08/12/16 Michelle Alexander

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Michelle Aexander author of The New Jim Crow, Neill Franklind Exec Dir of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Natalie Schuurman of Green Party

Audio file


AUGUST 12, 2016


DEAN BECKER: Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

DR. G. ALAN ROBISON: It is not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally un-American.

CROWD: No more! Drug war! No More! Drug War! No More! Drug War!

DEAN BECKER: My name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Folks, it seems that drug war news is pouring forth like a river these days. Let's start the flow right now.

Well, the Green Party just finished up their convention here in my fair city of Houston. Here to talk about some of their goals is Natalia Schuurman. Natalia, the fact of the matter is, this drug war is losing its luster, a lot of folks are starting to speak up. The Green Party's no different. Tell us about the Green Party's perspective on the drug war, and how you're going to move forward.

NATALIA SCHUURMAN: Well, we think that we really need to start taking on a more revolutionary approach to addressing the drug war, and we have seen a lot of efforts progressing in the legalization of cannabis, at least, in the United States. But we think that we really need to go further than that. We need to get into the root causes of it. So, one of our first and foremost goals is to implement federal and local legislation based on green values, so this would mean that to really get at the grassroots level, getting people involved, unifying local and national anti-prohibition groups. We want to create sustainable agriculture, such as hemp for fuel or fiber, food, plastics, and phytoremediation.

We also want to end restrictions on plant-based substances that have cultural or medicinal values. We have to recognize that substances such as coca and opium have cultural significance outside of the United States, and by implementing federal regulations on these drugs, it is almost culturally offensive and arbitrary for us to do.

We also want to counter the privatization of cannabis. So we want to decentralize cannabis by allowing home grown plants and community shared gardens. We do not want this to be regulated by the government or taxed, but we do want to regulate commercial cannabis, by promoting horizontal licensing procedures, banning genetic modification and pesticide use that would allow for profit maximization, so that we could demonstrate to people that this should be a public good, that people should be able to access it and consume it like any other plant that you grow in your garden, as well as other natural space.

We also want to improve public health by allowing cannabis to be available medicinally and a possible alternative to medicines that are addictive prescription drugs, such as opiates, not always of course, but at least offered as an alternative. We want to address mass incarceration and police violence, so we really want to dismantle a major intersection of socioeconomic and racial injustices, and the school to prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets people of color.

In addition to this, on a global level, we really want to challenge imperialist oppression and the international war on drugs, so we've seen the US in countries such as Mexico or Colombia, and possibly countries in the Middle East, implement a very interventionist and militaristic strategy to combating the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, and we've seen over and over again that this doesn't work. So we really need more transparency and more accountability in US, for people to see that US foreign affairs are aimed at promoting and policy building, rather than imperialistic policing in other countries, which does not decrease the violence associated with the illegal drug trade.

DEAN BECKER: Natalia, we need to point folks to the website where they can learn more, where they can get involved with the Green Party. Please show them how to do that.

NATALIA SCHUURMAN: Yes, of course. So you could go to GreenParty.org to find out about -- more about the Green Party. We don't only want to legalize cannabis, but we want to reframe the paradigm through which we are combating the violence and crime associated with the quote unquote "war on drugs."

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Nausea, heartburn, development of bleeding ulcers, vomiting, swelling of the brain, extensive liver damage, difficulty with mental functioning, Reyes Syndrome, and death. Time's up! The answer: Aspirin. Another FDA approved product.

Olympic athletes can finally smoke weed. As long as it's not on the same day they compete in Rio. That's because the World Anti-Doping Agency just changed the rules. Good news, because marijuana can help athletes with endurance, reducing inflammation, and even increasing airflow to the lungs. Athletes have already shattered the myth that marijuana will ruin your sports career, both Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt have admitted to using marijuana and they are two of the greatest Olympians ever. Now it's time for other sports organizations to follow their lead.

On Wednesday, August 10th, the Justice Department announced a finding of investigation into Baltimore's police department. Here to fill us in on some of the details of that investigation is the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, former Baltimore cop, Maryland Highway Patrol, a man who knows the situation. Neill, this is an astounding document.

NEILL FRANKLIN: It is, Dean, it, I mean, it is, and it's more astounding to anyone outside of Baltimore. And what I mean by that is, if you're in Baltimore, if you've grown up in Baltimore, if you live in Baltimore now, if you police in Baltimore, and when I say that I mean, in the communities that this report is referring to, because, you know, there are affluent communities in Baltimore that have not received the same type of policing as reflected in this report.

