THE BLOG
09/10/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

The Drug War and the Mass Incarceration It Caused: Where We Are and Where We Still Must Go (Part 1 of 5)

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Intro

To understand the continued outrage and "righteous indignation" of the black community of Ferguson is to understand the excessive policing and harassing, segregation, unequal political representation, and an unsurprising (given the foregoing) lack of economic mobility that has become a constant for blacks in Ferguson. Indeed, in so many words, this was their "last straw."

But a complete understanding does not limit itself to the near-sighted, or myopic, view, it also encompasses the farsighted, or hyperopic, view. Yes, to understand this outrage is to also understand the broader and underlying systemic barriers to the unadulterated freedom and upward mobility of communities of color (i.e. institutional discrimination). And -- beyond the rampant, yet incorporeal, implicit bias (which I'll address in a later post) that continues to be a major factor in our day-to-day interactions -- culprit No. 1 on that list is the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Particularly, its racially biased drug war, which author Michelle Alexander's zeitgeist-shifting book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has indubitably shown to be the proximate cause of the mass incarceration of communities of color.

Yes, even in the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, there is evidence (PDF of a study from the Missouri Attorney General's Office) of the scourge of mass incarceration: where blacks in Ferguson are disproportionately stopped and frisked for a crime (drug/contraband possession) that their white counterparts have actually been found to be guilty of more frequently (a trend consistent with national findings). Indeed, commenting on the situation in Ferguson, even Republican Senator Rand Paul has said, "Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close attention." And, after examining the United States record in the wake of the Michael Brown killing, the United Nations (the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) has just condemned the U.S. for "persistent" racial discrimination against African Americans and other minorities "in all areas of life," including within the criminal justice system, adding that the Michael Brown killing "is not an isolated event and illustrates a bigger problem in the United States."

At the core of all of this is an ignominious reality at odds with one of the nation's most (publicly) cherished ideals, and one of our Constitution's most sacred laws: the Fourteenth Amendment right to "equal protection of the laws."

This is why, channeling my late fellow Morehouse College alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I've called the issue (read crisis) of mass incarceration, the "sleeping giant" of our time. This is why an unprecedented, all-star cross-section of nearly 200 icons (like Harry Belafonte and Julian Bond), advocates (though not a star, I happen to be the youngest advocate and coalition member), elected officials, faith leaders (like Rev. Delman Coates, Dr. Iva Carruthers, Father Michael Pfleger, and Rabbi Menachem Creditor), business moguls (like Sir Richard Branson and Chip Rosenbloom), celebrities (from Kerry Washington and Scarlett Johannson to Jim Carrey and Will Smith), thought leaders and academics (including Michelle Alexander, Harvard Criminal Justice Institute Director Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and the presidents of both Morehouse and Spelman College), came together last year, under the leadership of Dr. Boyce Watkins and Russell Simmons, to form a coalition in order to petition and encourage President Obama and Attorney General Holder to do all in the administration's power (particularly in light of congressional gridlock) to #EndMassIncarceration.

This is why the nation's most authoritative newspaper, The New York Times, recently followed our lead with its May editorial, "End Mass Incarceration Now," and, two months later, followed up with a six-part editorial in favor of the logical (read pragmatic -- particularly in light of the current drug policies that, in effect, prop up the "underground marketplace [which] drives violence and finances drug cartels," according to former cop turned executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, Major Neill Franklin) next big step in the anti-mass incarceration fight: the decriminalization of marijuana.

And this is why, just yesterday, ahead of the U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs (scheduled for 2016), the Global Commission on Drug Policy (whose members include former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and other prominent political and thought leaders), released a pioneering report calling for governments around the world to decriminalize drugs and legalize marijuana.

(But here, to echo the editor and namesake of this paper, Arianna Huffington, it's important to note that it's not contradictory to, at once, [1] acknowledge the immense human suffering inflicted by the war on drugs, and, therefore, advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana -- which, of course, accounts for half of all drug arrests -- while [2] acknowledging "the scientific evidence of the dangers of pot on the development of adolescent brains, and users of any age who end up abusing the drug," and, therefore, advocate for the exhaustion of every practical step to minimize harm -- a la tobacco and alcohol -- as we decriminalize.)

Where We Are

So, then, where are we now? What changes have come about since our #EndMassIncarceration petition? Well, there's been about 20 developments and victories in the way of criminal justice reform (not including changes at the state/local level), at least 6 of which (from the Obama administration) that are having or will have measurable impact. Here's a chronological rundown...

For Part 2, which begins the chronological rundown of "Where We Are," click here...