Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for the ‘Criminalization’

Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

Snowball War Update

December 21, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization

The agro cop that pulled out his gun at the snowball fight might actually be in a tiny bit of trouble here.

Yesterday, when I wrote about this, there were only a few articles around.  Now there are so many that I can’t even begin to give you all the links.  It’s being covered everywhere from the Huffington Post to the BBC to the Sydney Morning Herald to the South African News Blog.

That guy is known worldwide for being afraid of snowballs.  I almost feel sorry for him.  (O.k., not really.)

Washington City Paper reports that Detective Mike Baylor (that would be agro-cop’s name) is now on desk duty.  The Associated Press reports that Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier called his actions “totally inappropriate.” (Duh!)  And the Washington Post has a pretty good overview in today’s paper.  I’m not going to hold my breath that anything major will happen, but the fact that this went worldwide made it impossible for them to ignore it.

That horrible article from the local news that I linked to yesterday is still up.  Some German based news site has made it even more sensationalistic with their headline, Wild D.C. Snowball Fight Was Fun Until The Anarchist Show Up. DCist reports that CNN picked up the phony protest story. And the Scottrossblog has coverage of Faux News picking up the protester angle also.  It looks like Faux subsequently dropped that part of the story and the rest of the coverage I have seen left it out.  Good thing there were so many cameras around.

Some of the comments on the articles and blogs were hilarious.

“Stupid environmentalist wacko liberals… bringing snowballs to a gun fight.” LevonTostig at USA Today

Isn’t a Hummer built to withstand the impact of a snowball?” MillardFil at TPM

There were a lot of other, more annoying and more troubling, comments on different blogs and articles.  But I don’t have time to be thoughtful about them right now, so I’m going to leave them for another day.

Pointless U.S. Drug Policy – Bolivian Edition

November 23, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics

Bolivian president Evo Morales says that exports to the U.S. have decreased 8% due to Bolivia’s decertification under The Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA).  However, Morales expects that agreements with Venezuela, along with demand from Arab countries, will make up for the loss.  (Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been strengthening his ties with Bolivia and Venezuela.)

Supposedly, the U.S. government frowns on the increasing influence of Chavez in Latin America.  Supposedly, the U.S. government is worried about Iranian power around the world.  Supposedly, the Obama administration is trying to turn over a new leaf with Latin America.  So why would the U.S. government do something that alienates Latin American countries and sends them into the warm embrace of the very people they are trying to isolate?

It’s inexplicable, at least to any rational person, but U.S. drug policy has never been rational.

The United States is the leading consumer of cocaine.  Rather than dealing with U.S. addiction and its related problems, our policy has been to go after the “source.”  Now it takes many ingredients to make cocaine – sulfuric acid, kerosene, lime, sodium carbonate – but we have focused on going after the coca leaf.

Going after coca leaves may seem to make some sense, as the coca leaf is where the alkaloids that make you high are found.  But coca is a bush grown by subsistence farmers, campesinos, who often have no other viable cash crop.  And the coca leaf is an integral part of Andean culture and has been since at least 1800 B.C.

Unfortunately for Andeans and their traditions, a German chemist named Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the alkaloids in coca leaves.  Andean coca growers were everyone’s best friend when coca was used in legal products like Coca Cola and cocaine laced wine.  But once a handful of U.S. drug warriors decided that cocaine had to be stopped, we expected Andean people to turn their backs on thousands of years of culture and to just give up an integral part of their economy.

As the drug war ratcheted up, Andean people in Bolivia and elsewhere suffered the consequences.  Bolivia was pressured to eradicate coca crops using herbicides and fungicides that damaged food crops, contaminated water sources, and made people sick.  Human rights abuses escalated as pressure was put on Bolivia to militarize their anti-drug efforts and to impose increasingly draconian penalties on people involved in the coca and cocaine trades.

In addition to interdiction and eradication, drug warriors from the U.S. promoted crop substitution programs.  Loans were provided to farmers to grow crops other than coca and special trade deals were arranged to help open up U.S. markets to legal Andean goods.  The ATPDEA was part of that effort.

All of our efforts to stop drugs at the “source” have been an abysmal failure.  Substitute crops were no replacement for coca bushes which need little care and bring in far more money.  The only things U.S. imposed drug policies were effective at was alienating Andean people.  Nobody knows that better than Evo Morales, former head of the Chapare coca growers union.

Morales has taken the position that Bolivia should say no to cocaine, but yes to coca.  His refusal to acquiesce to all U.S. demands when it comes to drug policy has contributed to a testy relationship with the U.S. and to Bolivia’s continued decertification.

