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Redemption and the War on Drugs

07/25/2014 02:32 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2014

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I have never met Shaka Senghor, but I feel like I know him well -- at least the 19-year-old Detroiter that he used to be. When I graduated from the Detroit Public School system in 1981, I knew a lot of young guys just like Shaka -- kids who, despite the future they had imagined for themselves, soon found themselves deep in the drug economy and all of the dangers that this life entailed. Some of these kids were my closest friends. Some of them, like Shaka, ended up doing time.

When the kids I knew decided to sell drugs -- usually to customers who lived in Detroit's suburbs -- they had been, dare I say it, pragmatic. With the auto industry ever-shrinking and with funding for youth summer and year-round job training programs severely cut as soon as Reagan took office, not a few poor kids in the Detroit saw this is as a logical way to make the money they needed to live. And, yes, some of these kids even imagined, dared to hope, that selling might allow them eventually to achieve the same American Dream of affluence that was possible for the wealthy kids that so often bought their product.

But there was something critically important that these inner-city kids didn't fully understand -- indeed things they simply couldn't see from where they sat on the corner of, say, Grand River Avenue and Six Mile Road. Right as they decided to respond to an unemployment rate of 18 percent by selling drugs, politicians had started a brand new and staggeringly comprehensive War on Drugs -- one that would fail miserably but would, first, ensure much street-level violence and destroy entire neighborhoods.

Indeed the War on Drugs that began in the early 1980s would not only guarantee that many young people would kill or be killed by guns as the decades wore on -- as did Prohibition in the early 20th century -- but it would also trap literally millions of poor young men and women of color behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Today Shaka Senghor, along with several of my own high school friends, is a veteran of this post-1983 Drug War. Indeed they are some of the lucky ones who survived the war -- somehow they are still breathing, and, amazingly, they did not receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Unlike veterans of this nation's other failed wars with high body counts, however, few view these survivors very sympathetically. Because the vets of this war possessed or sold drugs, and because some of them even pulled triggers as they did so, they are, in the eyes of the nation, beyond redemption.

It seems not to matter that, like so many veterans of other ugly wars, the young people who experienced the brutal Drug War had only become soldiers in the first place because of a "poverty draft." It also seems irrelevant to most that, also like other veterans, the longer these young conscripts to the Drug War lived with its brutality, the more violent they themselves became. As soldiers in any war quickly learn; being weak might well get you killed.

And yet, if one listens carefully to the life history that Shaka Senghor shares with us, we realize that it is way past time for us to rethink how we view the now several generations of young people who found themselves locked up for drugs or drug-related violence since the 1980s.

As Senghor makes clear, human beings, even those made violent and bitter by the drug war, can change. And, it doesn't actually take that much to make change possible. Everyone needs others to continue to believe in them, and in what they can be, no matter what. Everyone needs access to knowledge and learning -- they need the opportunity to read and to be moved by powerful books. Most importantly, everyone needs the possibility of a second chance to imagine working hard for its realization. With little more than this, everyone can, in fact, right their wrongs.

Indeed, if today's young and old veterans of the drug war can finally learn to forgive themselves -- even when they have committed terrible acts and particularly when the terrible situations they ended up in were the result of seriously flawed criminal justice policies that they did not make -- then society needs to forgive them.

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