The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The “War on Drugs”:
Capitalism’s War on the Laboring Population

Jul 25, 2015

Two days after Freddie Gray was slammed to his death in a Baltimore police van by six cops, the New York Times ran a special investigative series, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men.” The Times explained: “Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.”

Disappeared? They didn’t just walk away. Black men have truly been “forced out of society,” as the Times put it, excluded because of the collapse of manufacturing and industrial centers, a collapse which has condemned the black population to continuing high unemployment. And they have been shipped off to prison by the decades-long “war on drugs.” In brief, this is the Times’ explanation for the disappearance of 1.5 million men. The Times concludes that the resultant social breakdown and violence has circled back to produce cops ready to shoot down young black men they meet on the street, with a “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” mentality.

The Times, at least, raised an issue that most parts of the bourgeois media have steadily ignored for the past 30 years. And it gives a somewhat accurate snapshot of the situation.

But it ignores the social and political reality in which unemployment and criminalization have played out. And it ignores the fact that the people in control of the economy and the state apparatus made the conscious choice to create a hyper-criminalized regime in the 1980s, and to keep it going ever since. They implemented policies that guaranteed the brunt of all these changes would fall on the black population.

Manufacturing jobs did not disappear from the U.S. economy. They disappeared from the big cities where black people are concentrated. And they did so because capital decided to move production out of the cities, where the rebellions in the 1960s had forced companies to hire black workers, only to locate the jobs in the far suburbs or semi-rural areas where black workers have historically been prevented from living by legal restrictions and covenants, and where few public transit lines go.

Almost as soon as the last rebellion died down, the leaders of both political parties and the chiefs of the state apparatus began to implement policies that transformed an enormous number of small offenses or even “nuisance regulations” into felonies. What followed ten years later would turn the U.S. into a kind of enormous prison camp for the poor. And the so-called “war on drugs,” which was the chief pretext for this hyper-criminalization, was carried out in ways that targeted the black population first of all.

Despite the picture painted by years of vicious propaganda, black people do not use drugs, nor sell them, with any more frequency than do whites—this is the conclusion of repeated studies, including by the Centers for Disease Control. If anything, young white middle class males are more likely to be users than anyone else. Yet black men end up in prison five times more frequently than do white men.

What happened to the black population was not the result of “objective” factors, nor of “race-neutral” policies that happened accidentally to create a catastrophe for the black population. And it wasn’t the result only of the institutional racism that has been a permanent feature of American capitalist society since the time of slavery, although that played an important role.

What has happened to the black population over the last 45 years was the result of policies decided on and implemented by those at the very top of American society. The intentional aim of those policies was to bring under control a black population still insistent on gaining the same chance to live, the same rights as everyone else, a population that had shaken capitalist society to its very roots in the urban rebellions of the 1960s and early ‘70s.

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

On March 1, 1968, a commission appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson issued a report on the urban rebellions that had ripped through American cities in the crucial year 1967. The commission’s conclusion was succinct and well-known: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” It acknowledged that this was not new, that the events of 1967 were “the culmination of 300 years of racial prejudice.”

But, as the introduction by Tom Wicker made clear, the situation that pushed Johnson to set up the commission was not the history of violence and bitter discrimination to which the black population had been subjected for 300 years, nor the violation of “basic democratic values.” It was the urban revolts, the “disorders,” as the commission called them, 150 of which were reported by cities in the single year 1967, the biggest and most massive of which was still roiling through Detroit when Johnson established the commission on July 28, 1967.

Wicker described those who revolted in this way:

“As for the rioters—those ominous looters and arsonists whose eruption into violence precipitated this massive study—they tended, curiously, to be somewhat more educated than the ‘brothers’ who remained uninvolved. By and large, the rioters were young Negroes, natives of the ghetto (not of the South), hostile to the white society surrounding and repressing them, and equally hostile to the middle-class Negroes who accommodated themselves to that white dominance. The rioters were mistrustful of white politics, they hated the police, they were proud of their race, and acutely conscious of the discrimination they suffered. They were and they are a ticking time bomb in the heart of the richest nation in the history of the world....They will not go away. They can only be repressed or conceded their humanity, and the choice is not theirs to make. They can only force it on the rest of us, and what this Report insists upon is that they are already doing it and intend to keep on.”

