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Jesse Jackson, Black Leaders Are Right About Ending the War on Drugs

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by Dr. Boyce Watkins

As the news was recently released that black leaders had convened to attack the 40-year old war on drugs, I could hear the collective "amen" coming from millions of black folks all across America.  I also heard my phone ring at 5:30 am, as a friend of mine in Kansas City told me about how her brother had been tackled by federal marshalls at a relative's funeral for failing a urine analysis that had been a condition of his probation.  The man had served several years in prison on a drug felony and was working hard to improve his life.  But by smoking the same stuff that many attorneys and judges enjoy on the weekends, he may find himself back in prison for another five years.

I recall speaking to a police officer in one of the cities I was touring at the time.  The officer candidly explained to me that nearly every official in the city was fully aware of where the drugs were coming from.  They knew which boat delivered the drugs and could easily go onto the boat and make arrests that would significantly reduce the flow of drugs into their communities. The problem was that the person who owned the boat was politically connected, implying that any officer who entered the boat to make an arrest would be fired from his job.  However, the officers were given full permission to make as many arrests as they wanted once the drugs had been delivered to various street corners on the urban side of town.

While these stories are anecdotal, they are also highly reflective of the racism and hypocrisy in our nation's war on drugs.  The drug war has been, for the most part, a racially-tinged fabrication that gives easy excuses to those who once felt that black empowerment had become a threat to national security.  Not only has it been proven that the government consistently looked the other way as drugs flowed into black neighborhoods, but there was the double-whammy of giving black men long prison sentences as a result of possessing those very same drugs.

Decades later, the black family is decimated unlike anything we've ever seen before:  Over 70% of black homes are fatherless and black males are the leading victims of gun violence in America, with many of those weapons arriving into our community as a direct function of the drug trade.  Black men going to prison is the norm for most families, as a recent Your Black World survey showed that over 75% of African Americans have a relative who has spent time in the penitentiary.

Last week, when I made an appearance with Jeff Henderson from the Food Network (aka Chef Jeff) regarding the state of the black male in America, he candidly described the days in which he was a successful crack dealer in South Central Los Angeles.  After serving 10 years in federal prison, Henderson has parlayed his experience into a powerful business model that leans on the cooking and business expertise he developed while being incarcerated. One thing that Jeff said which got me thinking was that "It seemed like crack just appeared in the hood," explaining that before the crack cocaine epidemic, his community was entirely different from what it was afterward.

The guns and drugs that "just appear" in black communities do not fall out of the sky.  They are also not manufactured by African Americans.  Most of this devastation is prepared for us in advance, with a larger agenda by greedy politicians who are not wired to care about what happens to urban children and families.  The war on drugs has destroyed too many of us and killed many more, and it's time for it to come to an end by any means necessary (yes, I am deliberately quoting Malcolm, who will always be my hero in spite of what Manning Marable chose to write about him).

Jesse Jackson said it best during the recent forum on the drug war.

"This is a crime against humanity. War on drugs is a war on Black and Brown and must be challenged by the highest levels of our government in the war for justice," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

"This is government-sponsored terrorism," Jackson said. "It raised the price on Black existence; it is an attack on the Black family; it has destroyed a generation. Those who are the least users have paid the most price because of race; those with money and attorneys have paid the least price. Those without attorneys remain behind bars today."

"I'm here to tell you that one of the most fundamental pillars of what we see going on in our communities, this combustible caldron of genocide and death, is this war on drugs," said Ron Daniels, CEO of the Institute of the Black World, which held the forum at which Rev. Jackson was speaking. "Why? It's because it's a racist war on drugs...I know many people are out there saying, 'Why are you Negroes still talking about racism?' That's because we've been targeted for the police action - the war on drugs is a war on us."

The string of statistics quoted in the Seattle Medium tell the story quite well.

• African-Americans are 62 percent of drug offenders sent to state prisons, yet they represent only 12 percent of the U. S. population.

• Black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of White men.

• Drug transactions among Blacks are easier for police to target because they more often happen in public than do drug transactions between Whites.

• The disparities are particularly tragic in individual states where Black men are sent to federal prison on drug charges at a rate 57 times greater than White men, according to Human Rights Watch.

• More than 25.4 million Americans have been arrested on drug charges since 1980; about one-third of them were Black.

• The Black populations in state prisons are majorly disproportionate: In Georgia, the Black population is 29 percent, the Black prison population is 54 percent; Arkansas 16 percent -52 percent; Louisiana 33 percent-76 percent; Mississippi 36 percent-75 percent; Alabama 26 percent -65 percent; Tennessee 16 percent -63 percent; Kentucky 7 percent-36 percent; South Carolina 30 percent-69 percent; North Carolina 22 percent-64 percent; and Virginia 20 percent-68 percent.

• According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy arresting and incarcerating people fills prisons and destroys lives but does not reduce the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations.

• The average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the U.S. is $67.55. State prisons held 253,300 inmates for drug offenses in 2007. That means states spent approximately $17 million per day to imprison drug offenders, or more than $6.2 billion per year.

The individuals at the forum made some powerful recommendations on how this illicit war on drugs can come to an end:

• Ask Congress to repeal mandatory sentences for all drug offenses.

• Ask Congress to create new and fully-funded drug treatment facilities rather than more prisons.

• Press local, state and federal law enforcers to eliminate police profiling as a tactic to deal with drug trafficking.

• Encourage and support religious leaders to assist incarcerated persons and providing community and moral leadership.

• Ask President Obama to create a commission on review, remedy and action for drug laws that lead to racially disparate impacts.

• Ask local, state and federal governments to invest in activities that can both prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place and prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems.

It's time for all of us to wake up and attack the problem of mass incarceration and the drug war.  If there were ever a set of realities that are reflective of the persistent racial divides that continue to plague America, this one would be it.  As a man who's biological father and older brother figure both spent time in prison, this issue is personal to me.  I, like so many millions of black people across America, have experienced the hurt and pain that is caused by mass incarceration.  It's time for this system of Americanized apartheid to be brought to an end.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.