The much-feted 2012 documentary The House I Live In provokes dialogue wherever it plays for its critique of America's domestic War on Drugs. Following a January 22 Film Streams screening before a full house, a local panel discussed the film's potent themes.
Director Eugene Jarecki’s (Why We Fight?) film indicts the war as failed public policy that's wasteful, unjust and morally bankrupt for targeting nonviolent minority offenders. He suggests its true cost lies not only in the vast expenditures for arrest, prosecution and incarceration but in the disruption caused to families and communities. Every drug case has a spiral of consequences that can span generations.
The consensus of the experts and persons directly engaged in the war whom Jarecki enlists to comment on camera is that blacks are disproportionally targeted and punished. He explains he came to tackle the issue upon inquiring why a black family he knew from childhood struggled with poverty and crime. Its matriarch, Nannie Jeter, blames drugs for taking her late son James and leading other members down destructive paths. The film tells story after story of families impacted by addiction and imprisonment.
One observer notes, "We are engaged in a great experiment. What happens when you take large numbers of people, remove them from their neighborhoods, their families. What does this do to the broader community?"
Everyone from author Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) to a prison chief of security agree the prison industrial complex has superseded prevention-intervention by incentivizing arrest, conviction and confinement and thus making it a big business that puts profit before humanity.
David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former journalist who covered the drug war, says, “Think about all the money spent on drug enforcement, on prisons and probation officers, on judges, on narcotics agents, on interdiction and everything else. But to what end? We're the jailingest nation on Earth, yet drugs are purer than ever before, they're more available."
America's draconian approach, he said. doesn't work.
During the panel Impact One Community Connection founder Jannette Taylor reiterated a theme in the film that the war is actually a campaign to "marginalize people" that leaves havoc in its wake. "We need to look at the broader picture of the collateral damage from this fake war on drugs,” she said. “We need to be more realistic about what this fake war on drugs really is and how it affects poor communities and the people in it."
She knows first-hand the personal fallout. The father of her daughter has served 17 1/2 years on drug charges. “My daughter has never had her father in her life. He was out only a short period of time before he resorted back to selling drugs and got caught up again and it's basically because you become so marginalized. You can't get a job, you can't find a place to live, so you resort back to what you know – you resort to the economy that pays you."
Jarecki introduces us to individuals for whom using and dealing were all they saw growing up. Naturally, they followed suit. Picking up a point Simon makes in the film, Taylor said the drug trade may be "the only flourishing economy" in some inner city neighborhoods and "given the limited opportunities poor inner city residents have it's a rational decision to deal drugs." Similarly, she said drugs become a way to medicate “if you're living in a constant state of poverty, in depressed living conditions.”
Taylor said despite never using, dealing or serving time "I'm dealing with the same things, just from a different perspective. My daughter is caught up in this drug war because she doesn't have a dad, so she's being raised by a single mom. It was very hard. Once somebody gets sentenced into the system because of drugs their family's affected. It's like a crazy avalanche. The kids no longer have both parents, the other parent is pressured into making more money and that takes them away…It's a domino effect. It's a cycle and it never ends."
Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller draws comparisons in the film between the war and "the chain of destruction" he says the ruling class historically applies to minorities in order to target, control, demonize and isolate them. He and others point to profiling, mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences as its manifestations.
Simon terms the drug war "a Holocaust in slow motion.”
“This is basically slavery in a new form,” said Taylor, who with others cautions, “If someone else’s rights can be compromised and violated then your's can too.”
Panelist Rodney Prince, who served a federal drug sentence, said, "I believe this war on drugs is a means, a guise to deal with a segment of the population no longer needed in this transforming economy. The intention for me doesn't really matter, this thing is happening to people.”
Taylor and others advocate America recast the war as a public health issue that gives nonviolent addict offenders treatment rather than jail time.
Prince said, “This is an economic issue. If we know our economy can’t absorb everyone now then we have to push our elected officials and business leaders to act responsibly and to make more room for people in the economy.”
Douglas County District Court Judge Marlon Polk said education is the best deterrent to being caught up in the drug culture. Nebraska Corrections Youth Facility director Marilyn Asher and other panelists suggest we all have a stake in giving people the support and skills they need to prosper.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.