A large crowd packed the pews of the historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. After a deacon introduced such VIP guests as Representatives Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and John Lewis (D-Georgia), the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and actor Danny Glover, Pastor Wallace Charles Smith set the stage for the afternoon’s program.
“One of the biggest problems facing this nation and much of the world is the drug epidemic,” said Smith. “It doesn’t seem like this nation has made it a real priority. As long as there is the demand there will be someone who will supply it.”
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, Freakonomics) told the crowd that he considers the War on Drugs a “primary human rights issue.” On hand to screen an abridged version of his 2012 film The House I Live In (which took the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), Jarecki said the day’s program was “bookended by two momentous occasions, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Barack Obama’s inauguration, which includes a swearing in on Dr. King’s bible.”
Jarecki added, “I consider [the War on Drugs] the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Amens” rang out from the crowd.
“The Drug War and its extraordinary injustice to people of color must end,” said Jarecki. “I don’t just want it on the radar, I want it flashing defcon red. The War on Drugs as we know it has failed so miserably that who can defend it?”
The Real-Life Wire
In The House I Live In, David Simon, creator of The Wire and former Baltimore crime reporter, served as an expert “talking head,” in front of the camera this time to guide viewers through the labyrinthine world of illicit substances. “What drugs haven’t destroyed the War on Drugs has,” Simon said in the documentary. “It’s Draconian and it doesn’t work.”
Simon pointed out that the U.S. has spent $1 trillion and made 45 million arrests since Richard Nixon declared a “total war” on drugs in 1971, yet illegal substances are easier to get and stronger than ever, he said.
“There are more black people in jail now in America than were enslaved in 1850,” said Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.
“It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that few escape,” added the film’s narration.
In a poignant scene, the head of a corrections facility told the camera, “We have people doing a whole lot of time for not a lot of crime.” An inmate said wearily, “I want to know why I’m being treated like I murdered someone; I got 57 years for a [crack] rock.”
The film points out that despite lingering perceptions, 13% of U.S. crack users are black, the same percentage that African-Americans make up in the U.S. population. Yet until recently, the penalty was 100 times greater for crack than powder cocaine, which has historically been associated with whites and the affluent. The penalty was recently reduced to 18 times–but that’s still not good enough, the film suggests.
Throughout its history, the War on Drugs has disproportionally impacted minorities, the film posits, sometimes even to suit racial agendas (such as the outlawing of opium in California allegedly to target the Chinese in the early 20th century, even though the drug was said to be popular among the white majority as well).
Gabor Mate, a physician who specializes in addiction treatment, said on camera that the War on Drugs has failed to deal with the big picture of wider problems in society. Mate said trying to simply stamp out drug use through force is akin to suppressing a cough in someone who has pneumonia, yet the lungs remain inflamed.
After the screening, R&B star John Legend sang a haunting cover of the Paul Robeson song “The House I Live In,” which set a vision for a better America and inspired the film’s title. Legend, who served as an executive producer on the film, said, “The prison system is how we carry a legacy of slavery. Even with a black president we have to speak out against abuse of power.”
Setting the stage for a lively panel discussion, Harvard Law Professor (and personal advisor to President Obama) Charles Ogletree said that the goal of society should not be to wage war on its citizens, but to “get people healthy, get them jobs, get them educated, and to help them make a difference.”
U.S. Representative Robert Scott (D-Virginia) told the audience that he has been working to address many of the issues in the film with his proposed Youth Promise Act, “a comprehensive response to youth violence through a coordinated prevention and intervention response.” According to the Congressman’s website, “Representatives from local law enforcement, the school system, court services, social services, health and mental health providers, foster care providers, other community and faith-based organizations will form a council to develop a comprehensive plan for implementing evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies. The plans can be funded up to four years. The act also enhances state and local law enforcement efforts regarding youth and gang violence.”
Scott said that research by Pew has shown that locking up more than 500 people per 100,000 citizens is harmful to society, both in terms of expense and collateral damage in impacts to families. Yet the national average is 700 per 100,000, and 10 states have as many as 4,000 per 100,000 in jail.
Scott said getting those states to the Pew average of 500 per 100,000 would free up about $10,000 per child to be used for improved education, crime prevention, and social services. “Instead of a cradle-to-prison pipeline we need a cradle-to-college-and-a-job pipeline, and it’s cheaper; primary prevention reduces many costs and will reduce gun violence,” Scott said.
Jarecki quoted Dostoyevsky, who said one can judge a society by the quality of its prisons. Jarecki added that 30 million Americans have a family member in prison. He said the U.S. prison population has surged by 700% since the start of the War on Drugs. “Britain has 41 people in prison for life and we have 41,000,” he said.
Danny Glover, who also executive produced The House I Live In (along with Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons), told the crowd about his younger brother Reginald, who he said was a Vietnam vet who long suffered with substance abuse. Glover said Reginald eventually got clean and went to work helping others overcome the same demons.
“I see Reginald’s story replicated many times,” said Glover. “We have to ask the right questions.”
For Jarecki, that means making sure drug policy doesn’t unfairly impact minorities and treating drug use “as a health issue, not a criminal one.”
Saturday’s program was simulcast to hundreds of churches, and will be repeated at other faith-based venues across the country in the coming weeks. A full copy of The House I Live In is available on iTunes for 99 cents today.
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.