As the following years of revolt would show, they did keep on. By the end of the 1960s, the urban rebellion had spread widely into cities around the country, and into the prisons and the army. Prisons were hit by inmate “strikes.” Black soldiers in Viet Nam refused to go out into the field. White officers who tried to force troops out sometimes found themselves on the wrong end of a grenade, from which came the term, “fragging.” Black workers, hired finally into the factories in large numbers, brought the intransigence of the streets to the factory floor. And black workers were not the only ones to revolt. In 1970, more hours were lost in strikes than at any time since the massive strike wave of 1946. The union bureaucracies had been forced to call many of these strikes by the pressure of the ranks who were engaging in waves of wildcat strikes. And strikes would continue to increase up through 1974. Even the universities where the well-off petty-bourgeoisie sent their children were infected by revolt. The police, whose powerlessness the riots had demonstrated, had lost the authority they once bandied about.

For a short period, the bourgeoisie conceded better paying jobs to parts of the black population, better housing, access to medical care, not only through new jobs, but also through Medicare and Medicaid. And much of that went to white workers also. In Los Angeles, most of those jobs opened up after 1965, after Watts. In Detroit and Newark, the door into the employment office was opened by the vast 1967 rebellion. The growth in jobs and wages began to ripple through the black community by the early 1970s. And the gaps between black and white income and black and white unemployment began to narrow. For several years, there was a flurry of new social programs and expansion of old ones—programs that benefitted not only the black population, but sizeable parts of the white working class, especially its poorest layers.

Some police departments hired more black officers, eliminating some of the most blatant violence carried out by white cops who might as well have worn the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, as viciously racist as many of them were. At the level of the state apparatus, there was a notable change: the creation of a whole layer of black politicians, who today stretch all the way up to the White House, politicians who have played a role in diverting the fight of the ordinary black population, similar to the role the union bureaucracies played in the working class movement of the 1930s and ‘40s. And a small layer of black professionals, entrepreneurs and other petty-bourgeois have been enriched, changing nothing for the majority of the black population, working class and poor, but held out as the proof that racial barriers have been torn down.

But the “concessions” made by the big chiefs both of capital and of the American state apparatus were always only partial, and absolutely only temporary. They never called in question the specific role that black labor has always played in this country, serving as the single most important reservoir of low-paid labor and as the reserve army of the unemployed for a voracious capitalist class, whose degree of exploitation is contingent upon the permanent existence of unemployment.

The concessions that were given to the black population were the immediate and panicked response of a bourgeois class that had seen its cities taken over, its police and army battled to a standoff by the forces of the ordinary black population, by people who understood that “violence is as American as cherry pie”—as Rap Brown once put it. The urban revolts demonstrated that change can be affected through massively organized violence carried out by a population in revolt. That profoundly revolutionary understanding was grasped by many of the people who had taken over the streets of the big cities. Armed with that understanding, they were the “ticking time bomb in the heart of the richest nation in the history of the world,” to quote the Commission report again.

Making It Illegal to Be Young, Poor and Black

The “war on drugs,” which first appeared on the scene in 1970, was first of all a re-election ploy for Nixon, looking ahead toward 1972. In insidious ways, and sometimes blatant ones, Nixon equated drugs with crime, and black people with drugs, encouraging fear in that part of the white population uneasy about the possibility of more riots. Nixon’s “war on drugs” was a way to present himself as a law-and-order candidate, tough on those black people in the street.

But it was also a way to begin re-establishing the order ripped apart by the rebellions. As the 1968 Commission report had suggested, the black population that revolted could either “be repressed or conceded their humanity.” The American bourgeoisie would not concede their humanity.

John Ehrlichman, White House Counsel to Nixon, later explained it: “Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue...that we couldn’t resist it.”

With a steady drumbeat of propaganda about drug-addled criminals invading every realm, Nixon and the Democratic-controlled Congress agreed to step up federal funding for local police agencies to buy new equipment, police agencies that had proved inadequate against the rebellions. And they expanded and funded federal policing of drug crime, which up until then had been left in local hands. Finally, both parties pushed through RICO (the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations act). Supposedly directed against “Cosa Nostra,” a non-existent mafia right out of Hollywood movies, RICO was almost immediately used against militants and organizations of the black and left movements. Almost the only people called in front of the special grand juries set up by RICO in its first years were Black Panthers, anti-war activists, Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, communists, journalists who wouldn’t reveal sources, and Puerto Rican independence activists. The special grand juries set up by RICO were a page right out of the McCarthy period. The statute also allowed for suspension of various rights if government designated a group or section of the population as “an ongoing criminal enterprise.” The New York Bar Association said that RICO was sowing “the seeds of official repression.” In later years, RICO was the fig leaf covering up sweeps through black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods by authorities intent on rounding up vast numbers of young men, without any proof of criminal activity, only the assertion that they belonged to a gang, that is, “an ongoing criminal enterprise.”

