The war at home
Eugene Jarecki’s ‘House I Live In’ paints the War on Drugs as a costly failure
By Logan Nakyanzi Pollard 10/18/2012
These social realities became more apparent than ever to me when I watched from my car as a cop car pulled up alongside a trio of white teens on foot. The car stopped so the cop could eye the kids suspiciously. The boys looked back and then sauntered off. From firsthand experience, I know young black teens would probably not have been so blasé — or lucky — in a similar situation. More than likely, they all would have been detained and one or all of them would have been arrested for something, anything, even if they weren’t holding illegal drugs.
From where I sit as a black woman, it’s not hard to understand how we’ve gotten to the place where nationwide the country has a trail of stories of young blacks killed by cops or those in authority. The deaths of Kendrec McDade, Treyvon Martin, Derek Williams and Chavis Carter are just the latest in this sad story.
Jarecki is known for asking tough questions, and his latest film is no exception. As the film aptly quotes, “40 years, $1 trillion, 45 million arrests.” “How did we get here?” said Jarecki when asked about the driving question behind making this film. “The problem I face is people don’t know — so few people have it on their radar.”
It’s a phenomenon that civil rights litigator Michelle Alexander, among many experts quoted in the film, refers to as the “New Jim Crow,” a situation in which those caught in the system for minor drug offenses can be stripped of their rights, find trouble with employment and be labeled as second-class citizens.
When I met with Jarecki, he referred to the drug war as, “immoral,” something that “yielded no public good.” It’s an ironic turn of phrase, given this nation’s historical preoccupation with morality. Prohibition, for example was deeply rooted in moral concerns. Even the War on Drugs has connections to a moral impulse. President Richard Nixon, after all, declared a war on drug abuse in the early 1970s. There was a concern for those plagued by addiction in that statement, even if it went haywire.
With the help of the leadership of successive presidents, Nixon’s war would morph into a situation in which today the nation’s prison population has grown by 705 percent, with 1 in 100 adults behind bars.
While I enjoy Jarecki’s work, the opening of his film initially put me off. The point of entry is the story of his black housekeeper. There’s something grating about liberals talking fondly of their “help.” But as I watched the film, I began to see that Jarecki was just being honest about how unaware he was of the suffering she had experienced in her life and how much he and his family had benefited from her sacrifices.
The time Nannie spent with Jarecki’s family, we learn, was precious time she lost with her own children, who followed the path of many blacks impacted by drugs in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s — a story of broken families, prison and addiction.
Jarecki seems to imply that had Nannie been able to be with her kids full time, perhaps things might have been different for them. That’s a lot of guilt to carry, and I think Jarecki wants the audience to feel not only that, but also the societal guilt for standing by as all this suffering happened around us.
“House” also shows how the drug trade has become a “rational” choice for many urban and rural poor people, who see it as a way out of communities that have lost their manufacturing bases and are searching a source of income.
We even meet policemen and jail wardens who empathize with those they arrest and feel that something is broken and needs to be fixed: The jails are simply housing these offenders, who in many cases have not committed violent crimes and are guilty of using or selling small amounts of marijuana and other narcotics.
Jarecki’s production team provided that, “there are more people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes, violent or otherwise, in 1970.”
Marijuana, in particular, has become a kind of cause célèbre these days. The failed drug war is repeated often in the same breath as the terms "medical marijuana" or "pot dispensaries."
“House’ takes us through the history of drug use in the US and how historically the recreational use of drugs was tolerated among the affluent, but punished among the poor — from immigrant Chinese workers using opium, to Mexican laborers smoking marijuana.
Jarecki's film seeks to chronicle the inconsistent and discriminatory history behind drug policy. It shows how the poor and people of color have been unequally treated under the law. It suggests that we need better laws and treatment alternatives for those impacted.
And yet, as someone who lived near and in some of the drug-ridden neighborhoods in New York that the film talks about, I feel conflicted. While I was living there I was deeply fearful of drug dealers and the crime they amplified in the neighborhood.
I do not think this is a issue of whether the drug war has failed, or how unfair the laws are, but how we as a culture can deal with what that drives people to do drugs — and to sell them.
When I come home from work on Friday night, I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't have in my weekend plans a glass of wine — this is all socially acceptable today. It wasn't during Prohibition — of course if you were of the right class, you knew where to go to get your booze.
And in the movies, you see the kid living in the happy suburban neighborhood, borrowing his parents’ pot to smoke with his friends; the only worry in his mind is if they’ll notice their stash has been moved. It all seems so banal and safe — if you're of the right class.
And yet, I ask myself why I “need” to have a drink to relax. Is it really necessary? What would happen if I did not?
What really makes me happy? And why do I need to feel happy?
There is something in the American project that strives to be better: to not settle, to not give in to the lowest common denominator. The drug trade is a kind of low, it degrades those who sell and consume; it diminishes our entire society. As much as I'd encourage you to see this film, I'd also beg you to question why people do drugs and what can we do address the issues that drives people to them.
Is the Drug War a failure?
Of course it is. And this punitive war has only served to ensnare working poor and minorities, particularly blacks, in a cycle of self-destruction, as men and women get lost to incarceration.
While Jarecki supports changing current drugs laws, he says “the public cannot look to a potential leader to change this.”
Change rests with us.
Contributor Logan Nakyanzi Pollard is a producer at Current TV. twitter: @findcreatejoy