Aspen screening: ‘The House I Live In’
ASPEN – When Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in a 1971 speech, he might not have meant that in quite a literal sense. Though he talked tough against drug use, the policy during Nixon’s presidency was relatively compassionate and included a substantial focus on the treatment of addiction and did away with some mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession.In the decades since, Nixon’s phrase has lived up to its name. As portrayed in Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In,” this crack-down looks every bit like a real war, leaving in its wake not only dead bodies, but ruined lives and devastated communities, the demonization of a class of people, politicking and profiteering, and enormous public expenditures with little apparent benefit.”It’s a confluence of some of the worst elements in American society,” Jarecki said from New York City, of the drug war. “Certain people took the war on drugs and ad hoc turned it into a war-making system. It shows us the worst in ourselves to put profits before people. There’s no illustration of it better than this.””The House I Live In,” which will be screened Monday in the New Views: Documentaries and Dialogue series at Paepcke Auditorium, and followed by a discussion with producer David Kuhn, doesn’t take an argumentative tone. Instead, it takes the position that it is a foregone conclusion that the war has been lost. Jarecki includes in the film a handful of drug-war insiders – not just dealers and addicts, but judges, prosecutors and police – who testify that, whatever salutary effects might have been intended, the approach of criminalization and imprisonment hasn’t worked.Drugs are cheaper and more easily available than ever; the violence associated with trafficking in illegal substances hasn’t abated. The warehousing of African-Americans for nonviolent crimes – otherwise known as the U.S. prison system – has made America the country with by far the highest incarceration rate of its own citizens. Gain some traction on one aspect of the drug problem – crack in the inner cities in the ’80s – and another takes its place – the current methamphetamine explosion that has taken hold of middle America. For this, according to the film, we have spent a trillion dollars since Nixon’s declaration of war.Recognizing that we have a drug-war problem is one thing; doing something about it is another, and Jarecki is perched between optimism and resignation. On the one hand, he has seen public figures across the spectrum – from New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, to evangelical Pat Robertson, who once made a bid for the presidency, to hip-hop and fashion mogul Russell Simmons – speak out for the need to reform America’s drug policies. “It’s the only thing that Christie and Simmons could possibly agree on. It’s such a failure, and people have recognized that,” said Jarecki, whose earlier film, 2005’s “Why We Fight,” took a similar critical look at America’s military-industrial complex. (Interestingly, that film too opened with a speech by a president, Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, which warned about the implications of America’s entrenched arms industry.)But Jarecki has also watched decades go by in which the problem has only gotten worse. Even as Congress has heard from judges, criminals and advocates for change that the approach to the drug problem has been “unscientific, not based on medicine, inappropriate and had a disproportionate effect on blacks,” the laws have not changed significantly. “The House I Live In” shows how money and power, rather than solutions, drive the war on drugs. Jails have become one of the few dependable industries for many towns. Police departments use forfeiture laws to get their hands on funds and resources and overtime for their staffs.”Everybody at the end of the day is getting their bread buttered,” Jarecki said. “They want to see the flow of bodies continued. They have an incentive for the flow of drugs to continue.””The House I Live In” begins, curiously, with a bit of Jarecki’s background. He says that, as the descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors, he was taught to have compassion for all minority populations. The film, which earned the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, then details the close relationship the Jarecki family had with a black woman named Nannie Jeter, who worked for the Jareckis, and her family. Jeter talks about the toll drugs and the drug war have had on her family, including her deceased son, a heroin addict who died of AIDS.Jarecki sticks with a street-level look at the drug problem that is extremely personal. The talking heads are kept to a minimum – one particularly forceful voice is that of David Simon, the former crime journalist who created the TV crime drama, “The Wire” – and there is even less emphasis on statistics. We see arrests, the insides of courtrooms and prison – lives and neighborhoods in the process of being ruined.”At the end of the day, it all comes down to people, the effects on people,” Jarecki said. “You can communicate more with people’s stories than with a bar chart.”Overwhelmingly it is the lives of minorities caught in the machinery: “If you stand in a federal court, you’re watching poor, uneducated people being fed into a machine like meat to make sausage. It’s just bang, bang, bang,” Charles Bowden, an investigative reporter, says. One of the most damning pieces of evidence that the war on drugs is a cover for a war on minorities is that possession of crack, the form of cocaine most popular among urban blacks, results in far, far harsher sentences than possession of powder cocaine, common among whites. Similarly, cocaine and heroin were once considered useful, though potentially dangerous medicines, until their use became concentrated among minorities.”Drug laws have been used as a thin veil for racial control, with various degrees of effect,” Jarecki said, noting that the pattern goes back to opium use among Chinese immigrants in the 19th century and continued with marijuana smoking among Mexican immigrants early in the 20th century.Among the barriers to a solution is that tough talk on drugs and crime has always played well for politicians as election day approaches. “Nobody can afford to be the first guy to say, Wait a minute; we can’t afford what we’re doing; let’s do something different,” Mike Carpenter, a no-nonsense prison official, says in the film. “If you even made a noise like you were going to be soft on crime in any way, you’d lose your job.”But Jarecki points out that being merely tough hasn’t proved to be at all effective.”There’s such a thing as being smart on crime,” he said. “Being tough on crime turns out to be stupid on crime and dangerous on crime.”email@example.com
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