Soon after his re-election in 1972, Nixon began to have legal problems all his own, which eventually led to impeachment proceedings, his resignation, and to the shelving of his “war on drugs.” Even so, the Nixon administration had created not only the legal framework but also the reactionary climate justifying what would come in the 1980s.

It’s important to note, by the way, that all the subsequent federal laws on crime would have bi-partisan support, just as they did in 1970-71. Whether a Republican was president, or a Democrat, the White House nurtured the perverse idea that crime and the black population are synonymous. No one should ever forget the disgusting action of Bill Clinton in the early months of his 1992 election campaign. Presenting himself as a law-and-order candidate, Clinton rushed back to Arkansas in order to preside over the execution of a black prisoner so severely impaired that he went to his death without being able to understand that he was about to be executed.

Capitalism in Search of Unemployment

By the early 1980s, the economy was in what seemed like a meltdown, with severe stretches of unemployment in 1974-75, and again running from 1979 all the way through 1983. It was the response of a capitalist class, whose rate of profit had been on a steady decline since 1966, and for whom the state subsidies connected to Viet Nam war spending were decreasing. The decrease in profit was the result of large processes working their way through the economy, but it had also reflected the struggles of the working class, and especially of black labor, to improve their situation.

With the expectation of worsening profit rates, the big companies began to shut their doors. Overall, unemployment rapidly soared, reaching almost 11% by the end of 1982. Big plants in the midst of the cities were permanently shuttered. With talk of jobs going overseas, and of foreign “competition,” steel, auto, glass, tires and other heavy industries eliminated many of the workplaces that had hired black labor after the rebellions. Some production did “go overseas.” But even during the severe economic downturns of the 1970s and ‘80s, capital did not simply shut down industrial production in the cities. It shipped jobs out to suburban plants, remodeling some of them even in the midst of those downturns, eventually building new ones far out. At the same time, unemployment was used as a goad to drive a much greater intensity of labor, thereby eliminating jobs, if not production.

Another factor entered the jobs picture: immigration. The disastrous impact of U.S. imperialist control over the Western Hemisphere had pushed a resumption of immigration, including of many people who came without papers. American companies, complaining about the “lack of discipline” exhibited by black employees, were pleased by the prospect of workers whose lack of legal status might make them more amenable.

Certainly, the move of industry to the suburbs did not begin just in the 1970s or ‘80s. And black labor had historically absorbed the worst of the unemployment, immigration or no immigration. “Last hired, first fired,” was not just a saying, it was a bitter description of historic reality. But what happened in the 1970s and ‘80s was particularly galling. In the late 1960s, the gap between black and white unemployment had been narrowing. By 1970, black unemployment was a little less than double the rate of white unemployment, still atrocious, but better than it had ever been. But then the gap began to grow again. By 1979, black unemployment was two and a half times the white rate. And by 1989, it would be closing in on three times as much.

The social programs created in the 1960s as buffers against the worst of the unemployment were ripped up as federal and local treasuries were increasingly looted to improve the bottom line of big corporations and banks. Medicaid and Medicare became more costly to use. Public education was drained of money. Public clinics and public housing were closed down. Homelessness appeared once again in the midst of great cities. The gains imposed by the rebellions, and by the struggles of the larger working class, were coming undone.

One Vast Prison Camp

The rebellions had left an aftertaste of fear in bourgeois mouths. The capitalist class, or at least those in its state apparatus working for it, had seen what it meant to have a population congregating in the streets with little hope. The American bourgeoisie could well imagine that these new young men without jobs might become another “ticking time bomb.”

The bourgeois state didn’t wait around to see what might happen. Starting in the early 1980s, the federal government began to push through legislation targeting the poor. First under Reagan, then under George H.W. Bush, then Clinton, a vast expansion of the so-called “criminal justice” system was pushed through. Draconian new laws were passed in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1994, and 1996. What one left undone, the next rushed to finish. And what started on the federal level soon spread out into the states and even localities. Subsequent administrations either re-authorized these laws or provided the funds so they could be implemented. And that includes Obama, who has funneled more funds into “law enforcement,” than George Bush ever did—even dumping money for policing into the 2009 “Economic Recovery Act.”

The first result of the new federal laws was to militarize police departments around the country, establishing large-scale technology transfers from the most destructive military in the world to domestic police departments. The police were “modernized,” provided with assault weapons, plus a range of supposedly less-than-lethal disabling devices; body armor for the police; high-tech surveillance equipment and high-tech communications; armored vehicles, including even some tanks, as well as helicopters—thousands of helicopters—and eventually drones; and for the first time, a real centralized national database system, into which information gathered by localities would directly pour. The militarized police were on overt display in Baltimore on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral. Dressed in full armored gear, they drew up battle lines outside high schools as students emptied.

