cigarettes are code for proletarian

alec ramsdell a_ramsdell at
Sat Dec 12 11:54:43 PST 1998

Jim Heartfield wrote:

>More recently, of course, we have seen the way that racial minorities
>have been criminalised by association with drugs. Criminalising heroin,
>cocaine and its derivatives has been a useful subterfuge for the
>criminalisation of whole communities.

Jim, I've enjoyed your contributions to this thread--it's been some time since I've read Brecht, think I'll pick him up again--and this is true. Here's an excerpt from Salim Muwakkil's editorial in the latest _In These Times_, on the incarceration boom in America:

Each year the United States adds another 50,000 to 80,000 inmates to its prison population. Based on an average growth rate of 6.5 percent since 1990, the inmate population in this country will easily surpass 2 million by the millennium [last time I checked non-violent drug offenders accounted for 60% of the prison population in America -Alec].

Because crime rates have been falling since 1992, this incarceration explosion seems wildly incongruous. It can be explained in three words: war on drugs. The "get tough" policies of the federal government and nearly every state are responsible for the inmate boom. Figures from the Justice Department reveal that between 1988 and 1994, the number of prison inmates convicted of drug offenses increased by 155 percent. Thirty-one states now require mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses.

While African-Americans make up 12 percent of the total U.S. population, they comprise 51 percent of the nation's prison population. Black inmates' disproportionate presence in prisons is directly linked to the drug war. From 1985 to 1996, the proportion of African-Americans busted for drugs shot up 707 percent. Nationally, an estimated 1.4 million African-American males are disenfranchised from voting as a result of a felony conviction. This represents 14 percent of the adult black male population.

Although the most reliable studies indicate that African-Americans constitute about 13 percent of monthly drug users, they make up 35 percent of arrests, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences for drug possession. This is largely a result of a federal law passed in 1986 that established harsher penalties for offenses involving crack cocaine than for those involving cocaine powder.

Defendants caught with 50 grams of crack are sentenced to a mandatory 10 years--5,000 grams of powder are required for the same sentence. This 100-to-1 sentencing disparity is echoed in many state laws. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that African-Americans accounted for 88 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. And although the commission recommended in 1995 that federal sentences for crack and powder be equalized, its recommendation was rejected by Congress.

(end quote)

The sentencing disparity between crack, the "street" drug par excellence (small, portable, cheap) and powder cocaine, the choice in more affluent generally "white" drug cultures, is, to put it mildly, a rather glaring example of systemic racism. I single out that tableau as a meeting point of various institutional policing forces that maintain this racism, crimializing target communities.


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