Now the decertification doesn’t really matter much.  It effects only a small amount of trade.  And the U.S. officials know damned well that, even if Morales did everything they want, it wouldn’t do anything to resolve the drug problem in the United States.  So it makes absolutely no sense that we would take action to piss off Bolivians (and their allies) and drive a further wedge between the U.S. and other countries of the Americas.

But sense and drug policy don’t seem to go together in the United States.

The Danger of Good vs. Evil

November 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization, Politics

The Heritage Foundation put out a morning bell yesterday.  The gist of the message is that Obama slighted Reagan by not showing up for the Berlin wall ceremonies and for not mentioning Reagan in his speech.  Reagan is, of course, the savior who freed the world from the communists.

My personal favorite bit is the quote from Nile Gardiner:

Barack Obama simply does not view the world as Reagan did, in terms of good versus evil, as a world divided between the forces of freedom on one side and totalitarianism on the other. For the Obama administration the advancement of human rights and individual liberty on the world stage is a distinctly low priority, as we have seen with its engagement strategy towards the likes of Iran, Burma, Sudan, Venezuela and Russia.

Oh the irony of inferring that Ronald Reagan was a great defender of human rights.  The Reagan administration supported the most oppressive Central American governments in El Salvador and Guatemala.  They illegally sold arms to Iran to raise money for brutal counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua.  They closed their eyes to the massive illegal drug operations of their Contra buddies while incarcerating obscene numbers of American citizens for using the drugs.  And they invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada in flagrant violation of international law.

But I’m not writing this to rag on Reagan.  Too easy.  I want to write about the first part of the quote, the part about Barack Obama not seeing the world in terms of good vs. evil.  I want to write about the damage done by people who insist on dividing the world up like that.

What happens when you try to divide the world into good and evil is that the “good” people can do no wrong and the “bad” people can do no right.  How convenient to be on the hero’s side and never have to face an ethical dilemma.  The hero is good, therefore everything they do is good.  If they lie, cheat, murder, or torture it doesn’t matter.  They are the good guy, so their actions must be good.

And that victim of the lying, cheating, murdering, and torturing?  Well they are the villain.  Everything they do is bad.  If the villain saves a baby from a burning building, that inconvenient information is left out of the narrative or explained away as part of a sinister plot.  And how easy it is to dehumanize the bad guy.  Their guilt is pre-determined.  When someone from a vilified group acts in the way we expect, it confirms all our suspicions.  How easy it is to just throw them away, even a child.

Life is not a cowboy film or a fairy tale.  And we can’t afford to listen to people who have the worldview of a toddler.  Time to grow up.

Sen. Ensign Thinks Criminals Have it Too Good

October 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics, Stratification

Senator John Ensign would like to put prisoners to work.   No, this isn’t some post prison project to integrate former inmates back into society.  He wants inmates to work.

S. 41
To require a 50-hour workweek for Federal prison inmates, to reform inmate work programs, and for other purposes.

Inmates would work 50 hours per week for federal contractors.  Their salary would be split

  • 25% to “offset the cost on incarceration of the inmate”
  • 25% for “victim restitution”
  • 10% held for the prisoner upon release (in a noninterest bearing acct)
  • 25% “paid directly to the inmate for mandatory expenses and for daily basic needs while the inmate is incarcerated.”  Although if they have child support obligations, they wouldn’t get that.  No explanation of how their “basic needs” would be met in that case.
  • 15% to any state and local jurisdictions that also force their inmates to work

Prison labor is a touchy subject.  Back in 1998, congress held hearings on forced labor in China.  There was widespread condemnation of the practice.  But that’s prison labor in China.  If it is here in the United States, the rules are a little different.

Section 1761 of Title 18 (chapter 85) imposes penalties for anyone who knowingly transports prison made goods (from out of the country or between states).  But the code also allows for gaping exceptions when it comes to the labor of those in U.S. prisons.

According to the Democratic Leadership Council, U.S. prison labor output is $2.4 billion annually.  Prisoners have, according to this Mother Jones report,  done everything from sew Victoria Secret lingerie to package Starbucks holiday coffees.  Prisoners even set up an event for John McCain during the presidential campaign.

Defenders of prison labor say that it is a win-win.  Prisoners get income and learn job skills.  (Cause cleaning roads and packaging coffee have a real future.)  Even better, companies and governments get cheap labor.  Governor Jodi Rell of Connecticut claims that prison labor is saving the state $2.2 million dollars.

