Drug War

With Controversial ICE Raids Ongoing, White House Announces Refugee Resettlement Plan

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Due to a sudden wave of ICE raids and deportations of asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America, the White House has faced anger from numerous Democrats in Congress, who drafted a letter denouncing the raids. This new refugee plan, which sets up screening facilities in Central America, aims to reduce human smuggling as well to slow the flow of undocumented immigration.

Getting to Work

1. Awakening: It is impossible to build a transformative movement for justice if people remain in the dark about the magnitude of the crisis at hand, its origins, and its racial, economic, and political dimensions. I wrote The New Jim Crowbecause I strongly suspected that most people simply had no idea what was really going on and that education was a necessary prerequisite to effective action. I still believe that’s the case, and so urging people of faith and conscience to commit themselves to raising the consciousness of their congregations and communities is extremely important.

Encourage people to hold study groups, film screenings, public forums, and dialogues to help others awaken to what has happened on our watch and become motivated to join the movement. The Unitarian Universalists, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Veterans of Hope, and PICO are all engaged in consciousness-raising work and have created study guides based on The New Jim Crow and other resources.

2. Building an Underground Railroad: Obviously, consciousness-raising is not enough—we will have to get to work. In my view, that necessarily involves building an “underground railroad” for people trying to make a break for true freedom in the era of mass incarceration and who desperately need help finding shelter, food, work, and reunification with their families.

This is work that every congregation and faith organization can undertake; many already are. The important thing is for people to frame and understand this work as part of a larger effort to end mass incarceration, and to view those who are being helped not as merely recipients of charity but as equals and potential partners in this work.

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How to Dismantle the 'New Jim Crow'

sakhorn / Shutterstock
Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock

I HEAR A STIRRING, a rumbling. An awakening. Sometimes the sound is so faint, I worry it’s my imagination, my optimism getting the best of me. I pause, listen, and wait. Here it comes again. I want to rush to my window, fling it open, stick my head way out, and look around. Is it happening? For real this time? Is the sleeping giant finally waking up?

God knows we’ve slept too long.

Many of us—myself included—slept through a revolution. Actually, it was a counterrevolution that has blown back much of the progress that so many racial justice advocates risked their lives for. This counterrevolution occurred with barely a whimper of protest, even as a war was declared, one that purported to be aimed at “drugs.”

Really, the war took aim at people—overwhelmingly poor people and people of color—who were taken prisoner en masse and then relegated to a permanent, second-class status, stripped of basic civil and human rights such as the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and public benefits. Branded “criminals” or “felons,” millions of people discovered that the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement no longer applied to them.

A penal system unprecedented in world history emerged in a few short decades; by the year 2000, 2 million people found themselves behind bars, and 60 million were saddled with criminal records that would condemn them for life—staggering statistics, given that in the 1970s there were only about 350,000 people in prison.

I am listening carefully at my window now. I hear that rumbling sound, signs of an awakening in the streets. My heart leaps for joy. People of all colors are beginning to raise their voices a little louder; people who have spent time behind bars are organizing for the restoration of their civil and human rights; young people are becoming bolder and more defiant in challenging the prison-industrial complex; and people of faith are finally waking up to the uncomfortable reality that we have been complicit in the birth and maintenance of a system predicated on denying to God’s children the very forms of compassion, forgiveness, and possibilities for redemption that we claim to cherish.

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America’s Great Divide

Police squad car lights, Gila Photography / Shutterstock.com
Police squad car lights, Gila Photography / Shutterstock.com

When I was invited by the Drug Policy Alliance to  participate in a pastors’ conference at the American Baptist College in Nashville on drug decriminalization, I didn’t know quite what to expect. In a room filled with African-American pastors, I felt like a fly on the wall of someone else’s family reunion. I began to see our criminal justice system, and our country, through different eyes.

I’ve reported on the conference elsewhere, but there I learned that while 13 percent of drug users are African-American, they account for 38 percent of drug arrests and 59 percent of drug convictions. Feeling disproportionately targeted, the pastors want drug usage to be treated as a health issue rather than a crime. 

As the conference unfolded, it dawned on me that I, as part of the majority culture, perceive law enforcement in ways strikingly different from the way many African-Americans see it. I have always experienced American authorities as my protector. If the police pull me over for speeding, it is nothing more than an annoyance, and the ticket won’t break me. Though I’m no fan of traffic cameras and drones, for the most part the police are there to watch out for me, and they do. It has always been that way for my family, as we can trace our roots of privilege back to Northern Europe in the early 1500s. Those in charge are the good guys who protect us and our stuff.

But for these African-American pastor-friends of mine, it’s a different story.

War on Drugs

THE PRICE OF cocaine in the U.S. has steadily decreased from 2004 through 2007 while purity has remained high, according to a study released in April by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). While the price of cocaine per pure gram has fluctuated in the past two decades, researchers are noting a severe and distinct decrease from $613 per gram in 1981 to $122 per gram in 2007, re-emphasizing “the importance of focusing greater attention on demand reduction and harm reduction, while deliberately lowering expectations for what supply-control strategies can achieve,” WOLA senior associate John Walsh said in a statement.

The percentage by which the price of cocaine had decreased in 2007 from 1999. Cocaine’s average retail purity, however, has remained relatively steady since 1988.

The estimated number of people in U.S. prisons for drug offenses today—more than 10 times as many as in 1980.

The percentage increase of potential worldwide cocaine production from 2000 to 2007.

The percentage of voters in 2008 that considered the “war on drugs” to be “failing,” according to a Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue national survey.

Source: “Lowering Expectations” (Washing-ton Office on Latin America, April 2009).

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2009
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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.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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