The drug war profiteers

November 20, 2012

Helen Redmond reviews a new documentary that exposes the racism and greed of the war on drugs--and the politicians and corporations who profit from it.

THE HOUSE I Live In should cause fresh outrage at the 40-year-long war on drugs in the U.S.. Eugene Jarecki, the award-winning director of Why We Fight, has made a gut-punch of a documentary that humanizes the victims of the drug war.

This film delivers an unequivocal message: The drug war is racist, inhumane, can't be won and has to be stopped. With superstars Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons backing the film and speaking out publicly against the drug war, the film has the potential to reach and educate a much larger audience.

It comes at a perfect political moment, as the states of Washington and Colorado just legalized marijuana for recreational use--more states are sure to follow. This is a huge victory for opponents of the war on drugs and for its victims. In New York City, the policy of stop-and-frisk, which contributes to the 50,000 arrests for marijuana every year, is also facing a challenge.

The legalization victories here in the U.S. will also aid countries in Central and Latin America that are challenging U.S.-enforced drug prohibition and are pursuing different forms of legalization.

A victim of the drug war is marched through the court system
A victim of the drug war is marched through the court system

Through a mix of archival footage and interviews with drug warriors, drug dealers and users, Jarecki's film uncovers the truth about the drug war: It's not about drugs per se, it's about profits for the few and social and racial control of the many. The illicit drug trade criminalizes millions of poor people of color, strips them of basic civil liberties and puts them under the control of the criminal justice system, often for decades.

The House I Live In shows through interviews with experts like The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and Sentencing Project director Marc Mauer how enormous amounts of society's resources are used to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of drug law violators every year.

The drug war is a massive job generator--from drug courts, to Drug Enforcement Administration busts and police officers working undercover on the streets, to correctional and probation officers in the prisons that dot the American landscape.

The corrections industry is big business and creates profits for companies that build prisons, equip guards with a vast assortment of weaponry, and supply prisoners with food, jumpsuits, underwear, shoes, telephone access, transportation and health care. These corporations have a material interest in continuing the war on drugs and opposing reforms that would decrease the prison population.

Review: Movies

The House I Live In, a documentary by Eugene Jarecki, starring David Simon and Nannie Jeter.

Over the past 40 years, the war on drugs has cost taxpayers $4 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests. As the film concludes, this is a colossal waste, because illegal drugs are as available as ever.

THE FILM introduces viewers to a complex cast of characters on both sides of the prison bars.

Anthony Johnson is a young Black man from Yonkers, New York. Sitting all alone in a courtroom, handcuffed and wearing a crisp, bright orange jumpsuit, the fear and anxiety on Johnson's face is palpable when he realizes he'll spend the next five years in a cage serving a mandatory minimum sentence for dealing crack. He leaves behind the mother of his newborn.

Johnson's father, Dennis Whidbee, was a drug dealer. He offers a view of the profession that is different from the heartless predator portrayed by the mainstream media. He explains the lure of the drug trade. Drug dealers aren't bad people. Some help the community by paying people's rent and utilities and putting food in the refrigerator.

Whidbee says, "When the drug dealers came around, it was like Christmas." But Whidbee can't hold back the tears when he talks about the guilt that he has to live with because his son is going to prison on drug charges.

Jarecki's camera gets in the car with the no-nonsense Shanequa Benitez as she drives around town making drug deals and delivering marijuana to a steady supply of customers. Benitez is articulate, funny and good at her job. She provides some of the richest detail of what it's like to work in the illegal drug business.

She struggles with the fact that what she does is against the law, but she has no other skills and reasons, "I do what I do to survive."

Mike Carpenter is the chief of security at Lexington Corrections Center in Oklahoma. He represents the rural, law-and-order, white demographic that depends on the mass incarceration of urban Blacks for employment. Currently, one in every eight state employees works for a corrections agency.

Carpenter loves his job and says without a trace of embarrassment, "I think they should have written 'prison guard' on my forehead when I was born because it just fits me." The chief revels in the punishing world of prison as he strolls through the harshly lit halls like it was a shopping mall, not a warehouse full of human beings.

In one of the most depressing scenes that sums up the racism at the core of mass incarceration in America, Carpenter locks a Black prisoner in his cell and, with a smile of satisfaction, closes the metal flap to the small glass window in the door, leaving the man in total sensory deprivation.

In that moment, you hate Carpenter. But later in the film, he reveals a deep understanding of prison economics. He admits that putting people behinds bars for drug crimes doesn't stop drug trafficking, but it does make some people rich. His cynical and insightful commentary on corrections is full of contradictions. And in the end, Carpenter acknowledges that what he does for a living is inhumane.

POLITICIANS LOVE to blame the victim, but The House I Live In makes a convincing case that drug dealing in poor neighborhoods of color isn't an accident. The government created ghettos through deliberate and systematic segregation and redlining practices.

Virtually no economic opportunities exist in poor neighborhoods. The illegal drug trade thrives under these circumstances. It provides career opportunities, doesn't discriminate on the basis of race and pays better than McDonald's.

Jarecki's camera takes us into prisons all over the country. He was granted unprecedented access to areas of prison life that few filmmakers ever see. The images are haunting and degrading--men lifting their genitals for strip search inspections; prisoners in baggy jumpsuits with their heads bowed, shackled hand and foot, shuffling down long concrete corridors; and the echoes of metal doors slamming shut.

Another strength of the film is its indictment of both Republicans and Democrats. The war on drugs has always been bipartisan, and in one clip, we see Bill Clinton proclaiming to the cheers from members of Congress, "Three strikes and you're out!" President Clinton's "tough on crime" legislation resulted in the largest increase in state and federal prison inmates of any president in American history.

Curiously, the film doesn't call out Barack Obama. The president, a former pot smoker, made numerous campaign promises to de-prioritize marijuana arrests. But under his administration, federal agents have continuously raided and shut down legal medical marijuana dispensaries. Arrests for marijuana possession, which disproportionately target Black men, continue. Obama is an unapologetic, drug warrior president.

The House I Live In is that rare documentary that connects all the dots with the glaring exception of one. The film doesn't answer the urgent question of how to end the drug war. That answer is legalization and treating drug addiction as a public health issue, not a crime. Until all drugs are legalized, the punishment of addiction and mass incarceration will not stop.

A new civil rights movement is needed to confront the entrenched power and profits of the corporations and people who live off the immiseration and torture of millions of drug law offenders. At the end of the film, Jarecki has included footage of protests against the drug war.

David Simon, the creator of the brilliant HBO drama The Wire, provides prescient commentary throughout The House I Live In. He calls the war on drugs "a Holocaust in slow motion." Anyone who sees this film will agree with Simon.

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