Advocates: The US Still Profits From Slavery Because the 13th Amendment Perpetuates Prison Labor

As Ava DuVernay’s new documentary “13th” opens at the New York Film Festival, we speak to two people featured in the film: Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice and Kevin Gannon of Grand View University.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, just before I sat down with Ava DuVernay, I sat down with two of the people featured in the film. Among those who are in the film, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis — Common writes the music — but Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice and Kevin Gannon of Grand View University in Iowa. I started by asking Malkia what she wanted the film to convey.

MALKIA CYRIL: My biggest hope is that people understand two things. One, that slavery has already been amended once; let’s not do it again. As we get all this technology pouring into the hands of police officers — electronic monitoring, aerial surveillance over Baltimore — it’s critical that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and turn our communities into open-air prisons, even as we decarcerate the facilities themselves. So that’s the biggest thing that I hope people walk away with.

And, two, I want people to walk away with the knowledge that, you know, this country was built on the bones, the work, the labor, the lives of black bodies. It continues to profit from that exploited labor. And we continue to profit from this system, that we call white supremacy, that we don’t want to accept or acknowledge. And that system is going to come to — excuse me, that system is going to come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Gannon, this trajectory from the 13th Amendment to mass incarceration, take us on that journey.

KEVIN GANNON: Well, as the film talks about, the — you know, we like to look at the 13 Amendment as something that ended slavery. You know, the Civil War ended slavery. That’s our mythology. But, of course, it doesn’t. You know, slavery persists. And slavery is a state of profound unfreedom, of not being an autonomous individual, of being owned and subjugated under another. So, the clause in the 13th Amendment that says, you know, except in the cases of criminal, you know, incarceration, that’s the lever.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

KEVIN GANNON: Well, it’s — the 13th Amendment says neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall be permitted, so it becomes unconstitutional, but there is that dependent clause in there: except in the cases of having committed a crime. And so, here is this lever now to basically carry forward slavery under a different guise. You know, slaves have prison uniforms now. And so the convict labor gangs of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, that’s not a coincidental, that’s not a novel invention. If you look at immediately after the Civil War, the ex-Confederate states passed laws called Black Codes that basically criminalize an entire range of behavior. You could be in prison for a year if you were arrested for vagrancy, and “vagrancy” was defined so broadly — I mean, things like walking down the street and looking impudently at somebody, not being able to produce your labor contract for the plantation that you were working for. You know, so this was mass criminalization of blackness. It was an attempt to retain as much of slavery as possible without the name of slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: And then take it forward to now.

KEVIN GANNON: Well, it’s — I mean, that’s the structure that’s built. You know, it continues upon the structures of inequality built before the Civil War. It maintains the racial caste system that the United States was built on, as Malkia said, and continues to profit from. And as long as African Americans and people of color are seen as the other, as dehumanized, as outside of civil society, that’s where we get to today. And it’s just different iterations built upon that same structural outlook.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Gannon of Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, and Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice, both appear in Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, 13th, which will be released by Netflix on Friday.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, another of the people featured in the documentary, Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy, on the privatization of criminal justice in this country and its relationship with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, as well as the Koch brothers. Stay with us.