One major theme of Selma director Ava DuVernay's powerful documentary 13th is the protean way that systems of oppression can change to cling to power. The film's name, for example, is a reference to the 13th Amendment, which the documentary argues abolished slavery only to make way for a system of mass incarceration. The key language there: “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.” That, in the words of the film's tagline, meant that black Americans went "from slave to criminal with one amendment."
The executive director of Oakland's Center for Media Justice, Malkia Cyril is a key voice in 13th as one of the film's principal interviewees. The concern behind Cyril's work: That the system of subjugation and control we know today as mass incarceration could become something else tomorrow. The power that technology has to shape social movements is undeniable, but so is a history of surveillance used against them. Cyril's mother was a Black Panther, one of many groups in our country's history that was closely surveilled, often illegally, by the FBI.
Cyril received an Electronic Frontier Foundation 2016 Pioneer Award this summer, and the Center for Media Justice along with the ACLU called public attention to Geofeedia, a surveillance program used by police departments including Oakland's, that had been working with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to receive data on users. All three companies curtailed or cut off their relationship with Geofeedia, which had marketed its product as useful for tracking protesters.
Cyril began working with DuVernay following the director's sophomore film, Middle of Nowhere in which a woman's husband is sent to prison to serve an eight-year sentence. DuVernay won best director at the 2012 Sundance Festival for the film, and Cyril helped screen it across the country to call attention to the predatory industry inflating the cost of prison phone calls, which the FTC eventually addressed. SFist spoke with Cyril recently to learn more about the film as well as to discuss recent revelations of social media surveillance:
SFist: 13th was shot in secrecy. When did you learn of the project, and what was your reaction?
Malkia Cyril: After Middle of Nowhere, this was an ongoing relationship talking about mass incarceration... I actually did know a little bit about this film in advance, and when she invited me to participate and be interviewed in the film, I was ecstatic. I love her. There's a shortage, a real dearth, an extraordinary lack of black women filmmakers and directors, so to see a sister create work and be recognized, and for it to be so beautiful... I was just like, whatever you're talking about, I'm here for it!
I knew that the film was a massive undertaking. I knew that she was doing it in her spare time, and I knew that she was really trying to make a film that was going to simultaneously tell a very rich and complex history while speaking to the widest possible audience.
SFist: You've been a leading voice warning against the dangers that high-tech surveillance presents. That thinking appears to have influenced one of the final takeaways from the film, the question of what could be next.
Cyril: We talked a lot about that off camera, and you know, it was important to me, and also important to Ava, that it appear in the film. That's part of the excellence of the film, its intent is looking at, historically, how slavery has mutated into mass incarceration. But looking at that history gives us a glimpse of how easy it would be for that type of social control and labor exploitation to mutate into something else. The prison industry is not going anywhere. That kind of low wage to no wage labor is not going to disappear, even as we de-carcerate people, even as we remove bodies from the brutalities of the institution called prison. That's the future we have to be very thoughtful about.
SFist: The Black Lives Matter movement, in which you're a leader, has focused its attention on police. How do you see mass incarceration as related?
Cyril: Since the murder of Travyon in 2012, there's been no comprehensive police reform on the table. But billions have been spent on body-worn cameras, on surveillance, on license plate readers, on the warrantless use of facial recognition technology. We're talking about billions being spent to watch black people in general. When we look at mass incarceration, we tend to separate policing and mass incarceration, but the reality is that the police are the long gathering arm of mass incarceration. They're the slave catchers, they bring you in, and all the technology that's used to spy on black communities and other communities of color, poor communities, those are tools of slave catching.
SFist: After learning that the company Geofeedia had been encouraging police departments to buy its product to monitor Black Lives Matter protesters, the ACLU of California, the Center for Media Justice, and Color of Change called on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to better protect their users. Do you think they've committed to doing better?
Cyril: It's great that these companies have discontinued their relationship with Geofeedia, but that's temporary. What needs to happen is clear policy and rules that they adhere to, rules that restrict their use of third party vendors to spy on protestors and activists. they should not be sharing social media information with the police except in the most extreme of circumstances.
SFist: Twitter in particular but also social media platforms in general have a clear problem with trolls who attempt to silence other users. That also seems like their failing.
Cyril: Here's what's real: These platforms are becoming an important location for the making and breaking of news, and yet in the 21st century, social media platforms don't have any of the same kind of journalistic guidelines around free speech. [Social media companies] are corporations first and foremost, whereas journalistic outlets are supposedly corporations second, and journalistic outlets first.
This question of how we manage and protect free speech while also supporting and protecting safety, it's a fine line, and I want social media companies to be careful and thoughtful, but just as news outlets cut off the commenters when they become abusive, Facebook and Twitter really do need approaches toward managing content. We've been engaging with groups to urge Mark Zuckerberg and the content team at Facebook to take a closer look at their content policies and make sure they're not censoring protected speech, and ensure that their content policies don't disadvantage users of color, and also they need to make sure their content policies are protecting their vulnerable users, and they need a more rigorous approach.
SFist: I was hoping you could talk about your upbringing and how that might have brought you to Oakland.
Cyril: My mother was a Black Panther, I grew up as a Panther in a community of Panthers. I chose Oakland as my second home because of its rich history of black activism, because it was the birthplace of the Panthers, and so, I think, on the one hand, the fact that this place has has sustained over many years, many decades, a history of black activism, a history of activism in Asian communities, Mexican and Latino communities, and the Occupy movement.
At the same time, there's extreme gentrification — more accurate to say displacement — and extreme policing. It can be a brutal environment. We're seeing black and brown and poor people moved to the outer limits, but we're fighting like hell for the soul of Oakland, just like those in San Francisco are fighting for the soul of San Francisco. We've got extreme wealth next to extreme poverty, with Silicon Valley creating billionaires every year, and right next to cities where schools can't afford to operate and people can't afford to live. These kinds of extreme wealth disparities are why we fight.
13th will be screened at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco tomorrow, November 4, at 8:30 p.m., where it is co-presented by the Center For Media Justice, and is available now on Netflix