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Drug War or Race War?
date: 13-March-2006
editorial comment editorial comment
Nice to see that compassion and intelligence still exist. Unfortunately, these qualities remain a bit powerless against the juggernaut of the State, and weak-minded politicians who'll do anything to look tough on the cheap. One day, maybe a Mandela will emerge on this issue. In the meantime, let's keep the fight going, one little bit at a time.

It's been 10 years since Sheldon Tucker saw the inside of a prison. Tucker (at right in photo, with criminal defense attorney Norm Pattis, at left) and others at a local forum on the drug war spoke about why so many young people of color have followed in his footsteps -- and what to do about it.

“How many people here think the drug war is about drugs?” Barbara Fair asked the couple dozen people who turned out for the Saturday forum, the latest event sponsored by People Against Injustice. Nobody answered in the affirmative.

Melinda Tuhus PhotosThe drug war is really a race war, all the panelists and most of the audience (which included father and daughter Allan Brison and Diana Goldberg) agreed.

One expression of that is that while black and Latino men make up just 6 percent of the state’s population, they comprise more than 70 percent of the prison population. Is that because they are more criminal?

Not really, said Cliff Thornton, director of Efficacy, a drug reform group in Hartford and Green Party candidate for governor. “Blacks and whites are arrested on drug charges in equal numbers,” he said, “but at every stage in the criminal justice process, the ratio of people of color who are caught in the system goes up.”

Thornton (at left) said white skin privilege is like an insurance policy to bail whites out of tough situations, or prevent them from ever being in those situations, whereas African Americans and Latinos face steeper penalties for the same set of circumstances.

When Barbara Fair (at left) asked the panelists why more people directly impacted by the drug laws – especially young people – don’t get involved in fighting these injustices, Tucker (who is Fair’s son) said, “I think they feel hopeless, that nothing is going to change.”

Thornton told the story of how as a young teenager he had stolen a shirt from a store. He was caught by two white cops, but instead of filing serious charges against him, one of the officers became a mentor and helped him get through high school and go to college. He said a black kid who committed the same offense today would probably be dealt with more harshly.

Norm Pattis said a felony conviction becomes “a disabling event” throughout a person’s lifetime, following an individual so he or she can’t qualify for student aid, can be evicted from housing, and may be fired from a job or never hired. He proposed decriminalizing or reducing penalties on many offenses that are now treated as felonies, much like Thornton said in his youth teachers would put boxing gloves on students who fought in school and let them wear themselves out, without penalizing them further.

The program also included video clips of the infamous "drug bust" in Tulia, Texas, in which more than 40 innocent African Americans were arrested and many sent to prison on the word of a corrupt white cop, and a film of a similar, but smaller and less well-known, incident in another Texas town a few years later.

At the end, Michelle Yorio from A Better Way Foundation, another criminal justice reform group, held up a map of New Haven, showing that the Yale Golf Course was almost the only part of the city that is not included in the 1,500-foot “drug-free zones” around schools and day care centers that trigger extra penalties for drug-dealing, even after school hours (when most of the drug busts are made). Activists are promoting a bill (HB 5780) in the General Assembly this session that will reduce the zone to 200 feet and thus protect children without criminalizing residents of the entire city.

After the event, Fair said, “We had good dialogue among people there. Of course I always want more people to come out. I still feel we got to get the people truly impacted by this war to come out and speak up.”

"You can’t just give up and accept that this is your life," Fair said. "I have seven sons. I refuse to give up.”

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