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Slavery Is Still Legal (For Cops)


<mournful ghostly mountain music plays on
a fiddle, layered with the sounds of birds and other critters.> <It sounds like the past, but regretfully so> Hey there, welcome to That Dang Dad, my name
is Phil, and tonight… we’re talking slavery. If you read the title of this video, you know
exactly where this is going: slavery is still legal in the United States of America and
is part of the landscape of modern US law enforcement And not in a roundabout abstract way, I mean
slavery is protected by the US constitution and enforced statutorily by both Democrat
and Republican-controlled state governments.

So I guess what I’m saying is… tonight
is going to be a light, fun discussion full of smiles and good vibes. Yeah no seriously, content warning for discussions
of slavery, abuse of prisoners, state violence, all that stuff. Anyway, let’s get to it. <Sad echoey mountain music interlude> To start, I want to give a very brief overview
of slavery in the United States. I won’t be able to do justice to the full
complexity and the full horror of the topic, but there’s some context here that’s going
to be important later.

The history of enslaved people in the United
States goes way, WAY back to at least 1508 when Spanish colonizers invaded what would
later become Puerto Rico and used the indigenous Taino people for forced labor on their farms
and in their mines. While this wasn’t precisely chattel slavery,
the forced labor was so cruel (and European diseases so rampant) that by 1513, just five
years later, the Taino population had been badly depleted and the Spanish settlement
began importing enslaved people from Africa. In 1526, the first people kidnapped from Africa
arrived in what is now South Carolina. It does bring me pleasure to inform you that
this colony collapsed from infighting pretty much immediately, leading to a revolt by the
enslaved population and their eventual successful escape. Anybody telling you that “people in the
past didn’t know any better” is either extremely ignorant, a disgusting liar, or
in the case of everyone involved with the Federalist Society: both! During the colonial period and after the American
Revolution, the entire agricultural economy of the southern states became dependent on
forced labor to make money from rice, tobacco, and later cotton crops.

These commodity crops were extremely labor-intensive
and could only build wealth by exploiting the bodies of enslaved people. This is in contrast to, say, people who settled
in the Appalachian region for example; they became subsistence farmers and rarely relied
on forced labor. Slavery was not a technology for feeding and
clothing individual families, it was primarily a technology for creating generational white
wealth. After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860,
a little kerfuffle broke out the next year. Nothing much to say about it, but when the
spat was over, the southern states that had relied on enslaved labor were brought to heel
and in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, finally getting rid of slavery forever! Y’know, let me just take a big drink of
southern sweet tea and actually read the text of the 13th Amendment: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude
shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. ”except as a punishment for crime whereof
the party shall have been duly convicted,” <spit take> That’s right folks.

Slavery is not abolished in the constitution,
it is specifically protected as a legal punishment for a crime. Now you might be saying that’s not a fair
characterization because it really did abolish chattel slavery which was the dominant model
at the time and the source of so many atrocities, but I would counter that if you’re in favor
of a little bit of slavery, you’re pro-slavery, my guy. This isn’t just me being an intractible
left-wing scold: that punishment clause allowed the white supremacy and wealth hoarding motive
fueling the original slave trade to simply don a new disguise and continue unabaited. See, plantation owners had a problem: all
that cheap labor they used to “own” no longer belonged to them. What’s a poor southern boy to do? The answer? Black Codes. Modeled after the Slave Codes prior to the
war, the Black Codes were a way for white legislatures to control the newly free Black

It prevented them from owning land, it prevented
them from conducting business, and it criminalized a brand new social evil white people had just
discovered: vagrancy! In the post-war south, it was suddenly illegal
to be out of work, or to work a job that white people didn’t consider a real job, or to
change jobs without your employer’s approval, or to be unhoused. Being arrested and convicted of vagrancy meant
that you could legally be sentenced to… forced labor. And holy fucking shit, would you believe it,
there were a bunch of plantation owners who would be happy to help the state carry out
that sentence by paying a small amount of cash for some helping hands. In 1898, 73% of Alabama’s state revenue
came from selling enslaved labor to white “job creators.” When Tennessee ended its convict lease program
in 1894 (due to a year long labor action by miners), it simply built the new Brushy Mountain
prison on top of a new mining site and forced the Black prisoners to labor in it, reaping
massive profits.

