. “Super predators” Hillary Clinton called them in an address and the term would continuously be applied to Black people. The exploitation of Black labour through the prison system helped build the inequitably distributed wealth of the South, where remains a crucial political battleground. Unlawful killing of the young and Black- Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown whose death ignited the Black Lives Matter movement that has become a rallying cry for justice in other countries where oppression and police brutality is rampant against Blacks, recently Philando Castille whose shooting was captured live by his fiancee, amongst others, all sanctioned by the law.
It makes one wonder, just what is a Black life worth?
13th is a deeply disturbing yet revealing look at the systemic oppression levied against Black folk. Widespread racism upheld by the law against Black Americans. More than anything, it is an indictment of those who gain by spilling the blood of Black men, women, and children and its a damn shame that nothing has changed in society today. Absolutely nothing.