And what I'm saying here is that, what we have here with this report is data that we can now pair with the narrative. The narrative has always been there. The narrative has been there for a few decades regarding disparate policing in Baltimore, the problems with constitutional violations, the strip searching of young black men in the middle of the streets, and on and on and on, but now we have the numbers. Now we have the data to pair with that narrative, that unfortunately many people didn't really believe was occurring.

DEAN BECKER: And Neill, if I may interject this thought, you know, you mentioned there's more affluent neighborhoods where this is not even being recognized, and the situation in Baltimore, certain neighborhoods do get the focus, do get these searches, stripped in the middle of the street, all of this stuff. But the same holds true for I would say neighborhoods in nearly every American city as well where this disparate policing goes on, all across America. Am I right?

NEILL FRANKLIN: You're absolutely right, it's a similar situation we saw in Ferguson. You know, in Baltimore, I mean, this is literally the tale of two cities, and for instance, the, you know, basic, they looked at data from 2010, January 2010, to May of 2015, and, you know, roughly 44 percent of all these police stops occurred in two small, predominantly African American districts, containing only 11 percent of the city's population. Now, so we're talking about over 300,000, and I'm just going to speak to stops, what we refer to, not traffic stops, but, you know, sidewalk interrogations, is what I'm referring to. You know, pedestrian stops.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir.

NEILL FRANKLIN: Now, of these 300,000 plus stops, only three point seven percent of these pedestrian stops resulted in any type of issuing of a citation or an arrest. So, I mean, what does that tell you? I mean, that police were just stopping people at random to question them, to detain them, to search them, you know, legally, you know, going through their pockets, beyond the -- beyond what a legal stop and frisk encounter is all about, or what it allows the police to legally do.

DEAN BECKER: So, Neill, you're saying that approximately one out of every 33 resulted in any kind of transgression, and this brings to mind, Neill, in reading through this document from the Justice Department, I noticed there is not one mention that I could see about the drug war itself. But that is the heart and soul of what is going on, am I right?

NEILL FRANKLIN: That's right. I mean, the foundation to all of this, the most important part of this document, and I, for those people who would like to see this document, it's 160-some pages long, but you can read the executive summary, which pretty much sums it all up. I did tweet that out earlier today, the link to this document, so you can find that on Twitter, it's very simple, @NeillFranklin, and take a look at this report. But the most -- and as you'll see, the most glaring part, the most interesting part, is titled "Unconstitutional Stops, Searches, and Arrests." And the foundation for that, Dean, as you and I know, and all of our LEAP speakers and family know, that this is the war on drugs being acted out.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. Well, Neill, as always, it's wonderful to talk with you, and I want to tell the listeners something. Neill Franklin, when he was still wearing the badge, had that gun strapped to his side, he spoke out against this drug war. He spoke out against what the Justice Department has found, while he was still wearing the badge, and that's why I'm proud that he's now the director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. We're out there on the web at LEAP.CC. Neill, any closing thoughts, please?

NEILL FRANKLIN: The only reason I left law enforcement and carrying the badge was to be the Executive Director of LEAP. If not for that, I'd still be in the profession, trying to make the changes from within.

DEAN BECKER: Well, my guest for this week had to reschedule. But following on the words of Neill Franklin, we have perhaps the best interview I've ever done over the 15 years of the Drug Truth Network.

You've heard many mentions of Michelle Alexander. She's been at many conferences, been called upon for her knowledge, and to recount her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Color-Blindness, and it is my privilege, heck a distinct honor, to once again welcome Michelle Alexander.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Good, good. Thanks so much for having me on your show.

DEAN BECKER: You have made a difference. You have awakened politicians and pundits. You have given many people reason to reexamine this policy of drug war, have you not?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well that was certainly my hope and prayer in writing the book, that it would help to lead to an awakening about what we as a nation have done in this drug war particularly to poor communities of color. There’s so much mythology about the drug war, its history, its reasons, its consequences, and I hoped that by pulling back the curtains and offering some history, data, and closer analysis, that it would help to have others achieve the same awakening about the cruelty of this drug war that I finally did.

