BY JAKE DINGLER (Black Lives Matter Cincinnati)

On Monday, February 26, the students of Aiken high school hosted a powerful presentation on mass incarceration in America.  More than 100 people attended.

Aiken High School student presentation February 26, 2018.(Credit: Brian Taylor/BLMC)

Aiken Students Against Mass Incarceration (ASAMI) is a class project brought to fruition by Aiken history teacher John Klingler led by his students.  students put forth a thorough presentation regarding the history of mass incarceration in the United States, and gave a comprehensive look at the miscarriage of justice meted out through the U.S. penal system. Students addressed how the deliberate construction of this system is rooted directly in the verbiage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution. The began with snacks, drinks and guests talking amongst themselves. Students congregated with their friends at the tables they ate lunch from a few hours prior. The lights went down, and after a short introduction, the early evening event was underway.    

Presentations started with a showing of the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which provides an in-depth look at the history of mass incarceration in America.

It wasn’t long before the lone microphone on stage malfunctioned, leaving these high school voices with no amplification. The large room, however was no match for the performers, all speaking parts allowing their truths to fill the venue.  A poem and an interpretive dance followed the trailer. After these two acts left stage, three students came on stage enthusiastically asking the audience, to stand up, get loose, and shake things up. It is my belief, upon looking at the audience that what these students interpreted from stage as boredom or fatigue was — in fact — deep interest in the message being conveyed.

Next was the story of Kalief Browder, a young black man who committed suicide after a three-year stint in Rikers Island for a petty theft that he did not commit. The weight of this loss turned an already quiet room deathly silent. This harrowing, true story focussed the audience as the talk shifted from the anecdotal to statistics. An in-depth analysis of the structures of mass incarceration, beginning in 1865 all the way to present day, was neatly packaged in a concise PowerPoint slideshow, shedding light on the propaganda campaign to label black men as inherently criminal, the private prison system, the war on drugs, and the resulting growth in prison populations as a result.

A community discussion followed, beginning with two city government officials offering tepid support, but no real solutions, primarily pushing the myth of electoral politics as a useful tool to effect change.  Fellow students, parents, and community leaders largely praised the presenters in lieu of questions, stressing the importance of keeping alive the passion that made the evening a reality. The highlight of the discussion for this participant, was a comment made by the hometown inspiration for the night; Tyra Patterson, who spent 23 years incarcerated for a murder she did not commit. Now free, she expressed her gratitude that Cincinnati had fighters at the gates, ready to stand with those facing the same injustices she faced.