The second result of Congressional action in the 1980s and ‘90s was an enormous body of new criminal law, which transformed minor infractions into serious felonies calling for imprisonment. A study done at Rutgers University concludes that 70% of all Americans break felony laws for which they could be imprisoned, almost all unknowingly. But, of course, 70% are not incarcerated. Only some, and those some are poor.

The third important result was a general toughening of sentences. Many more federal crimes today call for the death penalty. Legislation passed in 1994, under Clinton, allowed the federal government to try everyone accused of homicide, bypassing local courts if it chose to do so, thereby letting the Feds seek the death penalty in the 19 states that do not allow the death penalty. The “Effective Death Penalty” Act, passed in 1996 also under Clinton, had as its stated purpose to “expedite executions.” It removed many of the reasons for which someone about to be executed could contest his conviction, and it gave very little time for those convicted to appeal. The Supreme Court had already reinstated the death penalty in 1988, after a 16-year “moratorium.” Moreover, the length of prison sentences for almost all crimes was severely increased. The average sentence served by someone for a violation of drug laws, for example, which had been 22 months in 1986, climbed to 62 months fifteen years later.

Finally, the federal government engaged the states in a vast new program of prison construction, contributing to the budgets of states whose spending on so-called “corrections” quickly became their single largest budget expenditure. The state of Illinois, for example, built 20 new prisons between 1980 and 2000, roughly one a year. Ironically, these prisons were placed in rural and small town areas, many of which, until the prison came in, were also beset by high unemployment. The prisons brought jobs and tax dollars to otherwise failing small towns, while the prisons served to warehouse the unemployed of Chicago. Prisons, in fact, were the new “growth industry.” In the country as a whole, 3,300 new prisons were built just in the 1990s, at a cost of almost 27 billion dollars.

Changes in the laws during these years allowed people to be stopped, searched and imprisoned without any obvious indication that the person was involved in illegal activity. In New York City, if a cop noticed a person making “furtive movements,” the cop could stop him, search him and arrest him if he found a marijuana cigarette in his pocket, for example. People could be picked up and jailed for “preventive” detention, that is, the suspicion they might do something. People who refused to testify in court could be imprisoned indefinitely until they complied. Warrants became unnecessary since police were allowed to stop someone or enter a home simply based on their own statement that they had believed a crime was “about to be committed.”

Changes in the federal laws not only increased sentence time for federal crimes, they also mandated that states increase penalties, under threat of losing money. The result is that a robbery conviction in this country can earn a sentence longer than murder does in some European countries. On both the federal level and that of many states, “three strikes and you’re out” legislation made it possible for someone to be sent to prison for life, after conviction on three minor felonies, none of which had to involve violence. In California, for example, a person who was charged with theft of an expensive bicycle, then with possession of marijuana, then with shoplifting could be locked up for the rest of his life—as could someone with three possession charges for marijuana.

Juveniles could be treated like adults. That included the imposition of the death penalty, at least until 2005, when the Supreme Court, after international protests, finally ruled that someone could not be executed for a crime committed before age 17. But 17 is still OK. And children still are sentenced to prison for life, without any chance of parole, for crimes committed when the child was as young as eight in some states. Such treatment of children and juveniles was not new—but, with the vast expansion of drug laws and “nuisance” laws, many more were prosecuted than ever before. And federal law, for the first time, allowed some children as young as 13 to be tried and sentenced as adults.

As legislation developed so did court rulings, allowing an ever greater violation of civil liberties. The courts turned a blind eye when cops “swept” the streets in poor neighborhoods, bundling people off to the precinct, holding them off the radar for a few days. Anyone the cops chose could be stopped and submitted to a body search. In some precincts of New York City, during the reign of Mayor Bloomberg, there were two times as many such “stop-and-frisk” actions carried out on the street by the cops, as there were people living in the precincts. It’s not just on TV that young men “assume the position”—it’s a fact of every-day life, imposed on young men in poor neighborhoods by violent men in blue carrying deadly weapons. And it’s during such “stops” that so many young men have been murdered by cops.

The vast expansion of drug laws accounted directly or indirectly for most of the increase in imprisonment. In 1980, 41,000 people were sent to prison for a drug offense; in 2011, 500,000 people were, 12 times as many. According to official propaganda, the “war on drugs” was aimed at “the big fish,” the ones who made hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars from organizing an illicit drug network. Of course, even when there was some attempt to go after the bigger dealers, the big banks, which knowingly laundered drug cartel money, were never touched. In any case, the focus of drug arrests turned in the early 1980s from dealers to users. In 2013, 80% of all drug arrests, federal and local, were for possession, not for the sale or manufacture of drugs. On the state and local level, it was even worse.