DEAN BECKER: Well, even the NAACP has kind of embraced the knowledge that you have relayed as well, along with other organizations. Am I right?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah. You know, when I first started writing this book I was dismayed that so many of our nation’s civil rights organizations were not making ending the War on Drugs a top priority given the devastating consequences of the war in poor communities of color. Not just by imprisoning millions of folks, but by branding them criminals and felons and rendering them permanent second-class citizens, you know, stripped of the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against, denied the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement.

And, what I’ve just been so gratified by is that over the years, since I began writing the book and since it’s been released, many of the leading civil rights organizations including the NAACP are devoting more time, attention, and resources to the issue, and the NAACP did adopt a resolution condemning the drug war and putting the, you know, organization officially on record as opposing it.

So, there are signs that things are moving in the right direction, but I fear that there is still not enough being done at a grassroots level to mobilize public opinion, because politicians today across the political spectrum still are very reluctant to publicly reconsider drug war policies. And, you know, until we galvanize real momentum and put a lot of political pressure on these folks, I think that all we’ll get from them is kind of shifting rhetoric on these issues, but more of the same.

DEAN BECKER: You know he’s not alone among the pundits. Several noted columnists around the country, heck around the world, have made mention of your book and the truths contained therein, but one of the more recent write ups was from nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, who actually offered 50 copies of your book to his readers to encourage them to share this same information. Right?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, I was so thrilled by that. I had no idea he was planning to do that, to offer free copies of the book to those who were willing to actually read it. That was his caveat, that people had to agree to actually read the book, and be willing to, you know, take it seriously enough to read it and hopefully do something about the problems that are described therein.

You know, I think one of the reasons that the book has created some shockwaves in many communities is because the data is just so jaw dropping. There are more African Americans, African American adults under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than there were enslaved in 1850, you know, a decade before the Civil War began.

And the stunning increase in black incarceration in the United States can’t be explained simply by crime or crime rates. It’s due in large part to a war that has been declared on poor communities of color – a war on drugs. A war that, you know, despite studies consistently showing for decades that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, this war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color resulting in some states where 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been one race: African-American.

And, we see the data and see how flimsy the excuses and rationales for the war have been over the years, and the trillion dollars that have been invested in this war, dollars that could have been invested in education or job creation in the communities that needed it most. It really I think leads one to wonder why in the world we would have chosen this path.

And unfortunately, I think we’ve chosen it because we’ve abandoned many of the ideals that we claim to embrace, namely that, you know,, we are actually on the same path that Dr. King and so many racial justice advocates were traveling a few decades ago. I think we’ve made a dramatic U-turn and the war on drugs is a major part of that detour.

DEAN BECKER: You know, the same week that I interviewed Leonard Pitts, I also interviewed the District Attorney of Houston, Harris County. And, once again reminded her of my request that she delve into the beginnings of this drug war to examine the racial screeds, the outright bigotry that was involved when these laws were crafted. And, she admits that she’s done a little bit of reading but she had not read your book. So the very next day I bought another copy and sent it to her, and hope to bring her on a little later this year to talk about your book and the beginnings, and how it’s played out in cities like Houston, where we round these young black kids off the street corners like mustangs on the prairie and stuff them into our jails. Your response, please.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, well, you know, I hope that more law enforcement officials will read the book and engage in meaningful discussion and dialog with those who are seeking large-scale reform of our criminal justice system and an end to the drug war. One of the things that I’m most encouraged by is the growing membership of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. And, you know, it's, I think, a testament to, you know, really how inexcusable so many of the drug war practices are and prove to be, that, you know, so many law enforcement officials now are saying, I cannot, in good conscience, continue to do what I have been doing for years.

Some retired police chiefs, you know, former prosecutors, as well as some current law enforcement officials, including some judges who have spoken out against the drug war saying, Enough is enough. We can’t possible countenance this direction any further.

DEAN BECKER: Once again we’re speaking with Michelle Alexander. She’s author of a book I urge you, dear listener, to please get a copy, read it, share it with your friends, send it on to your elected officials. It is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Color Blindness.

You know, Michelle, I see the ignorance or at least feigned ignorance from politicians at every level, on up to the candidates running for president. Newt Gingrich was asked what he thought Washington and Jefferson would think of the marijuana laws. He thought that they would come down on it even harder than we are currently doing. This, despite the fact, or his ignorance of the fact, that Washington and Jefferson grew cannabis on their own farms.
The lack of knowledge, the lack of learning from history is beating us up again, isn’t it?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely, you know, and that’s one of my concerns, that if we don’t learn from our history, we’ll be doomed to repeat it. You know, time and time again we have seen that racially marginalized groups and stigmatized groups are scapegoated by politicians for, you know, short term political gain. And the cost is the emergence of these vast new systems of racial and social control.

