Legislature marks the Juneteenth with the revival of the “Abolition Change”
As the nation made Juniteenth a federal holiday this week to honor the end of black slavery, lawmakers revived calls to fill a loophole in the Constitution that makes it another form of slavery – forced labor for those who are because of some Crimes were convicted – flourished.
Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams – both Democrats – reintroduced a law on Thursday to revise the 13th Amendment that bans enslavement or involuntary servitude other than as a form of criminal punishment. This exception, recognized since 1865, has led to the common practice of forced labor in prisons.
Social justice advocates say it has created generations of black families affected by mass incarceration and poverty, and the effects can still be felt today. Juneteenth seemed the right time to address this “huge slice of systemic racism amid our Constitution,” Merkley told The Associated Press.
“The moment we, if you will, celebrate the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery and its eventual announcement … we should at the same time acknowledge that the 13th Amendment was flawed,” Merkley said. “It enabled states to arrest people for any reason, convict them, and return them to slavery.”
The loophole in the amendment to criminal punishment encouraged the post-civil war former Confederate States to find ways to maintain the dynamic of slavery. They used restrictive measures known as “black codes,” laws aimed at black people in order to achieve benign interactions, from speaking loudly to ignoring them on the sidewalk. Those who were attacked would be detained for these minor acts and would practically be re-enslaved.
The so-called “Abolition Amendment” was introduced as a joint resolution in December. Mostly supported by Democrats in both the House and Senate, it failed to gain momentum before the end of the session. According to Merkley, the hope this time is to spark a national movement.
The subject is important to Williams, a black woman who grew up in the south. She hopes this legislation will not be viewed through the prism of money and the meaning of losing prison jobs. Instead, she says, the history of the prison system and its relationship with the People of Color must be viewed in a âhuman-centeredâ manner.
“Our people were already in chains and enslaved for money,” Williams said. “We need to make sure that we are really moving forward and not using money as a crutch about why we continue to perpetuate the sins of our nation’s creation and our nation’s history.”
One group that has long been part of the movement is Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy group that helps get the law up and running. The clause of the change is having a significant impact today, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises. Imprisoned workers make no more than a dime a dime on their contributions, she says, and they have no recourse if they are injured at work or have to work sick.
âWe’re talking about people who can be beaten for not working. People can be denied calls and visits [or] Contact with her family, âsaid Tylek. âPeople can be put into solitary confinement. People can take hits on their long-term recordings. “
Jorge Renaud, LatinoJustice’s national criminal justice director and a probation officer, said those sentences happened to him when he was unable to do some jobs. He spent much of his 27 years in Texas state prisons doing hard jobs like picking cotton, cutting trees, and leveling roads. Texas does not pay incarcerated workers.
For Renaud, 64, worse than no pay was that he didn’t have a lot of self-esteem.
âIt’s not just a choice to work. The choice is to do anything, âhe said. âWe live in a country that is proud of its individuality. … It is impressed on you again and again that you are worthless and that you belong to the state. “
Proponents of the bill point out that it targets forced labor rather than voluntary prison labor programs.
“What we are saying,” said Tylek, “is that the value of this work must be demonstrated and people must not be forced to work against their will.”
In Renaud’s experience, prison work was also often done without racial justice. White incarcerated workers were often assigned less labor-intensive tasks such as running the prison library or reconditioning computers. But their black and Latin American colleagues got kitchen and laundry service. He noticed a similar trend when he gave some lawmakers a tour of a prison section three years ago.
“The jobs that prepare you for something in the free world or that are technology-based … are still reserved for whites,” said Renaud.
More than 20 states still include similar clauses affecting human servitude or prison labor in their own government documents, which were two of the last year until the abolition of slavery in 19th Nebraska and Utah represented by GOP senators first to change their constitutions on the same subject through voter-approved initiatives. Only Colorado came earlier and removed that language through a 2018 vote.
Merkley is optimistic that his Republican counterparts will ultimately endorse the law.
“Nothing about it should be partial,” Merkley said. “I think every American should work to end slavery in our constitution.”
Williams, too, does not want this to be portrayed as a partisan issue.
“I am ready to work with you as long as you are willing to ensure that everyone in this country – regardless of their background, zip code or bank account – has access to America’s full promise,” she said. “This also means that in our constitution we abolish involuntary servitude in this country.”
The 13th Amendment arose out of President Abraham Lincoln’s determination that historians say the Emancipation Proclamation did not do enough to eradicate slavery. While the Emancipation Proclamation liberated slaves in the south in 1863, it was not enforced in many places until two years later after the end of the civil war. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but the news did not reach the last of the enslaved blacks until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That day was called Juneteenth.
Meanwhile, Lincoln proposed a constitutional amendment to end the institution of slavery once and for all. The Senate passed the 13th Amendment in 1864, and the House of Representatives followed suit in early 1865, barely two months before Lincoln’s assassination. The change was then ratified by the states.
Constitutional amendments require the approval of two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate and ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures. They are also rare.
Worth Rises’ Tylek hopes other lawmakers will see an exception to the ban on slavery is unacceptable.
“It’s a big blemish on our culture, our constitution, our nation, to say ‘No slavery but,'” Tylek said. “We have to be able to say no slavery – no exceptions.”
Story by Terry Tang, The Associated Press
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