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21st Century Quakers, Slavery and Mass Incarceration

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21st Century Quakers, Slavery and Mass Incarceration


Thirteenth is not an easy documentary to watch.  But I’m sure I was not alone in my gratitude for the chance to see it with others from CPMM and POWER, and to meditate on what it means for our community.


Overall, it was a powerful indictment of the criminalization of black people, and black men in particular, starting with the language of the 13th Amendment.  Only recently did I learn that this amendment to the Constitution, which held out the possibility of freedom for everybody, included a clause that allowed the continuation of slave conditions as punishment for crime.  The number of black men in prison skyrocketed after the Civil War, and their involuntary prison labor was used to rebuild the economy of the South.


That history is chilling.  The way the 1915 movie, The Birth of a Nation, cast black people as dangerous criminals and created a climate of white triumphalism encouragement of KKK atrocities was appalling.  But I think the thought that will stay with me the longest was the one we were left with at the very end:  It’s easy to say that we would never have abided the horrors of slavery, been party to lynchings, or condoned segregation.  But silence in the face of mass incarceration is silent acquiescence to the same evil, in its 21st century incarnation.


What does this mean for Quakers?  We have a proud history of opposition to slavery.  Many Quakers were active in the fight against segregation.  What do we do now?


Mass incarceration is a monster with many tentacles.  Injustice and racism are embedded in the system every step along the way, as most of us are painfully aware.  Policing and arrests concentrate in poor neighborhoods.  Pre-trial rules allow the rich and guilty to go free more easily than the poor and innocent.  Urban crime is seen as more dangerous than its suburban counterpart, as in the widely different sentences for use of crack and powder cocaine.   So black men—as well as other people of color—are incarcerated at rates far higher than those for whites.


At the same time, practices within prisons have become increasingly punitive, as seen most starkly in widespread use of solitary confinement.  When they leave prison, returning citizens are routinely deprived of many of their rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.  With the prison-building boom, brought on by the tough-on-crime stands of Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, profit-seeking companies swarmed in, eager to make money off of building and running prisons and exploiting low-wage prison labor.


We can speak out and work against any or all of these injustices.  We can reach to be present to the human beings who are caught in the system, both people in prisons and their families outside.  We can attack it at its oldest root, asserting that justice requires a change in the language of the 13th Amendment.


Perhaps we can start by saying publicly that we oppose this scourge on our society.  I’m not a big fan of passing minutes, which often seem to be a way of taking pride in our good values while absolving ourselves of the responsibility of doing anything harder.  But I have a strong sense that we need to go on record here. 


How would our history have been different if Quakers had not stood up publicly against slavery?  Going on record could be one step in taking the issue of mass incarceration as seriously as we would have taken slavery.  We would be clear as a body that this is a violent, unjust, racist system, one that runs contrary to our most deeply held beliefs, and that must be challenged with all the resources we can bring to bear.  Having committed ourselves to that public declaration, we may be in a stronger position to help each other discern the variety of right actions that we are called to take, both individually and as a community.


Pamela Haines


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