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End the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration

 Invest in America’s “Dark Ghettos”

[For publication the week of April 1, 2013]


April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King stepped to the podium of the Riverside Church in New York to vigorously proclaim his opposition to the War in Vietnam.  It was one of the most powerful orations among numerous remarkable speeches delivered during his brief but extraordinary life.  In articulating a persuasive moral and practical framework for his stance, Dr. King said: “… I knew America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such.” Equally disturbing for King was the disproportionate impact of the war not only on the poor but specifically young Black men. So, he went on to say: “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and  sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

Dr. King’s decision to visibly and vocally oppose the War in Vietnam was no doubt complicated by the fact that the war was being promoted, prosecuted and defended by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President who had courageously responded to “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery March by working for and signing the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.  President Johnson was viewed as a friend of civil rights and social programs favorable to poor and working people. Nonetheless, King saw the Vietnam as an ill conceived and immoral war that would ultimately undermine the quest for social, economic and racial justice. Therefore, principle and conscience demanded that he not be silent even in opposition to a President who had signed milestone civil rights legislation.

It is in that same spirit, that on April 4, 2013, a group of social justice, drug and criminal justice policy reform advocates will intensify the demand for an end to the War on Drugs and mass incarceration and call on President Obama to invest resources to revitalize America’s “dark ghettos.” Just as Dr. King saw the War in Vietnam as wasting massive resources on an ill conceived and immoral war, drug and criminal justice reform analysts, experts and advocates have concluded that the War on Drugs is a flawed strategy complete with a contemporary “demonic suction tube” which has wasted billions of dollars that could and should have been used to invest in distressed urban communities. Equally distressing, as Michelle Alexander brilliantly documents in her classic book The New Jim Crow, the War on Drugs is a racially biased policy/strategy targeting and disproportionately devastating Black and Brown communities. As the brothers and sisters in the “hood” say, “the war on drugs is a war on us!” As noted in the Petition to End the War on Drugs on the Institute of the Black World 21st Century’s website, how else can we make sense of the fact that “African Americans make up an estimated 15% of drug users, but account for 27% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.”  The War on Drugs is a war on Black people!

Time and time again, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century has asserted that there is a “State of the Emergency” in Black America, specifically in the “dark ghettos,” the urban inner-city neighborhoods plagued by chronic joblessness, underemployment and inferior schools; neighborhoods doomed to desolation and despair as a consequence of disinvestment by the federal government in social, economic and jobs programs and where work has disappeared because of capital flight and deindustrialization; neighborhoods where the trafficking in drugs  and other “illicit” forms of making a living are viewed as viable means of survival; neighborhoods where paramilitary policing, stop-and-frisk raids, police brutality and the criminalization and incarceration of young Black men (and increasingly women) has become the order of the day; neighborhoods all across this nation where crime, violence and fratricide have become UNBEARABLE!

As I have said so many times, the War on Drugs, policing, criminalization and mass incarceration have become substitutes for social, economic and racial justice in America’s dark ghettos.  The damages to our communities have been devastating … and it must end. As we pause to reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, the commemoration of his life has largely been reduced to ceremonies devoid of the moral and political imperative to continue the struggle for social justice and transformation. This year must be different.  April 4, 1968, one year after his momentous speech at the Riverside Church, Dr. King was gunned down on a balcony of a hotel in Memphis. It is important to remember that he had come to protest the plight of sanitation workers and was in the midst of planning a Poor People’s Campaign to fight for an Economic Bill of Rights to ensure that every American had a job or guaranteed income, adequate housing and a quality education as a basic human right.

As we gather in King’s memory on April 4th this year, our charge must be to call on President Obama to heed the voices of so many experts, analysts, advocates, national and international commissions that have declared the War on Drugs an abysmal failure; a policy/strategy which has wreaked havoc on people, particularly people of color in this country and internationally. We must call on the President to exercise leadership by proclaiming to the nation that it is time to end the War on Drugs and treat the crisis of drugs as a public health rather than criminal justice issue – a dramatic paradigm shift which, at a minimum, will lead to decriminalization of marijuana, increased funding for drug education and treatment, and a national dialogue on the desirability and feasibility of regulating and taxing drugs. Such a paradigm shift will necessitate meaningful changes in the criminal justice system to dramatically reduce or eliminate drug offenses which have led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people.  It is time for President Obama to “break silence” and declare an end to the War on Drugs!

But, we must also call upon the President to do more. It is time for President Barack Obama to have the “audacity” to declare  that the State of Emergency in urban inner-city areas, where millions of Black people are suffering and struggle to survive, a moral and political crisis which demands direct/targeted economic and social policies and programs to create wholesome, sustainable communities. The President and the nation have reacted as if there is no face to the millions who are suffering in the “dark ghettos” of this land.  These millions do have a face and it is overwhelmingly BLACK.  As I commented in a previous article, “we are not invisible.” And, just as the sanitation workers in Memphis carried signs declaring “I Am a Man,” Africans in America who visibly marched on ballot boxes in record numbers to help re-elect President Obama, we are also compelled to demand that the President and the nation take notice of the State of Emergency in Black America.

On April 4th, in the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and in the spirit of his opposition to the Vietnam war and his call for an Economic Bill of Rights, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century will announce a Day of Direct Action June 17, 2013 in Washington, D.C. – to coincide with the 42nd Anniversary of the War on Drugs. On this day, like Joshua at the Walls of Jericho, drug and criminal justice reform collaboratives from Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., joined by formerly incarcerated persons from around the nation,  representatives of Black professional organizations associated with the Black Family Summit, faith and labor leaders  will act as “drum majors for justice” marching at the gates of the White House issuing a clarion call for an end  to the war on drugs and mass incarceration and demanding investment in America’s dark ghettos.  On June 17th, we intend to make some noise. We hope President Obama and the nation will heed our call and the walls of ignorance, indifference, hostility, blatant and benign neglect, racial bias and injustice will come tumbling down, clearing the way for the rescue and revitalization of the urban inner-city neighborhoods/communities in this country!

Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at

Dr. Ron Daniels

Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer Emeritus, York College City University of New York. His articles and essays appear on the IBW website and His weekly radio show, Vantage Point can be heard Mondays 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM on WBAI, 99.5 FM, Pacifica in New York, streaming live via To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at