Without enemies, there can be no war. At least, there must be an enemy in the way of optics when selling a war to a public that must support it. That enemy, sometimes, manifests itself in reality, but almost always is war waged unjustly or for the wrong reason. The American way is to sell a war in the way of benevolence when public perception of conflict so often differs from the government’s objective. It is a constant in American war waging, but not just against countries and organizations as it happens on our soil as well.
The war on drugs is nothing new. Decades have gone by with different presidencies waging this conflict in different ways. The drugs change, the methods of trafficking change but, most importantly, the story has mostly remained the same. Something to realize about war is that it gains support out of actualized fear. That public fear is often misplaced, but justified by some reality. For instance, the post-9/11 fear in the United States was taken advantage of by the government to wage a War on Terror that would damage the individual liberties of Americans for every following year. In that same vein, people have the right to fear a drug epidemic in this country. For the last few decades; drugs have ravished communities in all parts of the country. Opiate deaths have touched every region, every class and every race. The human toll of this epidemic is very real and people are rightfully scared. That fear leaves us vulnerable to be seduced by the vengeance of war.
Half a century has passed since the War on Drugs began and we have, as a country, become more and more aware of its insidious nature to oppress and incarcerate massive amounts of marginalized people. The black community in the United States has been hyper aware of this fact much longer than the rest of this country, unfortunately, but there seems to be a growing movement to reform how America tackles the drug epidemic.
The CDC found over 3,000 deaths in 2015 to be caused by Opiate overdoses, half of those being caused by prescription drugs.
Once again, the human toll of drug abuse in the United States is very real.
But looking at the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States (prisonpolicy.org), with over 400,000 people jailed for drug offenses, it is obvious that the United States has grossly mistreated the drug crisis. Jail is an inhumane institution in itself, but the jailing of nonviolent drug offenders, often for years at a time, is unconscionable. This jailing is deliberate by the government and jailing goes beyond just removing a singular person from the public. Imprisonment is a tool of narrative and a fuel in the racist machine of the 21st century.
Black people make up 13% of the United States population. However, they make up 39% of the prison population. To give that number perspective, white people make up 40% of the prison population but they also make up 64% of the United States population (prisonpolicy.org). This disparity is incredible when you consider that there is very little deviation in rates of crimes committed from race to race, but the charging and sentencing does black Americans no favors.
The ripple affect of massively incarcerating black people knows few reaches. For one, almost 900,000 people being in prison at any given time suggests that there are homes that are missing sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. The destruction of a community at the hands of the Drug War eliminates social and family infrastructure. Broken families make it difficult for children to be raised and increases the chance of poverty and through poverty does the chance of turning to elicit activities to make an income rise. Even after people are released from prison for drug related crimes, society stigmatizes them and makes it difficult to recover their image or find their feet. Job and school applications often ask for notification of previous imprisonment and often that notification can affect chances of entry into those very institutions. Even after they are free from prison, previously incarcerated people are jailed in public perception.
One of the most harrowing affects of the war on drugs, however, is that it has created an enemy in the American people. When people look at the representation in the prison system, rarely is the conclusion that black people are unfairly treated by the justice system, rather is that number used to racialize criminality.
When there is dissent of law enforcement’s gross misuse of force in the United States, the retort is often to point to violence in Chicago or generally bring up “the inner cities”. While that response, in itself, is nonsensical and not based in facts, it is also revealing in how white Americans understand criminality.
Mass incarceration, fueled mostly by decades of America’s drug war, has created a new age Eugenics. The misunderstanding of the justice system and the use of raw numbers have led the public, the media and most dangerously, law enforcement to criminalize blackness. Earlier, I talked about how wars are waged with public support due to actualized fear and how the system misrepresents events to make us fear the wrong thing. This is a perfect example. Black people being disproportionately incarcerated would mean that Americans should fear the violence and overreach of the justice system. Instead, the fear has been weaponized against black people. When police are brutalizing and murdering black people, the instant reaction from media is to debase the victim and protect the violence of the officer. When talking about police violence as a whole towards the black community, many often bring up the black prison population, as well as violence within black communities to suggest that somehow, black people are deserving of the systemic, government violence they are threatened with on a daily basis. They just look at raw numbers rather than seek to identify the flawed institutions in place that preserve racial incarceration and inner city violence. The criminalizing of race is also indoctrinated into police officers and that affects the implicit bias we so often see in American policing. If officers understand a certain race to be more criminal, they will treat them differently and that increases the chances of using force.
Mass incarceration is a vicious cycle to deliberately lock up people while also creating a broad perception of an entire race. The purposes go beyond that, of course. There is the tool of incarceration to undermine political opposition. Nixon first employed a war on marijuana to imprison people protesting his presidency and policy and that tactic still remains today as often drug offenders lose voting rights in prison. Also, with the privatizing of prisons and the use of prison labor, there is direct financial incentive in imprisonment with companies like Starbucks, Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret and countless others depending on cheap prison labor to cut costs and boost profits.
Incarceration in the United States is a truly insidious institution. While the trends were relatively positive under President Obama, it looks like the new administration wants to get “tough on drugs” again. Of course, with Jeff Sessions at the helm, we know that the rebooted drug war will only hurt marginalized people, the way Jeff Sessions has his whole political career. However, with thousands dying from drug related deaths, it is easy for the government to sell the public on the necessity of the drug war. Just know this administration cares not for stopping drug deaths. Just like Ronald Reagan told the country to “Just say no” while his administration bankrolled South American and Afghan cartels, the Trump administration will support the many pharmaceutical companies that produce these deadly opiates while locking up teenagers for marijuana possession. There are two truths: America has a drug problem and the war on drugs must end. Ever since the drug epidemic began decades ago, the right response has always been compassion and rehabilitation for opiate addicted people. That idea did not enter popular public discourse until opiates started killing white communities en masse, but it is still a philosophy that has to be massively adopted. Compassion wins in America’s struggle with drugs and ending the war on drugs will go a long way to change the culture of law enforcement in this country. However, if the goal is to continue criminalizing race and gaining political and monetary capital from imprisonment, then war on, America. War on.