ORANGE, NJ — For Wayne Smith, a former Irvington mayor, it made perfect sense to be in the audience at a screening of the new Netflix movie, “13th,” at the Orange Public Library on Main Street in Orange on Friday, Nov. 4.
“I’m the president and (chief executive officer) of Wayne Smith & Associates and also former mayor of the township of Irvington — three terms, the longest serving mayor in Irvington’s history,” said Smith on Friday, Nov. 4. “I had some other interests. I was president of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. I ran for Congress one time. So I have interests other than my little neighborhood in Irvington. I use my knowledge and skills to help people where I can. In my business career, I also represent a bank, and we’re looking at things that can be invested in and collaborated with.”
Those interests, Smith said, are part of the reason he came to Orange for the second screening of “13th” and the panel discussion afterward. He said he hadn’t seen the movie before, but was eager to learn what it was all about.
“It’s a movie about mass incarceration, which is one of the most cutting-edge issues for our neighborhoods,” Smith said. “Anybody in the public and private sector ought to know, if you talk about why unemployment is so high in urban neighborhoods, part of it is because half our people, some unjustly, have been incarcerated and can’t come home and get work. So it’s a revolving door. So Michelle Alexander, who’s written extensively on this particular subject, documents it well and calls it the second return to slavery.”
Smith called mass incarceration “a major issue in our neighborhood (and) for the country.”
“Where other people may have a cold, we certainly have pneumonia, when it comes to incarceration and mass incarceration,” said Smith. “It is a real serious issue for us. It may be a problem for others, but it’s a real serious issues for us. On every level — local, county, state and federal — gotta raise this issue to help our neighborhoods.”
Smith’s reaction after he saw the movie was terse and to the point.
“It graphically displays what we’re confronted with as a community,” said Smith. “And it contains some very poignant lessons as we lead up to this national election on Nov. 8. Elections do matter.”
At the panel discussion Smith participated in afterward, Orange City Council President Donna K. Williams said his reaction was typical for everyone who sees the movie for the first time. She also said that’s why she decided to participate in the first screening on Friday, Oct. 14, organized by at large Councilwoman Adrienne Wooten, and to have a second screening with Orange Public Library Director Timur Davis, the Rev. Bill Rutherford Jr. of Ebenezer Baptist Church, People’s Organization for Progress Chairman Larry Hamm and P.O.P. Minister of Information Zayid Muhammad.
Williams and Davis are both current members of the P.O.P. grassroots social and economic justice advocacy and protest group.
“Tonight, we’re doing the second showing of ‘13th’ … because so many people didn’t know and came back and we had a tremendous conversation and audience tonight that was still asking questions,” Williams said Friday, Nov. 4. “As long as the community asks, we’ll be here, showing and asking questions and talking about how we can move our community forward. It’s time to sound the alarm, because we have a lot going on in our community. We need to get back to organizing. Civil rights happened because of a great organizing effort.”
Davis said organizing and holding screenings of important movies such as “13th” to help educate and empower the public is one of the many services the library should provide for the community.
“We’re giving out great information to the people and the public and making sure that people are aware of what’s taking place — in terms of the mass incarceration and the criminal justice system — that I think immediately affects people in Orange, people in Essex County and people throughout the country,” said Davis on Friday, Nov. 4. “We see a growing demographic in prison — not only African-American men but African-American women. We make up 40 percent of the population in prisons, but we’re only 6 percent of the population in the country, so that’s a really, really major problem and we have to look into how to circumvent those harsh realities.”
Davis said he’s looking to create a series of similar programs and follow-ups to the “13th” because he is serious about teaching people, especially young African-Americans and Latinos, how to circumvent the U.S. criminal justice system. Hamm said that is a mission he’s more than willing to support.
“It’s the zeitgeist; it’s the spirit of the times. I think the dire situation of our community is really impressing upon a lot of people that we’ve got to put aside our differences, because these problems are too big for any one of us to solve … we all have to work together to solve them,” Hamm said Friday, Nov. 4.
“So, if there’s common ground that will allow grassroots leaders, elected officials, religious leaders, professionals, people from all walks of life to come together and work cooperatively to deal with some of these problems, then that’s a good thing. And I’m glad to see it’s happening and, wherever it happens, I will encourage it so that it will spread throughout the community. I’m willing to work with anybody that’s willing to work with me, who has an open mind and open heart and is willing to hear new ideas and different ideas and maybe even some old ideas, because sometimes we’ve got to go back and get the things that worked before and bring them back again.”