Drug War Prisoners



Some time ago we received a form letter from Ali Khalid Abdullah enclosing a pamphlet on behalf of Amelia Johnson (aka Bahiya Shakur) and requesting support "for justice." The name Ali Khalid Abdullah calls up the heroic image of a man who chooses to be an activist in the heart of the US penal system. The writer is a prisoner in Thumb Correctional Facility in Leeper, Missouri. He describes himself as a political prisoner and founder of the Political Prisoners of War Coalition.

Details of the frame-up of Sister Shakur come as no surprise to someone hip to the persecution of black revolutionaries in conservative America. But in the last twenty years, people who would not of think of calling themselves revolutionaries have found themselves in the same position, singled out for attention by a hostile government, subjected to the same shady legal tactics, and ending up in courts where judges hand out prison sentences "like candy." The War on Drugs has done to countless ordinary Americans what was once reserved for supposed enemies of the State.

A theoretical and also a practical question come up in this connection.

Prominent black intellectuals can be undecided on the question of prison for drug use. Their position on drugs and drug users can be curiously detached. Angela Davis held a conference at U.C. Berkeley in the fall of 1998 in the name of Critical Resistance. CR was organized to fight, among other things, the prison-industrial complex and conditions facing US prisoners generally. Some people who attended the conference were disturbed that the issue of Drug War prisoners was hardly mentioned. Of the 30-odd workshops, perhaps two dealt with Drug War prisoners. The conference was almost entirely devoted to the issue of political prisoners in the US, numbering perhaps 200.

The question for those who regretted the direction of the Berkeley conference was why, when prisoners sentenced for drug use - I say "use" in the widest sense - make up a quarter to a third of all prisoners in the US, a huge number in excess of half a million, is a movement like Critical Resistance reluctant to come out swinging against the injustice everyone in some sense knows is going on? My sense - I'd love to be proved wrong - is that CR sees nothing wrong with the idea that drugs are "bad," that people who use drugs are "addicts" and best off in prison, that the War on Drugs is necessary to save America from Satan (or some such crazy bugaboo). It suggests that a Critical Resistance audience, in common with the rest of mainstream America, feels uncomfortable at the thought of repudiating Drug War propaganda, which means repudiating the government that fashions it. Some may think this goes too far. But how else than in terms of an uncritical response to Drug War propaganda can CR's hands-off attitude be explained?

Critical Resistance theory (as I'll call it) holds that the prison-industrial complex that consumes American society is a phenomenon of which the imprisonment of drug users is just a part. From the CR standpoint the correct response is to oppose the prison-industrial complex in its entirety and aim for the reprieve of prisoners generally. Anything less, for example to focus on the War on Drugs and define the release of Drug War prisoners as the principal concern, amounts to token resistance and evasion of the problem as a whole.

A competing theory has it that the Drug War is the principal tool used by a government that is anti-freedom, anti-democracy, and anti-US-Constitution to impose its will on a complacent public, too busy to consider the possibility of a betrayal by an elected government of the principles America was created to protect. Already, according to this theory, the Drug War has taken America half way down the road to a police state, with a secret police force serviced by a network of informants and SWAT teams, a justice system mortgaged by irrational sentencing provisions, prison construction in full swing, and a moral code which happily defines drug users as fair game - all in place for the billion dollar prison-for-profit business coming soon.

For a Drug War activist, one who is not out to reform the penal system as a whole, the competing theory makes greater sense. It challenges the view that the prison-industrial complex is the primary problem and the Drug War a matter of secondary concern. According to this theory the true relationship is the exact opposite: the War on Drugs is the primary problem and the prison-industrial complex is a secondary manifestation of the War on Drugs. (The term "prison-industrial complex" was not thought up until 1992, when the War on Drugs was well under way.) Without the War on Drugs to fuel the supply of prisoners, the prison industrial-complex would grind to a halt. If the War on Drugs is terminated, the prison-industrial complex and the threat it poses to democracy will disappear.

If it is true that America is half-way to becoming a police state, engaging in resistance on the scale of 1960s demos spells danger. Now even more so than in the 60s, peaceful assembly is liable to provoke violent response. There is plenty of evidence of a policy in place to break up demonstrations where people assemble peacefully to protest Drug War policy. If the War on Drugs is a war in fact (run by a four-star general) and not "war" in the sense of a War on Poverty or a War on Cancer, no one should be surprised at the use of military tactics at home. For people disinclined to wake up bruised and beaten in a jail cell, the top priority is to expose the deceptive and manipulative character of Drug War propaganda and awaken the public from its slumber. To break the hold of Drug War propaganda on the thinking of the American public is the first step to securing the release of Drug War prisoners from prison.

The tendency of black America to accept Drug War propaganda at face value (coupled with acceptance of Critical Resistance theory) was brought home to me in the summer of 1998 when I looked to the Black Women's Caucus in Los Angeles for help in publishing The Tallahassee Project. The Tallahassee Project consists of an album of photographs and stories assembled by some 100 women POWs of FCI Tallahassee. This work was created to protest US interference with the agenda of the United Nations debate on the War on Drugs in June of 1998. The attitude of the Black Women's Caucus on the day I was invited to a meeting of their executive board to talk about the Project caught me off guard. Although many of the women of FCI Tallahassee who confided their most intimate thoughts and contributed photographs to the album were black, condemned to serve insanely brutal sentences, the response of the Black Women's Caucus was at best muted.

From the discussion which followed presentation of the Project, it appeared that the Caucus women were ambivalent about the War on Drugs: shock at the fate of the women whose eyes stare at you from the pages of the album combined with a sense that the injustice done to them was somehow necessary. I was also told that Drug War prisoners get enough support and attention in the press already - possibly more than they deserve.

Events at the Black Women's Caucus and the Critical Resistance conference - assuming they are typical - bring up a practical question whose significance has not been fully recognized. 12 percent of the nation's population is black, blacks use drugs at the same rate as whites, 40 percent of drug arrests are arrests of blacks, and 60 percent of drug prisoners in State prisons are blacks. Yet open, unqualified black support is missing from the effort to stop the persecution drug users are subjected to and win freedom for all prisoners of the War on Drugs. Without the support of African-Americans a worthy group like The November Coalition cannot assume the mantle of a moral, nation-wide community, transcending "race" in an attempt to wrestle down the War on Drugs and bring the prisoners home. It can all too easily take on the guise of a "white folks only" movement, unfairly painted as a campaign to win justice for people with white faces only.

Key to reducing the distance between Drug War activism and the thinking of some in a leadership position in black communities lies in the correct decoding of Drug War propaganda. In a future column I will have more to say on this and the problem of forging alliances with groups uncomfortable with the idea of putting the interests of Drug War prisoners first.

The Committee on Unjust Sentencing, Fall 2000.


Response to this letter:

REGINALD ALEXANDER, February 7, 2001
Response to Drug War Talk: What's Up With African-America?
Black People Deserve Another Chance




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