Desiree Evans

A New Youth Peace Movement Takes Root

oct26

Sarah Williams couldn't stop grinning. Her white teeth glistened against her opal wire frames and windblown dark hair. She twisted her hands anxiously above her discarded rain jacket. The once rainy, gray Washington D.C. morning had turned into an afternoon of warm sunshine.

The 20-year-old NYU junior could vividly remember this time last year when she was struggling to find any resemblance to what she found today -- the beginning of a united American peace movement.

"You couldn't tell the media or anyone last year that there existed an anti-war movement in the U.S. But look around, you can't hide it anymore," she said dropping her "Regime Change Begins at Home" poster to motion toward the diverse grouping of people who were making their way across the muddy ground in front of the sound stage in D.C.'s Constitutional Plaza.

Williams wasn't alone in breathing a sigh of relief at the crowd gathered at the October 26th March on Washington against the War on Iraq. Most of us on the left were thinking the same -- it's about time. In a way we were tired of listening to underground news reports about the hundreds of thousands of people gathering across the world, from Brussels to Paris to London, to shout down Bush's war, while many of us were struggling just to get people interested at our campuses and in our neighborhoods. But it seemed that all changed overnight.

Planting a Seed for Peace

Drop a seed into the ground and watch it take root, my mother always says. The same can be said for social justice movements. The political landscape of youth activism is fertile ground for a new peace movement. Trained in the activism of the anticorporate globalization and anti-prison movements, young activists are already spending their time in politicized highs school and college climates -- ones made more charged with every move of the Bush administration. Sociologists are reporting that today's incoming college classes are the largest and most political in the United States since the 1960s.

But this new movement can hardly be said to look the same as those of the last few years. It's older. It's tremendously diverse. It's not just the radical white left or sectarians hawking papers for solidarity donations. It's your best friend's parents. It's veterans of the Vietnam War protests, Muslim Arabs and Black nationalists. It's high school students, the elderly, and all the ages in between. It's your run of the mill vegan neo-hippies from schools like Oberlin, anti-globalizers and Black Blocers from Eugene, standing beside families from the Deep South.

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It's even a 78-year-old curly gray-haired woman my cohorts and I referred to as "Mama Revolution." She stood for hours at the corner of 17th and Constitution waving down cars. For us, still recovering from our 15-hour drive to D.C. in a cramped van from Chicago, "Mama" represented a snapshot of the perseverance of the day's protest -- the largest anti-war protest in America since the Vietnam War era. In cities across America like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and across the world in Belgium, Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and Mexico City, hundreds of thousands marched into the streets to "stop the war [on Iraq] before it starts."

To many of us, this peace movement has been a long time coming. A youth movement that seemed so on point when it came to fighting sweatshops, fighting for living wages or organizing against the prison systems, was alienated when searching for a united response to the pro-war consensus in mainstream America.

But it seems that older sectarian activists, like the organizers behind Not in Our Name (NOIN) and International A.N.S.W.E.R (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), although criticized for their questionable allegiances, have been successful in providing somewhat rare infrastructure for large-scale anti-war protests in this post 9/11 void. In this they have given a voice to the anti-war left that many thought would not survive 9/11 in one piece.

Last October 6th and 7th, the Not in Our Name Project, a coalition of anti-war organizations started in March of this year, hosted protests throughout the United States to mark the anniversary of the bombing of Afghanistan. The events were a successful prelude to the March on Washington this weekend. NION demonstrations were held in over 28 cities, bringing out more than 25,000 participants in New York and 10,000 in San Francisco alone. And the Not in Our Name pledge has been read at almost every peace rally since it was written by poet Saul Williams last year.

Xochitl Johnson, a NION Bay Area organizer, even quit her job in order to organize full time against the war, spending most of the summer at Bay Area events promoting Not In Our Name. Johnson and others have emphasized a need for a louder discourse in the youth movement. "This is the moment now to make vision into reality. We need more than a protest, we need to be louder, bolder, undeniable," Johnson said at an NION organizing meeting.

