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BLSA Conference 33rd Annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference: “Hidden Truths: Addressing a 13th Amendment Ambiguity that Created America’s Carceral State”

March 16, 2021

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) recently held its 33rd Annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference, “Hidden Truths: Addressing a 13th Amendment Ambiguity that Created America’s Carceral State.”

Planned and facilitated by BLSA members Kristian Brown L’22 and Leticia Salazar L’22, the event brought together scholars and leading experts in the fields of law, sociology, and civil rights to engage in a robust conversation about the roots of mass incarceration and the prison abolition movement, as well as to discuss viable alternatives and legal interventions that can rectify societal harms caused by systemic racism and imprisonment.

“The Sadie Conference has a long-standing legacy – one that is difficult to fully grasp until you’re at the event. It is the biggest event at the Law School, annually, and we continuously report record-breaking fundraising efforts,” said Brown and Salazar. “Beyond these facts, however, is the legacy of one of Penn Law’s most astounding alumni – Sadie T.M. Alexander. She was a remarkable woman, and we are so lucky and proud to celebrate her life and the impact she’s had on the Black Penn Law community in particular. Her impact left an impression on us as 1Ls and we knew we had to pay it forward and plan this conference during our 2L year.”

Opening remarks by Nicole Lewis

Nicole Lewis, great granddaughter of Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander L’1927 and Staff Writer at The Marshall Project, provided opening remarks about her family’s legacy and role in planting the current roots of the abolition movement, and her vision moving forward toward social change.

“Sadie’s legacy is one of incredible self-determination,” said Lewis. “I hope that we can find the urgency to not just be the first in the room but to commit to more freedom, more self-determination, and more able to chart the course of our own lives for all Black people.”

The History of the Thirteenth Amendment from Slavery to Mass Incarceration

The first panel, “The History of the Thirteenth Amendment from Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” was moderated by George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dorothy Roberts and included Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and scholar of comparative constitutional law; Flores Forbes, Associate Vice President for Community Affairs at Columbia University; and William Carter, Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and leading expert on racial discrimination and the Thirteenth Amendment.

In 1865, Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime throughout the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment exceptions clause is highly criticized because it is commonly interpreted to mean that a criminal conviction deprives individuals of protection against slavery and involuntary servitude. Scholars, advocates, and educators argue that the exceptions clause was deliberately added to permit the re-enslavement of Black people by convicting them of crimes.

“The exceptions clause in the most charitable view was not intended to allow the re-enslavement of the free people, rather what it was intended to do was to specify that the historical punishment in the common law system of being sentenced to hard labor would not be eliminated by virtue of eliminating the slave system,” Carter said. “I just don’t want to be too quick to yield the ground that the Thirteenth Amendment means what those who seek to oppress people of color say it means.”

Forbes, who was formerly incarcerated, provided firsthand insight of the exceptions clause.

“I worked as a slave, for fifteen cents an hour, making furniture,” said Flores. “The cost of labor for building a chair is around seventy-five dollars. Well, the California Department of Corrections sold it to the state for almost four hundred dollars.”

Forbes argues that the United States’ standing to sustain slave labor as an industry is the exceptions clause.

The Road to Freedom: Abolishing America’s Prison System

The second panel, “The Road to Freedom: Abolishing America’s Prison System,” was moderated by Presidential Assistant Professor of Law Shaun Ossei-Owusu and included panelists Monica Bell, Associate Professor of Law & Sociology at Yale University, Taja-Nia Henderson, Dean at Rutgers Graduate School, James Pope, Professor of Law (ret.) at Rutgers University, and Jalila Jefferson Bullock, Associate Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law.

There is a growing movement to abolish prisons in the United States, yet the argument still lies in whether or not prison abolitionism increases safety.

“The dominant narrative about the function of prisons is that they are the place that we put the people who are most dangerous, so of course, the understanding is that if we were to abolish prisons then [dangerous] people would be out wreaking havoc on society,” said Bell. “This is why the vision of abolitionism is powerful; it is one that focuses on the basic changes we would need to make to society in order to be able to abolish prisons. Why do people behave in an unsafe manner? Most crime in our society can be attributed to structural constraints and demands. If we understand how crime and unsafety happens, then we would have a much more capacious vision of what it would take to foster safety. We would understand that prison is really not playing that function.”

Henderson agreed.

“We say that we punish for two purposes: to deter crime and because people deserve it under retribution analysis. I think it has become clear, if you look at the statistics of recidivism,” said Henderson, “that the way we incarcerate people in this country does not satisfy our state of deterrence goals.”

Henderson, who also considers herself to be an abolitionist explained, “Prison abolition does not just intend to break down prison walls, it is to bring about real transformative change. When we think about public safety, that type of transformative justice will actually help in the realm of public safety.”

Closing remarks by Paul Butler

The conference concluded with remarks from keynote speaker, Paul Butler, Albert Prick Professor in Law at Georgetown University Law Center and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men. Butler began his address by giving a short presentation on African American history and how stereotypes of Black men have traveled over time from being perceived as “stupid, comical, and heathen” to dangerous, scary, and a source of anxiety for white women.

“In 1865 when the civil war ends, suddenly in the white imaginary, Black men are threatening, brutal, ape-like, and needing to be controlled by private justice,” said Butler. “And so, the law, Jim Crow, and American apartheid does some of the work that slavery did.”

Fast forward to the mid-1960s when the country saw an uptick in crime and numerous urban rebellions in response to police brutality. These developments led to the Supreme Court case that provided the police the extraordinary power to stop and frisk.

“Due to this power and other powers given to police and prosecutors by the Supreme Court … there are more African American in the criminal legal process than there were slaves in 1850,” said Butler.

According to Butler, there are four theories about the problem in the criminal legal process: Black male behavior and culture, under-enforcement of law, police and community relations, and social control of Blacks and white supremacy.

“If you think that brothers are the problems, then the solution is to fix us and repair our masculinity,” expressed Butler. “If you think the problem is white supremacy, some argue that we might be able to fix the police and reduce incarceration but all that means is that the disease of white supremacy will mutate like it did from slavery to the old Jim Crow, to the new Jim Crow. And so the solution is to defeat the patriarchy.”

Butler shared that out of all four arguments, the one that persuades him most is the social control of Black people.

“When thinking about my work as a prosecutor, my research as a scholar, my day-to-day experience as a Black man, I am most persuaded by the activist and the movement for Black lives,” said Butler. “I think that our criminal legal process now is all about Black men. When you think about the problems of American criminal justice – how we are losing our civil liberties, how brutal and violent the police are – it’s all based on Black men. It does not mean African American men are the only victims of the state’s abuse – Black women, Latinx people, transgender people especially transgender Black people, immigrants, all of us have it bad – but when we ask how we got to this point, understanding this anxiety about African American men is an important explanation.”

Butler’s book further explores his view of the problem in our criminal legal system and describes how the Supreme Court has given the police superpowers to kill, racially profile, and arrest.

He notes three ways to resist, including policies such as affirmative action, economic opportunity, and responding to violence with violence, but emphasizes that hurting another human is discouraged on moral grounds. He highlights the several methods of peaceful resistance demonstrated by Black people, but focuses on how police brutality is often the reason protest sometimes turns into burning symbols of the state.

“It’s like African Americans say that we can deal with poisoned water, convict leasing, segregated schools, we’ll work it out, but there is something about feeling under violent attack from the people who are supposed to serve and protect you that has consistently made Black folks take it to the streets,” expressed Butler.

Regardless of which form of resistance is best, the goal is for police to “stop this mess, stop killing us, stop beating us up, stop arresting us in situations in which they would not arrest white people –to stop shooting us and treating us like sub-humans,” Butler said.

The conference was sponsored by Davis Polk; Fried Frank; Latham & Watkins LLP; Morgan Lewis; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP; Fenwick; Clifford Chance; Gibson Dunn; Foley & Lardner LLP; Hogan Lovells; Milbank; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; Shearman & Sterling; Sullivan & Cromwell LLP; Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; Debevoise & Plimpton; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP; and Ropes & Gray.