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The War on Drugs is a Crime Against Humanity

The New Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration

Photo by Carles Rabada 


“Weldon Angelos will spend the rest of his life in prison for three marijuana sales. Angelos, a twenty four year old record producer, possessed a weapon which he did not use or threaten to use at the time of the sales. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the sentencing judge was obligated to impose a fifty five year mandatory minimum sentence. Upon doing so, the judge noted his reluctance to send the young man away for life for three marijuana sales. He said from the bench, ‘The Court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational.’”

This is one casualty of the War on Drugs. There are millions more and the resulting under caste represents a restructuring of racial control that begin with slavery 300 years ago, according Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

The Bacon Rebellion Begins the Racial Bribe

Initially, indentured servitude of blacks and whites was the economic model. But when the Bacon Rebellion aligned each against the planter class in 1675, the original "racial bribe" was issued.

Planters opting for full fledged African Slavery, poor whites received just enough privilege to give them a stake in the new paradigm. American racial politics were born.

1865 required the next legal restructuring and Reconstruction’s end revealed Jim Crow as its successor. As in the Bacon Rebellion, the populist movements of the 1890’s resulted in another brief cross-racial alignment. But raising the specter of white supremacy through the KKK reinforced Jim Crow for decades to come.

Tough on Crime is Racial Code

Scrambling to find a new model in 1964, conservative elements began to tie civil rights unrest to crime. This coincided with the actual rise in crime which was attributed mostly to the sheer numbers of the baby boom generation. Of course, young males were always committing the most crime.

However, the racial discourse now needed to be coded and Nixon’s rhetoric of "Cracking down on crime" sufficed. While not resulting in policy changes, the “Southern Strategy” appealed to poor whites who opposed the Civil Rights agenda. The racial divide began once again.

Reagan then seized on Nixon’s initiative. "Welfare queens," “criminal predators,” and colorblind rhetoric on taxes and state's rights spoke directly to the demographic Republicans were after. Kicking off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964, Reagan hammered home the message. “I believe in state's rights,” he coded.  

The War on Drugs Begins

In 1982, the drug war began at a time when only 2% of the population thought drugs were the number one issue. Law enforcement funding skyrocketed, while funding for education and treatment plummeted. The administration then launched a media blitz to sensationalize the emergence of crack.

DEA agent Robert Stuntman’s remembered his role. “The media was only too willing to cooperate, because as far as they were concerned, crack was the hottest combat reporting story since Vietnam.”

Falsehoods, such as “epidemic” and “instantly addictive,” highlighted the headlines. As such, the Washington Post admitted the 1565 crack stories run in 1988 showed that the paper had lost “all sense of proportion.”

This coincided with the collapse of the manufacturing sector – escalating the incentive to sell drugs. Alexander wrote, “Joblessness and crack swept the inner city precisely at the moment that a fierce backlash against the civil rights movement was manifesting itself through the drug war.”

By 1991, the House appropriated $2 billion to fight the war. The public fully complying, 64% deemed drugs the number one issue but with no discernible rise in drug use.

The penalties followed in kind with five year mandatory minimum sentences for first time possession of crack, and the prison population exploded.

The Clintons’ Complicity and Stop and Frisk

Clinton only exasperated the situation. The 42nd President angled to appear even tougher on crime with three strikes laws and a doubling down of the drug war to capture white swing voters. Clinton also implemented Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which imposed a lifetime ban on welfare or food stamps for a felony drug offense. Tragically, the atrocity included marijuana possession.

The erosion of 4th amendment rights paved the way and was laid in 1968. The court ruled that if an officer observes “unusual conduct” in someone believed to pose a threat, a search is warranted. Known as the “stop and frisk rule,” only Justice Douglas dissented. “Granting police greater power than the magistrate takes a long road to totalitarianism.”

Still, people must consent to a search. Unfortunately, most don’t realize they are allowed to refuse. In fact, the court acknowledged in Schneckloth vs. Bustamonte that the practice would likely end if those being targeted were aware of their rights.

Traffic violations then provide addition fodder for the current system of control. Given that it is nearly impossible to cover any distance without violating something, police discretion is the main criteria. Based on the racial makeup of our prison population, the target is obvious.

Mass Incarceration is a Crime Against Humanity

Finally, almost no cases go to trial, and prosecutors can dismiss or “overcharge” at their leisure. That leaves defendants compelled to plead guilty to lesser felonies in the face of mandatory minimum sentences. Little does it mattered that they are often innocent.

Still facing multiple years, 80% cannot afford representation and public defenders aren’t much help. The results: prison population has risen from 350,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million by 2008.

And then it begins – the New Jim Crow. Today 5.1 million felons are denied public housing or assistance, discriminated by landlords and are required to list felonies on job applications. “In this system of control, failing to cope well with one’s exile status is treated like a crime,” says Alexander.

35% of all prison admissions are parole violations (compared to 1% in 1980). Two thirds of those cases were for technical violations such as missing a parole appointment or failing to remain drug free or employed.

In the face of that, many opt for the drug trade, where three strikes means life. More than a failure, the War on Drugs is simply a crime against humanity and needs to end.

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