Other long-standing nonprofits such as the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, Black Radical Congress, War Resisters League, Global Exchange, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Voices in the Wilderness have also taken up the cause. Medea Benjamin, a founder of Global Exchange, explained at the Bay Area's Power to the Peaceful Festival in September that many anti-war supporters in Congress were constantly asking her where was the anti-war youth movement. "It's coming," she would tell them on many occasions. In response, Global Exchange began to host a youth site under its United for Peace campaign. Many youth are finding opportunities to work within these organizations while also founding their own campus groups. While uniting church leaders, mainstream politicians, Baby Boomers and old-school activists, the peace movement has given youth a chance to become the organizing engines in their own local communities and university campuses.

No, We're Not the 60s...

The woman next to me in the crowd is shuffling her feet impatiently. I couldn't blame her. We had been standing in an estimated 150,000-person crowd for the past three hours and we were anxious to begin marching (numbers are loose, organizers say 200,000 and newspapers won't even bother to count; but my friends and I estimated more than 100,000 participants). All I know is that I hadn't been this excited since April 16, 2000, after attending my first large-scale post-Seattle demonstration in D.C. to shut down the IMF and World Bank meeting.

I wasn't surprised to see that many former anti-Vietnam war activists lead the chorus of dissent at the rally; many speakers referenced the Vietnam War in their speeches and alluded to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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But many youth activists cringe at the comparisons to the 1960s. "This is a different movement," reflected Marcus Fitzgerald, 19, from Brown University. "We've learned from the past and are ready to take those lessons and move forward."

Others feel the comparisons only hurt their movement organizing. "If we are constantly being compared to other times, it limits the potential for us to be defined as our own movement with new goals and objectives," said Anthony Wyatt, a senior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Still others use the movements of the past in analyzing and mapping out the future of the new anti-war activism. Carwil James, of Art and Revolution, gave a talk at a recent NION organizing meeting on how to bring American society to a halt, start student strikes, turn campuses into centers of organizing, and break the "illusion of consensus." He offered up tactics used in past anti-war organizing.

James underscored visibility. "We have to make it possible for the rest of the world to see that there is dissent in the U.S. in the same way we did in Seattle in 1999 when we showed that Americans were dissenting with the rest of the Global South against the policies of the World Trade Organization," James said. "We have to show the world that Americans are not fully on the side of our government."

But by the end of the day on Oct. 26th, I found myself maneuvering my way through a sea of faces and signs from my generation's newest anti-war battle. I heard slogans like "No Blood For Oil," "Drop Bush, Not Bombs," and "Regime Change Begins at Home" as fathers -- former anti-war activists of their generation, I suspect -- lifted their pierced, pink-haired teenage daughters to their shoulders so they could see the main rally stage, where even the celebrities and performers were diverse in their political spectrum.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson drove home the point that those present were taking their place in a long historical chain of struggle. "Dr. King would be happy to see so many young people participating in the peace movement. People say young people are our future, but we say they are our present... when young people move, the whole world moves."

Susan Sarandon railed against preemptive strikes, asking "How will the bombing of Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, cause a regime change?... the U.S. government has hijacked our pain, fear and loss... to spread profit at the cost of human life, to distract people from the problems in American society."

Speakers encouraged participants to sign an anti-war referendum (www.votenowar.org), started by peace organizations to allow the American public to vote against the war. Many speakers invoked the memory of recently deceased Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, while others concluded that America would never be safe if the U.S. government kept bombing innocents abroad.

Due to the past three decades of strong youth organizing, throwing a protest has become almost a synch. Using what made the anticorporate protests so successful is this generation's golden apple --the Internet, the major organizing tool in getting information, education and pubic debate into the mainstream. This has allowed veteran activists to connect with a large number of non-activists, many of them older, who have begun to oppose the constant drum beatings of war. For instance, many of the people present at the March on Washington on the 26th weren't veteran activists, and many more said they had never attended an antiwar rally before, much less any other rallies. Many more shied away from calling themselves "leftists." This offers the new movement an added legitimacy in that it reaches a much wider public opposition organizing on the ground -- that being anti-war is not just another left cause.

