War on Drugs: US Civil Rights Advocates Still Fighting "Race War"

With one out of every hundred American adults behind bars, the U.S.'s bulging jails easily exceed even the prison population in China. These jails, experts say, have become the most racially biased institutions in the country. (Flickr photo by public15 / Creative Commons)

War on Drugs: US Civil Rights Advocates Still Fighting "Race War"

WASHINGTON - Exactly 40 years after former United States President Richard Nixon labelled his administration's drug policy a "war" in 1971, a huge coalition of civil rights leaders, advocates and educators converged in Washington D.C. to expose an on-going conflict that they believe is less 'a war on drugs' and more an assault on the rights of African Americans in the 21st century.

"The War on Drugs has not failed to achieve its purpose," Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, told a crowded room at the National Press Club here Friday. "It has certainly failed to stop the trade and abuse of drugs, but it has succeeded in its original design: to ensure profit for some, political disenfranchisement of minorities, and the structural exclusion of a people based on their race."

A 2010 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the U.S. Department of Justice claims that a drug arrest is made every 19 seconds, making the U.S. home to 25 percent of the world's inmates - most of them detained on non-violent charges of drug possession.

With one out of every hundred American adults behind bars, the U.S.'s bulging jails easily exceed even the prison population in China. These jails, experts say, have become the most racially biased institutions in the country.

In its 2011 annual report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented that, though African Americans comprise a mere 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for a stunningly disproportionate 35 percent of incarcerated drug offenders in the country.

While advocates such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter used the 40th 'anniversary' of the War on Drugs to call attention to four decades of failed policies, leaders in the black community seized the moment to highlight the long-forgotten fact that the 'war' was declared on race before it was declared on drugs.

The New Jim Crow?

Today, there are more African American men in jails, correctional facilities, prisons and detention centers in the U.S. than there were slaves in 1850 - a decade before the civil war began.

In fact, more black men are behind bars in the U.S. in 2011 than in South Africa in the 1990s during the height of apartheid.

According to Michelle Alexander, author of the 'The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in an age of colorblindness', the War on Drugs has effectively robbed people of color in the U.S. of their hard-won civil rights by legalizing discrimination against 'criminals' in much the same way that the notorious Jim Crow laws legalized discrimination against blacks.

"The War on Drugs has put in place a set of policies and practices that operate to collectively lock people into a permanent second class status for the rest of their lives," Alexander told IPS. "African American men in particular are targeted by the police, stopped, searched, arrested on minor charges of possession - the very sorts of offenses that go unnoticed on wealthy college campuses across town - imprisoned and then ushered into a parallel social universe where they are stripped of their most basic civil and human rights."

"Suddenly being denied access to public housing, stripped of equal education and employment opportunities, refused the right serve on a jury - all the old forms of discrimination - are legal again once you've been branded a felon," Alexander added. "The drug war has been the primary vehicle of mass incarceration and this new form of racial and social control - it has been responsible for the quintupling of our prison population since the 1980s."

The report by HRW makes clear that although blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at equal rates, African Americans make up 44 percent of state convictions of drug felonies and black males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of whites. In fact, in 2009, one in ten young black men between the ages of 25 and 29 were imprisoned - compared to one in 64 white males.

Numbers Belie Rhetoric in On-going Conflict

"The drug war has arguably been the single most devastating, dysfunctional policy since slavery," Norm Stamper, retired chief of police for Seattle, told a press conference in D.C. last week.

Speaking on behalf of the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) - who handed over their new report 'Ending the Drug War: a Dream Deferred' to Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske Tuesday - Stamper laid bare the details of a strategy that President Barack Obama's administration claims to have abandoned, but is in fact still deeply rooted in the budgets and practices of virtually every law enforcement agency in the U.S.

"I was optimistic when [Kerlikowske] said, early in his tenure, that we cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem," Stamper said. "But that statement has been made and repeated on numerous occasions to no practical effect."

LEAP's report crunched the numbers of Obama's 2010 National Drug Control Strategy budget and found that - compared to the expenditures of Republican President George W. Bush - the Obama administration approved a 13 percent increase in the Department of Defence's anti-drug spending, an 18 percent increase in drug control funds allocated to the Bureau of Prisons, and a 34 percent decrease in support for Department of Education-sponsored awareness programs in fiscal year 2011.

Even after adjusting for inflation, Nixon's 100 million dollar annual drug-war budget has multiplied 50 times since 1971. Despite the government's National Drug Assessment's finding that narcotics are cheaper and more easily accessible than ever before, the current administration has requested 26.2 billion dollars to continue fighting the war.

Contrary to claims by government officials, the Drug War is far from over - leading experts and advocates to call for urgent mobilization.

"Nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America," Alexander told IPS. "In order to go back to pre-Drug War incarceration rates we would have to release four out of five prisoners; a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs; private prison companies would be forced to watch their profits vanish; but it can be done," she added.

"Many people argued that Jim Crow was so deeply rooted in our political, economic and social structure that it would never die and the same is being said today, but the reality is that when people awaken to the injustice of a system and discover their own voice it is possible to end it," Alexander told IPS. "Just like advocates were able to bring Jim Crow to its knees in a remarkably short period of time, I believe it is possible to end the drug war and this system of mass incarceration as well."

SIDEBAR - Prisons: An Unsustainable System

"If prison-building were our goal, it would be a good reason to leave our drug laws as they are," Richard Van Wickler, a corrections superintendent at the Cheshire Country Jail in New Hampshire, said Tuesday. "But as a tax-payer 's certainly no goal of mine."

Van Wickler claims that the U.S. adds 200 new beds to its jails every two weeks and currently holds over 7 million people in the cyclical prison 'system' of arrest, detention, parole and probation.

"We've created a correctional system that cannot be sustained," Van Wickler said. "Law does not dictate behavior - prohibition does, by providing illegal drug enterprises with the possibility to make unlimited profits."

"The potential for these profits has infiltrated the prison system itself," he added, "and if we can't keep illegal drugs out of our prisons, how are we going to keep them out of our neighborhoods?"

Meanwhile, the bill for the Drug War grows more astronomical by the day.

As Elsie Scott, president of the Congressional Black Caucus pointed out at a press conference here Friday, states spend roughly 67 dollars 50 cents per day to house one prisoner. At the current rates of incarceration, the government shells out a daily average of 17 million dollars just to hold drug offenders behind bars.

Quoting Harvard University Economist Jeffrey Miron, LEAP's report conservatively estimates that legalizing and regulating drugs would create 88 billion dollars in annual savings and revenue for state and federal governments.

"What does it mean that we have five million disenfranchised African American voters - the majority of them so-called drug offenders - coming out of the prison systems?" Jasmine Tyler, deputy director for national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, asked at a press conference. "It means we've killed the political viability of an entire generation, and this unforgivable."

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