Race and the 'War on Drugs'

Nine years ago, at the height of the Bush-Gore election season, in a town 93 miles outside Austin, Texas, a task force swept through a housing project to purge the community of drugs. On that hot November day, 26 African Americans were rounded up, cuffed, and thrown behind bars, including a now-famous woman, Regina Kelly.

The feature-length film American Violet is based on the true events of Kelly’s confrontation with the “good ol’ boy” justice system in Hearne, Texas. The 24-year-old African-American single mother of four—whose name has been changed in the film to Dee Roberts—is charged with drug dealing after the bust, and she must weigh taking a plea bargain and becoming a convicted felon or fighting the police institution that has bullied her neighborhood since she was a child.

With her daughters’ custody and her safety on the line, Roberts (played by Nicole Beharie) begins her battle with the district attorney (played by Michael O’Keefe). After rejecting the offered plea of 10 years probation, Roberts sues the district attorney and the Hearne police department for racial discrimination. They attack her with renewed vengeance, reminding her in every way that enemies made in Hearne are enemies for life.

Roberts fights back with calculated cunning and a fierce drive earned through years of swimming upstream. Accompanied by her mother (played by Alfre Woodard), her dogged local attorney (Will Patton), and her American Civil Liberties Union lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson), Roberts risks her family’s future to revolutionize the Texas criminal justice system.

In one scene, the ACLU lawyer stands behind a pulpit to face a congregation that lost a majority of its members in the raid. In his effort to rally the estranged families to seek justice, he begins, “What’s happening [here] is happening all over the country. Drug task forces use military tactics to terrorize poor people. Meanwhile, federal money goes to the counties that convict the most people, and plea bargains are aggressively pushed to hasten those convictions.”

An eerily parallel sting was executed about a year and a half earlier in the same state. In Tulia, Texas, 46 people—most of them African American—were locked up in sentences ranging from 20 to 341 years by a trigger-happy narcotics agent who was later removed from his position for aggravated perjury.

The Tulia and Hearne raids happened about 14 years after the enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum sentences for possession of cocaine: five years for dealing five grams of crack cocaine and five years for distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine—a 100-to-1 ratio. According to Washington, D.C.-based The Justice Roundtable, about 82 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses in 2007 were African American. The ACLU and Regina Kelly fought the district attorney because of this disparity, which sends more African-American males to prison than to college.

Wade Goodwyn is the National Public Radio reporter whose coverage of Tulia and Hearne inspired the filmmaker, Bill Haney, to put Kelly’s story on the silver screen. Goodwyn points out that in the original story Kelly was not the only plaintiff to fight her conviction. The son of an African-American city council member also fought his case and won, which hinged on the same untrustworthy testimony of the Hearne police department. Kelly and others have been released, but Hearne’s district attorney is still in office, despite efforts to have him disbarred.

Nine years after the Hearne raid, nearly two-thirds of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions average about 50 grams. Not coincidentally, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, according to The Justice Roundtable. The prophet Micah tells us to do justice; if you need some inspiration, American Violet is a great place to start.

Laurel Frodge is advertising assistant for Sojourners.

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