Most activists agree that now the real problem is getting the media to show this new visible opposition to the war. American mainstream media's lack of emphasis on the protest by not honestly portraying the attendance numbers or even giving much editorial mention to the protests has left many participants astounded.

I realize that anti-war organizing has always been glanced over in the media, until youth have found ways to create an undeniable commotion. My friends and I had spent the day before we drove out to D.C. dusting off old peace activist archives at my university. We examined a few old posters: "Free Burma."; "End Apartheid."; "Yes to Ethnic Studies."; and "Stop Sweatshop Abuse." And we finally came across the ones we were looking for, oddly entitled "Stop Bush's War for Oil." These are posters my school's peace organization used in 1991. It's eerie how little things change.

But by the closing of the protest in the late evening, protestors from every walk of life were still arriving in cars, vans, buses and trains to show that "America"--which is what the protestors felt we represented in our diversity and numbers-- believed any war with Iraq would be done against the will of the people. And indeed, if history is any example, this new peace movement is ready to blossom.

As for the future? Many activists point me to the last line of the NION pledge: "Another world is possible and we pledge to make it real."



Desiree Evans, 21, is a writer, activist and a journalism senior at Northwestern University.


Photos of the anti-war march in San Francisco on October 26, 2002 courtesy of Michael Gaworecki.

California Youth Unite to Upset the Setup

upset the setup

With one hand caressing the mic, and the other shaped into a fist, "raptivist" and emcee Rashidi Omari, of the Oakland-based hip hop group Company of Prophets, sounds loud beats over political spoken word and conscious lyrics into a heated high school auditorium.

Glance around to his audience: a motley crew of high schoolers, b-boys, breakers, feminists and lyricists, sporting dreadlocks, afros, baggy jeans, Mumia shirts and Che buttons. They are Asian, African American, Pacific Islander, Arab and Latino.

In other words, they represent California's newest – and youngest – generation of organizers.

"When I say upset," Omari spits out, arms raised in the air as he beat-boxes rhythms in between a flow of words. "You say the setup!" The crowded auditorium pumps fists with hyped energy in response.
"Upset!"
"The setup!"
"Upset!"
"The setup!"

Now freeze.

This month around 300 youth gathered for the fourth annual "Upset the Setup" conference in Oakland, Ca., which yearly has brought together high school age youth from across the state of California to discuss ways to organize and to stop the war on youth in their local communities.

In the tradition of – a protest concert that drew thousands of youth in the last two years against a proposed SuperJail in Alameda county – the "Upset the Setup" conference uses cultural protest and resistance through music, art, politics and hip hop to educate and empower youth in the methods of effective organizing strategies and protest.

Khadine Bennett, project director with the
Youth Force Coalition, the group that hosted the conference, explained that the conference was founded to bridge youth organizations that work on different issues and with different identities and to illustrate how the prison industrial complex intersects with all their issues.

"If you are a young queer woman of color working on environmental issues in Oakland or a Latino youth organizing against incarceration in LA, here is a place you meet and connect," Bennett said. "This conference is a space for youth organizations from all of California to realize that they are not fighting this system alone."

The conference was attended by around 50 different organizations representing a wide spectrum of the growing movement against the criminalization of youth. Many groups hosted interactive workshops educating and linking issues from the local to the global, ranging from the fight for ethnic studies in California highs school to methods of guerrilla art organizing against Bush's war on Iraq.



"If you are a young queer woman of color working on environmental issues in Oakland or a Latino youth organizing against incarceration in LA, here is a place you meet and connect," Bennett said. "This conference is a space for youth organizations from all of California to realize that they are not fighting this system alone."



Youth organizations like PUEBLO (People United for a Better Oakland) gave workshops on organizing against measure FF in the local November elections. FF is a ballot initiative that would put 100 new cops on the streets in Oakland with a hefty price tag of $67.5 million.

Californians for Justice gave a workshop on campaigning against the High School Exit Exam, a new requirement that will be applied to California's graduating class of 2004. They argue that the exam is already proven to be racist, and in schools where it has been administered, the dropout rate has increased.