Businesses don’t have to provide any benefits.  They don’t have to worry about unions.  When some Colorado prison inmates staged a walkout (after their wages were cut from $.85 to $.60 a day) Sterling Correctional Center just put them in solitary confinement.  That’s a corporate wet dream.

It’s too bad we mostly like to send people to prison for petty theft and drug use.  If this were a place where powerful people went to prison for gross violations of ethics, Sen. John Ensign’s recent ethics snafu might actually get him in trouble.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if he ended up working 50 hours a week in a prison because his own bill passed?  Except now I have a visual in my head of the senator hunched over a sewing machine, stitching together Victoria Secret panties…Creepy.


Arrested for Posession….of Condoms

May 09, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Sex

Think twice before you come home with that value pack of condoms. Police from San Francisco to Tel Aviv use condoms as evidence of prostitution.

San Francisco police continue to use condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.

In Tel Aviv, massage parlors are raided by police and, if there are condoms on the premises, they are assumed to be “brothels.”

A prostitutes organization in the United Kingdom, where condoms have also been used as evidence, wrote an open letter to the home secretary decrying the practice.

According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report, arresting women for carrying condoms is prevalent in the Philappines as well.

In a moment of sanity, and in an effort to control the spread of HIV, the Chinese government recently decided to end the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

Presumably the anti-prostitution police are taking action based on their supposed concern for prostitutes, or at least for public health. So explain to me why they do something that makes prostitutes less likely to use condoms? Stupidity? Hypocrisy? Worse?

* Thanks to Audacia Ray and Stacy Swimme who brought this up at their session on Sex Work in the Time of Obama at Sex 2.0 this weekend.

American Violet Shows the Violence and Racism of the Drug War

April 20, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Criminalization, Stratification

Based on the true story of Regina Kelly, American Violet portrays the violence, racism, and institutionalized injustices perpetrated by drug warriors.

African American communities in a small Texas town were being terrorized by a drug task force led by the local district attorney. Texas law allowed for people to be indicted based on the word of one confidential informant. Those indicted were picked up in drug sweeps and were pressured to plead guilty.

Dee Roberts (the character based on Regina Kelly) was one of those picked up. Innocent, she refused to plead. She became the lead plaintiff in an ACLU racial bias case against the district attorney and others.

The film is compelling in its own right. More importantly, it conveys the violence, racism, injustice, and institutional bias of our justice system. It does it with accuracy and without getting preachy.

It shows how poor African Americans are easy targets for a monstrous bureaucracy with perverse incentives to keep arrests high. It shows the violence of the drug war, not the violence of cartels and gangs that we normally see in the media, but the everyday violence police perpetrate on communities.

The drug war doesn’t just take the freedom of those convicted. Poor people who are forced to plead guilty become felons who cannot find jobs, cannot receive public assistance, cannot live in public housing, and cannot vote. Children lose their parents. Communities are torn apart.

American Violet is a film everyone needs to see.

Should Drug Users Lose Their Right to Vote?

April 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics

More than five million Americans could not vote in the last election because they were convicted of a felony. Only two states allow felons to vote. In many states, former felons are barred permanently from voting. In others, felons can get their voting rights back, but the process is so arduous that few do.

I doubt many people are losing sleep over whether Charles Manson can vote. I’m guessing many people would approve of the idea that criminals lose their rights as citizens after acting against the citizenry. But we aren’t talking about Charles Manson here. More than half of federal prisoners are in prison for drug crimes.

Let’s take a state like California. California has the nations largest prison population and an overcrowding problem so bad that federal judges have ordered the prison population decreased. While Prop 36 has caused a decrease in the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, they still constitute more than 20% of the prison population in California.

Recent polling shows that more than 50% of California voters are in favor of marijuana legalization. A vote would be close. All those people barred from voting, the very people who lost their freedom and civil rights due to drug prohibition, could tip the scales.

Drug laws have been broken at least once by 40% of Americans. If that many people are breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law. Would we strip 40% of Americans of their voting rights? What kind of democracy is that?

Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a House bill intended to restore voting rights to all ex felons within thirty days of being released from prison. The bill is languishing in committee right now. If your representative is on the House Committee on the Judiciary, call and tell them you want to see that bill move.

Portugal Proves that Decriminalization Does Not Increase Drug Problems

April 03, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use. Much like in the U.S., the naysayers claimed that decriminalization would lead to increased drug use and drug tourism. Glenn Greenwald went to Portugal to find out if the dire predictions were true. They weren’t.

