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John Legend Speaks to the Crack in the System Caused by Mass Incarceration

02/28/2015 11:24 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

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In his recent Oscar acceptance speech John Legend gave light to the impact of mass incarceration on America by stating "We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850." By saying this while accepting an Oscar award for the film Selma, he connected mass incarceration to the Civil Rights movement in a single statement, finally allowing the issue of U.S. imprisonment to be seen for its true tragedy.

Through art Legend's words brought politics front and center to the Oscar stage in a way that has been missing from the American dialogue since the days of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and other activist. To give more context to the gravity of the problem he spoke to, I recently wrote the piece "The Black Male Incarceration Problem Is Real and It's Catastrophic" and stated "there are more African American men incarcerated in the U.S. than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined." These 9 countries in total represent over 1.5 billion people, in contrast there are a mere 18.5 million black males in the United States.

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The epicenter of the incarceration era Legend referenced roots itself in the crack cocaine epidemic, and mandatory sentencing laws that followed. Yet, to truly look at the era of mass incarceration following the implementation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, we must dig deeper than Gary Webb's accusations in Dark Alliance the expose that brought to light the CIA's involvement in cocaine trafficking. Only by looking at the United States of America with honest eyes, being cognizant of cycles of actions, can we see Gary's tangled web for its true light. Through this analysis we are lead to a larger understanding of black America's historical arch in the United States, and a deeper view into how it weaves into the fabric of present day realities. Those realities include the stories of Eric Garner, Mike Brown and so many others that have dealt with the secondary consequences of mass incarceration's hold on our country.

Over the past three years I have taken on the task of delving into the War on Drugs & Iran Contra Scandal as one of the producers of the film "Freeway Crack in the System" along with Emmy award winning director Marc Levin. Our film will premiere on Al Jazeera this Sunday March 1st, and will be shown in Selma, Alabama as a featured part of the Jubilee Film Festival March 8th. Crack in the System is an in-depth detail into how our nation followed this path toward the incarceration of so many in such a short period of time. As a former prosecutor, I have seen the system up close and understand its impact on lives. In this film, we journeyed from the epicenter of the crack epidemic in South Central Los Angeles to the Nicaraguan City that started the domino effect that led to America's cocaine explosion. The connection between the two cities was an administration headed by President Ronald Reagan that with one hand turned a blind eye to Nicaraguan drug suppliers trafficking large scale cocaine in the United States, and with the other reformed the American incarceration landscape with the implementation of harsh crack cocaine sentencing for American citizens who bought and sold some of the same drugs far down the supply line. All of this was done while the government contemporaneously allowed for the privatization of U.S. prisons that would hold this flood of new inmates.

Crack in the System's goal is simply to dig deeper, supply more facts, and provide the definitive story. We accomplished this by interviewing several individuals never seen on camera before speaking about the realities of their involvement with the reach of the contra scandal and cocaine epidemic. This documentary frames the picture of how it all happened. The characters we questioned ranged from Rick Ross the kingpin at the heart of the urban crack epidemic, to Julio Zavala the high ranking Nicaraguan drug seller in the center of the infamous Frogman case out of San Francisco that started all the investigations into illicit CIA activity, to Coral Baca (played by Paz Vega in To Kill the Messenger") who laid out the evidence of the U.S. government's involvement in the drug trade for Gary Webb. We even have a former Los Angeles County Sheriff who speaks to stealing drugs and money off of black defendants, and lastly a lawmaker Eric Sterling one of the drafters of the Anti Drug Abuse act of 1986, who apologizes on camera for writing some of the most draconian prison sentences ever created for a nonviolent drug offense.

"I knew that these laws were a mistake when we were writing them...There is no question that there are tens of thousands of black people in prison serving sentences that are decades excessive...Their families have been destroyed because of laws I played a central role in writing." Eric Sterling Drafter 1986 Anti-drug Abuse Act

According to Sterling these laws were written based on a hysteria created by crack cocaine's imagery in media. Furthermore, he had not seen a law prior, or since, implemented in such a way. Police agencies were not surveyed, drug scientists were not consulted, this was not a law that was guided by logic. Young blacks were convicted and sentenced based on emotion and fear.