Youth from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee connected the struggles in Palestine to the indigenous battles in the Unites States and in South Africa. Most students left the workshop shocked by the amount of information they never knew about Middle East politics.

The Birth of a Coalition

When California began passing measures in the late 90s aimed at controlling its youth, such as zero tolerance laws, three strike laws and adult transfers, a new generation of urban high school organizers was born.

The Youth Force Coalition, a coalition of 30 social justice groups in the Bay Area, also originated in this struggle. It formed in 1998 at the Critical Resistance conference, an event that connected thousands of youth organizations from across the country working to address America's ballooning prison industrial complex.

Youth Force later coalesced around the Proposition 21 campaign in 1999. Prop 21 is what many organizers still refer to as the "War on Youth initiative"; it created tougher sentences and pushed 14-year-olds into adult courts and 16-year-olds into adult prisons. Although Prop 21 passed, it resulted in amassing one of the largest urban youth movements for social change in the area since the Black Power movement. Many youth attended their first protests, joined and formed new organizations and today continue to organize for social justice in their communities.

Crystal Tovar was only 14 when she attended her first protest, which was against Prop 21. Today she is a college organizer and attributes her consciousness to the Prop 21 campaign. "I definitely was brought into the movement by those actions," she says.

Last year Youth Force partnered up with the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center For Human Right's Book Not Bars in a campaign against the proposed SuperJail in Alameda County. The SuperJail would have been one of the largest per capita juvenile halls in the country, increasing Oakland's number of detention beds from 299 to 540. Last spring the campaign succeed in a small victory by getting the number of beds proposed down to 420, having the location moved from Dublin to two possible West Oakland sites, and cutting its budget by $2.1 million.

Organizers argue that over-incarceration of youth and juvenile detention overcrowding can be prevented by simply not putting as many youth in jail. Youth Force points out that juvenile jail overcrowding isn't due to the actions of young people, but to the inaction of adults in looking for other alternatives to "lock-em-up and throw away key way" solutions. Organizers prefer treatment and rehabilitation programs that use home surveillance and evening reporting centers.

Schools Not Jails

Because youth of color represent the majority in California's public schools at around 63 percent of the population, most activists feel that those in power are ignoring them.

Chants like "Books Not Bars", "Education not Incarceration" and "Stop the Criminalization of a Generation" make the message clear – youth are targeted and education systems are losing.

A recent study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute reports during the 1980s and 1990s state spending on correction grew at the same rate spending on higher education decreased, resulting in the fact that a third more African American men are in prison than in universities or colleges.

Statistics like this have spurred into action groups like the East Los Angeles-based Youth Organizing Communities (YOC), a Latino youth organization that works within the network of "Schools not Jails" campaigns in California to fight education injustice.

"Schools are like prisons" was the common analogy of the workshop YOC hosted at the conference.

"So many young people get tracked into prison, the military and low-wage jobs," Lester Garcia, 20, told his audience.

YOC refers to dropout rates as "disappearances," since no one knows what happens to the youth after they leave high school. In many inner city neighborhoods in California there is a 40-60 percent disappearance rate. Garcia explained how the growing prison population is directly linked to the conditions in schools and to the rise in disappearances.

Most of the youth in the workshop knew more people in jail than in college, and many could look around their schools and list the litany of problems in them – underpaid teachers, chipped paint and falling ceilings, not enough books (in the ones they have, Reagan is still listed as president), metal detectors, cameras, fences, more cops than counselors, racist tracking systems, and overcrowding. Many go to schools where on the first day they are told to look around at their classmates and note that half of the freshman class won't see graduation.

"With the cycle of taking more money from schools and putting it into prisons, the only option for many inner city kids is cheap labor, crime, hustling... the government creates the problems by not giving money to the school and then imprisons you... automatically setting you up for prison or the military," Garcia explained.

YOC is working to improve high school curriculums, underscoring that more youth would be interested in school if they had the chance to learn about themselves. They are working on campaigns across East Los Angeles to implement ethnic studies at the high school level.