That mine operated until 1966! https://aaregistry.org/story/the-american-convict-leasing-program-a-story/ Companies from railroads to logging outfits
to factories making turpentine made massive profits using prison labor during the Reconstruction
Era. Oh and lest you think this was just those
backwards southerners being nasty racists, many of the businesses profiting from forced
Black prison labor were subsidieries funneling profits back to Northern entrepreneurs. By enshrining the right to extract cheap,
forced labor from incarcerated people, the 13th Amendment gave a perverse incentive to
a white society who believed non-whites were inferior: make it a crime not to be white. In some cases, white legislatures could say
the quiet part loud, in other cases, it was more of an unspoken motivation, but the numbers
tell the story: In Tennessee, for example, Black people went
from 33% of the prison population in 1865 to 67% in 1877. In 1888 in Baton Rouge, Black people made
up 77% of prisoners. In 1875 in North Carolina, it was 88%. According to researcher C.R. Adamson, at certain times during Reconstruction,
approximately 95% of people in criminal custody among all southern states were Black. Not only were Black proportions of prisoners
on the rise, total prison populations themselves rose sharply in the decades following the
Civil War.

In Mississippi, the prison population quadrupled
between 1871 and 1879; in Alabama, it increased 6 and a half times by 1919. During this same time period in Florida, it
increased 8 and a half times; and In Georgia and North Carolina, it increased tenfold. Adamson finishes his paper this way: If you want to put it on a bumper sticker
though, he says it like this: “Crime control and economic oppression were one and the same
thing in the South.” Now, Phil, you might be saying: this is all
very tragic, but the convict-lease system was dead and buried like 90 years ago.

As a society we’ve progressed past all tha- <Cruel, mocking laughter> Absolutely not. This is still happening. The United States imprisons more of its people
than any other country on earth, both in terms of raw numbers AND percentage of population. It seems to me there’s only two explanations
for that: either Americans are uniquely culturally prone to antisocial behaviors orrrr the system
of racial and economic control that exploded the prison population during Reconstruction
never stopped working. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon brought new innovation
to the Black Codes, instigating the War on Drugs. His advisor, John Erlichman, later admitted
that the war on drugs was specifically designed to criminalize the antiwar left and Black
people in the United States, giving state security forces a pretext to arrest leaders
and break up organizations. And it worked: prior to the War on Drugs,
the US prison population was 300,000 people. In the decades following, it reached a high
of 2.3 million. And just like the United States used newly
criminalized Black people for cheap labor via Convict-Lease programs, it again greedily
swallowed up a brand new exploitable labor pool provided by the War on Drugs.

Right now, labor is being extracted from incarcerated
people in a few different ways. In-house prison labor such as kitchen duty,
cleaning, groundskeeping, or even farming is pretty common. And it’s not just something they can volunteer
for to alleviate boredom: incarcerated people can be punished and sometimes even sent to
solitary confinement for refusing to work or for taking a sick day. While this labor is unpaid in eight states,
even the gracious states that pay incarcerated people pay them pennies. Literally. The average rates for in-house labor range
from 14 to 63 cents per hour and that’s the gross pay: many incarcerated people have
their wages garnished to pay for everything from court fees to victim’s restitution.

Even IF incarcerated people manage to keep
the pittance they’re paid, that money is quickly gobbled up by price-gouging at the
prison commissary, the new iteration of the mining town company store. $5 for one small bag of chips, $5 for two
tampons… in one story, an incarcerated person paid their entire day’s wages for one stick
of deodorant. Prison commissaries don’t give bulk discounts
to incarcerated people even when forcing them to buy in bulk, so a 24 pack of ramen noodles
costs $16.80. At Walmart, that same order would cost $4. And in a country of 50 states, somehow my
beautiful Kentucky managed to rank 51st in affordability for a 15-minute phone call:
$5.70. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds, potentially thousands of US businesses
are exploiting the labor of incarcerated people to rake in huge profits thanks to depressed
wages and not providing benefits. McDonald’s and Wendy’s use prison slave
labor for processing and packaging food products. Starbucks exploits them to package coffee. JC Penney sells jeans made by incarcerated
people. Victoria’s Secret sells clothing sewn by
incarcerated people.

