The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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MAR 2012 Issue


Not all endings are happy. The storm comes and it tears it all apart. No healing other than scarring. I would visit my father several times in prison and each time it was more and more distant. No great conversation. No connection. It doesn’t work like that in real life. There are twisted hopes that never die, but reality doesn’t deal in miracles and resurrections. Once they nail you up there, you bleed forever. There are nightmares from which we never wake up. Tragedies happen. Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.

And so it is that we spend our lives warped and broken in all the whatever places because we don’t think that everything is as it should be. The system for us isn’t something we had to read about in a book or see in a film, but as palpable as having a jackbooted thug stick a baton down our throats. I have come to see that the drug war is like all wars, the same old story about a few controlling and profiting from the pain and suffering of the many.

As Brandeis said, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.”

The war took everything I had. For a long time, I thought I was an anomaly, but so many good people with full lives come through this office because they faced a drug charge that threatened to destroy them. Yeah, that kid who spent 16 years visiting his father in prison turned himself into a federal criminal defense attorney. And as far as his father, well, a man who can actually do 16 years in prison isn’t a man that you write off so easily. His adjustment period after he got out was extremely harsh. He couldn’t cross the street, let alone really communicate in a meaningful way with anyone. I tried sending him a few letters, but he didn’t even respond. I called him once and it was so awkward that he pretty much hung up on me. The bonds were broke: father to son, self to society, self to self. Years went by, but then I got a call here in the office one day about a year ago. It was the old man saying that he knew all about my law practice, read about my cases in the local paper. He said that he wanted nothing more than to beat the government, take the bastards on, and go to war.

This is not a happy ending: Our lives have been lived in a permanent winter, but my favorite legal assistant has now helped me battle Fourth Amendment suppression cases where the government drags people from their homes on the merest of suspicions that in no way gives rise to probable cause. We’ve helped clients use their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and ensured their Sixth Amendment right to counsel that is always under attack. We’ve worked to save families from losing their homes due to seizure and forfeiture laws that do nothing but leave children homeless and in despair. We have seen and addressed constitutional violation after constitutional violation and straight-up vicious behavior where the D.E.A., cops, or Sheriff’s Department treat people as less than human because they have a couple of plants in their backyard.

American citizens are being beaten down and oppressed every day in every corner of this country because every soul incarcerated means cash money to law enforcement. And more important, the war is a constant reminder that the United States government can jail your body and try to own your soul.

There are two kinds of power and the drug war’s got them both in spades. The first is we’ll-kick-your-ass power. If you don’t go along with our vision of things, then we’re going to throw you in jail and try to ruin you. It’s the kind of power we think of when we think of China, except that when it comes to the prison-industrial complex we’re actually more repressive than they are. We incarcerate more than six times as many people per one hundred thousand as China and put one million more behind bars even though China has more than four times our population. Overall, we have close to 7.6 million locked up, on parole, or on probation, which is 3.2 percent of the population. These figures are unparalleled in world history, save for the most brutal totalitarian regimes.

The second power is foundational to all other forms of power: the power to make people doubt and dislike themselves. All we have to do is look in the mirror to know that the drug war has been an absurdity. Have you ever used drugs? Are you a felon who deserves to go to state prison for it? Are you an enemy of the state? That time last year that you and your husband dropped the kids off for the night at your brother’s house, then smoked weed to have sex in the privacy of your own bedroom—you do realize that makes you a bad person, yes? A good parent would right now call the cops. You should testify against each other. In fact, you and your husband should proceed immediately to the police station and turn yourselves in. And that time last May when your best friend from college came into town and you went out together to that bar that you’ve always wanted to check out and did some blow in the bathroom. Have you reported yourself to the D.E.A.? You unpatriotic scumbag. Or the shrooms you took that Fourth of July at your friend’s pool party—have you cooperated with state and federal authorities, given over the names and addresses of everyone who was there that night? We need you to name names. You must name names. Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?

We let ourselves be criminalized. Forced into the shadows. Made to feel like bad people for relaxing on a Friday night after working 75-hour weeks for the last month and a half. You shouldn’t have been over at your friend’s smoking a joint, talking about what the government needs to do—you should have been back home alone watching TV. We need you isolated. Under control. You don’t know what’s best for you. We know what’s best for you. We are better than you. And everyone on our side, all the people we’ve bought off and put on the payroll, are better than you, too. You just don’t get it: We control the idea of America.

The drug war has not only been abnegation of our patriotic duty to think for ourselves, but a grossly unsuccessful drain on this nation’s extremely limited resources. There are estimates that in the last 30 years we have spent more than $25 trillion dollars on this broken-down policy. Twenty-five trillion dollars. We could have paid off our debt, rebuilt our infrastructure, invested in education, or God forbid raised up the condition of the poor. Conservative estimates for drug war expenditures in 2011 alone range between $51 to $60 billion dollars: $169 for every man, woman, and child in this country. More than a quarter of our children are born in poverty, going to bed hungry every night, and this is what we allow them to do with our money?

In 2010, $2.67 billion was spent on police pursuits of potential marijuana violations with another $1.45 billion spent on prosecutions. Our schools are leaking with sewage and we’re spending more than four billion dollars a year busting people for pot. Pot? Might as well just take the money and burn it. From the heartland to the cities, from the board rooms to the bedrooms, our streets and communities remain flooded with drugs despite more than four decades of attempted law enforcement. Addiction and drug-related crimes are epidemic. There is no one in this country who wants drugs that can’t get drugs. At this point, to argue that the drug war has been successful is to say that the moon is the sun and the stars are lighters held up by monkeys smoking cigarettes in the sky.

The easy line is the U.S.’s War On Drugs has been one of the most damaging and costly failures in our history. The hard line here is that it’s a referendum on the absolute sheepdom of me and you. We’re a bunch of wusses. We should have shoved a joint up the man’s ass a long time ago. But that’s angry talk from a guy who of course is angry because of everything that happened to him and his family. Never mind that it’s happened to millions and millions of us for more than four generations and a quarter-century. Never mind the children who have had to write a number above their parents on envelopes as the prison-industrial complex profited from their pain. Never mind the men and women rotting in prison cells, dehumanized and reduced to mere by-products of the corrections corporations of America. Toxic human waste. Never mind the structure and the system that bears down on the souls of its own citizens, that tears people from their homes, breaking their hearts, leaving them to die as we all waste away in our own private cages watching as the rich folks go by eating in their fancy dining cars, probably drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars. 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

All Issues