War on Drugs

The Drug of White Supremacy

bekulnis / Shutterstock.com

New initiatives are seeking to curb what is often portrayed as a growing epidemic of heroin use in America. But as Ekow Yankah wrote in a brilliant piece last month, titled “When Addiction Has a White Face" this new attention to the plight of the addicted and the justification from law enforcement that “these are people with a purpose in life” has only come when the faces of addicts are no longer black and brown, but white.

Top Nixon Adviser: 'War on Drugs' Was a Way to Target Black People

Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Rarely is racism confessed so baldly.

John Ehrlichman, domestic policy chief for Richard Nixon, admitted in 1994 that the "war on drugs" was a way to "criminalize" the ant-war left and black people, and "disrupt those communities," according to a recent article from Harper's Magazine.

Ehrlichman was known as a close adviser to Nixon, and served 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.

A Mandatory Mistake

Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.com
Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.com

On a July afternoon in 1995, a 33-year-old man named Curtis Wilkerson walked into a store, stole one pair of socks, and was promptly arrested. This wasn’t Wilkerson’s first crime, but it was surprising, considering his long streak of good behavior. The last time he was trouble with the law was when he was in his teens, after two offenses for abetting robbery. He was sentenced to six years.

After his release from that sentence, Wilkerson cleaned his life up. Instead of running the streets for money, he drove a forklift. All things considered, he was a “success story,” earnestly walking that “straight and narrow” path — up until, that is, those gorgeous socks waved his way.

Why he did it remains a mystery. But since I was once an angsty teenage shoplifter, I imagine he was probably just bored. Hungry for a momentary thrill. An innocent-ish high. I imagine him thinking, it’s just a pair of socks. $2.50. Not much more than a pack of gum.

But be it socks or a Chevy Silverado, the state of California did not care. Shortly following his arrest, he was brought before a judge and sentenced to life in prison.

In California, the three-strikes law was the law of the land. A type of mandatory minimum sentencing law, the law required judges to punish defendants guilty of their third felony with 25 years to life in prison. Stolen socks, most of the time, would’ve counted as a misdemeanor. But, and likely because he was black, Wilkerson was charged with a felony, his third strike. And consequently, was given the harshest punishment in the history of stolen socks.

In 2012, California voters approved a measure to reform the law, making mandatory life sentences only applicable to “serious” felonies, but even still, Wilkerson remains behind bars.

Does Jesus Heal Drug Addicts?

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dan Kosmayer / Shutterstock.com
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dan Kosmayer / Shutterstock.com

I almost gave up on my drug-addict mother. But then I discovered that God never gives up.

In memory of Dorothy Molex (my mom), Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the countless others who battle the demons of addiction.

“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and be- comes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” (Mark 9:16-18)

I never thought the Bible had anything to say about addiction. It’s not something that I ever heard preached or read in the Bible. As someone who grew up in a household with an addicted parent, I wanted answers, but church didn’t provide them and the Bible appeared to be silent — until I decided to read this story through the lens of my life and personal experiences.

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.

Untying the Hands of Justice

THE UNITED STATES has more than 2.3 million prisoners, a higher number than any other country. How did we become the world’s leading jailer? One of the main culprits: Mandatory sentences.

Visiting those in prison and giving Christmas gifts to children of incarcerated parents are only two steps toward fulfilling Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25). It’s time for the church to get serious about criminal sentencing reform—particularly, the reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which lock up so many people for so long with so little benefit to society.

The explosion in state and federal prison populations and costs began in the 1980s with the so-called war on drugs. Lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences passed by lawmakers are the primary weapon in that “war.” Judges have no choice but to apply these automatic, non-negotiable sentences of five, 10, or 20 years or even life in prison without parole. Whether the punishment actually fits the crime or the offender, protects the public, or leads to rehabilitation is irrelevant.

The results are unsurprising: irrational sentences, $80 billion annually in prison costs, and horrifically overcrowded prisons. States as varied as Georgia, New York, Delaware, South Carolina, California, and Michigan have confronted the reality of unsustainable prison budgets by repealing mandatory minimum sentences or creating “safety valve” exceptions that let judges go below the mandated punishment if the facts and circumstances warrant it. During this wave of reforms, crime has dropped to historic lows.

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