Sprint and Verizon and American Airlines and
Avis use incarcerated people in call centers. And of course Walmart is on this list, exploiting
incarcerated people to manufacture all kinds of products and repackage returned goods. Due to intentional supply chain obfuscation,
it’s difficult to know just how many companies are exploiting incarcerated people to reduce
costs and increase their profitability. However, we can get a small glimpse into the
sheer scale of this thanks to the federally-funded Prison Industry Enhancement Certification
Program or PICEP for short. While this is only a fraction of companies
using incarcerated workers, it gives you an idea of just how much stuff being sold in
America relies on prison slave labor. Incarcerated workers involved with PICEP’s
corporate partners made, among other things: Cargo trailers, electronics cables, wire harnesses,
evaporator coils, circuit boards, processd potatoes, agricultural equipment, cloth bags,
sports gear, wood doors, pet products, transportation seating, wading boots, golf shirts, brass
valves, boat docks, miniature lamps, scrapbooking supplies and party balloons. <whew, almost ran out of breath!> In order to qualify for PICEP certification,
prisons must promise that incarcerated people will be paid “prevailing wages” but this
is almost universally ignored (PICEP is overseen by the same prison administrators profiting
from the program).

For example, in Florida, workers produce these
products during so-called “training courses” for depressed wages and after “graduating”
to be paid fair value for their labor, they then have their pay docked up to 80% for taxes,
room and board, and restitution. And of course, companies aren’t just exploiting
incarcerated people for cheap labor, they’re using that labor pool to close down businesses
that employ people who aren’t incarcerated. For example, in Texas in the 90s, Lockhart
Technologies shifted electronic component manufacturing to the Wackenhut Prison and
then shut down its Austin facility, firing 150 free workers. In 2006, a Texas company called DTEC used
incarcerated workers to reduce costs and undercut the local union shops. This resulted in 90 union workers being relocated
and 60 being fired. In Washington State, Omega Pacific fired 30
free workers and moved their manufacturing operation to a nearby corrections center.

This continues into the 2020s. COVID caused over one million American deaths
and led to massive labor shortages, which in turn sparked renewed vigor among labor
organizers. Rather than raise wages and suffer the indignities
of treating employees like human beings, many companies are trying to use incarcerated people
to fill in the gaps, including restaurants in Michigan, Texas, Ohio, and Delaware, candy
factories in Kansas, construction companies in New York, and good ol’ 3M up in Minnesota,
dontcha know. And, like a cat hearing the tell-tale crack
of a freshly penetrated can of tuna, our entire political establishment came running to get
a taste of all these delicious profits yum yum! At the federal level, Republicans and a few
democrats get the usual direct bribes from lobbyists and political action commitees. It’s even more corrupt at the state level
because budgets can be much tighter and the profitable relationship between prisons and
corporations can be very attractive to state officials.

Arkansas’ republican Governor Asa Hutchinson
has a loving relationship with Simmons Foods, a chicken processing company that has been
exploiting incarcerated workers, injuring and maiming them on the job, and paying them
nothing at all. In Florida in 2011, private prison company
GEO bought off politicians to help pass a law requiring the privatization of prisons
in Florida. Guess what state GEO is headquartered in? In Maine that same year, republican governor
Paul LePage received $25,000 from CCA (now CoreCivic) and then appointed a CCA warden
as Commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections.

Back to Arkansas, remember how Bill and Hillary
Clinton used incarcerated people as unpaid servants to “cut down costs” when they
lived in the governor’s mansion? https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/06/the-clintons-had-slaves Speaking of powerful democrats, remember when
Kamala Harris openly defied orders by the supreme court to reduce the prison population
in California because she needed incarcerated people to risk their lives as fire fighters
making $4-$7 an hour battling deadly wildfires caused in part by PG&E’s profit motivated
refusal to maintain powerlines? The racial and economic legacy of slavery
in this country lives on in our current prison system, reinforced and upheld by both Democrats
and Republicans because at their core, both serve the same master: capitalism. As long as the profit motive exists, there
will be an incentive to criminalize certain communities, incarcerate them, and exploit
them when they are at their most vulnerable. The invisible hand demands it. In closing, I want to address a couple points
of criticism I anticipate receiving. The first is this: no, I am not saying that
modern prison slave labor is identical to the chattel slavery practiced during the Atlantic
Slave Trade.

Obviously those are different things. That said, I do believe that prison slave
labor’s horrors and indignities have roots in the chattel slavery system that built the
United States and it’s important to analyze that DNA, both to understand how and why we
got here, and to understand the ideology fueling this system Also, during this video, I’ve talked a lot
about how Blackness is criminalized and about how Black people are disproportionately forced
into the prison system. I want to acknowledge that this system of
criminalization affects other populations too. When I was a police officer, the city I patrolled
was 90% first and second generation immigrants, mostly from Mexico, but also Guatemala, Honduras,
and El Salvador. Many of those immigrants lacked documentation.

