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Laramie Movie Scope:

Documentary about discrimination in U.S. justice system

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2016) "You have to shock people into paying attention," the violence made visible against American citizens of color, who have been made into "enemies of the state," so that they can be detained, frisked, interrogated, or killed with impunity. Attorney and author Bryan Stevenson says: "The Bureau of Justice reported that one in three young black males is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime, which is an unbelievably shocking statistic." By comparison, the statistic for whites is one in 17.

In the land of the free, the US with just 5% of the world's population has 25% of all the incarcerated people in the world, President Obama remarked on the disparity. In 1970, the population of US prisons totaled 357,292; by 2014 it had grown to 2.3 million. African-American males make up 6.5% of the US population but 40.2% of the prison population.

These black men have been demeaned, made animal-like locked inside cages, portrayed as rapists who threaten white women. "Never mind the fact that the history of interracial rape in this country, that the record is far more marked by white rape against black women than of black men against white women."

This morally searing, passionately powerful documentary of the history of racial inequality and injustice by director Ava DuVernay, co-written with Spencer Averick, takes its title from the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, "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," in which the "criminality clause" - "except as a punishment for crime" - became a tool for exploitation.

Four million freed slaves after the Civil War were thus subject to arrest en masse for minor crimes, such as loitering or vagrancy; their labor in an economically devastated South once more could be coerced without remuneration. A "mythology of black criminality" was adopted; D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic film, The Birth of a Nation, "confirmed many of the stories that whites wanted to tell about the Civil War and its aftermath." The movie gave rebirth to the Klu Klux Klan along with its new cinematic symbol of burning crosses.

Along with interviews, in which contrary viewpoints are sometimes juxtaposed, including Jelani Cobb, Cory Booker, Gina Clayton, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Newt Gingrich, Van Jones, Deborah Small, Bob Sloan, Charles Rangel, Khalil G. Muhammad, rap songs enhance punch of archival footage, and the words of Donald Trump, "In the good old days ," accompanying violent images from the 1950s and '60s.

Between Reconstruction and World War II, while thousands of black men were lynched, African Americans fled the South, "refugees from terror." Politicians raised fears of integration - "mongrel class of people" - employing segregation and Jim Crow laws as a legal means of keeping blacks apart from whites and confining them to second-class citizenship.

The nonviolent civil rights movement, led by Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr following Emmett Till's death, made getting arrested a noble, courageous act, and pressured Congress with President Johnson crucial support to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964. But rising crime rates in the 1960s, an unfortunate component of the large Baby Boom generation, provided a political platform for President Nixon's law-and-order campaign in which "criminal" became a stand-in for race, notes Angela Davis, introducing an era of mass incarceration that removed black males from their communities in the 1970s.

In the 1960s the black leadership - Martin Luther King Jr labeled by FBI as "dangerous" - was decimated by assassination, framing and imprisonment (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover criminalized the Black Panthers as America's worst enemy), coerced exile, eliminating leaders who could unite people. President Nixon proclaimed as public enemy #1 narcotics and permissiveness, declaring a war on drugs (making this a crime rather than a health concern) as part of his Southern strategy in his appeal to white voters.

Giving definition to Nixon's Southern strategy, Lee Atwater's remarks were caught on tape in 1981: "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, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites."

Nixon's advisor John Ehrlichman, quoted in 1994, pronounced: "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."

Added to his tax cuts for the rich, President Reagan announced his own crusade against drugs with First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" education/prevention program, which was nonetheless a war on communities of color, inflicting harsher penalties for inner-city crack-cocaine usage than for the "more sophisticated" powder cocaine popular in white suburbs. Pushing people's emotional buttons - Willie Horton, who stabbed and raped after being released from prison, associated with Gov Michael Dukakis - contributed to turning defeat into victory for George H.W. Bush.

Even the Clintons in the 1990s contributed to making people afraid of blacks, including blacks fearful of other blacks: President Bill Clinton usurped the GOP issue of "getting tough on crime" with his 1994 crime bill with its mandatory minimum sentences (removing discretion from judges, giving greater leverage to prosecutors), elimination of parole, and "three strikes and out" (for which he acknowledged his error and apologized 20 years later), while First Lady Hillary spoke of "super predators," costing her support in her presidential campaign of 2016.

In a New York Times full-page ad and public pronouncement, Donald Trump wanted capital punishment for the "wolf pack" of five young black men accused of attacking the Central Park female jogger, persisting even after they were exonerated, found innocent but entrapped. An expanding prison system with an exploding prison population, biased against people of color, left families broken and children without parents.

With "stand your ground" allowing George Zimmerman, even though he was instructed not to pursue Trayvon Martin, to shoot and kill without penalty the black teenager, unarmed Martin was in effect denied a right to stand and defend himself. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafted and introduced bills by and for corporations, shaping crime policy (e.g., "Stand your ground," Corrections Corporation of America's private prisons) through conservative politicians to influence legislation.

Motivated to monetize by an economic model of incarceration, as CCA has moved forward into providing prisons for immigrants, ALEC has suddenly (losing popular and corporate backing) embraced the prison-reform movement by privatizing parole and probation, imprisoning people inside their homes with GPS ankle-bracelet monitoring. Inside prisons a profitable industry has spawned on the new slavery of free labor, including phone and food services. "Simply put, corporations are operating in prisons and profiting from punishment."

The system "beast" warehouses (overcrowding) and dehumanizes those apprehended and sentenced, locking them up with little regard for rehabilitation, instead punishing with cruel treatment and solitary confinement. Along with the genuinely guilty, the "beast" swallows and crushes the poor and the innocent - Kalief Browder, held as an inmate for three years before being released without criminal charge, committed suicide at 22 - who cannot afford a legal defense, pressured into false confessions when faced with threat of worse sentencing if tried; it relies on 97% of cases being plea bargained.

Even after "paying their debt to society," branded as felons, ex-cons in most communities and states are largely shunned, denied gainful employment, forbidden the right to vote. Meanwhile, the guilty rich get off from punishment for their crimes. In the past decade, prison reform has become a bipartisan popular issue; but the election of Donald Trump, the new law-and-order executive in the White House, appears likely to reverse trust in this trend.

Though not a strictly black-and-white issue (police are also victims of assault and murder), a long list of names, locations, and dates of the victims of aggressive police violence on persons of color - more than 100 unarmed black people were killed by police in 2015 - supplies a valid basis for the protest that Black Lives Matter. "When black lives matter," asserts poet and activist Malkia Cyril, pointing out that only when the least respected of people are appreciated, "then everybody's lives matter."

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2017 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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