Storyville: As America remains embroiled in overseas conflict, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families and inflicting untold damage on future generations of Americans. For over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are more available today than ever before.
Filmed in more than twenty states, this film captures a definitive and heart-wrenching portrait of individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs. From the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge, the film offers a penetrating look inside America’s longest war, revealing its profound human rights implications.
While recognising the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have instead treated it as a matter for law enforcement, creating a vast political and economic machine that feeds largely on America’s poor, especially minority communities. Yet beyond simple misguided policy, the film investigates how political and economic corruption have fuelled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic and practical failures.
Ultimately, the documentary seeks, through compassionate inquiry, to promote public awareness of the history and contemporary mechanics of this human rights crisis and to begin a national conversation about its reform
What caused the war? What perpetuates it? And what can be done to stop it?
However, what it really does is explore the racial history of USA’s addiction to the incarceration of racial minorities. We can change the questions to
- Why have American governments militarised their relations with racial and social groups in the apparent attempt to control the production and consumption of ‘illicit’ drugs?
- Why is there a complete lack of integrity and bravery amongst America’s politicians, encouraging the racialisation of the ‘war on drugs’ and providing economic enticements for the systematic growth of the penal system and the construction of a legal system that jails more people than any other country in the world for non-violent crimes?
- Is there any way to end America’s war against its own people?
The film was made by the filmaker Eugene Jarecki and was first released in November 2012. I don’t want to comment on Eugene or the use of his personal connection to one of the central characters in the film. What I want to concentrate on is the story this film tells about how the USA is engaged in a real war against many of its own people, and how this has been turned into a profitable exercise.
Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion dollars and accounted for over 45 million arrests. The US incarcerates almost 25% of the prisoners in the entire world although we have only 5% of the world’s population.
Black individuals comprise 13% of the US population and 14% of drug users, yet they are 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses and 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes.
These are taken from the production notes. They clearly display the central thesis of the film. The film examines this through a number of themes:
The history of the criminalisation of certain drugs is the history of racial profiling. In 1882 California passed a law prohibiting Opium. Why? Legislators said that they were trying to restrict the damaging effects of Opium addiction. But the real reason was that Chinese workers were perceived to be ‘taking’ the jobs of white Americans. Brought to the USA to build the transcontinental railway. As hard working and trustworthy Chinese labour was sought for. Politicians and labour leaders wanted to restrict Chinese entry to labour markets. Opium provided the excuse needed to stigmatise the Chinese as a criminal community. Though it was mainly middle and upper class Americans that enjoyed the Opium dens of San Francisco and other cities, and was a minority interest and caused no social distress. The conspiracy worked.
This pattern was repeated in relation to Hispanics and Marijuana, and later African Americans and Black Caribbean’s in relation to Cocaine and then Heroin. As one of the participants in the film noted this strategy works by first defining a population as criminal; this categorisation makes that population amenable to state and police intervention; which results in higher incidences of arrest and incarceration.
The criminal justice system is deliberately distorted, resulting in racial injustice. The social and media hysteria created around crack cocaine is illustrative of how this works. The US legislature passed a ruling which meant that somebody would have to possess 100g of cocaine powder to receive the same prison sentence as somebody possessing 1g of crack cocaine. This was later reduced to an 18:1 ratio in 2011. Even though a great deal of ‘evidence‘ was rallied to support the tough stance on crack cocaine, other evidence has challenged these assertions. The authorities, along with much of the media, created a moral climate conducive to the introduction of harsh and irrational sentencing. The result of this disproportionate focus on crack cocaine is the massive criminalisation of black America, in particular black men. Since it is often African Americans who consume and sell this drug they are the focus for police attention. The imbalance in sentencing means that black men receive drastic sentences for non-violent crimes.
The hyper-marginalisation of Black America. The increased social and economic marginalisation of Black America goes hand in hand with the militarisation of law and order. The areas of American cities that once housed vibrant black working class communities have systematically been dis-invested in by the state and economy. These neighbourhoods were never primarily black, as Italian or Irish neighbourhoods were never primarily Italian or Irish. There was always a greater social mix than popular representations allowed for. But the economic drivers that attracted large numbers of African Americans from the south to the industrial northern cities is the same factor that has seen the economic demise of these neighbourhoods. Urban industrial growth drew people to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia etc. Economic restructuring through the 1970s onwards has seen the emptying out of working class neighbourhoods as the industries, and therefore the jobs, either went out to the suburbs or abroad. Those who had the resources left. those who didn’t stayed. As this happened so shops, bars, banks and services left these neighbourhoods. Denied access to legitimate economic resources in the harsh welfare climate of the USA people turned to the alternative economies. Racist housing and employment practices, poor education and health services combined to marginalise these communities and make it possible for organised crime and the drugs economy to flourish.
This is a WAR. The term ‘War on Drugs’ is not an over-statement. The USA has mobilised all arms of the state to target immense violence against the poorest of its citizens. The right to ‘bear arms’ in the American Constitution was devised in response to a perceived threat from Imperial Britain against the young republic. But it isn’t a foreign power that is attacking Black and Hispanic America – it is the American government itself. The American government has harnessed the resources of the FBI, CIA, DEA, ATF and local law enforcement agencies in order to essentially act as forces of occupation. And has this worked? NO!