In principle, the federal government had little to do with drug enforcement—other than with drugs coming across the borders. But the federal government, pushing the “war on drugs,” pressured local police departments to carry out raids and public sweeps to find the users. At the beginning, local police officials resisted. In cities beset by real crime, with murder an everyday occurrence, it seemed the height of absurdity to use police resources to round up people smoking a marijuana cigarette. Most police departments simply ignored the directives coming from Washington. So, in 1994, legislation tied the money the federal government sent to the cities and states to local arrest statistics: the more people arrested for drug offenses, the more money. The “war on drugs” was a war based on bounties. The top command of police departments, eager to keep federal money coming in, pushed police officers in poor neighborhoods to stop everyone, search everyone, arrest as many as they could. In other words, fill the prisons.

Many of the laws that were passed concerned so-called “quality-of-life” issues, which could be used by police as the pretext for stopping someone they wanted to search for drugs. The Ferguson cop who killed Michael Brown, for example, stopped him because he was walking down the middle of the street, a “crime” in Ferguson. Of course, Michael Brown also could have been stopped for wearing his pants too low, in the style that many young men affect today, or for wearing a hoodie that obscured his face. Those, too, could lead to criminal prosecution in Ferguson, and in other cities.

Sometimes referred to as “zero tolerance” policing, it was carried out under the absurd formula that minor infractions, if unchecked, lead to “disorder,” and “disorder” leads to violent crime. Tens of thousands of young men were thus swept up and locked away—and sometimes killed. Freddie Gray died because of such policing. He was stopped because he was on a street corner, loitering suspiciously—as the cops would put it. He was stuffed into a police van because the cops found a knife in his pocket when they searched him—a knife the prosecutor’s office later admitted was within the legal size. Because this young black man said something, he was given a “rough ride”—again the cops’ terminology—letting him bounce around the back of the open van, unsecured by a seat belt as it made repeated stops. “To teach him a lesson.” It’s how the cops control black neighborhoods, “teaching young men a lesson,” pro-actively using violence to intimidate them. Did the cops expect Freddie Gray to die? Probably not, since they do this all the time, and not just in Baltimore. Philadelphia cops call it “a nickel ride.” But some do die.

People who were picked up on suspicion of a drug violation could have their property confiscated and never returned—even if they weren’t convicted, and even if they were never charged. It’s a very common way for police departments to raise money. It’s enough to have someone riding in your car with you whom the cops “suspect” of dealing drugs. You become “an accomplice,” your car is forfeit. So is your watch and your money.

A 1986 federal law set mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine. It required 100 times as much weight of powder cocaine as of crack cocaine to trigger the same sentence. Not coincidentally, crack cocaine was used in poor neighborhoods, including in black ones; powder cocaine was the drug of choice for middle class whites. In 2010, Obama announced with great fanfare that Congress had reduced the differential so that someone needed only 19 times as much powder cocaine as crack to qualify for a prison sentence. It still means that white users of cocaine don’t go to prison, black users do. And it does nothing about the fact that while the majority of crack users are white, 80% or more of those imprisoned for using it are black.

In 1994, The Haldeman Diaries was published, a compilation of transcribed audio recordings and diary entries by J.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff during Nixon’s White House years. Haldeman reported the following discussion with Nixon from April 28, 1969: “P. [the president] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the WHOLE problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this, while not appearing to.”

This discussion, in fact, concerned reductions Nixon wanted to make in social welfare, which he considered a sop paid to black people. But this pernicious idea of devising a system against the black population while not appearing to aim at them was exactly what this vast new system of “criminal justice” had implemented.

Seven Million People under “Corrective Supervision”

Every president since Nixon has joined the “war on drugs” and crime. And every one of them knew that whatever up-and-down variations existed in crime rates, the only really substantial long term increase was in the number of things officially defined as crime. Spit on the sidewalk, you can be arrested. Open a can of beer in public, you can be arrested. Use profanity, you can be arrested. Walk down the street with someone already categorized as a member of a gang, you can be arrested for being part of “an ongoing criminal enterprise.” Don’t pay a fine on time, you can be arrested. Don’t pay your debts, you can be imprisoned. Smoke a marijuana cigarette, you can go away for five years. Run away when a cop tells you to stop, as Walter Scott did in South Carolina, you can be shot in the back. Don’t signal when you change lanes, you can be arrested, not just given a ticket, but roughed up when you protest and arrested, as Sandra Bland was before she ended up dead in a Texas jail cell. Sit on a park bench, playing with a toy gun, as 12-year-old Tamir Rice was in Cleveland, you can be shot down like a dog.

