Image Credits: Netflix

13TH: Law and Order and the Prison of “Trump’s America”

By ​Natasha Oladokun - Nov. 17, 2016, 8:00 AM

We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order. Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. –Donald Trump, Republican Nomination Acceptance Speech

On July 21, 2016 I sat alone on the floor with my laptop facing me, Donald Trump’s hoarse voice scratching through the speakers. Though I had predicted his nomination many months before that day, nothing had prepared me for the rock in my stomach, or for the persisting waves of nausea I felt when I heard him say it: law and order. The man who, in his year-long campaign, had called for banning Muslims from entering the U.S., and had publically denounced Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals (with the caveat, “some of ‘em are good people”), was now taking the national stage, announcing that he would formally accept the role of top Republican contender for the highest office in the country.

Two weeks before this, Black America witnessed one of the most crushing weeks of police brutality in recent memory. In under four days, multiple black men had been killed by police, with either the shootings themselves or their immediate aftermath all caught on camera. An outpouring of public grief followed in the wake of these events, and Black Lives Matter groups staged peaceful rallies and protests to draw attention to these extrajudicial killings of men who, as video footage showed, had not posed an immediate threat to the officers themselves. These organized protests were largely dismissed by the public—that is, until a lone sniper, a black war veteran who had been stationed in Afghanistan, disrupted a peaceful rally in Dallas when he targeted five police officers, shooting and killing them.

Only a few sentences into his acceptance speech, Donald Trump established his platform of “law and order,” a historically coded term easily discernible to anyone on the front lines or receiving end of white nationalism. Law and order: i.e., increased policing, higher rates of arrest, reinvigorated profiling, and tighter chokeholds on communities already dismantled by gentrification and strategically zoned poverty. The sharp twinge in my chest continued to worsen as he repeated the phrase over and over throughout the speech, while he clearly enunciated: “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore…. In this race for the White House, I am the Law and Order Candidate.”

I watched 13TH two days before the presidential election, having taken weeks to prepare myself for what I was about to see. A documentary about modern slavery, disenfranchised voters, and legislative attempts to invoke “law and order” over marginalized communities was hardly material I was eager to plow into, but its significance as a work of public record was something, I knew, was too great to miss. With the culmination of a seemingly interminable election season only some hours away, I could only watch with the same sense of agonizing dread that I had felt just four months before.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of this: 13TH is a documentary that defies summation—at least, any kind of holistic summary that can do credit to its subject matter. And yet, in one hundred minutes, director and screenwriter Ava DuVernay presents a team of historians, sociologists, activists, politicians, and survivors of mass incarceration who map out an account of the United States’ documented history of criminalizing people of color (black men ranking the highest among this group)—all in the name of exacting “law and order.” By examining the U.S. Constitution’s clearly specified loophole in the 13th Amendment, 13TH unpacks longstanding, intertwined histories of the prison system’s growing business model, its function as a form of modern enslavement, and the government’s record of legislative action that has enforced what civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander has aptly called “the new Jim Crow.”

On July 24, three days after Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, I logged into Facebook and posted this:

I called Trump's nomination about a year ago, basing my prediction on how willing the general public would be to laugh at him until it was too late. And now, as we approach November, it has never been clearer that this is not, nor has it ever been, even remotely funny. If he wins this election, which I strongly suspect that he will—though I sincerely pray otherwise and hope that I'm wrong—I cannot sufficiently underscore how heavily this will affect the lives of minorities and those who advocate alongside us. Not because Trump is all-powerful, but because he represents and emboldens a great number far beyond himself.

I hoped then that I would be proven wrong. But somehow I knew, on a bodily, visceral level, that the same public that had underestimated Donald Trump and the silent majority he’d galvanized would in all likelihood do so again. Only this time, those who were already the most vulnerable in our society would be the ones to suffer the most for this, if not somewhat arrogant, blithe myopia and lack of vigilance.