The war on drugs makes money. One of the most startling points made by the film was that war on America’s poorest citizens is making private enterprise a lot of money and is subsidising law enforcement. The unfair sentencing policies requires more prisons; private companies target towns with poor economies in order to get them to petition to have a prison built in their juridiction; this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because being the largest employer that town, and more especially its politicians, are never going to argue for prison closures. Asset forfeiture, the seizing of property and money believed to be the result fo criminal activity (in this case drugs) is increasing used by local law enforcement agencies as an income stream. A good way to make up for state cuts is to target Black and Hispanic communities.
Political careers are made on the Ware on Drugs. Politicians are cowards. That was one of the sub-texts of the film. Richard Nixon invented the War on Drugs in 1971 in order to be re-elected. And that’s how its has gone since. The film succinctly demonstrates how politicians at all levels feed the drugs war frenzy in their bids tobe elected or re-elected, intensifying and expanding incarceration. Even when Black or Hispanic politicians are involved this is a system of WHITE SUPREMACY.
And now its time for the white working class. ‘Meth Amphetamine‘ – that’s the new focus for manufactured fear that will feed profits into the private prison companies, get politicians elected, and subsidise local law enforcement. It is characterised as the White Man’s Crack. The white working class, now increasingly cut out of the modern economy are turning to the alternative economy. What a surprise. We need to remember that ‘white’ is a category that historically has not always included all those who might be called ‘caucasian‘. It is a label of inclusion in the dominant cultural group. For instance the Irish in America were not regarding as white at all until they became useful to the economy and political system of privilege and power.
So, the War on Drugs is a War on the Outcasts of America, sustaining Rich White Supremacy!
I was sent this link by a FB friend. It is absolutely brilliant. I haven’t asked Tim Wise if I can use it but I hope he approves.
Tim, well done and thanks.
School Shootings and White Denial
I can think of no other way to say this, so here goes: white people need to pull our heads out of our collective ass.
Two more white children are dead and thirteen are injured, and another “nice” community is scratching its blonde head, utterly perplexed at how a school shooting the likes of the one yesterday in Santee, California could happen. After all, as the Mayor of the town said in an interview with CNN: “We’re a solid town, a good town, with good kids, a good church-going town an All-American town.” Yeah, well maybe that’s the problem.
I said this after Columbine and no one listened so I’ll say it again: white people live in an utter state of self-delusion. We think danger is black, brown and poor, and if we can just move far enough away from “those people” in the cities we’ll be safe. If we can just find an “all-American” town, life will be better, because “things like this just don’t happen here.”
Well bullshit on that. In case you hadn’t noticed, “here” is about the only place these kinds of things do happen. Oh sure, there is plenty of violence in urban communities and schools. But mass murder; wholesale slaughter; take-a-gun-and-see-how-many-you can-kill kinda craziness seems made for those safe places: the white suburbs or rural communities.
And yet once again, we hear the FBI insist there is no “profile” of a school shooter. Come again? White boy after white boy after white boy, with very few exceptions to that rule (and none in the mass shooting category), decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? Imagine if all these killers had been black: would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful.
Indeed, if any black child in America — especially in the mostly white suburbs of Littleton, or Santee — were to openly discuss their plans to murder fellow students, as happened both at Columbine and now Santana High, you can bet your ass that somebody would have turned them in, and the cops would have beat a path to their doorstep. But when whites discuss their murderous intentions, our stereotypes of what danger looks like cause us to ignore it — they’re just “talking” and won’t really do anything. How many kids have to die before we rethink that nonsense? How many dazed and confused parents, Mayors and Sheriffs do we have to listen to, describing how “normal” and safe their community is, and how they just can’t understand what went wrong?
I’ll tell you what went wrong and it’s not TV, rap music, video games or a lack of prayer in school. What went wrong is that white Americans decided to ignore dysfunction and violence when it only affected other communities, and thereby blinded themselves to the inevitable creeping of chaos which never remains isolated too long. What affects the urban “ghetto” today will be coming to a Wal-Mart near you tomorrow, and unless you address the emptiness, pain, isolation and lack of hope felt by children of color and the poor, then don’t be shocked when the support systems aren’t there for your kids either.
What went wrong is that we allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by media representations of crime and violence that portray both as the province of those who are anything but white like us. We ignore the warning signs, because in our minds the warning signs don’t live in our neighborhood, but across town, in that place where we lock our car doors on the rare occasion we have to drive there. That false sense of security — the result of racist and classist stereotypes — then gets people killed. And still we act amazed.
But listen up my fellow white Americans: your children are no better, no nicer, no more moral, no more decent than anyone else. Dysfunction is all around you, whether you choose to recognize it or not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, and Department of Health and Human Services, it is your children, and not those of the urban ghetto, who are most likely to use drugs. That’s right: white high school students are seven times more likely than blacks to have used cocaine; eight times more likely to have smoked crack; ten times more likely to have used LSD and seven times more likely to have used heroin. In fact, there are more white high school students who have used crystal methamphetamine (the most addictive drug on the streets) than there are black students who smoke cigarettes.
