Our Silence on the War on Drugs & Mass Incarceration Led to the Insanity in #Ferguson

Studio portrait of Nekima Levy-Pounds with award

by Nekima Levy-Pounds, Esq.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It seems like only yesterday that Richard Nixon in the 1970’s and then Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s declared a war on drugs in the United States. Such a powerful declaration by two U.S. Presidents ushered in the start of an era of excess use of police forces, the criminal justice system, and technology to control the behavior of American citizens and even undocumented immigrants caught on U.S. soil. The three laws which comprised the war on drugs were hastily enacted by Congress following the untimely death of promising NBA recruit, Len Bias, from a cocaine overdose in the mid-1980’s. The legal framework of the war on drugs called for lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and harsh sentencing guidelines for those implicated in selling, possessing, or using illicit drugs. The sudden hyperbolic focus on drug-related crime resulted in a swelling of state and federal law enforcement and corrections budgets, an increase in criminal justice personnel, and the purchasing of equipment such as guns, vehicles, and advanced technological software to aid in the capture of the newest targets of the so-called war. What followed was in essence a replication by local police of the conduct that U.S. military characteristically engages in on foreign soil; but on a domestic level against its own citizens, often targeting inner-city communities mainly populated by Blacks and Latinos.

police occupy the ‘hood

As such, it became a routine occurrence in America’s most marginalized communities to see a plethora of police officers on patrol, arresting low level drug sellers and users, and raiding the homes of those suspected of engaging in drug-related activities. Law enforcement began occupying the ‘hood in droves, arguably treating neighborhoods as battlegrounds, residents as casualties of war, and seizing the property of ‘suspects.’ Sadly, there was little recourse for those who felt victimized by the sudden military-style occupation within their communities, as affordable legal representation was extremely limited for indigent persons and there was very little empathy, if any from the American public. The outcry from advocates lambasting the fact that constitutional violations and mass imprisonment of low-level, non-violent persons were occurring at unprecedented rates seemed to fall on deaf ears. In fact, the silence by the American public was deafening and some would argue signaled acquiescence in what was occurring.

In essence, tens of thousands of poor men of color, poor white men, and an increasing number of women and mothers became entangled in the complex and inescapable web of the criminal justice system. When the dust began to settle in the new millennium, it became clear that America’s self-proclaimed reputation as the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ had shifted to one that became known as the ‘incarceration capital of the world.’ Indeed, America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, with nearly 2.4 million people currently incarcerated, more than 7.3 million under some form of correctional supervision or control, and at a cost of over $60 billion annually. The heavy reliance on the use of law enforcement, racial stereotyping, and a hyper-focus on drug-related crime, has resulted in an over-saturation of police presence in our poorest communities of color, subjecting residents to constant surveillance, often unwarranted scrutiny, illegal searches of person and property, low level arrests, and increased chances of imprisonment (similar to what the world is now seeing in Ferguson). Even with the militarization of our police forces and unprecedented spending on criminal justice, drugs continue to flow freely through the United States – so what was the point of the war on drugs?

criminalization of black men continues

Of all the groups that have been ensnared within the criminal justice system, arguably no group has been impacted more dramatically than young African American men, who comprise roughly 40% of our correctional population. As though from a scene in D.W. Griffith’s infamous film, “Birth of a Nation,” African American men have been demonized, caricatured, stereotyped, and profiled as the face of crime in America. These men are often looked upon with suspicion, feared, labeled as being “up to no good,” and pushed further to the margins of society. The criminalization of black men has been an ongoing phenomenon since the abolition of chattel slavery in this country and has resulted in low-income black men being constant targets within society and subjected to a heightened level of scrutiny and interference by police and security personnel.

our silence is to blame

Rather than asking the deeper questions concerning the root level causes of the over-representation of black men within the criminal justice system, we have become conditioned to sit back and watch the dehumanization of this segment of the population, while remaining silent to their plight. It was our silence that allowed police forces to occupy our poorest communities since the start of the so-called war on drugs. It was our silence that opened the door to the militarization of our police forces. It was our silence that allowed them to purchase military grade equipment and to increase surveillance on citizens in the name of the war on drugs. It was our silence that allowed our prisons to swell beyond capacity and our criminal justice budgets to take priority over spending in other key areas, such as education and healthcare. And it was our silence that allowed and continues to allow for the targeting, profiling, and execution of unarmed young black men in our communities, as we saw with Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ezell Ford, and most recently, Mike Brown of #Ferguson. As Dr. King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” #OurLivesMatter