This is what a writer for the Washington Post called the “plague of over-criminalization.” No other country in the world imprisons people at such an ungodly high rate. With just 4½% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 23% of the world’s prisoners. At the beginning of 2013, 2.3 million adults and juveniles were held in either prisons or jails. Another 4.8 million people were on probation or parole, meaning they could be sent back to prison for violating even minor conditions of their parole. Seven million people were “under corrective supervision” in the American gulag.

Almost all of the difference between the U.S. and European countries is accounted for by changes in U.S. law since 1971. The total number incarcerated today is enormously higher—almost eight times higher—than it was four decades ago when the “war on drugs” began. And the number incarcerated for drug offenses is 12 times higher than it was.

In the last few years, there has been some discussion about decreasing the mandatory minimum sentences in order to reduce the prison population somewhat—but only because this whole vast system of prisons costs too much, about 70 billion a year. The American bourgeoisie wants to put this “dangerous class” away—but it doesn’t want to pay so much to do it!

Under the pretext of stopping the spread of drugs, a whole section of the poor population has been criminalized. To put it another way, a sizeable part of the population that might have been unemployed and on the street was disappeared from the economy—shipped off to prison. If all the people in prison at the end of 2014 were counted among the unemployed, the official unemployment rate would be 7.2% instead of 5.6%.

The United States of America is a prison house regime for people whose main offense is being poor: Asian poor, white poor, Hispanic poor, Native American poor, and black poor. All of them are caught by this regime. Puerto Rican and Native American peoples are especially victimized by high rates of incarceration. And the black population has been the most victimized of all.

“War on Drugs”? No, It’s a War on the Black Population

At every step of the so-called “justice system,” black people are over-represented. They are arrested more often for drug usage, although they don’t use drugs more. When picked up for the same offense, they are three times as likely as whites to be charged. When charged, they are one and a half times as likely to be convicted. And when convicted, they get much longer sentences. A black defendant serves almost as much time in prison for a drug offense (average 58.7 months) as someone white does for violent crime (average 61.7 months). All of these figures come from a study done by the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP.

This “war on drugs” is why black people, who make up 13% of the nation’s population, account for nearly 50% of the adult and juvenile prison and jail population.

These aberrant figures reflect the institutional racism of this capitalist system, derived from the fact it was born in slavery; and it reflects the racist bias of many if not most of those who carry out the “criminal justice” system: the cops, the prosecutors, the judges, the juries. But above all, this gross disproportion reflects the conscious choice of the political class of this country to create a prison-house regime, directed at keeping the poor in line, and implementing it in ways that touched the poor black population most heavily.

The consequence for the black population as a whole has been devastating. One-third, 33%, of all black men between the ages of 19 and 30 will spend at least some time in prison. By far the majority are arrested the first time for simple drug possession, for something that a middle class user would never be arrested for, especially a white middle class user. Nearly 60% of all young black men who did not finish high school have been to prison before they turned 35. In a city like Chicago, the number of black men who are or have been in prison is equal to 55% of the city’s black male population. And there are almost as many prisoners and former prisoners—80%—as there are black men in Chicago’s work force.

At current rates, 700,000 or so former prisoners are released back into their communities each year. Few are given any training or education in prison, and none after they come out. They have little if any money, and no prospects. Having been in prison is an impediment to getting a job. But without a job, what are the options? Welfare, until they get their feet on the ground? Congress got rid of that option in 1996, when it put a lifetime ban on federal cash or food assistance for anyone convicted of a drug felony. Public housing or Section 8 housing? Congress closed that off to former felons in 1988. It should be no surprise that nearly two-thirds of those who come out of prison will go back within three years—some caught in the same miserable dragnet, some having turned to drug dealing or other crimes to survive.

In other words, the first arrest for simple possession of drugs can easily turn into a lifetime sentence.

Having spent time in prison means in many states that a person loses the right to vote. In 1965, a voting rights act was passed, supposedly in response to the scandal that 1.3 million black people were deprived of the vote by Jim Crow laws. In 2014, 5.8 million black adults were legally deprived of the vote by having been or being in prison, a new Jim Crow.

The fact that so many men today are in prison at any one time, means that a much greater burden of child-rearing has fallen on women. In 1980, 14% of black children were raised by a single parent, usually women. Today, 67% of black children are raised by only one parent. Such an enormous demographic change in such a short time, only 33 years, is almost inconceivable. It can only be explained by the enormous increase in incarceration of black men. This war that has criminalized them has victimized everyone else, above all, the children.