In light of the past week and a half, 13TH has once again proved itself to be a devastatingly relevant work of sociological import. Donald Trump has since taken the national stage once more, this time having accepted the title President-Elect. As I and millions of others had feared, hate crimes throughout the country have already spiked as people of color, Muslims, and immigrants have been targets of physical violence and all manner of obscene persecution. Prominent members of the KKK still openly celebrate Trump’s victory, as Muslim women report incidents of having their hijabs yanked from their heads by strangers, and black people share stories on Twitter of being called “nigger” in public. All of this, while half the country reels in shock and surprise that any of this could happen here, of all places.

The label “Trump’s America” is specious for a number of reasons, but primarily for its insistence upon disassociating from what people of color—especially black men and women—have been working to expose for years. Trump’s America is America, and the entirety of the country—not only those of us currently or historically on the margins—must now accept the full weight of this long-established reality. From her birth, America has been a country whose survival has ensured and been ensured by iron subjugation, racism, classism, disregard for women, and fear of others. She is a country that is still violent and violently ill, and worse, has mistaken her power for intrinsic, even divine virtue. We are not more deeply divided than ever before—we have simply been forced to look at the lines long stitched into the fabric of this republic. “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” All that is happening now in the wake of this election is fully, deeply American—and that is precisely the heart of the problem. Disassociating from this reality helps no one.

The Law and Order Candidate will be, for all foreseeable reasons, the Commander-in-Chief who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years. Regardless of the spectrum of intent behind votes cast in his favor, his ascendance to the nation’s highest office has lent authority to the hatred and fear that has undergirded white supremacy up until this point, while laying bare the most shameful, broken aspects of this corporate body. Criminalization of black people has persisted even under the most moderate of presidencies, so it is impossible to predict how Donald Trump’s administration—which has already emboldened outbursts of bigotry and hatred—will further affect communities that are already suffering, or how it will further impact the sustained forms of enslavement that 13TH so patiently outlines. One can only hope that the same grave error that has been steadily repeated until now­­­­­—underestimating the power of white nationalism and Donald Trump’s ability to inspire it—will not find new footing under his presidency. Though I have been given little reason to be assured of this now, given our track record so far.

Particularly in a promised age of renewed “law and order,” 13TH will continue to be an all-too-necessary film as a means of contextualizing how and why black bodies remain targeted and assumed guilty on sight. When Donald Trump asserts, as he did in his first acceptance speech, that “our way of life” is under threat, we need to understand right now that “our” has never been in reference to a national collective. “Our” does not include marginalized groups, nor does it include anyone who has been denied access to the so-called America Dream. We simply cannot afford to yet again overlook and forget this, even as attempts to normalize Trump’s rise to power are already swiftly underway.

The opportunity to have effectively blocked Donald Trump’s presidency on the front end has passed. Though well-meaning Democrats have mobilized to urge the Electoral College to cast their ballots in accordance with the results of the popular vote, this too shows a degree of shortsightedness. With numerous incidents of violence already in play, the last thing that minorities need now is the possibility of a white nationalist revolt (inspired by the notion of having been cheated once again), which is as much a real possibility as a Trump presidency has proven to be. The work to be done now—to protect the vulnerable and name our country’s sickness, before any talk of healing can even begin—is much more difficult. It will require, very literally, lifetimes of labor.

If you are human being with a pulse, you need to watch this film. Now. And if you’re a human being who desires to participate in the labor I named above, I also suggest beginning with 13TH. Watch it, then watch it again, and again after that, then make your friends and family watch it, until the weight of what it presents begins to take root inside of you. If we have not learned this by now, we must understand that we can have no idea where we’re headed next, if we do not know—truly know—how we got here.

Natasha Oladokun is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her poetry and essays most often explore faith, doubt, the divine, and learning to know God through language and creative expression. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, where she learned that genres are only sort of a real thing. Follow her on Twitter at @NatashaOladokun.