THE HOUSE I LIVE IN
This documentary by Eugene Jarecki is impressive for a number of reasons, one being that it is based on some of his personal experiences. He began the project intending to write about a black woman who was like a second mother to him. Her family and his were close, and he grew up seeing “Nanny’s” family as an extension of his. He points out that she was not an actual nanny; Nanny is her given name. As he began the interviews for his film, and learned that Nanny had lost a son to drugs, he realized there was a much deeper issue to report about. It was the War on Drugs that was launched by President Nixon many years before and continues to the present day.
Another reason The House I Live In is impressive is that Jarecki has carefully traced the course of the War on Drugs, its effects, its creation of a vicious circle, and its long-term results by using hard data, the opinions of experts, and personal accounts of the war’s victims. Ultimately, the “war” is explained from a socio-political perspective by Historian Richard Miller who has identified a “chain of destruction” that occurs in many societies across time, and which seems to apply here in the U.S.
In 1971, Nixon announced that “America’s public enemy #1 is drug abuse.” To his credit, Nixon in the beginning understood that treatment of drug abusers is key; he said, a “program of law enforcement alone is not enough”, and 2/3 of the budget for the war in the early years went for that purpose. Over time, however, the issue of drug abuse became politicized, and while Nixon privately continued to believe this, the public Nixon in campaign speeches advocated for increased law enforcement as a solution. President Reagan revved up the campaign, promising to involve the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshall Service, ATF, IRS, Immigration Services and Coast Guard. “We’re beginning to win the crusade for a drug-free America”, he says at one point—which was hardly the case.
As evidence, Jarecki finds that since 1971, when the War on Drugs was proclaimed, we have more people in prison in this country than Saudi Arabia, China, or Russia. We have spent over a trillion dollars and arrested more than 45 million people. More than 500,000 are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
Further devastating effects of the War on Drugs include increased racial tensions, police and the communities they serve at odds with each other, erosion of law enforcement’s purpose and ethics, erosion of social institutions such as the family, high rates of recidivism for those released from prison, and a culture of hopelessness.
The long-term outcome is that a huge business has been built up that depends on preserving the drug industry in order for the business to thrive. If one takes into account all the people involved in arresting, trying, and incarcerating people convicted under the current laws, it becomes apparent that jobs and services have been created to do this work. And this does not take into account the residual socioeconomic effects on the incarcerated and their families and the social systems that serve them. It does not take into account the diversion of law enforcement’s primary purpose in terms of violent crimes to one in which policemen are paid handsomely for arresting nonviolent drug users. Why should a policeman take the extra time and effort involved in solving a major crime, when he/she can much more easily increase income by stopping—for any reason—and arresting ordinary citizens for drug possession?
Where do the answers lie? Jarecki’s analysis of the situation shows that the War on Drugs should focus more on education and rehabilitation than incarceration, which is expensive and does no good. First of all, as one person in the documentary says, “You don’t get rid of drugs.” Secondly, a host of problems are created by massive incarcerations. Thirdly, the underlying motivation for such a war may be for the purpose of eliminating groups of people based simply on mercenary reasons.
The House I Live In is our house, America’s house, which, as Jarecki documents, is in need of major renovation. This is a well-reasoned account of the effects of the War on Drugs.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland