BroadSnark

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
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Archive for the ‘Criminalization’

What Choices?

November 28, 2011 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Stratification

A couple months ago, the Positive Force book club read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. One of the book club members thought that Alexander had gone too far in comparing the drug war to Jim Crow. He pointed out that it is far different to be discriminated against based on some accident of birth than it is to be discriminated against based on a choice that you made to break the law.

I don’t think Alexander was suggesting that Jim Crow and the drug war are exact equivalents. She made the case that the drug war was part of a continuum. Chattel slavery and Jim Crow were tools for economic exploitation and social control. Once one form of subjugation was no longer viable, a new form came to take its place.

The conversation got me thinking about choices and how often we are mistaken about what choices we think we had or what choices we think other people had.

Could a person have chosen not to do drugs or sell drugs. Maybe. But what if you had few other options for employment? What if you simply have no compelling reason not to be high all the time? Even if I agreed that it should be illegal to use or sell drugs, which I don’t, I would still ask why someone made the decisions they did. I would still ask what choices people perceived they had, why their choices are illegal, who made them that way, and to what purpose.

I still ask those questions when people do things that I actually think are wrong – violent things, cruel things. Whatever choices people make that cause themselves or other people to suffer should be examined.

We don’t all have the same choices in life. Sometimes it is perception. Often, as is the case with many of the people who end up in prison on drug charges, the options have been intentionally narrowed. Our drug laws were created in large part and are enforced selectively to criminalize very specific people. Once you criminalize/demonize someone, it is so much easier to take away their rights. And that serves some people’s interests quite nicely.

Looking at the social and historical circumstances and at the institutional processes that led someone to make a decision does not absolve them of responsibility for their decision. It doesn’t ignore their agency. It puts their decision in context. And context is everything when it comes to choices.

The Road to Hell

April 29, 2011 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization, Seeking

My mother has a platitude for every occasion. One favorite is “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I thought about that saying as I read this piece on prostitution arrests in Honolulu. I have no doubt that some of the people pressuring the Honolulu PD to make prostitution a priority think they are doing a good thing. And I understand how someone hears about really awful trafficking stories and wants to do something about it. But the end result of their pressure is that a bunch of women are getting arrested, sometimes on multiple occasions. They even published some of their names in the paper. How the hell is that supposed to help the women that they are supposedly so concerned about?

The paper notes that, in nine months, the police have arrested only one pimp.  An associate dean at Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, explains why:

A prostitution arrest is very easy. You can do that quickly. You can go out on the street or go on Craigslist and get the individuals involved. But to get the pimp, it is harder to make that case.

Let’s set aside the fact that a whole lot of prostitutes don’t have pimps. It is an absolute truism that the law goes after the easiest pickings. If a six month investigation will result in one arrest of someone with a good attorney (who will probably get them off), but one afternoon on the corner can result in multiple arrests of people who can’t afford an attorney, who do you think most police departments pursue?

Back in 2004, a report was prepared for the Racial Disparity Project in Seattle. Like in the rest of the country, blacks and Latinos in Seattle were being incarcerated at higher rates than whites. The researchers set out to determine why. They found that the Seattle PD focused on downtown areas where crack was sold, ignoring areas where white people were selling heroin. The researchers found no “racially neutral” explanation for the disparities. In other words, the police were targeting the black community. It is always going to be the people with the least status who are targeted by the laws. Always.

I know I have written about this before when I talked about Over Reliance on the Law and Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You, but I just keep coming up on the same mental block. People see something horrible and they feel like they would be a bad person if they did nothing. And the only thing they can think to do is pass a law or call an authority or violate a person’s rights in some way. If to save one person, you hurt ten (or ten thousand), what the hell good does that do?

I was recently contacted by one of my friends, we’ll call her Carrie. Carrie is worried about one of our mutual friends who is going through a really rough time right now. Bad stuff. Deaths and illnesses and breakups and generally more than anyone can really handle. Our friend, we’ll call her Sandy, is not necessarily utilizing the most healthy coping mechanisms. (Neither would I be, but that’s another tale.) Carrie wants to do something to save Sandy from herself. I get it. I love Sandy. She is family to me.

But trying to save people from themselves almost always goes horribly wrong. It is how you get prostitutes being jailed in the name of saving people from sex work. It is how you get minority drug addicts being jailed in the name of saving people from drug addiction. And it is how you get women being institutionalized against their will in the name of “helping” them.

I’m not suggesting that we all just think about ourselves and do nothing about suffering. If someone asks me for help, and I can give it, I will. If someone says that something I do hurts them, and I can stop it, I do. If I see injustice and I have the ability to call it out, I will. If I can be there for a friend, not judging them or telling them how to live their life, I’m there.

I realize that means that I will sometimes have to watch people that I love hurt themselves. And that sucks. But we can’t save anyone but ourselves. We can’t prevent one another from experiencing pain. We can be there to lean on. We can be kind to people. We can make people laugh. We can remind people about the parts of life that don’t suck. We can forgive people their imperfections.

We can respect that the road that they are on may be the one that they need to travel, even if it is long and ugly and dangerous. Because really, in the end, all those roads end in the same place.

Drug War Ping Pong

July 12, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization, Drugs

Lately, I’ve seen several articles holding up Colombia as some kind of model for how to deal with drug war violence.   The latest one is this piece in Foreign Affairs in which Robert Bonner claims that Mexico should follow Colombia’s example.

Really people?  Colombia?

Colombia is ranked number 138 on the Global Peace Index.  That makes it the most violent country in Latin America, one notch above North Korea.  Colombia is the only Latin American country where the gap between rich and poor is increasing.  Union members in Colombia are routinely murdered with impunity.  According to Human Rights Watch:

Colombia presents the most serious human rights and humanitarian situation in the region. Battered by an internal armed conflict involving government forces, guerrilla groups, and paramilitaries, the country has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons in the world.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Colombia should not be held up as anyone’s example.  But more importantly, I would like to point out that the problems in Mexico are, in part, the result of the drug war ramp up in Colombia.  And the massive drug trade in Colombia was, in part, the result of Mexico’s drug war ramp up in the seventies.

In 1971, Tricky Dick declared his war on drugs.  Shortly after, the U.S. put tons of pressure on Mexico to do something about the Mexican weed that was coming into the United States.  Mexico obliged and started the first eradication program.  They dumped paraquat on the marijuana crops.  Reports surfaced that paraquat tainted marijuana was being sold in the U.S.  Of course, nobody stopped smoking marijuana.  They just started growing it in the U.S. or buying it from marijuana growers in Colombia.  Marijuana production and distribution lines shifted.

Colombia is a huge country with a tumultuous political history – including years of violence and a tendency toward private armies.  In the 1960s, in response to a pact between liberals and conservatives that screwed most poor/indigenous/Afro-Colombians, armed guerrilla groups started operating in large swaths of Colombia’s territory.  The government had no ability to enforce laws in those areas.  Smugglers didn’t have to worry about government interference in their business.

Marijuana growers and guerrillas had a somewhat symbiotic relationship at first.  A little piece of the action for the guerrillas and they left each other alone.  And then cocaine got popular.  Colombians had the supply lines set up already and were conveniently situated between the Andean coca producers and the U.S. market.  The money made in cocaine was insane.  The more wealthy the cocaine dealers got, the more they became the enemy of the guerrilla groups.  Naturally, the drug cartels started their own armies – paramilitary forces.  And then the bloodbath really began.

By the 1980s, the Colombian and U.S. governments decided they were going to crack down on the drug cartels.  If your criteria for success is that the government of Colombia did not completely disintegrate, than I suppose you can say that their efforts were a “success”.  But as I pointed out above, Colombia is hardly a peaceful paradise.

More importantly, as the heat was turned up in Colombia and in the Caribbean, the drug corridor moved back to Mexico and Central America.  It’s like the most vile game of ping pong.  The violence doesn’t go away.  It just ebbs momentarily and springs back worse later, often with an even more corrupt and totalitarian government in place.

The next time you hear someone say that Mexico should follow Colombia’s example, smack em on the head for me will you?

Vilifying Palestinians, Erasing Movements

June 04, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization

There is no justification for the actions that the Israeli government took this week.  There is no justification for the blockade on Gaza.  There is no defense for allowing settlers to invade Palestinian land, eating it up piece by piece.  The apartheid in Israel/Palestine is immoral, unjust, inhumane, and repugnant.  Everybody knows it.  Even Israel’s defenders know it.

The typical response from defenders of Israel, when faced with Israel’s actions, is something like this one that I read on Facebook this week

And we all know what martyrdom means to Muslims – it is an honor they often seek.

Muslims, you see, are particularly irrational.  (The fact that not all Palestinians are Muslim doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest.)  That’s why, when butted up against a moral wall, an Israeli I spoke to defended his country by saying “Palestinian women strap their kids with bombs.”  What that Israeli meant was – Yes, our actions are crazy, but it’s because we are dealing with crazy people.

Even people who recognize the immorality of Israel’s actions still vilify Palestinians by erasing their actions and ignoring their movements.  Take this video from the Young Turks. (Thanks to Mariana E. for posting it.)

Once again, someone is lecturing Palestinians about nonviolence.  Once again, someone is telling Palestinians that they should learn from Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Which is infuriating.  Because there has always been nonviolent, Palestinian resistance.

the reality is that Palestinians have consistently chosen nonviolent resistance before arms – from the general strikes of 1936, to the consistent appeals to international legal bodies, to the weekly demonstrations against the wall. It has been the continued dispossession at the hands of Israel, and the silence of the international community despite these nonviolent efforts, that has led some Palestinians to view violence as the only option.

As Yousef Munayyer describes in the article quoted above, if there is a Palestinian Gandhi, he or she is most likely languishing in an Israeli jail.  Just because the New York Times doesn’t report on the nonviolent movements or pretends as though they are new does not make it so.  Like most U.S. media, they prefer not to contradict the image of Palestinians as irrational, inhuman, crazies.

So below I am linking to videos, articles, and websites that show a different picture of the Palestinian people than you get on the U.S. mainstream news.   Next time someone gives you the “they’re all crazy and violent” response, feel free to provide them a link.

You can read about past and present Palestinian nonviolent movements in Tikkun, Peace Magazine and especially this article in The Holy Land Trust.

Here is the trailer to a new film about the protests in Budrus. (Note: I haven’t seen it yet.”

Democracy Now often does interviews with Israeli and Palestinian activists, including this one of three women who toured the U.S. together and this one with two members of Combatants for Peace.

You can find links to Palestinian peace and human rights organizations here and here.

And if you want to get news on Israel/Palestine, forget the New York Times.  Read Electronic Intifada or Mondoweiss.

Even the Daily Show interviewed Anna Baltzer and Mustafa Barghouti about nonviolent movements.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Anna Baltzer & Mustafa Barghouti Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You

March 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization

On Monday I wrote about how car contracts work and how people end up getting screwed.  The logical question, and the one that started this all, is why doesn’t the legal system work for you?  And the answer is…it isn’t meant to.

Who writes the laws?  Legislators.  Who are the legislators?  They are wealthier than you.  They have more powerful friends and relatives.  And, most importantly, they have a steady stream of lobbyists at their doorstep.  Ford Motor Credit Company, for example, spent $7,230,000 on lobbying in 2009.  What are the chances, do you think, that those lobbyists have no effect on what the law says?

Who interprets the laws?  You may think that it is the judge who interprets the law, but that is not exactly true.  Judges are incredibly conservative.  They would much rather be shown a pile of precedent so that they can just follow those that came before them.  Some judges would like to use more judicial discretion, to consider what is fair, but that has become near impossible in a climate where everyone screams about “activist judges.”

A judge who may want to allow someone to file bankruptcy, ignoring a technicality of the law, will feel compelled to go against their better judgment.  Criminal judges have been restricted by mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.  Over and over judges will tell you that their hands are tied by the law.

I don’t want to make judges out to be hapless victims in all of this.  One of the reasons that judicial discretion was challenged was because some judges were not being impartial.  The person who wrote the legislation that led to horrible mandatory minimum sentences was, he says, attempting to address racial discrimination related to who got out on bail and who didn’t.

Another problem with judges is that their positions have been politicized.  Many judges have to run for their office.  How knowledgeable about a judge’s history of rulings do you think the average voter is? And running for office means raising money.  Judges raise a lot of money from people who may later appear before them in court.  The other party may not even know about the relationship.  And even if they do know, it is not necessarily grounds for recusal.  (Justice at Stake is a good resource on judge related issues.)

And if you think you can avoid the perils of bad judges with a jury, think again.  The judge will determine what a jury gets to see and hear, if you get a jury at all.  Contrary to what you may believe from watching television.  You do not always have a right to a jury trial.  The right to a jury trial extends to criminal proceedings and civil cases in federal court.  Since many cases (all the car contract cases I was referring to in my previous post) are in state court, it will be governed by state rules.  What’s more, contracts typically contain language waiving your right to a jury trial.  They may even have language waiving your right to a trial period.  Check your credit card fine print.  Bet you have a provision requiring arbitration for disputes.

And you don’t have a right to an attorney either.  You have the right to hire an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, and it is not a case that involves possible jail time, you have few options.  You can put your name on a list and hope that you will be one of the lucky few to get legal aid.  Otherwise, sucks for you.  (More on that issue at the website for Civil Right to Counsel.)  And even if you do get an attorney, what kind of attorney will you get.  A bad attorney might be worse than no attorney at all.

If you have a bad attorney, one who is having a mental breakdown, you might end up convicted of a felony when you didn’t actually commit one.  You might find yourself on death row, even though your attorney slept through the trial. If you have a good attorney, on the other hand, there is a very good chance things will settle out of court and with a result far more to your liking.  One of the trial attorneys I worked for had such a killer reputation that she almost never had to go to court.  Nobody wanted to go up against her.

The attorney ends up being key.  Because in a system that is focused on intricacies of overly complex laws and voluminous libraries of precedent, the person who best understands how to manipulate those laws and precedents to their advantage wins.  The law then becomes less about justice and more about wit.  And wit is expensive – Johnny Cochran made $500 an hour.  Joe Shmo probably pulls in $200.  Of course, their paralegal charges you an hourly rate and so does the associate attorney doing research.  And let’s not forget the office full of legal secretaries and other staff that are navigating the ins and outs of procedural rules – from when to file your pleadings to what color ink you need to use to sign.

It is not completely outside the realm of possibility that a lay person would be able to figure out the law and outsmart an attorney.  But they would have to have a hell of a lot of time on their hands.  And they would have to have some basic skills in reading and research.  22% of U.S. adults don’t even meet basic literacy levels.  And the poorer someone is, the more likely they are functionally illiterate.  Add to that the general financial illiteracy of the vast majority of adults.  What chance do they have?

One of the fundamental principles of the legal system is equality before the law.  It sounds good in theory, but in practice it doesn’t exist.  In those car contract cases, when you treat a lone defendant as equals with the plaintiff – a corporation which probably helped write the law, has the best lobbyists money can buy, employs hundreds of attorneys, and donates to the judges reelection fund -it’s a joke.  Treating them equal is actually anything but.

And now we arrive at personal responsibility.  I’ve managed to live without ever signing a car contract.  It is true that other people could too.  It’s true that some of the people who defaulted on their contracts just wanted a shiny new thing and didn’t really consider whether or not they could afford it.  But it is also true that many of those people just hit unexpected hard times and had the misfortune of living in a city with one of the worst public transportation systems.  And many of the people who get all high and mighty about personal responsibility don’t have any better understanding of financial instruments or the law.  They just have enough money not to suffer for their lack of knowledge.

More importantly, the real lack of personal responsibility is within the system itself.  The purchaser of a car is responsible for their actions on the day they sign that contract, but the salesman isn’t.  He’s protected by the magic of limited liability and faceless bureaucracy.  His neighbors will not shame him if he is irresponsible in his sales.  None of the people who work at the car company or the finance company or the courthouse are going to have to face the friends and neighbors of the person who gets steamrolled by the process.  None of them have any personal responsibility.

So what do I think?  I think, first and foremost, we have too many damn laws.  I think we should get rid of the vast majority of them.  As I’ve said before, we need to stop the knee jerk law passing every time something seems wrong.  Maybe something does need to be done, but it doesn’t have to mean passing a law.

I think a person should always have a right to a jury trial – something that is only practical if we don’t have so many damn laws.  Contracts should be verbal, as well as written, and video taped so that we can see exactly what the understanding of all parties was.  Precedent should be, if anything, a vague guideline and not a noose.  People who cry “judicial activism” should be made to suffer a Kafkaesque year of actually experiencing the legal system.

We need a massive grassroots effort to improve literacy (including financial literacy).  Conflict resolution should be the number one priority in education (yup, even before literacy).  People who screw people over by using their cleverness, whether in manipulating the law or inventing “creative” financial instruments, should be shunned for the anti-social deviants they are.  And we should all absolutely refuse to accept any more specialized language, specialized knowledge, and intentionally confusing bullshit from anyone.  Ever.

If it’s inaccessible, it should be unacceptable.

Finally, I tried to come up with a more widely palatable answer or short term solutions to the political/corporate clusterfuck where all these terrible laws come from.  But I just can’t.  The only solution is to take things into our own hands and stop giving our power away to those people.  So long as we keep thinking that the next politician will be better, we’ll keep having monstrous laws passed that nobody reads, much less understands.

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.