"Of all the conditions at these schools, not learning about one's own history is adding to poor education," Garcia said.

Generation Hip hop Wakes

Many of the youth at the conference fit the profile of the majority of youth locked up in the nation's juvenile facilities and SuperJails – low-income youth of color. But they are also the ones stepping up to the mic and to their local governments.

California's clamorous hip hop activists, or "raptivists," continue to push the envelope and to inspire other groups. In the Bay Area alone, youth have formed dozens of new groups in the past three years to counter the damaging impact of the prison industrial complex – Critical Resistance, Youth Force, Let's Get Free, Underground Railroad, C-Beyond, SOUL and Mindzeye to name a few – all based in hip hop culture and run primarily by youth of color between the ages of 15 and 30. These youth are taking their cues from the Civil Rights Movement, holding rallies, protests, sit-ins, and door-to-door campaigning – all with a "hip hop flavor."

Many of these organizations have developed a theory of organizing that goes from the local to the global, using hip hop culture to educate, empower, politick and allow young people to address their problems in their own language and in a method that is familiar to them.

"I think it is important that young people in the movement – especially young oppressed people (working class, queer, youth of color) – come together and share work, to become stronger and more viable as a movement," said Genevieve Gonzalez, an organizer with the Oakland-based School for Unity and Liberation (SOUL).

And conferences like "Upset the Setup" allow this generation of youth to link together to see the larger connection between their struggles.

"I think [the conference] was amazing," reflects Alba Mendez, 16, a student at Downtown Business Magnet High in Los Angeles. "It's very helpful to realize what's going on and to see the problems from a different view. It's good to see people out here willing to organize us, teach us and not give us just another line."

Castlemont sophomore, Porshca Washington, 16, described how at her high school they were organizing against overcrowding. It was her first time coming to a conference like this, but it wouldn't be her last.

"This is the hip hop generation finding its political voice," Ella Baker Center for Human Rights director Van Jones told the Oakland Tribune last year. "They are working class kids of color who have already been written off by society. They're told they can't fight city hall, but they are doing it anyway."

Indeed these youth have brought a fresh voice to the debate over juvenile justice – voices rooted in low income communities of color like West Oakland and East Los Angeles. They are mostly under 21, have spent time in lock-up or have relatives or friends there.

And they come to the table, or the mic as one may see it, not just from a sense of compassion, but out of necessity and survival. As Jones put it, they organize for their lives.

Desiree Evans, 21, is a journalism student and activist always thinking up new ways to upset the setup.

Race and the Drug War

For communities of color, the war on drugs is an inescapable plague -- it's the fear of imprisonment, early morning massive street sweeps, gang task forces and buy-and-bust operations. It's a family member in lockup, dying of HIV or an overdose. It's a war zone, as tragic as any unfolding in the Middle East or Afghanistan.

Since its inception, the drug war has been characterized by institutionalized racism. Its interrelated effects of a booming prison industrial complex, zero tolerance laws, punitive sentencing, increasing HIV rates within U.S. prisons, criminalized youth and mass disenfranchisement have had a devastating impact on communities of color. As people of color struggle on the frontlines of this war, "tough-on-crime" drug legislation is leading the way to a new era of "Jim Crow."

In recent years, however, both community and drug reform activists have begun to fight back. The drug reform movement itself has gained popularity and political momentum, as more and more Americans are voting for drug reform initiatives and a more humane drug policy. And issues of race --which were traditionally pushed to the margins of the drug reform debate by a predominantly white male, libertarian leadership -- are beginning to get more attention within the movement. Some grassroots organizers are now arguing that the drug reform movement should focus on more than just legalization, and begin to address the destructive effects of the drug war on communities of color.

"You can't talk about racism without talking about the war on drugs," Deborah Small, program coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said in a press release for the upcoming "Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs" conference. "Virtually every drug war policy, from racial profiling to prosecutions to length of sentencing, are disproportionately carried out against people of color ... people rarely make the connections."

The connection is made starkly clear by the latest figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 6.6 million Americans are under some form of correctional supervision (1 in 32 adults); 25 percent of the prison population are nonviolent drug offenders, 74 percent of whom are African American.

