The Un-Winnable War

The irrational subordination of people of color. Basic human rights stripped away like clothing, leaving people of color naked, broken, oppressed. The struggle to be treated fairly, not persecuted and profiled with prejudice, an arduous uphill battle. Perverse laws and a justice no longer blind but cock-eyed, allowing people to be convicted and thrown ?under? the jail based on the color of their skin. 1955? No, the year is 2002. Jim Crow is back, this time wearing a brand new hat labeled The War On Drugs.

?This so-called war on drugs is a war on people of color, first and last. Whatever its intent may have been, that?s what it is now, and the devastation that it has wrought and that it is reaping on communities of color would never be tolerated if it was visited upon white communities,? stated Theodore M. Shaw, the Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. ?We can?t, as civil rights lawyers, ignore this issue any longer. We are in this fight for the long haul because it has become, I think, as prominent an issue when it comes to civil and human rights as any other issue on the agenda.?

Shaw was one of many impassioned and impressive speakers at the recent conference Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs. The groundbreaking event, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) September 26-28 in downtown Los Angeles, saw hundreds of religious leaders, drug treatment providers and recipients, community organizers, media workers, and victims of racial injustice gather together to push aside rhetoric and address the urgency of drug-policy reform.

The facts and figures are frightening, but sobering. The number of African-Americans and Latinos in prison on drug-related crimes? despite roughly equal rates of drug use across all races and socio-economic lines ? belie logic. Of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug felonies, Blacks comprise 57 percent and Latinos, 22 percent. According to a report released two years ago by the advocacy group Human Right Watch, black men are sent to state penitentiaries on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. However, approximately five times as many whites had used cocaine than blacks. The report called the gross disparities a ?clear warning flag concerning the fairness and equity of drug law enforcement across the country.? There are two million people behind bars; almost two-thirds of them are people of color.

Who?s the Enemy?

The unequal treatment of black and brown people permeates every stage of the criminal justice system. Each stage ominously builds upon the next, creating a larger, more devastating syndrome from which emancipation seems like an unattainable idea.

America?s zero-tolerance approach to the pervasive drug problem is not working. Punitive measures like the ?three strikes? law, mandatory minimum drug sentences, racial profiling, and the adoption of severe penalties for crack cocaine offenses have resulted in the progressive disenfranchisement of people of color: the political invisibility of people of color by taking away their right to vote during the course of their incarceration, their parole and, in some states, for the rest of their lives because of felony convictions and deprivation of housing, education and social assistance. In the current system, people of color are being locked up for non-violent offences, making it almost impossible for them to rejoin society and succeed as good citizens.

Post-conviction sanctions for drug offenses and punitive policies have created stifling collateral consequences that have virtually branded those individuals with drug felonies or a history of drug use, compounding the impact of the conviction. The negative effects on eligibility for public housing, student aid, welfare as well as parental rights and immigration status being severely affected only dehumanize and marginalize these people who have already been punished and served their time. Most public benefits can be revoked or denied on the basis of a previous drug conviction. In 42 states, a drug conviction means a lifetime ban from welfare. In 1998, the Higher Education Act was revised to include a provision that denies college opportunities to students who have drug convictions by disallowing federal funding. A convicted murder that is out after serving the time is eligible for public housing. If a drug felon, you are not. Denying former drug offenders these public benefits only perpetuates the cycle. Many are left in the same dire socio-economic situation that may have led them to drugs (trafficking and/or using) in the first place. ?The country is trying to use the criminal justice system to solve a public-health issue,? said Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore, at a lunchtime press conference held on the first official day of the three-day event. The poignant press conference also featured members of US Congress speaking out against the war on drugs and the horrific true-life story from one of the victims of Tulia, Texas? egregious drug bust.

Battleground Tulia

What went down in Tulia on the morning of July 23, 1999, was simply atrocious: Blatant racism. A drug sting in the small town of 5, 000 resulted in the arrest of 46 residents, 40 of whom where African-American. Now, in a town where there are only 250 black people, this bust put more than 10 percent of Tulia?s African-American population in jail. The others arrested where whites or Latinos who had relationships with blacks. Denounced as a form of ?ethnic cleansing? by the NAACP and the ACLU, the Tulia drug bust was based on the uncorroborated testimony of undercover officer Tom Coleman.

With no proof of the alleged drug trafficking, and a shady reputation and despicable work history of his own, Coleman was able to convince a jury to send people to jail with extremely harsh sentences, e.g., a hog farmer in his late 50s was given 90 years in prison. There was no money or merchandise recovered, no weapons or drugs, during this ambush. One defendant was cleared after time cards were produced proving that he was at work at the time of the alleged drug buy. Another?s charges were dropped when her lawyers revealed that she was in fact out of town, cashing a check in Oklahoma City at the time when she was supposedly selling drugs to Coleman.

A complaint has been filed with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and there is an ongoing US Justice Department investigation in the Tulia case. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, the Tulia Legal Defense Project, and a number of private law firms are working to free the14 men and women who remain in jail (some serving life sentences) as a result of this tragedy.

Fight the Fight

The war on drugs and the fallout from the losing battle appear to be a key manifestation of racial oppression. Where can we look to begin to remedy this public-health syndrome? Look within, proposed Deborah Small, the director of public policy for the DPA.

?I believe the remedy for all oppression comes when the people who are oppressed stand up and say, ?Enough!? So one of the goals of this conference is to really help people connect with each other and to feel the strength of their own power. As communities, we really felt powerless to respond to what we perceive as an assault on our communities by law enforcement,? said Small.

?Many of us who were unconscious to [police accountability and police misconduct] a decade ago, even five years ago, are increasingly becoming more conscious, and once people become conscious you can?t stop them. They start looking for ways to resist, whether it be refusing to convict and send people to jail on these low-level, bogus drug charges or by refusing to vote for politicians who only offer harsher penalties. Or by saying that we are going to demand that more money be spent on providing treatment for people as opposed to incarcerating them. All of these are options available to us.?

As Small views it, education is the cornerstone of the war on drugs and working towards healing the problem. ?Public education is so important, and for me, it?s an education that needs to take place in our community. People weren?t aware of the racial history of drug prohibition, or the way in which the drug laws have been used historically to reinforce racism and classism in this society. And when people learn that information, they get mad. And after they get mad, they get into action. I have faith in that. I see [DPA?s] goal as contributing to the awareness and helping people channel their anger in a positive direction in ways that will produce social change.?

Nicole Blades is a freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles.

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