Reflections on the 13th Film

Reflections on the 13th Film

In May of 2020, students and staff from our Nightingale-TYWLS East Harlem Riley’s Way Council got together virtually to watch the “13th” documentary . This Council has been working on issues associated with police brutality and mass incarceration for the past three years with Circles of Support, amplifying the stories of women impacted by incarceration. The students were so moved by what they saw; they thought the film should be mandatory viewing. Our Board decided to take them up on their suggestion. Below are reflections from two of our Board members after they watched the “13th.”


Reflections from Board Governance Chair, John Horner:

Last week, a group of us from the Board and staff of Riley’s Way got together to watch and discuss the documentary “13th.” For those who haven’t seen it, the main theme of the movie is that, for all practical purposes, slavery didn’t end with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. While the Thirteenth Amendment did abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, it left a loophole:  “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This has led to a period of mass incarceration over the past 40 years, even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

The documentary is a series of interviews, combined with historical video footage that is both powerful and moving. When we talked about how the film made us feel, responses included “horrified, sad, depressed, exhausted, angry, hopeless.” And, while those are some of the feelings I had right after, the things that will stay with me the longest are the pure facts that permeated throughout the movie:

    • The US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners
    • Growth of prisoners during the 50 years I have been alive:
      • 1970 (357,000), 1980 (514,000), 1990 (1,179,000), 2014 (2,300,000)
    • 40% of those are African-American

It also made me rethink how I felt about (or what I actually knew about) two of the biggest drivers of mass incarceration: “the war on drugs” and ‘“the war on crime.” While both of these are typically associated with the Reagan era, the movie reminds us that President Clinton was also a large driver through legislation he pushed. This reinforces the notion that systemic racism is not partisan.

I tried to go back in time and remember how I felt about the “wars” when I was a teen, the same age as many of the people who Riley’s Way works with today. Honestly, I can’t say I remember hearing or thinking anything negative about it. Maybe that was a lack of information (remember we didn’t have the internet yet!). But, I certainly don’t remember there ever being a discussion around the dinner table in high school or even on campus at Berkeley where I went to college. This is despite a doubling of the prison population in the 80s. Was my generation just not as socially conscious as teens today?

And maybe that is why I come out of watching “13th” feeling hopeful, not hopeless. This discussion is happening at my dinner table with my teenage kids on a regular basis. It is happening across the country, and not just on college campuses. It is happening at Riley’s Way because the teens we work with said it is an absolute necessity. It is happening in their schools because our Councils brought speakers in to talk about it. There is no easy fix to the problems that the US face, including systematic racism, but acknowledging them and discussing them is the first step.


Reflections from Board Co-Chair and proud father of Riley Hannah Sandler, Ian Sandler:

We are living in one of the most unique times in modern history. We are dealing with the worst pandemic in the last 100 years and our country is experiencing a social justice movement not seen in the last 50 years. I, like many, am using this time to learn as much as I can.

It is against this backdrop that we gathered as a Board and staff at Riley’s Way to watch the documentary film the “13th.”  It was incredibly enlightening. I learned that while the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the shackles of oppression around people of color in America simply shifted names and strategies.

The film highlights a clause in the Thirteenth Amendment that I rarely paid attention to:

“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.” – Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

The film talks about how southern states used this clause to detain former slaves on minor charges and prop-up the economy of the south, which was still reeling from the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. This simple clause, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” became a means to replace slavery and has evolved with the passage of time. I was saddened and surprised to see how mass incarceration has been used as a weapon to keep those in power in control while oppressing generations of African Americans.

I agree with our Riley’s Way students: this film should be required viewing for all Americans. Today, it feels like the nation is more divided than at any time I can recall. After watching this film, I understand in a new way the rage that has drawn hundreds of thousands out to the streets demanding change.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to watch the “13th” and discuss it with other members of the Riley’s Way community. I am an optimist by nature and found that our discussion on the movie allowed me to see a silver lining among the clouds: hope for change with a new generation pushing a movement forward.

At our core, Riley’s Way is a social justice organization for the next generation of kind leaders.  While I needed to watch the “13th” to learn about the direct link between the war on drugs and Jim Crow, the amazing teens of our Riley’s Way Councils have already been focused on this issue, working with us and the group Circles of Support to do something about it.

Three years ago, our TYWLS East Harlem / Nightingale Riley’s Way Council identified the issue of racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration as one that broke their collective hearts, requiring their time and attention. Since then, they have been listening to the stories of women impacted by mass incarceration, hosting sisterhood dinners for the women and their families, and elevating the voices and stories of these women through speaking events for their school communities. I truly believe that some of the next generation of leaders in this country are going to come from the Riley’s Way community. These teens push us to change, both as people and as a nation. I am so grateful that our teens encouraged us to watch this film. While I found myself appalled at the lack of progress, I also found myself encouraged that this time things may be different, that we can chart a new future. My plan is to continue to learn as much as I can, to do all I can to change as an individual, and to double my own efforts to help grow and support the incredible community at Riley’s Way.