The drug war is a class act

By Gary and Nora Callahan

FCI Seagoville at night

Gary: My sister Nora and her husband Chuck drove 2,500 miles to visit me recently, the first visit I'd had in more than two years. It's surrealistic to enter a room crowded with people from the outer world, and after so long a time, sudden proximity to free people becomes bizarre; it takes me a day or more to adjust to it: the animated conversations, excited children, the voices of women, babies laughing and crying. These are sounds of an alternate life, the sounds of a distant world.

Nora and I quickly caught up on things: how our kids are doing, friends, the state of politics and the horrid, ludicrous condition of law in this country. We talked November Coalition strategy, noted the continuing schism in our immediate family, a gulf grown so wide it feels permanent.

In the visiting area, a place I don't see much, I marveled how these more destructive sentiments and effects do not seem to run so high among the poor, a great many of whom seem to possess more enduring bonds to their families. Perhaps lifelong adversity creates strength of its own. I think poorer people are less judgmental, too. Nora and I were raised in a middle class family and we never went without any material comfort. In adult years, I joined the middle class. Nora fell below it and clings to the fringe of lower middle class today.

Nora: Chuck didn't get to meet his brother-in-law, Gary. Chuck has a felony record, and although 23 years away from prison, once a felon, always a felon to the BOP. The first day visiting Gary was painful, too much for us to say. Gary was clearly overwhelmed from the bombardment of so many new faces, strange family rituals all around us. They are strange because it's years between visits. We are watching others go through private family moments, in public, and get gloomy over our own family ritual of estrangements. Talking politics in the afternoon rallies us both, sometimes to sides, and other visitors watched us go head to head, heard us go mind to mind and finally heart to heart. There is no privacy in the visiting room.

Gary: Nora made the point that the class system now practiced in the United States is more firmly established here than it was in England 200 years ago. I had to chew on that for awhile, but I believe she's right. The drug war is primarily a war against the potentially-rebellious lower economic classes, and we won't see it taken too far into suburbia where folks are a little more, to a lot more, comfortable materially than the poor.

Nora: We don't expect to see police-state drug tactics tried out in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods for two reasons. Number one, drug war hard-liners don't need another discontented group demanding reform, especially a group with disposable income that can purchase competent legal assistance. Do you realize how much money that would cost the prosecution? Most drug defendants only have a public defender in court - an attorney overwhelmed with cases, underpaid.

No, we will never see SWAT teams raiding middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods on the routine basis seen in poorer communities now. Forget it. Secondly, drug war hawks need a complacent middle class, content and quiet about this noisy issue of civil rights violations and proliferating police state tactics commonly seen in the drug war. The middle class is a diverse buffer of many colors, but it's mostly white populations that anchor the barrier between the anguished cry of the crushed poor who are victimized by injustice. I can't say that people in power don't hear us.

Gary: The racial imbalance in our nation's prisons is glaring. To cover up the inherent racism of the system, penalties have increased for certain drug-related crime: methanphetamine, LSD and ecstasy, drugs that are primarily made and bartered by whites. Disparities in powder and crack cocaine sentencing continue. Most of the people imprisoned due to the new wave of increased guideline sentencing laws will be poor or lower middle class white people. It's these families that have seen their economic positions slip, those that lose their social footing as the gulf between rich and poor grows wider. Within a few years the racial bias will probably reflect this new thrust - more white faces, but black and brown will continue to be disproportionately sentenced.

Nora: That is why building coalitions, crossing racial and socioeconomic lines, and working within them will foster unity and cooperation and therefore drive the drug reform movement to new strengths and possibilities. It will be this people's power that brings genuine reform.