The effects of the drug war on people of color is every bit as damning and reprehensible as the Jim Crow laws. And at every point in the legal process -- be it arrests, sentencing, or incarceration -- people of color bear the burden our nation's war on drugs.

Racial Profiling & Tulia

There is no better example of the practice of racial profiling than the case of the small Texas panhandle town of Tulia, where 12 percent of the modest African American population was arrested and prosecuted in 1999 on drug charges, based solely on the word of one undercover cop, who was later exposed as corrupt.

The events in Tulia brought national attention to the larger problem of racial profiling in the drug war. Drug enforcement officials focus the majority of their efforts on street-level dealers -- overwhelmingly people of color -- which are the easiest cases to make, all but ignoring dealers higher up on the supply chain.

The racial effects of this policy are clear. The Texas Narcotics Control Program, for example, does not require the task forces to report the racial breakdown of their cases. But an investigation by the Texas Observer of its internal case logs revealed "an unmistakable tale of disproportionate impact: Row after row and page after page of African American defendants, most of them street-level crack dealers."

But Tulia is hardly an exception. The racial disparity in the pattern of arrests and sentencing nation-wide is equally damning. Whites make up 75 percent of the national population, but only 23 percent of prisoners doing time for drug offenses. But African Americans, on the other hand, only comprise 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, yet comprise 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted for drug offenses.

Criminalizing Youth & Women

Young Latino and African American men and women of color arrested for nonviolent drug offenses represent the fastest rising segment of the prison population. They have increasingly become the victims of the brutal drug war waged in the streets of America for the past two decades. The casualties: poor urban youth and women of color. The consequences: families destroyed, young lives lost and communities on lock down.

African American women represent the largest growing segment of the prison population (seven out of ten have a child under the age of 18). Today 200,000 children have incarcerated mothers, and more than 1.6 million have a father in prison. An African American child is nearly nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than a white child, and a Latino child is three times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than a white child.

And these children are not doing much better. A report released by Building Blocks for Youth pointed out that the incarceration rate for Latino youth is 13 times the rate of white youth, and 25 times higher for African American youth. Although statistics show that white youth sell and use drugs at the same rate as youth of color, African American and Latino youth are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned at substantially higher rates for drug crimes, accounting today for over 60 percent of drug arrests compared with 14 percent in 1980.

Education, Not Incarceration

From the cradle to the cellblock, the U.S. sends more young African American and Latino youth to prison than to college. The government continues to build more prisons and juvenile detention centers each year, while spending less on education.

Young people have come under increasing scrutiny as part of the escalating drug war. Recent Congressional legislation required forced testing in after-school programs, bans on federal financial aid through the Higher Education Act, zero tolerance, anti-gang loitering and automatic transfer laws, which in effect unfairly target poor African American and Latino youth. Today, 75 percent of all young defendants charged with drug offenses are youth of color.

These young people are often low-level, non-violent drug offenders who get entangled in the prison system, and then become trapped within it. Without economic opportunities, sufficient education or treatment centers in low-income communities of color, they experience a higher rate of recidivism. For many young people of color in low-income communities, arrest has become a way of life. And in many cases the underground drug economy has become the only viable option.

To make matters worse, even after they serve their time, a conviction can destroy their chances of a better life. The Higher Education Act, passed in 1998 by Congress, denies federal aid for higher education to any student convicted of a misdemeanor or felony drug offense, who is more likely to be a person of color.

Women

According to the Bureau for Justice Statistics, between 1986 and 1991, the number of African American women incarcerated for drug offenses jumped 828 percent. That's compared with 328 percent for Latinos and 241 percent for White women.

A 1994 Justice Department study of federal prisoners, summarized by the Sentencing Project, found that "women were over-represented among 'low-level' drug offenders who were non-violent, had minimal or no prior criminal history, and were not principal figures in criminal organizations or activities, but who nevertheless received sentences similar to 'high-level' drug offenders under the mandatory sentencing policies."