In 2008, Barack Obama, then campaigning for the presidency, raised the issue of the missing men in a sermon he delivered at a black Chicago church on Father’s Day. As he has, almost every Father’s Day since, all through his presidency, he reproached the missing men for the problem, saying: “Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.” And he said that his administration, if elected, would address the “national epidemic of missing fathers,” by pushing for enforcement of child support payments! Not a word about the “epidemic” of imprisonment caused by the “war on drugs.”

Then Illinois senator from Chicago, about to be president, Obama knew full well what havoc the sky-high incarceration rates had wreaked on poor families, black families. He presented himself as a one-time “community organizer” in one of Chicago’s black housing projects. To ignore this reality, to reproach only the missing men, is to do the dirty work of covering for this vast campaign of hyper-criminalization. But then, of course, he voted for these crime bills, one after another, and his administration expanded the funds spent to enforce them.

The War on Drugs Put a Target on the Back of Young Black Men

Then there are all those who have been killed by cops. How many? No one knows. This society that counts everything, archives everything, doesn’t think it worthwhile to know how many people have been killed by cops, and especially, how many of those killed were black. Not only is there no national database, there is no federal requirement that police departments even keep such records. The majority don’t.

After Eric Garner was choked to death by cops on Staten Island in New York City, the NYPD refused to give any statistics on recent murders by cops, just as it had refused to submit any reports to the FBI since 2006. The New York Daily News, trying to answer the question, compiled information for the previous 15 years concerning just New York City, basing itself on press reports, court records, and information collected by civil liberties organizations. It found 179 people killed by on-duty police officers, and another 43 by off-duty cops. At least 27% of those killed were unarmed. Ethnic background was not always specified, but where it was, 86% of those killed were either black or Puerto Rican. Only three of the killings by on-duty officers led to an indictment, and only one of the officers indicted was convicted—and he was given no prison time, only probation and 500 hours of “community service.”

According to the Legal Defense Fund, in the country as a whole, over 2000 black people were killed during the last seven years by cops in the so-called the line of duty. Certainly, other people have been killed by cops, especially other young men—white men, Hispanic men, almost always poor—but the killing of all the others comes at a much lower rate.

Of the nearly 300 black people killed every year by cops, at least one-third of them, by the authorities’ own admission, were unarmed.

Over a hundred of the victims were women, including Tarika Wilson, who was gunned down in Lima, Ohio, holding her 10-month-old infant. She was what the cops call “collateral damage,” when the police raided an apartment she shared with someone else. Among the women was also 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, who was standing with other people in an alley in Chicago when an off-duty cop, thinking a cell phone held by someone else was a gun, shot at them, killing her.

At least ten of the people killed by cops were children, among whom was 7-year-old Aiyana Jones in Detroit, killed when a flash-bang police raiding party entered the wrong apartment.

Fewer than 30 of the cops involved in the 2,000 killings were charged with anything other than dereliction of duty. Only two were convicted of murder, and one of those two convicted, in NYC, was put on probation after conviction. Most weren’t convicted of anything.

And they pretend that the U.S. is a civilized, democratic country!

The killings that finally gained coverage in the bourgeois press starting in 2014 were not new. If there was anything new, it was only the protests that drew attention to the killings, especially the protests in Ferguson, which on several nights turned into “rioting,” as the police call it. And even more attention is paid now, after the young people of Baltimore overran police lines and disrupted police control of the city on the night of Freddie Gray’s funeral.

Most of the protests came in response to the killings of unarmed men, and to the knee-jerk reaction of blindly racist cops who shoot first and ask questions later.

But the issue is bigger and more basic than just the reaction of racist cops.

Not all cops are racist, but they are all being used to keep control of poor neighborhoods, and that means to criminalize large parts of the population, particularly young men, those most apt to be “dangerous.” That’s what leads inevitably to the killings.

Not all those killed were “unarmed.” We know the cops lie, but many of those young men did have weapons. There are hardened young men on the streets. The “war on drugs” and the role played by the police in it have created a virtual army on the streets of young men with little more to fear. Afraid of prison? Why? They know they are going there anyway. Afraid of dying? Why? They believe they won’t live long anyway. Sometimes, they are robbing their own neighborhoods. But when they are shot down, it’s not because they rob their own neighborhoods. It’s because the cops truly fear them. They have been hardened by what this capitalist society has done to their whole generation, and to the generations before. And the cops who meet them every day know it.

