Arts and Culture

'The House I Live In'

Drug war has become 'slow motion holocaust' says riveting new documentary.

By Steve Burgess 1 Mar 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess, having returned from travels to Asia, is back in the movie theatre cheap seats.

In the wake of the rather depressing Oscar victory of Ben Affleck's mendacious Argo, it's useful to be reminded that drama and documentary can complement each other. The House I Live In, the latest from documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, can be seen as a non-fiction companion piece to the acclaimed HBO TV series The Wire. Both documentary and series aim to lay bare the societal devastation and the ultimate futility of America's long-running "War on Drugs." Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Reagan, Why We Fight) taps some surprising sources to build his provocative case that drug enforcement and incarceration represents, as one interview subject calls it, "a Holocaust in slow motion."

That phrase comes from none other than the creator of The Wire himself, David Simon. Jarecki makes prominent use of Simon, a man who has seen policing up close in his hometown of Baltimore. While careful to note that drug abuse truly does destroy lives, Simon adds, "What drugs haven't destroyed, the war against them has... It would be one thing if it was draconian and worked. But it's draconian and it hasn't worked."

As he did dramatically in The Wire, Simon argues that for many young residents of inner city neighbourhoods dealing drugs is no different from mining coal or making cars: "You're going to work for the only company that exists in a company town."

War machinery

While the first part of The House I Live In makes compelling but familiar points about the useless nature of drug prohibition ($1 trillion spent since 1971, 45 million arrests, with no discernible effect on the drug trade), Jarecki gradually moves into more controversial territory -- the corrosive effect of the drug war on law enforcement itself, the growth of the prison system as an industry, and finally a carefully stated argument that the drug war has become, intentionally or otherwise, a war on the lower class.

Mike Carpenter, chief of security for Oklahoma's Lexington Correction Center, describes himself as so well-suited for life as a prison guard that it should have been stamped on his forehead at birth. Yet Carpenter, a self-professed law-and-order advocate who says he would rather see his taxes pay for 10 police cars than one soup kitchen, has some strong opinions on the growth of the American incarceration industry ("build a bed, fill a bed," as he puts it), and the political mania for hard line approaches that impose minimum sentences on even non-violent drug offenders. "You can't get elected without being tough on crime," Carpenter points out. "Nobody can afford to be the first to say, 'Wait a minute, we can't afford to do what we're doing, let's do something different."

Drug defendants, Carpenter believes, "become victims of the sound bite. They're paying for our fear instead of paying for their crime."

Dr. Gabor Mate suggests that the drug war, for all its evident failure, may actually persist because it is a success. "What if it's a success by keeping police forces busy... by keeping private jails thriving... maybe it's a success on different terms than the publicly stated ones."

According to Simon, the system encourages low level drug dealer sweeps ("like arresting the drive-through window guy" at a burger joint) that provide cops with plenty of overtime and great arrest stats. A cop who works a homicide for a month might get credit for one arrest while the cop who trawls for drug dealers gets 60. "Who gets promoted to sergeant?" Simon asks. In Baltimore, he says, drug arrests doubled while arrests for more serious crimes like murder, rape, robbery, and assault dropped by half. "It makes the city unliveable," he says. "Nobody can solve a fucking crime."

'Chain of destruction' fuelled by racism

Jarecki brings in Lincoln historian Richard Miller to help make his most controversial point: that drug wars all begin as racist campaigns and now function very much like class warfare. Opium, Miller says, was not identified as a threat until it became associated with hard-working Chinese immigrants who threatened to take white jobs. Similarly cocaine was identified with black people and pot with Mexicans.

Miller identifies a "chain of destruction" that characterizes such genocidal campaigns: identification, ostracization, confiscation, concentration, and finally annihilation. Miller argues that all but the last step are present in the war on drugs. While the targets are primarily black, Simon believes the victims of the drug war are identified not by race but class. "Capitalism is fairly colour-blind in the end," he says. "White people found that out later than black people. But they found out."

Neither Miller nor Simon believe that the drug war is truly a targeted campaign of extermination: "Let's be honest about what was unique to the Holocaust," Simon says. And Miller adds that there is no great evil master plan behind it all. "It develops its own momentum," he says. "Nobody is forcing it to happen."

But The House I Live In makes a compelling case that the drug war has become an end in itself, a corrupting, job-creating enterprise that parallels the drug trade it seeks to prevent. Like The Wire, Jarecki's film shows that morality is hard to locate on either side of this battle. Whether through consumption or prohibition, America is truly hooked on drugs.

The House I Live In opens March 1 at the Vancity Theatre  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Film

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