(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills
On the night of April 19, 1989, multiple people were attacked in New York City’s Central Park. One, a 28 year old investment banker named Trisha Meili, was beaten, raped and tortured. She had been jogging in the park. Many others were also assaulted. The press quickly inflamed public opinion against gangs of black teens they said were responsible. The police labeled the attacks as something they called “wilding”. They arrested several youth they believed were involved, including five young men whom police accused for assaulting Trisha Meili.
These five young men, all minors, were taken to a police station and questioned. Four of the teenagers were black. The fifth was of Middle Eastern ethnicity. Facing abusive questioning by the police, the five eventually confessed to attacking Ms. Meili. Despite being minors, their names were leaked to the press. The next day, their pictures and addresses were published. They were labeled the Central Park Five. Their families received numerous death threats. Donald Trump published a full page ad in all four New York newspapers. In it he wrote, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer … I want to hate these murderers and I always will. … How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits?”
While Ms. Meili was not expected to survive, she miraculously did. She, however, did not remember the attack. Several months later, the five were tried as adults. They were described as monsters. The attack was said to be the worst crime of the 1980’s. Most people believed them guilty. Many wanted them executed. Despite the facts that none of their DNA was found at the crime scene or on the victim, and their confessions were made as a result of police abuse, all five were convicted and sent to prison for 15 to 30 years.
Thirteen years later, a man serving a life sentence for unrelated rapes confessed to attacking Trisha Meili by himself. His DNA perfectly matched that found on her, as did his descriptions of evidence previously not released. The New York District Attorney moved to vacate the sentences of the five young men who had spent 13 years in prison. They were soon released. As one African-American minister said about the case, “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped, is round up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here.”
I recount details of this case because it highlights what director Ava DuVernay points out about black history in her documentary “13th”, which I discuss today as a part of my February message series, “Black History Month and Oscar Worthy Movies from 2017.” The film was recently honored with an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It carefully presents black history as an ever changing effort to stereotype African-Americans as subhuman and sinister – people engaged in “wilding” attacks on whites. In the film, Donald Trump’s full page 1989 ad is used as an example of such racist hysteria and stereotyping. Defense attorneys said Trump’s ad was a major factor preventing a fair trial. During his campaign last year, Trump refused to apologize for that ad. He said he still believes the five are guilty.
The documentary “13th” is titled after the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution which was ratified soon after the Civil War. It says, “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…”
Crucial to DuVernay’s film is the exception clause in the amendment that allowed for involuntary servitude by prisoners. After the end of slavery, the South realized that without slaves to enrich its economy, it needed another solution. Southern states then began an effort to arrest and imprison thousands of Black men for petty crimes such as loitering. And they used the exception clause in the 13th amendment to force those prisoners to work for free. Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, still in existence, was established at the time. Its 18,000 acre property was a former slave plantation and its owner continued using free black labor after the Civil War – by legally using prisoners. Such plantation style prisons existed all over the South.
This massive imprisonment of blacks after the Civil War began a pattern of legal enslavement that has existed ever since. And DuVernay logically lays out in her documentary this history: massive imprisonment evolved to Jim Crow laws that provided justification for the arrest of blacks who broke those laws.
A media campaign also began to imprint on white minds the stereotype that African-Americans, particularly men, were animalistic and a grave threat. DuVernay highlights the 1915 movie “Birth of a Nation”, viewed by millions, that depicts black men as prone to crime, laziness and the rape of white women. It helped create racist fears by which the imprisonment, and thus enslavement, of black men continued.
In the 1960’s, when Jim Crow laws were finally dismantled under Civil Rights laws, white America then found new ways to imprison blacks – and continue using their free labor. As DuVernay points out, it was no accident that Richard Nixon’s Presidential campaign used the theme of fighting crime, soon after civil rights laws were passed, as a Southern strategy to frighten white voters and thus win elections. Crime is out of control, Nixon said. American cities are violent places roamed by thugs bent on destroying society. Nixon exploited white fear of crime as a thinly veiled attack on blacks, ant-war protesters, feminists and gays demanding their rights.
Astonishingly, a film clip was recently discovered – and is featured in the film “!3th” – in which John Erhlichman, Nixon’s closest advisor, openly admits that the war on crime was, in truth, an effort to imprison blacks and win white votes.
And that effort continued with the election of Ronald Reagan. He and his wife began what many of us remember as the war on drugs. Few people, including black leaders, opposed such a seemingly helpful effort. But new anti-drug laws criminalized the use of drugs such that those who possessed small amounts of illegal drugs were convicted and sent to prison. DuVernay makes clear that while this impacted many drug addicts, it hit hardest against blacks who were disproportionately arrested and convicted. If one possessed 5 grams or more of crack cocaine, popular mostly with blacks at the time, the sentence was 5 years. But one had to possess more than 500 grams of cocaine powder, popular mostly with well-off whites, for the same sentence.
