For forty one years, the United States has been embroiled in the longest war in the nation’s history. Since its inception by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the War on Drugs has destroyed 45 million lives and imprisoned 2.3 million in mostly Black and Latino communities. The House I Live In, the latest documentary filmed by award winning director, Eugene Jarecki, provides an in-depth look at the erosion of a judicial system that continues to impose prison sentences on citizens for infinitesimal drug offenses, who are more often than not people of color.
The House I Live In won the Grand Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film can currently be seen in select theaters nationwide. EBONY recently sat down with Eugene Jarecki to delve into the making of the documentary and the failure of the War on Drugs.
EBONY: How did you come up with the title and concept behind The House I Live In?
Eugene Jarecki: Part of what is at the core of the movie is the historical brotherhood that exists between Jews and Blacks in America. This brotherhood dominated most of the twentieth century. It only fell away in recent years due to the pressures inside of each community that has caused these communities to part ways. For someone like me, it’s saddening and surprising, because so much of the twentieth century found Jews and Blacks on the same side of so many issues. There is still a longstanding tradition in the Jewish community of being pro-democrat and that overlapped into the Civil Rights movement, the labor movement and the movement of the Great Society. I raise this because at the center of that is Paul Robeson. Robeson was friends with Einstein and other leading Jewish academics. He was one of the many African Americans who were a part of the progressive struggle in America at that time, which was a joint Black and Jewish struggle. Robeson recorded a song called “The House I Live In” in a time after World War II. Robeson was singing about an America of his ideals, and I think many of our ideals.
He asked, ‘What is America to me?’ It’s all about this house I live in. It’s about this open place where people across all races are welcomed with open arms that the Statue of Liberty is supposed to represent, as opposed to the anti-immigrant, anti-everybody country that we often see portrayed in our news cycle. To hear Robeson’s lyrics which were so idealistic became a tremendously poignant song for me for a long time. I set it up against the images of the prison system in America and some of the images of our tragic predisposition toward mass incarceration in this country. The images range from cops busting young people for an ounce of something they couldn’t get from a doctor which results in them getting 10 to 20 years to bankers who can steal millions from grandmothers and get nothing for it. It’s these types of grotesque injustices and those that follow along the lines of race and class. It breaks my heart when that song is playing. You have to ask yourself, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ The song stands as a vivid contrast to the unfolding of the drug war and the unfolding of daily life and the injustices in this country.
EBONY: The War on Drugs program has grown exponentially over the past 30 years. Why do you think it has become so expensive, yet so profitable?
EJ: Understand that we’ve had racist drug laws in America since the 1800s. What Black people have experienced in the modern era at the hands of drug war is not new in one sense, which is that we’ve had laws throughout our history that have really been about racial and social control seamlessly masqueraded as drug laws. But what has happened in the past forty years starting in 1971 when the Nixon administration declared a War on Drugs, is that [the] ad hoc history of improvised racist laws got codified into a war. When it became a war, another whole set of phenomena emerged, which are the phenomena of war…profiteering, entrenched interests and fear mongering that gets the public to turn a blind eye to what the cost may be so that they’re willing to pursue anything at all costs. No one told the public what the price tag would be. No one told them the destruction that would unleash on Black America. That it would create a phenomenon of social decay and dehumanization. It became an outright crime far worse through the way you went after crack and other drugs with a war than crack could’ve ever been.
EBONY: To a larger extent, do you think the blame falls at the feet of citizens or the political system that makes the laws in the country as it pertains to drug penalties?
EJ: There is enough accountability to go around, but I’m not in the business of blaming because I don’t think it gets us anywhere. Mistakes get made by groups of people all the time. Throughout history wrong ideas take hold, like the [idea of the] world being flat. The notion of attacking drugs so you can launch a war against drugs means it’s going to be a war on people, so you need to see the price tag. Then it turns out the price tag is a tremendous horror to the humanity of mankind as we’ve seen unfold in this country. I don’t care to find whose fault it was that we got there, but it’s some combination of Washington because politicians profit from sounding tough on crime. They get elected and stay elected. It’s partly Corporate America who profits directly off the incarceration of our fellow human beings. It’s horrendous all by itself. It’s not right for America to become the world’s leading jailer with 2.3 million people behind bars and to call itself a democracy while they strip those people of their voting rights [and] reproductive rights, orphan their children, shatters their communities and undermines their capacity to be participants in a democracy. The mass disenfranchisement is a sister of the War on Drugs. The blame game would be just a waste of time. We have an urgent need to resolve this issue.
EBONY: Is it your intention through the film to move people to take a stand against this abhorrent program?
EJ: Yes. I want Americans to think of the 'War on Drugs' as a dirty word. If a politician comes in front of you and talks tough on crime, you should boo and hiss them until they’re replaced by someone better who talks about being smart on crime, who talks about compassionate approaches, who recognizes [that] drug addiction and drug abuse are public health problems. They’re individual problems in the health of a person. And what you do about being tough on them is a far greater monster than helping them. The drug war shouldn’t be mentioned without the word fail in front of it so there is never any doubt. If you look at the numbers over forty years, we’ve spent a trillion dollars and we’ve made over 45 million drug arrests. What has it produced? It has produced a prison population of 2.3 million; more than any other country in the world. For all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, more available than ever before and being used by younger people. It’s a failure on every level. It’s up to us to put the issue to bed.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.