Drug War

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'

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.

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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.