DuVernay uses statistics to prove her case. In 1980, the year Reagan was elected, there were 530,000 prisoners in the US. By 1990, after Reagan’s two terms in office, the prison population had more than doubled to 1,179,000. In 2014, it had doubled again to 2,326,000. Today, the US accounts for 8% of the world’s population, but over 25% of the world’s prison population. We lead the world in the number of prisoners.
And the majority of prisoners are men of color who comprise 61% of all men in prison even though they represent less than 15% of the overall population. And many of them are in prison for drug related offenses – almost 50% of all inmates in Federal prisons.
And lest these actions are seen as the fault of one political party, DuVernay points out it is not. President Clinton, in his own efforts to be elected, made fighting crime a signature policy. He helped pass mandatory sentencing laws which took away discretion from judges. He also pushed through three-strikes laws that stipulated if a person is convicted of three crimes, even very minor ones, a mandatory sentence of life in prison results. President Clinton recently publicly apologized for his role in furthering mass incarceration.
But the effort to make crime a racial issue to attract white voters continues today. DuVerny concludes her documentary with images of black men being arrested, beaten and killed – while Donald Trump’s often racist words provide the sound. His claim to be a law and order President are interpreted by many to be racial buzz words. His claim that crime is a major problem in our country is one of his misstatements. Crime numbers, instead, have steadily declined and today stand at their lowest in half a century – even though our population has increased by a third.
The implicit message DuVernay makes in her documentary is that mass incarceration in America is directly motivated by money and greed – to enrich white elites and use free prison labor – much of which is done by blacks. Every state in the nation, except Hawaii, uses prison labor for wages of approximately 37 cents an hour. While some say work is a form of rehabilitation, and a way for the prisoner to earn his or her keep, that is not accurate. Many experts point out that if prisoners were paid minimum wages for their labor, they could provide money to their families and children – and thereby prevent a family’s need for government assistance. Prisoners also could save money for when they are released. A lack of money, often due to an inability to find a job, is the leading cause for ex-convicts to commit another crime after release. And the menial jobs most prisoners are given do not teach them the kinds of skills needed to find decent jobs. Even more, forced labor prevents them from receiving the kind of rehabilitation that addresses drug addiction or other issues.
Today, large numbers of multi-national corporations contract with prisons for cheap inmate labor. AT&T, Walmart, Whole Foods, Proctor & Gamble, Costco, McDonalds and many other companies use cheap prison labor – work for which they owe no employee protections, benefits or responsibility. As the film ‘13th’ says, prison labor is a modern form of slavery and is motivated by profit and racism.
Issues of mass incarceration and forced labor are ones that disproportionately affect African-American men, but they also affect hispanics, whites and women of all races. Discrimination of one class of people intersects with discrimination of others such that any form of inequality is an injustice to all. Spiritually, we know this is wrong. Christian and Jewish scriptures, for instance, say that we are to care for prisoners as if we were in prison with them. God, they say, cares for all those who are needy – including prisoners. To be a moral person, Jesus said in his famous teaching in the Book of Matthew, chapter 25, one must feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and care for the prisoner. In our own Unitarian Universalist principles, every person deserves dignity, justice, equality and compassion.
From a practical perspective, Buddhists teach the idea that wounded people wound others. Regarding mass incarceration, children and spouses of prisoners are neglected and live in poverty. Impoverished children are also more likely to themselves eventually be imprisoned. Prisons, because they mostly seek to punish, help create a class of low skilled, embittered and angry people. An approach that encourages rehabilitation and compassion is needed, Buddhists say, for the imprisoned.
Over the last year, I’ve been told by some members that this congregation and I, as minister, must do more to address racism. Other members have alternatively told me that while racism is an important issue, it is not the only troubling issue. As minister, I try to meet the needs and expectations of all members and that requires I walk a very fine line. Since its impossible to always please everyone, I often rely on my judgement, experience and personal values to guide me. I will continue to focus on racism, as I have since I began here. It is an important issue of our time. But I will also focus on other areas of concern that, by addressing them, we will also learn and grow.
Importantly, I want to encourage in all of us the foundational ethics of compassion and love. We each practice those ethics in different ways, according to our individual abilities and personalities. Some people cook meals for the poor and homeless – meeting a basic need that enables the marginalized to go to school, find work or tend a family. Other members are activists who immerses themselves in changing unjust systems and laws. I applaud both.
By educating ourselves about mass incarceration, perhaps by viewing the film “13th”, or reading the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, we will be better informed. We can then pass that knowledge to our families, colleagues and friends. We’ll be more informed voters able to recognize when politicians try to cynically scare us. We’ll vote for those who favor criminal justice reform – and treatment programs instead of punishment for drug use. We’ll be educated employees – able to lobby for better prisoner wages if our employer uses prison labor. We’ll be empathetic citizens who rightly expect that fair laws be obeyed, but who are also willing to forgive, befriend and employ those who once were imprisoned.
I’ve added an insert to your programs of suggestions from Africanpall, we’ll understand that fear, greed and selfishness motivates most forms of discrimination – especially black history of oppression. We can cleanse ourselves of those motivations and then practice timeless ethics of compassion and love for everyone – including those we don’t agree with, and those in prison.