There is a lot going on again in the news, including the GOP’s shameless efforts to deny health care to the poorest among us, internet privacy and net neutrality, the ongoing investigations into Trump’s Russia contacts, and the growing nuclear threat from North Korea (to name JUST a few), but this month I want to focus on one aspect of the Trump administration’s effect on society that might be slipping under some people’s radar; his executive return, through Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to the language and tactics of federal drug wars of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.
For decades, being “tough on crime” and finding creative ways to use mandatory minimum sentencing and other punitive measures to expand our nation’s jails became a political cottage industry all its own. Since the 70’s, this has caused such a spike in our prison population that the United States now has the highest incarceration rate, as well as the highest raw numbers of incarcerated citizens, anywhere in the world. The effects of this have been particularly concentrated within African-American neighborhoods, devastating minority communities in every corner of the country.
At long last, though, towards the end of the Obama administration, we finally had some grounds for hope that this was changing. Amidst increasing partisan rancor, one of the few areas of common agreement was a growing realization across the aisle that our War on Drugs and the push for mass incarceration had been a terrible mistake. De-criminalization of drugs like marijuana has been spreading state-by-state, Hillary Clinton’s past use of the term “superpredator” came back to haunt her during the primaries, and for a little while it looked like Congress might actually act to reduce or roll back harsh sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder used the levers of the federal government to push prosecutors towards using more reasonable discretion in sentencing, and the last months of Obama’s term in office included a flurry of Presidential pardons for people convicted of low-level offenses.
As far as federal policy is concerned, this has all been tossed out the window completely since Donald Trump took office and installed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions has already started rolling back federal investigations into civil rights violations (including, but not limited to, those committed by police departments), encouraged more widespread abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws, pushed prosecutors to return to seeking the harshest-possible sentences for low-level offenders, and lavished praise on old drug-prevention programs like D.A.R.E despite literally decades of evidence that they did nothing to prevent drug use among children, and in some cases may have even made things worse.
This is to say nothing of Trump’s most-most-recent horrifying speech, where he urged police officers to be even more violent when arresting suspects. Even if the current public spat between Trump and Sessions does eventually result in Sessions leaving or being fired, it is overwhelmingly likely that whoever else fills the Attorney General role will be of the same mold, since this particularly cruel brand of “tough on crime” populism was one of the core features of Trump’s campaign. No matter whose face heads it, as long as the GOP is in power, federal policy will continue to shift towards the racist and counterproductive crime policies of the Nixon and Reagan years.
The scope of this idiocy is breathtaking, the cynicism and hypocrisy mind-numbing, and the potential further destruction that could come down on African-American communities as a result of all this is sickening. There is already a lot happening, enough to make it hard for most to keep up, and the centuries of complex and emotionally charged history behind all this is a particularly dense topic that can be hard to parse through, especially since our culture bitterly fights any effort to recognize the racism inherent in our society today.
Thankfully, Ava DuVernay (yes, that Ava DuVernay) proved herself more than equal to this weighty task with her follow-up to Selma, the Netflix documentary special 13th, which came out last year and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Beginning with the titular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which officially banned slavery throughout the country, she neatly draws us through how a tiny loophole in the original language allowed the eventual establishment of new forms slavery by criminalizing the very idea of blackness within our culture, and what effect that has had on current generations of minorities struggling to keep their hard-earned place in the sun. DuVernay powerfully uses the visual medium of film to collect and present all this, including a brutal montage combining scenes from Trump rallies in 2016 with attacks on Civil Rights marchers in the 50’s and 60’s. It is a visceral punch to the gut; it ranks as one of the best bits of historical filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and it was the primary (but not the only) reason I named this movie my Film of the Year for 2016.
Not that you should stop at just watching this movie; there is a bevy of excellent work out there, both artistic and scholarly, that tackle things like the myths of superpredators, the explicitly racist (and partisan) origins of the War on Drugs, and the current financial underpinnings of this sick subset of our economy, and all of them are worth your time. This movie should merely be seen as a jumping-off point, as it clearly lays out the history behind all this while also pointing out some of the many ways we can push back and alter this system going forward (provided, of course, we can find the collective will to do so).
It’s just one of many areas where history is rapidly catching up to us, but through movies like this we can quickly bring ourselves up to speed and do our best to not be blindsided by what comes next.
Stay strong, and keep fighting, my friends.
Previously on Films for the Trump Years: