A New Documentary Shows How ‘The New Jim Crow’ Is Threatening America

In the Los Angeles crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s and the related mass incarceration that persists to this day, a documentary filmmaker identifies the legacy of racism—and the possibility of a political moment ripe for change.

The New Jim Crow: ‘Crack in the System’

This weekend, President Obama and his family will travel to Selma, Ala., to take part in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery “Bloody Sunday” march. The closing ceremonies on Sunday will feature a screening of a new documentary, “Freeway: Crack in the System,” about the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s. The film's director, Marc Levin, has been asked what could possibly link, in his words, "Martin Luther King to the King of Crack." But he sees them as closely connected. Levin told Bloomberg Politics’s “With All Due Respect,” “Mass incarceration of youth men of color, the drug war’s effect, the spread of gangs, local gangs becoming national gangs, the militarization of our police, turning them into an occupying army: This is the backstory for this. This is how we got here. And finally, we’re at a place where maybe politically for the first time, you see Republicans and Democrats, a Cory Booker and a Rand Paul saying this thing has got to stop.”

Levin was a young television producer at the Iran-Contra hearings when he first learned about government complicity in the narcotics industry. “That was the first time I ever heard people chanting ‘C.I.A. means Crack In America,’” he told Bloomberg Politics’s John Heilemann.

Through a relationship with the journalist Gary Webb, Levin learned of Rick Ross (not the rapper), the former King of Crack in South Central Los Angeles. The two began to correspond, often over a shared love of tennis. Levin eventually visited Ross in prison in 2006. (“Unfortunately,” Levin told Heilemann, “the Bush administration decided the one tennis court was a luxury prisoners didn’t deserve.”)

Ross was illiterate when he was first locked up. Sentenced to life without parole, there was not much reason for hope. But while in prison, the former street hustler learned to read, then came to read up on case law. In his intensive legal studies, Ross stumbled on a procedural problem in his own conviction. Today, Ross travels the country to teach the importance of literacy to at-risk kids, whose attention he commands like no other teacher or preacher. 

Levin still seems incredulous at the story his documentary tells. “The chances of overturning a federal life without parole sentence are like one in a hundred,” he told Heilemann. And yet, three years after their visit, Levin said, “He called me on a bus and he said, I told you I’m getting out, I’m on my way home to LA, you better get out here, let’s make that movie.”

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