Thus, California had a whole host of laws
that had a disparate impact on that community. Many of these people could not get driver’s
licenses or car insurance, so getting pulled over on their way to work could result in
fines that would become arrests that would become jail or prison terms. Many of these immigrants were paid depressed
wages under the table by unscrupulous business owners and their documentation status was
used against them to force long hours, to dissuade them from reporting injuries on the
job, and to prevent them from organizing. Immigrants who weren’t submissive enough
might suddenly be the subject of an anonymous tip to La Migra. People’s immigrant status was used to keep
them poor and poverty itself is criminalized in the United States, using many of the same
vagrancy laws we saw during Reconstruction. My city also had ordinances allowing us to
arrest panhandlers, people collecting recycling, people selling snacks from a cart, and even
the neighborhood elote man! It also needs to be said: approximately half
of all incarcerated people have some form of mental illness.

In the United States, mental illness is treated
like a personal moral failing rather than a medical ailment deserving of care, and thus,
in a variety of ways, we have criminalized disability and we use the prison system to
hide disabled people out of sight. Lastly, I know some of you are going to tell
me that some people really do commit bad crimes and some people really do deserve prison and
the existence of racist policies in history or in modern times doesn’t de facto mean
we shouldn’t lock some people away. You’re probably also going to tell me that
incarcerated people shouldn’t get to keep a lot of money because feeding, clothing,
housing, and guarding them comes from the taxes paid by good, hard-working, honest people
who follow the rules.

Perhaps you yourself have been the victim
of a crime and you’re picturing your abuser as I wax sympathetic about incarcerated people. And I’ll say this: I’m not here to call
you a monster for having that anxiety, especially if you’ve been the victim of a crime. I know prison abolition is a really big leap
of faith and you’re not evil if you can’t make it right now. But I also want to tell you, the system we
have now is the system we’ve had for over a century and if you’re worried about crime
or if you’ve been the victim of crime, then it means the system we have now failed you. The priorities of our society today failed
you. The way we treat poor people, Black people,
disabled people, immigrants, any other community on the margins, and yes, the way we treat
incarcerated people has failed you.

We’ve tried the dehumanization. We’ve tried the isolation. We’ve tried the torture. We’ve tried the prison slavery. We’ve tried all of that for a long time
and it’s not working. It’s not making people better. It’s not reducing antisocial responses to
desperate circumstances. It’s not providing coping strategies for
mental illness. It’s not making you safer. If anything, the current system is training
an entire generation of desperate people that they have no stake in society and no reason
to participate nicely. If anything, the way we do things now makes
you and your family much less safe. To close us out, the other reason I wanted
to make this video and the reason I spent so much time earlier on the history of slavery
is because I want us to see the interconnection between capitalism, racism, and ableism. A lot of times we want to treat these as separate
little islands, but it’s all one big country.

Capitalism’s inherent hunger for wealth
accumulation incentivized colonizers to seek out faraway lands where they slaughtered the
indigenous populations and stole their resources. White supremacy taught many Europeans to see
lands belonging to non-white people as resources wasted on savages who didn’t know how to
capitalize on them. Ableism informed the sensibilities of centuries
of racists, telling them they were civilizing the backwards, primitive races by using them
as unpaid labor and pocketing the value created by that labor. The profit motive has no use for workers that
need extra accomodations or whose bodies cannot provide labor, so the politicians who gorge
themselves on corporate cash use the same legal philosophies that caged away the “inconvenient”
free Black population during Reconstruction against the inconvenient disabled population.

In fact, in 1837, Senator John C. Calhoun
very succinctly shows the relationship between all three in a speech defending slavery : What this means is that if you want to combat
ableism, you have to be in solidarity with the fight against racism and colonialism. And if you want to combat racism, you have
to be in solidarity with the fight against capitalism. And if you want to combat capitalism, you
damn sure better be listening to your Black and Brown and Asian and Indigenous and Immigrant
and Disabled comrades. This is all one fight and we either win together
or not at all. So, whaddya think? Did you already know about this or did you
learn something new? If you’ve been incarcerated before, what
do you want people to know about it? How can people help? Oh, and I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m
a white ex-cop who just spent a long time talking about slavery and incarceration, so
if I said something clumsy or hurtful, feel free to let me know.

Anyway, thank you for spending time with me
tonight. If you got something out of this, please Like
the video, subscribe if you like my vibe, and most importantly, please share this video
with someone that you think ought to hear it. Either way, keep fightin’ the good fight
out there, stay safe but stay rowdy, and I hope to see you on the next one. Goodniiiight! <The sad mountain music begins to decay and echo in the woods, degrading as it swallowed up by the wet dirt and fungal inevitability…>.

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