David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
A couple of weeks ago I happened to catch a TV showing of New Jack City, a 1991 movie about an inner-city crack cocaine ring and its leader, Nino Brown. Brown becomes progressively more violent in the course of doing business, taking over a housing complex to house his operation, taking lives and disrupting the community around him. The movie ends with a bit of editorial commentary, that there are Nino Browns in every city, and that sound bites and sloganeering won't solve the problem.
The comments are all too true, and the portrait the movie painted not exaggerated. Also in 1991, for example, a real-life inner-city Boston-area cocaine kingpin named Darryl Whiting was sentenced to life without parole for his deeds. Like the fictional Brown, Whiting had also taken over a housing complex to serve as his headquarters. Like Brown in the movie, Whiting mixed his violence and intimidation with community philanthropy, funding community centers, concerts, barbecues and amusement-park outings for kids. Like Brown, Whiting killed in the course of doing business.
Though ten years old, these fictional and real-life cases have relevance to our cities and their social pathologies today. After all, the policies have not fundamentally changed. Was Juan Raul Garza, executed by the federal government this week for murders committed in the course of running a marijuana trafficking business, anything like Brown or Whiting? Probably somewhat.
Also unchanged are the sound bites and sloganeering of our nation's drug war cheerleaders. One of the most prominent right now is John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General. Ashcroft promised, on taking office, to "reinvigorate the drug war." He declined to explain how the escalated, record level drug arrests and incarcerations under the Clinton administration represented any lack of vigor.
Giving the go-ahead to the Garza execution, Ashcroft claimed, based on a recent Department of Justice report, that "[t]here is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty." Yet in saying this, he deliberately ignored glaring statistics and serious questions raised in or about the report -- for example, the fact that 85% of federal death row inmates are non-white, or the report's extraordinarily weak claim that there are no caucasian drug trafficking organizations in eastern Virginia. These are not the words of an honest assessor and guardian of justice.
As Senator, Ashcroft was a leading drug warrior who scoffed at those who dissented from the drug war orthodoxy. The idea that people like Whiting and Garza are created and empowered by our drug prohibition laws, and that ending prohibition (through enacting some form of legalization) would reduce crime and save lives, is anathema to Ashcroft and all live in the grip of drug war ideology.
But it is truth. Violent crime substantially rose, then substantially fell, with the enactment and subsequent repeal of alcohol prohibition. Though some drug warriors claim that legalization would not reduce violence, it strains reason to think that sending hundreds of billions of dollars into the criminal underground drug economy, as current policies do, would not increase violence. Since prohibition clearly increases criminal violence, ending prohibition must ultimately help to reduce it.
None of this mitigates the guilt of those who in the course of drug trafficking resort to murder. Yet punishing them, through lifetime incarceration in the case of Whiting, or execution, in the case of Garza, is a pyrrhic victory at best -- their victims are still dead -- and raises moral issues, particularly in the case of the death penalty, over which society does not have a true consensus.
Instead, what is needed is systemic reform to end the power and prevalence of the illicit drug trade and stop these terrible drug wars once and for all. To save lives, to end drug trade corruption, to make our cities safe. To stop the violence.
That is one of many reasons why this organization is committed to the eventual outright repeal of drug prohibition -- while working in the present on smaller portions of the drug issue and with allies in other movements -- but never losing sight of nor swearing off of that goal.