WEST HOLLYWOOD — A discussion on racial issues was held here Sept. 7 following the screening of filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s documentary on mass criminalization and incarceration titled, “13th,” which played at the Pacific Design Center’s Silver Screen Theater.
The name of the film was inspired by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery after the Civil War in 1865.
For reference, the law reads: “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.”
The movie and panel discussion that followed scrutinized the portion of the amendment that has disproportionately impacted the bodies of millions of people of color: “except as punishment for crime,” a simple phrase that has been taken advantage of in order to enslave black and brown people since Reconstruction and rename it, “prison.”
The film highlights the transformation of slavery and how it has taken the form of the prison industrial system in the U.S.
That sentiment was echoed by the panel’s facilitator, Black Lives Matter organizer and chair of the Pan-African Studies Department at Cal State Los Angeles, Melina Abdullah.
Los Angeles County and the state of California pride themselves on being considered a “progressive environment,” Abdullah said, but the racism here is as covert and unjust as it elsewhere in the country.
“How are we going to change the liberal form of racism and white supremacy?” Abdullah asked the audience.
“In a place like Los Angeles, how are we going to get past the mayor’s smiles and remember that LAPD kills more of its people than any other law enforcement unit in the country. The question becomes what are we going to do?
“When we think about two and half million people imprisoned in this country, when we think about why we are still executing in this country and then when we think about why this movie is called ‘13th,’ we still have legal slavery in this country,” she added.
The discussion delved into how the overall justice system is focused more on money and capacity and less about the resocialization of those impacted by it.
Other panel participants included civil rights activists and leaders in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion within the Greater Los Angeles area including Black Lives Matters co-founder Patrisse Cullors, community activist Christopher Jackson and history curator and program manager at the California African American Museum, Tyree Boyd-Pates.
Others were Susan Burton, founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a nonprofit that provides housing and other support for formerly incarcerated women.
Burton, who was formerly incarcerated and served different sentences for over 20 years after losing her son in a unintentional police-involved car accident, spoke to the lack of mental health resources that she received throughout her time in prison.
“Whenever I asked the courts for help, their idea of help was another prison sentence,” Burton said.
“Finally I found a treatment center in Santa Monica and in that treatment center I began to recover. I also began to look at people in Santa Monica when they were in possession of drugs and what happened to people in South L.A. when they were in possession of drugs. There was a stark difference.”
Burton also brought up the parallels between the treatment of the women she works with and black people during slavery. She recalled her clients needing approval for travel from their respective probation officers when they went on a weekend retreat, having to acquire documents that read, “keep this pass on you at all times.”
She said it reminded her of the same documentation that her ancestors needed when they traveled.
“Nothing’s changed,” Burton said. “It’s just been redesigned. Here we are in the 21st century and here’s a travel pass for people.”
Another panelist, Bambi Salcedo, president and CEO of TransLatin@ Coalition, spoke of the importance of activating at this time. A huge issue that has come up in different circles, she said is people watching more than acting and becoming bystanders of the cause.
“When are we going to activate?” she asked. “When is it going to be time for us to activate. If you don’t live the experience, then you may not be able to understand, but you can activate and you can support. It’s there, you just need to open your eyes and see what’s in front of us.”
Some of the most insightful words on the evening came from Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, who commented on the deeper issue within the justice system which she says stems from white supremacy.
“There’s a white supremacist in the White House and I’m saying white supremacist and I think that everybody in the room needs to get more comfortable saying white supremacist and the system that produces them,” Khan said.
She also elaborated on identity politics and how it is the root of America’s social and policy issues.
“What if there is no changing the system?” Khan asked. “What if the very identity of America is incumbent on the continued subjugation of black people? It’s a hard thing and I think about what can I do to change the system.”
She finished her comments by challenging the audience within the predominantly white community of West Hollywood, to be more authentic about their understanding of race in America and that more “regular” people need to become a part of the social activism in the intimate confines of their community.