Over and over again, we have seen these same types of political dynamics leading to a familiar place. And this drug war, you know, clearly as I describe in great detail in the book, was really born with black folks in mind. It was born, you know as part of the Southern Strategy, the Republican Party's Southern Strategy of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites, particularly in the south, and try to flip those southern states from blue to red.

So, this drug war was born in large part of an intentional effort to exploit our nation’s racial divisions and anxieties for political gain. But, you know, it’s a war that is destroying the lives of people and communities of all colors. You know, a young, you know, white kid who's impoverished and is getting a prison sentence. Drug treatment he desperately needs but can’t afford is suffering because of the drug war declared with black folks in mind.

And you see the same kinds of racially divisive politics that gave birth to the drug war now leading to a prison building boom aimed at aimed at suspected illegal immigrants, and as corporations have found that they can profit from the caging of human beings, we see private prison companies lobbying not only for harsh drug laws and mandatory-minimum sentences and three strikes laws, but also lobbying for harsh, anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and elsewhere.

So, you know, ultimately I think we are going to have to reckon with our racial history and our racial present if we are going to not only end this drug war but end this history and cycle of creating caste-like systems in America.

DEAN BECKER: They talk about diminishing the total number of prisoners here in the US but the fact is the private prisons are beginning to take over the quote duties of the state and federal incarceration efforts, right?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It's -- it remains the case that only about 10 percent or less than ten percent of the US prison population is held in private prisons, but if the private prison industry has anything to say about that, that will change in the years to come and their share of the market will continue to grow. You know, there have been a number of studies published recently showing that despite the claims of private prison companies that they can house inmates more cheaply and with as much security as publicly run prisons, that, you know, isn’t actually the truth.

Even though in private prisons there have been far higher rates of violence within the prison, problems with health care provision, even more so than the publicly run system which is not a model of good health care by any means. But, you see that, you know, in this system run for profit, the private prison industry attempts to cut corners, cut costs, really by cutting back on basic civil and human rights afforded to those which it houses behind bars.

DEAN BECKER: Again, we’re speaking with Michelle Alexander. She’s author of the great book The New Jim Crow.

Now, Michelle, let’s talk a little bit about some of the more personal stories. There’s a couple of young gentlemen, last name Garrison, I interviewed their mother about their situation. I think they were sentenced to 20 years for their involvement, for their entrapment, I believe it was, on some cocaine charges. And they spent I think 17 and 18 years behind bars, whereas I think had they been young white boys I think it might have been a different story. Your response.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, there’s no doubt that we’ve seen, you know, in countless cases across the country, situations where young black folks in particular are swept up through these drug sweeps and drug task force operations and, you know, charged with drug crimes, when upon closer examination it turns out there really isn’t any evidence that can hold water against them at all.

And the reason that so many of these cases fall apart upon close examination, and you know I should underscore that most of these cases don’t ever receive close examination, because people are pressured into pleading guilty in order to avoid extremely harsh mandatory minimum sentences. They’re told by prosecutors, Well, take this deal of a couple of years in prison or five years in prison, if you don’t take the deal then I’m going to seek life imprisonment or a 20 year sentence against you.

And the US Supreme Court has upheld life imprisonment for first time drug offenses, so prosecutors aren’t bluffing when they say they can throw the book at you if you refuse to play the game and just plea out once you’ve been charged. But, you know, so many of these cases that have been brought by drug task forces and are the result of these drug operations are a result of federal funding flowing to these agencies, where they get rewarded in cash by the millions for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses, creating this financial incentive to law enforcement to just file as many charges as possible and try to obtain as many convictions for drug offenses as possible in order to qualify for their multimillion dollar grants from the federal government.

DEAN BECKER: Well, that's about it for this week. I have requested an interview with Houston's District Attorney, Devon Anderson, that's still TBD. Hopefully next week we'll have her Democratic opponent, Kim Ogg, on air as well as a working US Congressman from El Paso, Beto O'Rourke. Folks, the drug war's ending. We need you to step up and do your part. And as always, I remind you that because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network, archives are permanently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.