What’s more, white youth ages 12-17 are more likely to sell drugs: 34% more likely, in fact than their black counterparts. And it is white youth who are twice as likely to binge drink, and nearly twice as likely as blacks to drive drunk. And white males are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school as are black males.
And yet I would bet a valued body part that there aren’t 100 white people in Santee, California, or most any other “nice” community who have ever heard a single one of the statistics above. Even though they were collected by government agencies using these folks’ tax money for the purpose. Because the media doesn’t report on white dysfunction
A few years ago, U.S. News ran a story entitled: “A Shocking look at blacks and crime.” Yet never have they or any other news outlet discussed the “shocking” whiteness of these shoot-em-ups. Indeed, every time media commentators discuss the similarities in these crimes they mention that the shooters were boys, they were loners, they got picked on, but never do they seem to notice a certain highly visible melanin deficiency. Color-blind, I guess.
White-blind is more like it, as I figure these folks would spot color mighty damn quick were some of it to stroll into their community. Santee’s whiteness is so taken for granted by its residents that the Mayor, in that CNN interview, thought nothing of saying on the one hand that the town was 82 percent white, but on the other hand that “this is America.” Well that isn’t America, and it especially isn’t California, where whites are only half of the population. This is a town that is removed from America, and yet its Mayor thinks they are the normal ones — so much so that when asked about racial diversity, he replied that there weren’t many of different “ethni-tis-tities.” Not a word. Not even close.
I’d like to think that after this one, people would wake up. Take note. Rethink their stereotypes of who the dangerous ones are. But deep down, I know better. The folks hitting the snooze button on this none-too-subtle alarm are my own people, after all, and I know their blindness like the back of my hand.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer and activist and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Although this clip is a little old (2009) and a little long for many (nearly 2 hours) it is important to reflect on the issues raised.
Essentially he shows how America systematically criminalises Black America, particularly Black men. Many are caught up in the notorious ‘3 Strikes and Out’ where a minor offence can lead to lengthy incarceration.
At a time of the Presidential election it is worth bearing this in mind. Swathes of Black America are denied the fundamental right to vote due to this strategy of criminalisation.
‘Race’ is the fulcrum around which American politics moves.
Harsha Walia provides a brilliant and lucid account of the rationale for mobilising around anti-oppression work drawing on experiences of indigenous struggles in Canada
When I set up this blog my choice of name was prompted by a photo I saw with the words “No One Is Illegal”. This was such a powerful statement that it caught my breath.
Although I have been involved in anti-racist activism, teaching and research for some years the boldness of this slogan stood out as a bright light of sanity. I have struggled on and off with the politics of migration and the state – should states control the flow of people into and through their borders; how do you define who should and should not enter and for how long and with what social rights; who, in fact, makes these decisions and on whose behalf? My world view was caught within a presumption that the nation-state had some kind of natural status, and therefore the politics of migration could only be understood in terms of the nation-state. Of course, it is the very concept of the nation-state that causes migration to be a political ‘problem’. I will say more on this topic in another post.
In choosing this name for my own blog I was not aware that I was aligning myself with an international movement of activists committed to challenging the idea of defining people, defining humans as illegal simply because of their country of origin, their means of entry to a country, or as a result of ethnic profiling. Wikipedia claims that this movement began in Germany following the death at the hands of German police of Aamir Ageeb who was being deported. The response to this led to the establishment of the activist group Kein mensch ist illegal (No One Is Illegal). Whatever the actual order of events there is now a network of activists groups involved in resisting the deportation of refugees, asylum seekers and those without official papers.
Specifically there are groups in Canada: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottowa; UK: No One Is Illegal; Nottingham; Sweden; Denmark; Australia: Victoria, X-Border as well as many anti-deportation campaigns. I am happy to host reports of actions, events and statements.
For some more see this………
It is my view that it is inherently immoral for any human being to be classified as ‘illegal’ simply by virtue of their country of origin or economic status. This blog will discuss and comment upon the politics of migration and belonging globally, and Europe specifically.
The economic crisis that has beset Europe and North America has heightened the tensions around global movements of people. We live in an age of political denial of the relationship between the dominant form sof economic organisation (so called ‘free’ trade) and the intensification of migration. Consequently, the flows of people from the economically less advantaged parts of the world to the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America are not viewed as the products of contemporary capitalism. Instead they are proscribed as ‘illegal’ or ‘economic’ immigrants, ‘sans papiers’, ‘wet backs’. At the same time the middle classes, including the liberal elites, are happy to service their privileged lives with cheap labour – cleaning their homes, looking after their children – on the backs of such ‘illegal’ human beings. Having created a zone of economic mobility the European Union struggles to come to terms with the relationship between ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ Europeans. It is no surprise that Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal should be suffering such hardships and be portrayed as irresponsible. It is not so long ago that the economic weakness of these very same countries provided the economic hothouses of Germany, France, Netherlands and the UK with cheap labour.
I will be commenting on these and many other matters, either stimulated by current events, socially aware research, or the mundane happenings of life that remind us of the inter-connectedness of the world.