The drug war is a class act
By Gary and Nora Callahan
FCI Seagoville at night
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
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.