Our nation is making a treacherous tradeoff: wasteful spending on an ineffective "War on Drugs" at the expense of the youth, families, and working folks who are the engine of a thriving economy.
It's a timely topic on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, given his fight against what he called the "twin injustices" of segregation and poverty.
The almost $70 billion a year we're squandering to imprison hundreds of thousands of people in prisons, immigrant detention facilities, and juvenile lockup is a shackle that's holding our country back.
What makes it worse, though, is that our shameful distinction as the world leader in incarceration doesn't guarantee our communities are any safer.
How could it, when the Drug War- what the New York Times editorial board calls the "mandatory sentencing craze that gripped the country four decades ago" - turns neighbors and even families against one another just when we need each other most?
40 Years of Destroying Families and Communities
Growing up in Oakland, California in the 70s and 80s, I was an eyewitness to the ways the Drug War destroyed the communities it was supposed to save.
In my early childhood, I used to call my mom the Black Betty Crocker - we had handmade costumes for Halloween, homemade cakes for every birthday, and themed parties for every holiday.
When I got home from school, if my mother wasn't home, I knew that there were other caring adults nearby. I could go to Ms. Pat's house, or, if she wasn't home, to Ms. Beverly's, or Jim's, and so on down a list of neighbors I thought of as my family. My working class, multi-racial community truly was a village raising me.
In the early eighties, my community changed fast. I remember vividly the beginning of the crack epidemic. Neighbors stopped talking to each other. Family friends started losing their jobs and homes. Some teenagers suddenly had more money than many of us had ever seen.
My parents started using crack in my early teens. By the time I was sixteen, I spent my first winter without heat. Soon, we lost our house and moved into a two-bedroom apartment behind a gas station where I shared a room with my three younger brothers.
Not only did I lose my extended family, relationships in my own family fell apart. My brothers and I lost the ability to count on our parents and family. My parents stopped talking to our neighbors and relatives. The adults around me lost trust in each other.
The crack epidemic devastated my family and community. But what added insult to injury was our government's response.
40 Years of Adding Damage to Damage
Our community needed help. Instead, police began using military strategies and weapons as part of the War on Drugs. They swarmed communities, intensifying fear, making the drug trade more profitable and violent, and turning some blocks into war zones. The violence in the streets escalated. Every day brought a new story of someone getting locked up or killed.
At the same time, racialized hysteria over crack swept the media and legislative chambers across the country. Extreme sentencing laws and the funding required to enforce them added fuel to the fire.
District attorneys prosecuted addicts. Instead of treating them as people suffering from a disease and in need of treatment, they were criminals. Their addictions worsened as they cycled in and out of jail, often losing everything from the custody of their kids to their health and self-respect.
Addicts and their families - like mine - struggled to find help and hope in a criminal justice system that did not see us as human beings.
40 Years of Using a Health Crisis as an Excuse for a War
One of the most devastating results of this government warfare in response to a severe health crisis is how it turned our community against itself.
Some of the fiercest guardians of civil rights became silent collaborators, joining with lawmakers and police to call for tougher sentencing and more enforcement. Police power grew, police abuse became rampant, and Black and Brown youth became viewed as the biggest problem of all.
I have been in community meetings where Black grandmothers, who themselves lived through Jim Crow segregation and were staunch civil rights advocates, begged police officers to start arresting Black youth for "loitering" on the youth's own front porches.
Unfortunately, this isn't just my story - it's a story that's all too familiar in communities nationwide.
While the Drug War devastated communities like mine first and worst, Oakland as a whole suffered from the shift of public resources towards prisons and punishment instead of schools, jobs training and creation, and vital programs that strengthen families and communities.
The same holds true for the state of California, and for our entire nation. But we can find our way out and turn this four-decade mistake around.
Using Our Power As Citizens to End the Drug War
Performing music and joining youth activist groups became my way out. In my twenties, I found the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California. Five years ago, I became the organization's Executive Director.
The Ella Baker Center is named for an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, Ms. Ella Jo Baker, who gave people the skills and opportunities to work together for strong communities where everyone can thrive.
When asked about her part in historic civil rights struggles, Ms. Baker reflected that, "The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use."
The Ella Baker Center gave voice to what I had experienced growing up and what I had within my power to use to change it.
We said, and still say, "there are no throwaway youth and there are no throwaway communities."
This principle is non-negotiable for us, because a system that sees any people or communities as "throwaway" has the potential to see all people and communities as "throwaway."
Instead of criminalizing addicts, dividing communities, and turning streets into war zones while spending more and more on prisons and jails, we call on government to invest in health, treatment, education, jobs, and true community safety.
Of course, the voice of one organization isn't going to shift our country's priorities. For that, we need you.
Insisting on Different Priorities
More and more people are agreeing that it's time to stop wasteful spending on bloated prisons and trying to incarcerate our way out of every problem.
They're standing against the Drug War and calling for a new government strategy for safety. Traditional civil rights organizations are taking on the issues of mass incarceration, and even conservatives are starting to push for alternatives.
This kind of cross-sector, bi-partisan support, combined with the voices of impacted communities like mine, is what we need to end the tradeoff we're making as a nation.
Because when we can spend 40 years and $1 trillion or more on a failed Drug War, it's clear there's enough money - what's needed is the political will and pressure from citizens to insist on putting families and communities first.
What's within your power to use to change our nation's priorities? Visit the Ella Baker Center online to learn more, take action, and connect with other citizens answering that question in extraordinary ways.