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Over the weekend, recent high school graduates, Emani Labon and Taylor Alexandrea, debuted their film, Thugs: A Documentary on The Criminalization of Black Youth

Thugs is an examination of today’s school-to-prison pipeline and its impact on Black youth and communities. It begins with highlighting the origin of policing as slave patrols and how that system has persisted and evolved over time to terrorize and brutalize Black Americans.  

The film features the voices and expertise of scholars and community activists, including Wayfinder Foundation team members, Nekima Levy Armstrong, Esq. and Myon Burrell who was targeted by Minneapolis police, wrongfully accused and incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit.

Emani and Taylor’s documentary joins a collection of existing calls to action challenging the world to explore and eradicate policies and practices criminalizing Black youth and stifling their genius before it’s even realized. 

Documentary made by high schoolers highlights school to prison pipeline

The ACLU says the “school-to-prison pipeline” is a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.

Also, according to an Education Trust report, Black kids are less likely to attend preschool, have limited access to quality schools and high rigor courses, are disproportionately and unfairly disciplined, and have higher dropout rates than White and Asian students.

Black kids represent 15 percent of the public school student body but account for 31 percent of arrests. Black preschoolers are 2.2 times more likely to be suspended than their White peers. Black youth and teens are four times more likely to be suspended than White students. And they’re twice as likely to be expelled. 

Consequently, racially biased policies, educators and administrators who refuse to acknowledge their implicit bias are contributing to higher suspension rates. Suspensions and expulsions lead to more and more dropouts. And at least 60 percent of those dropouts will end up in prison at some point in their lives—what we know as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Thugs: A Documentary on The Criminalization of Black Youth

Moreover, research conducted by the Innocence Project reveals a pervasive trend of racist tactics employed by the criminal justice system. Their data shows nearly half the people currently on death row around the country are Black, with innocent Black people seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than an innocent white person. 

While more than half of them have been exonerated since 1973, Black people will spend at least 13.8 years on death row before they’re freed.

Finally, the Innocence Project also reports that police misconduct is a factor in more than half of all wrongful murder convictions involving Black people. Gaps in accountability systems offer more protection for guilty police officers than innocent civilians. As a result, there’s a strong correlation between the school-to-prison pipeline and the mass incarceration system, which is now being called modern day slavery.

In an interview, Emani said, “I want to spread the message of just how mass incarceration affects the black community and how we as a community, as a society need to stop perceiving young black people as criminals, as thugs, taking the innocence away from black children. It’s something that happens and it’s something that leads to, you know, police brutality, and it’s just the stem of racism in general,”. 

Emani’s message was delivered and received the evening she was able to premiere the film in her hometown, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She hopes that Thugs: A Documentary on The Criminalization of Black Youth will one day air on Netflix.

Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work--"If not me then who?" As a strategist and injustice interrupter, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for radical...

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