By: Evan Butler
February is Black History Month. Black History month is a time to remember great African Americans, like Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson, and so on. It is also a time to reflect on the current state of the black struggle and continuing the advancement of civil rights.
Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, contends that mass incarceration is metaphorically, the new Jim Crow. Mass incarceration of black men exploded in response to the war on drugs. Alexander believes that mass incarceration has been the result of harsh drug penalties as a tool to keep minorities in a perpetual cycle of political, economic and social marginalization. How does the government wage this war on drugs? And if an equal percentage of African Americans and whites use drugs, why are blacks three times more likely to be arrested for drug possession? And why are 75% of those in prison for drug possession black or Latino?
The war on drugs was started by the government to “clean up the streets,” and take down drug kingpins. It was used as political rhetoric to win elections by Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, and both Bush’s. No politician wanted to appear “soft of crime”. But the reality is that the war on drugs fought drug users and street drug possession. Meaning, the war on drugs did not target drugs that rich people use like powder cocaine, prescription pills and designer drugs. The war on drugs targeted marijuana, and crack cocaine users by giving possession of these street drugs harsh mandatory sentences. Police patrol poor black neighborhoods and “stop and frisk” laws granted police the power to stop anyone for anything and pat them down. It is common for police to pressure a suspect into giving them consent into searching them.
To enforce the war on drugs, Alexander says that, “The Reagan administration gave huge cash grants to law enforcement agencies that made drug law enforcement a top priority.” Law enforcement agencies wanted that free federal money, and the government made it easy to enforce drug laws by militarizing police departments. Alexander states:
“The National Journal reported that between January 1997 and October 1999, the agency handled 3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment from over eleven thousand domestic police agencies in all fifty states. Included in the bounty were “7,856 M16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles.”
In 1986, congress passed the Anti Drug Abuse Act, which established harsh mandatory sentences for possession of crack. A first time offender of crack possession could receive a mandatory sentence of 5-10 years in federal prison. Most of the people arrested for crack and marijuana possession are not wealthy and cannot afford a private attorney, so the government appoints them a public defender who is inexperienced and overworked. Most people do not know that most criminal cases never go to trial and result with a plea bargain. Think about it, if your public defender told you that your case can go to trial, you will most likely be found guilty and given 5-10 years, or you can plead no contest and do 2 years. What would you do? An inexperienced attorney doesn’t have skill or resources to attack the legitimacy or constitutionality of the shady practices and questionable techniques the police used to arrest drug users.
With so many incarcerated men, prisons expanded and became privatized. Prisoners are used as cheap labor and large companies contract with the federal government and private prisons to have their products manufactured in prisons. Alexander compares this prison industrial complex to slavery and it is easy to see this comparison.
Once out of prison, felons are stripped of voting rights, welfare and food stamps, public housing and subject to overbearing probation laws. Felons are discriminated against in the job hiring process and find it increasingly harder to break this cycle of poverty. Asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to seize personal possessions of those accused of drug crimes. The process to get these assets back is very long and very expensive. If your $8,000 car is seized and it will cost you $10,000 in lawyers fees to have your asset overturned to you, is worth it?
When the civil rights movement began in 50’s and 60’s, leaders of religious congregations were the voice of the people and social organizers. In 2018 I believe that musicians, specifically rappers, are the voice of the people because of their platform and influence. Rap is the voice of urban youth and many rappers use their music to convey the black struggle. I urge hip hop artists to use their influence to be thought leaders and advocate for their communities. I would like to highlight two examples of socially charged bars from two prominent rappers. In Jeezy’s ‘American Dream,’ J. Cole spits “White folks been getting rich off of cocaine through some underhanded methods I don’t got time to explain.” This was a jab at law enforcement being incentivized by the federal government to enforce drug laws. In his song ‘Nothin’ New,’ 21 Savage raps about black struggle and felon disenfranchisement:
“Treat us like slaves then they lock us up in cages, young black and poor ain’t had a father since a baby, I used to sell dope now I can’t vote, poppin percocet to kill the pain I can’t cope, anger in my genes they used to hang us up with ropes, civil rights came and they flood the hood with coke, breakin down my people, tryna kill our faith and hope, they killed martin luther king and all he did was spoke.”
Today, we face an unsettling social climate and polarizing political rhetoric. I urge everyone to discard fiery tweets and gripping news headlines. Love your neighbor, understand his struggle. Do not let our differences divide us, but let them pull us together and learn from each other, I think that is what Dr. King meant in his I have a dream speech when he said, “ I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right here in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boy’s and white girls as sisters and brothers.”