Laws that further criminalize and punish women of color have multiplied in the course of the drug war. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 contains a "one-strike" law that allows housing officials to evict public housing residents or visitors who have been convicted of a felony at the project or nearby, as well as others who live in the household. This has disproportionately affected elderly women of color, whose relatives have been arrested.

As well as losing government aid and housing, due to an amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, food stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are denied to most men and women convicted of drug felonies. And many women lose their children to the drug war. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a federal law passed in 1997, a parent's right to a child is severed after the child has spent 15 months in foster care.

Pregnant women of color are also unfairly targeted by the war on drugs. Despite similar or equal rates of illegal drug use during pregnancy, African American women are 10 times more likely to be drug-tested, often against their wills, and reported to child welfare agencies for prenatal drug use.

Prisons: Sentencing & Disenfranchisement

Today more than one in three African American men between the ages of 18 and 29 are either in jail, prison, parole or on probation on any given day -- in many neighborhoods more than half of the young African American male population has spent time in prison. This national tragedy is the effect of the punitive sentencing laws that have been an integral part of the war on drugs. Under New York's Rockefeller drug laws, for example, offenders can receive life terms for minor drug offenses.

And once in prison, many people of color lose their most basic right as American citizens. In 13 states, including Florida, they cannot vote even after they are released, which has led to political disenfranchisement and segregation unparalleled since the Jim Crow era .

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Congress began enacting harsh federal mandatory minimum sentences -- sentences that require exorbitant prison terms for certain felonies. Many federal mandatory minimum sentences make it more likely that African American and Latino drug law violators will be incarcerated, and for longer periods of time.

The racial bias of the drug war is glaringly evident in the much harsher mandatory minimums for crack cocaine than powder cocaine -- a 100 to 1 disparity. For example, first-time offenders dealing 50 grams or more of crack cocaine get a 10-year mandatory minimum, the same as for 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. Crack and powder cocaine have the same active ingredient, but crack is marketed in less expensive quantities and in lower income communities of color. Recent studies show that more than 90 percent of persons convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses are African American.

Mandatory minimums continue to fill prisons with nonviolent drug offenders; they were applied in 64 percent of drug cases in 1998 that sentenced first-time offenders to 15 years and more. Many drug offenses now consist of hard time for nonviolent crime, with longer sentences than manslaughter and murder. According the Sentencing Project, almost 77 percent of those sent to jail as drug offenders have never been convicted of a violent felony.

A good example of punitive sentencing is the Rockefeller laws, which were enacted by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973. They are widely considered one of the nation's harshest sets of mandatory sentencing laws. Offenders can receive life terms for possessing or selling small amounts of narcotics. Since their enactment, the laws have contributed to an explosion in the New York state prison population, which mushroomed from 12,500 in 1973 to 71, 472 in 1999. Today in New York, 94 percent of all people in prison on drug charges are African American or Latino.

Locking Up the Vote

According to a report by the Sentencing Project, almost 1.4 million African American men (14 percent of the adult male population) have been temporarily or permanently stripped of the right to vote because of a felony conviction. African American males represent more than 36 percent of the total disenfranchised male population in the United States, although they make up less than the 14 percent of the male population in the United States. Prisoners are counted by the national census as residents of the towns in which they are imprisoned, leaving their hometowns -- often urban communities of color -- with diminished political representation, government funding and ultimately a diminished voice.

There were 437,000 ex-offenders in Florida not allowed to vote in the 2000 national presidential elections (that includes 31.2 percent of all African American men in Florida -- more than 200,000 men). Critics of felony disenfranchisement point out that these thousands of lost votes in Florida would have been a deciding point in the presidential race.

In 47 states, all convicted felons in prison are denied voting rights. Thirty-two states deny those on parole and felons on probation this right. In 13 states (including Florida) ex-felons lose this right for life. This is often referred to as a "civil death" sentence.

It is also what Robin Levy, an attorney in the DPA's Oakland legal office, calls another "destructive collateral consequence" of the war on drugs. Taken together with the other consequential damage done by the drug war, disenfranchisement represents the ultimate failure of the criminal justice system in communities of color.
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