The economic backdrop that set this in motion cannot be ignored. Throughout the two terms of Reagan's presidency, economic advancement declined in urban centers across the country. Decreased access to job opportunities as a result of globalization moving manufacturing jobs to international markets, limited availability of government programs and an implementation of trickle-down economics by Reagan hit African Americans with a devastating impact. Ronald Reagan represented an ethos of small government that led to massive cuts in support that were foundational to the development of a post civil rights black America.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the new conservative administration quickly moved to reduce federal government spending on urban development and social services. The Reagan Administration terminated the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, a successful job training program that had been funded in 1982 at $3.1 billion; eliminated $2 billion from the federal food stamps program; reduced federal support for child nutrition programs by $1.7 billion over a two-year period; and closed down the Neighborhood Self Help and Planning Assistance programs, which provided technical and financial help to inner cities. In the first year of the Reagan Administration, the real median income of all black families fell by 5.2 percent. The number of Americans living below the federal government's poverty line grew by over two million in a single year. In 1982, over 30 percent of the total black labor force was jobless at some period during that year. In June 1982, Congress reduced federal assistance programs by 20 percent and cut federal assistance to state and municipal governments. Social and Economic Issues of the 1980s and 1990s amistadresource.org

When these programs were cut African Americans in dire need of assistance because of historical disenfranchisement were left without resources. As a result a largely black societal underbelly developed in cities across America. In addition, trickle-down economics coupled itself with local level privatization movements creating a sandwich effect, with federal program and benefit cuts squeezing from the top, and local level privatization legislation squeezing from the bottom. By contracting out public sector jobs many of the Affirmative Action gains that resulted from the Civil Rights movement could be circumvented. New local level privatization movements took form across the country to take advantage of the new strategy. Professor William Jones of University of Wisconsin wrote about this in his piece titled "The Infrastructure of South-Central Los Angeles": Unions, Public Service and the New Black Middle Class"

In July, 1981, Los Angeles City Councilmen ... proposed contracting garbage collection in the city to private firms, which paid their workers as much as four dollars per hour less than city employees. This was the largest in a series of privatization plans ... proposed since 1978, when local voters approved ballot measures allowing city and county officials to outsource public services ... Local officials had contracted out maintenance at the city Coliseum and food service at county juvenile facilities, and were considering proposals for street resurfacing and laundry at county hospitals ... By the 1950s, African Americans and recent immigrants had established near monopolies on sanitation and other low-wage service jobs such as custodial, food service, non-professional health and child care ... Union activists complained of a "racist purge of black employees" after governor Ronald Reagan contracted data processing in the state health system to a private contractor in 1969, resulting in the lay-off of half the African American employees in the operations department. When Los Angeles started privatizing food service, janitorial, security and laundry services in the 1970s, SEIU activists pointed out that ninety-five percent of the workers in those services were African American or Latino.

The combination of the aforementioned factors laid the economic brush that allowed for the crack era to set fire in Los Angeles and other urban centers across the country. By the end of the 1980's, all of black America would feel the brunt of its burn.

When Legend performed Glory and spoke to the issue of imprisonment amidst the celebration of his historic Oscar win, he brought the issue of mass incarceration front and center. His message pointed out the cracks in the system that work against our great democracy functioning fairly for all. Just as Martin Luther King jr. had done in Selma, Alabama 50 years prior, Legend set a issue of injustice on all of our kitchen tables to be dealt with by action. It is now up to each of us to answer the call and begin to act on the issue, as so many answered the call of civil injustices before us.

"One day, when the glory comes - It will be ours, it will be ours - Oh, one day, when the war is won - We will be sure, we will be here sure - Oh, glory" Glory - Selma

Freeway Crack in the System is scheduled to be the featured closing for the Jubilee Film Festival March 8th. The film is scheduled to be shown after a bridge crossing reenactment in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights protest that occurred in Selma, Alabama. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the monumental moment in history.