I caught a brief snippet of the news a few days ago, of Delaware Senator Joseph Biden’s apology for writing, introducing, and sponsoring passage of a 1986 crime bill that heightened federal penalties for crack usage and possession.
Sen. Biden said he recognized now that the bill was based on myth—much of it hyped by the daily press, which in turn fed the national phobia about drugs, and pushed politicians to support more and more draconian methods of repression.
While Biden should be applauded for his rare political honesty, one can’t help but wonder about the tens of thousands (if not more), who are still stuck in what are essentially life bits, based on fear and myth. For crack cocaine, despite its fearsome reputation, differs little from powder cocaine, except in how the users and possessors of both are treated by the law. But fear and myth are the seed corn of American politics, and its prison system. From the very inception of the American prison, foreigners, activists, and the poor were targeted for imprisonment.
As researchers Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray have written in their “Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System” (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2006): “In 1797, 70 percent of the prisoners in the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia were immigrants. The first line of action against the waves of immigrants who have come to the United States has always been the criminal justice system. Prison was used to make “gentlemen” out of offenders who were largely immigrants. In other words, our prison system was used to acculturate these people whose behavior was not accepted by the dominant culture. Immigrants who were active in the labor movement were specifically targeted for criminal charges” (p. 108). Magnani and Wray add that we saw similar usages in the state’s repressive machinery after the close of World War II, and more recently, in the wake of 9/11.
Fear. Myth. Fear of the Other.
Sen. Biden, unfortunately, wasn’t alone in the business of making laws out of myth. Former U.S. President William J. Clinton’s crime bill added some 60 offenses punishable by the death penalty: and his Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which essentially slammed the doors shut for millions of prisoners who sought to file suits in federal courts, was similarly based on myth.
But myths are powerful tools for politicians; the question becomes who can successfully manipulate these myths to one’s political advantage. And, while a politician may get elected and even re-elected by such methods, the lives of countless thousands are cheapened and wasted by such myths.
Myths, and press-hyped fear shouldn’t be the sources of the law. Reason should prevail. But as long as we have the system we have, and the politicians we have, thousands will suffer from myth and fear.
© 2008 MUMIA ABU-JAMAL