America, Intoxicated: Conference Tackles Disasters of the Drug War
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Kathryn Johnston paid the ultimate price in the name of our country's perversely titled "war on drugs." She wasn't a soldier, but she was most certainly another innocent casualty on domestic soil.
It's quite likely that her murder would have gone with little, if any, notice had it not been for the fact that she was a 92-year-old black woman shot to death when Atlanta narcotics officers burst through her door using a "no-knock warrant." The officers had the wrong house. When Johnston scrambled for an old gun stashed in her house to try to save her life from people she assumed were trying to rob or hurt her, she fired one shot and missed. The plain clothed officers fired back, over and over again. Johnston died in the blast of gunfire, in which several officers were wounded in what is euphemistically referred by the U.S. military as "friendly fire."
Johnston's death at the hands of overzealous narcotics officers shocked Atlanta and then made national headlines when the officers involved were exposed for having planted drugs in her house in an outrageous attempt to try to cover up their deadly blunder.
Last month, on the anniversary of Johnston's death, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington proudly announced that his department now had "the best-trained narcotics unit in the Southeast," having doubled its ranks and instituted new rules. No-knock warrants were still acceptable but only if they were "approved by a major" and if officers wore uniforms.
Akin to the expansion of the Atlanta narcotics unit in the wake of a disgrace like this one, the drug war keeps expanding its reach. As of year-end 2006, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that American jails and prisons held a record-breaking 2,258,983 men and women, and that one in 31 adults are now under some form of correctional supervision. Analysis of the report, released last week by The Sentencing Project revealed that, since 1980, there has been a 1,200 percent increase in the number of people incarcerated for the possession or sale of illicit substances, from 41,100 to at least 532,400 today. At nearly double the rate of men, the number of women in prison has increased by 812 percent in that same time period. In October, the Marijuana Policy Project also reported that marijuana arrests exceeded nearly 830,000 in the same year, resulting in one pot-related arrest every 38 seconds .
What mainstream news coverage of the record-setting incarceration rates existed all but faded within a few days after the BJS report, but at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, held last week in New Orleans, the numbers remained front-and-center. Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the conference brought 1,200 participants together from across the world to discuss the international ripple effects of relentlessly aggressive drug policies.
AlterNet was honored with an Edward M. Brecher Award for Achievement in the Field of Journalism for its coverage on drug war policies in the United States and other parts of the world. Accepting the award on behalf of AlterNet was executive director Don Hazen, who noted that individual, drug war-related stories are attracting upwards of 100,000 readers.
Among dozens of other topics on the worldwide social and economic repercussions of the drug war, panelists addressed President Bush's latest proposed funding package of $1.4 billion in drug war "aid" to Mexico, now awaiting congressional approval. Panelists and attendees arrived in New Orleans from across the United States, the Netherlands, Poland, Columbia, Bolivia, Argentina, Hungary, Brazil, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom, but the gravity of police abuse and corruption related to racism and the drug war brought in local reformers as well. From needle exchange to the bleak history of Louisiana's jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities, participants emphasized that New Orleans, and the state as a whole, has consistently grown more regressive in policing and drug-related arrests of low-income residents.
African-American residents have, by far, fared the worst in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. Evidence of such is hardly anecdotal, backed by last week's Justice Policy Institute (JPI) report, "The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties." JPI's extensive research into regional drug use and arrest disparities uncovered that Orleans County (in which New Orleans is located) had the third-highest rate of sentencing for drug offenses, followed closely by Louisiana's Jefferson County. Respectively, the two counties incarcerated African-Americans at four and nine times the rate of Euro-Americans.
The local situation mirrors a disturbing, national phenomenon that has resulted in nearly one million black men and women doing time in American jails and prisons. (African-American juveniles, and youth of color in general, are also heavily overrepresented in detention facilities.) Because many states do not report the number of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Asian/Pacific Islanders -- and many others assign incorrect ethnicities to Latinos and Native Americans in particular, national figures are difficult to ascertain. (Of the states that do keep these statistics, Alaska, South Dakota, Montana and Washington are known to lock up Native Americans at up to four times their demographic representation, largely on drug-related sentences.)
Although the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and other people of color has long since been a matter of grave consequence, previous DPA conferences have been noticeably devoid of significant participation by both former prisoners, low-income community members and people of color, something that the organization has worked diligently to remedy through collaborative outreach campaigns. The efforts appeared to have made a significant difference in both attendance and the presentation of workshops and large-scale plenaries, including "Black America: The Debate Within," which centered on the absence of most civil rights leaders organizations in the pursuit of meaningful criminal justice reform.
"If [mainstream civil rights organizations] were to come here, they would see what's possible and what kind of constituents they truly have. There is such tremendous energy, drive and passion here," said DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann at the close of the conference. "People feel the suffering in their communities, and they recognize that drug policy reform is one of the key ways to go about changing what they are seeing and experiencing."
Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008) and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times.