A People with a Long History of Struggle

The violent repression directed against the black population has deep roots. It is the ever-present mark of capitalist domination in a country whose very beginnings and most of its history were based on the unpaid labor of the peoples stolen away from the African continent, bound over in slavery. Slavery was not just a passing episode, a little bizarre blip on the historical record—as the racists would have it. Slavery marked the first 244 years of this North American nation’s existence—60% of its history. The extreme violence used to impose slavery, and then to reimpose it under other forms, has stained all the years that have followed.

In the 152 years since the end of slavery, that population whose roots trace back to Africa has continued to be—of all the people living here—the most subject to oppression, including in the most recent manifestation, the so-called “war on drugs.”

But this oppression has not only victimized the black population. It has also produced a people, the vast majority of whom are working people, with a long history of struggle. The slaves were not “freed” by other forces, they fought to free themselves, in the hundreds of recorded—and how many more unrecorded—slave revolts. They engaged in what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the Great General Strike of the Slaves,” when they quit the plantations, deserting to join the Union Army to fight against the slave owners in the Civil War. They led the struggles of Reconstruction in the South, pulling many of the poor whites after them, in a fight to run the state governments, to establish public schools for the poor and public health departments to deal with the lack of any medical system. Pushed back, after the collapse of Reconstruction, into a form of near slavery—the sharecropping system—they joined the fight of poor farmers in different populist movements. All during the years of Jim Crow and lynch law in the South, they organized to defend their own communities. They were part of early labor strikes in the South—dockers in New Orleans, lumber workers and miners in other parts. Starting in the 1930s, they organized unions in the workplaces where black workers were usually hired. Their struggles against Jim Crow segregation, which started in the South during World War II, spread nationwide to contest all the myriad ways black people were specially oppressed in this country, North and South. They built local organizations to carry out those struggles, to fight against the Ku Klux Klan, simply to have a job. Those struggles finally culminated in the vast revolt of the 1960s, a revolt of oppressed people, shaking the biggest, strongest power in the world, a revolt that drew the attention of people around the world who were also fighting to free themselves.

In all of these fights, they were fighting to get their “freedom,” concretely, so that they would not be the ones to suffer more unemployment and worse conditions than anyone else, so that the schools for their children would be as good as other schools. They were not openly fighting against capitalist society, but they were ready to shake the very foundations of that society to get their freedom. They struggled in the 1950s and 1960s to have a better life within capitalist society. But those struggles, in fact, raised the real problem: that is, in order for them and all laboring people simply to have a decent life, capitalist society had to be overthrown, and a new society built up. The struggles of the black masses never reached the point of posing this problem consciously. And there was no party, able to touch the masses who fought, which raised the problem of getting rid of capitalism.

Which is why today, once again, we see capitalist society in all its disgusting aspects imposing new repression on the black masses, on all the poor, and more generally on the working class.

Capitalist society could not concede their humanity to the black masses who revolted in the 1960s, so it acted to repress them.

If there is anything that tells us this capitalist society must be destroyed, ripped out root and branch, it is this: the leaders of capitalist society have chosen consciously to create a regime of hyper-criminalization and hyper-incarceration, the only response this system could find to its inability to answer the needs of the laboring population.

A fight has to be made, this time consciously, to get rid of capitalism, whose drive for profit based on the division into classes guarantees that unemployment and poverty will continue. The continuing existence of unemployment guarantees that repression, in one way or another, will continue, to keep the unemployed from rising up.

But they can rise up. They have before. And Black Labor, which has often been more conscious of the reality of oppression, can play a role to pull the whole working class into the struggle that has to be made.

Today’s hard young men will be important for that struggle. The following selection, taken out of A Fighter All My Life, the memoirs of Sam Johnson, published last year, deals with this question:

These young people today can see there aren’t going to be any jobs for them. That younger generation that doesn’t have jobs and what they need to survive, they have to figure how to get money, and some of them turn to crime.

“You see crime because this system is so rotten against the working class and the poor.

“The young people out in the street, they’re a lot harder than young people used to be when I came up. They have to be, the way they come up. There’s so many more now out in the streets with no hopes, no possibilities.

“They are some real fighters, but who do they fight today? Each other and maybe workers who live near them. They are fighting against themselves and against their class. But when there is a fight, when the working class really gets moving, we have to bring these young people along with us. They could fight tomorrow along with the rest of their class. Today, they’re just robbing other workers that have a few dollars. The problem is to go after the real robbers who put them in that condition.”

Yes, today’s hard young men could fight tomorrow, alongside the rest of their class, against the real robbers who created a prison regime putting them in that condition.