Portugal in the 1990s was experiencing an increase in drug abuse and related problems. A commission was convened to decide what to do about it. Drug legalization was taken off the table because international treaties force countries to keep drugs illegal. Barring legalization, the commission was tasked with looking at the evidence and making a rational decision. The commission decided that the best way to get the drug problem under control was decriminalization.

They had identified two obstacles that decriminalization would help them to overcome. The first was that criminalization made people hesitant to go to the state for help with their drug problem. Fear of jail, a criminal record, or simple stigma kept people away. By removing those obstacles, they reasoned, people would be more willing to get help.

Additionally, they were pouring money into the criminal justice system to prosecute drug users. Portugal, as one of the poorest European countries, didn’t have money to waste. Decriminalization freed up resources to be used for treatment and education instead of for the criminal justice system.

As Greenwald pointed out in his conference at the Cato Institute on Friday, supporters of prohibition use scare tactics to justify their position. They will grudgingly acknowledge that our efforts have not resulted in less drug abuse or related problems, but they always claim that legalization or decriminalization would make matters worse. For Greenwald, the central question is “is this assumption accurate.”

All the evidence from Portugal shows that it is not. According to his report Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, drug use in the 13 – 15 year old and 16 – 18 year old groups has decreased for most drugs. Newly reported HIV and AIDS cases related to drug use have declined. Drug related deaths have declined. In fact, “in virtually every category of any significance, Portugal, since decriminalization, has outperformed the vast majority of other states that continue to adhere to a criminalization regime.”

Greenwald sent a draft of his report to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy asking why, given higher drug use here than in Portugal, we continue to pursue criminalization. They didn’t respond.

Would Legalizing Drugs Increase Drug Use?

February 20, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization

One of the main arguments used by supporters of drug prohibition is that legalizing drugs would increase drug use. Is that really a logical conclusion? Is there any evidence to support it?

To those who make that argument I ask – if drug use were legal, would you start doing drugs? I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the answer is no. In which case, these people believe that, while they have the mental faculties to see that drug use has other negative consequences besides the threat of prison, a large portion of the rest of us do not. It’s a little insulting. Do we really think that someone who hits the gym every morning and drinks wheat grass is going to turn around and start shooting up heroin because it is legal?

Of course the flip side of that argument is that the illegality of drugs prevents people from using them. Let’s take marijuana. About 40% of all adults have smoked marijuana at least once in their lives. If marijuana’s illegality is keeping people from smoking it, how many people are we talking about? Do prohibition supporters think another 30% of the population would smoke pot if it were legal? If 70% of the population wants to do something, something that causes no direct physical harm to others, why is a minority being allowed to dictate what we put in our bodies?

Occasionally, supporters of drug prohibition will provide examples that they say prove that legality would increase drug use. According to the Department of Justice, “Legalization has been tried before—and failed miserably. Alaska’s experiment with Legalization in the 1970s led to the state’s teens using marijuana at more than twice the rate of other youths nationally. This led Alaska’s residents to vote to re-criminalize marijuana in 1990.”

The DOJ, however, does not back up the assertion on their website with evidence. On the other hand, in a report by the Cato Institute titled Thinking About Drug Legalization, James Ostrowski sites statistics for Alaska that show just the opposite. In fact, Alaska may have had less teen drug use that other states. And while the DOJ asserts that The Netherlands drug policy has tripled heroin addiction levels, studies show that The Netherlands has a lower rate of drug use than the United States.

I recently attended a drug policy conference. One of the speakers, Vanda Felbab-Brown, asserted that legalization would increase drug use. The example she presented was the high rates of addiction in China when opiates were legal there.

One estimate of Chinese opium smoking in 1890 (in Jonathan D. Spence’s book Chinese Roundabout) puts the rate of use at about 10% of the population, with 3 to 5% excessively smoking. According to the National Institute on Drug Policy, heroin use in the United States is only about 1.5%. But are we really comparing like things here?

In China, opium use was not just culturally acceptable, but in some cases promoted by local and colonial governments. In contrast, heroin may be one of the least socially acceptable drugs in the United States today. Growing up I knew many people who would happily snort cocaine, but would not do heroin as that was reserved for “junkies.” If we compare opium use in China to a more socially acceptable drug like marijuana, then 10% is exactly the same figure for adults who have used marijuana in the last month.

Drug prohibition in the United States is nearly 100 years old. The drug war has been actively fought since the Nixon presidency. It isn’t working. The main argument for continuing drug prohibition just doesn’t hold water.