Last year, I posted about the first season of In The Flesh, a BBC zombie show that I liked quite a bit. Season 2 finished airing on BBC America last week and it is still very good. Season 1 was only three episode-long, but season 2 has six episodes, so, it allowed a more complex and multi-dimensional storyline as well as more character development.

[Spoilers included]

Season 2 picks up a little later and is marked by backlash on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, the living are no longer as frightened of the PDS sufferers as they were in season 1, and that leads to both interpersonal and political backlash, with the rise of the UKIP-type political party, Victus. Hence the arrival of the new Victus MP for Roarton, Maxine Martin, one of the new characters for this season.

The rhetoric of the party is very fascist and soon after her arrival, MP Martin starts registering PDS sufferers, and later on forcing them in to the new Give Back scheme, a forced labor program, supposedly designed to make PDS sufferers “repair” some of the damage they did during their time as zombies.

Why would they participate? Because concurrently, their basic civil rights have been suspended, and, supposedly, they can only get them back after completing the Give Back. Needless to say, this is a system of exploitation and abuse that generates resentment on the part of the PDS sufferers.

And, of course, no discrimination and stigmatization scheme would be complete without a visual status signal. So, it’s not a yellow star, obviously, but the orange vest that tells the world that one is a PDS sufferer working on the Give Back scheme, which makes enforcement of all the restrictions easier.

That resentment is then used to unofficially reactivate the Human Volunteer Force (under a new name) to enforce the Give Back scheme. That scheme is hilariously presented in all its hypocrisy, with fancy brochures and cheesy DVD presentation to the community. Also, most of the PDS sufferers are made to work building a fence whose purpose is not yet really known. And, of course, one of the rules is to use lenses and make-up. PDS suffered are forbidden from leaving their present location (so, no trip to Paris for Kieren). Any deviation from the rules marks the PDS sufferer as non-compliant, which can lead to their return to the treatment center.

On the other side, there has been radicalization on the part of the PDS sufferers as well, with the introduction of a social movement organization, the Undead Liberation Army (ULA), that conducts terrorist attacks, using a substance called “Blue Oblivion” that temporarily returns the PDS sufferers to their zombie state.

The ULA is led by a mysterious “prophet” (whom we do not see during this season) who appoints people to lead PDS rebellion in various areas. That is how another new important character shows up in season two, Simon, “the Irish” as some Roarton denizens call him. This dual radicalization (Victus v. ULA) has religious undertones on both sides, and the show treats religious fanaticism as inherently violent.

Whereas fear was still somewhat present in season 1, it is mostly mutual hostility that sets the tone of season 2, which is much darker than its predecessor and the entire season leads up to an ultimate confrontation by religious fundamentalists from both sides, exposing the absurdity of their beliefs.

Season 2 is also marked by the disappearance of older patriarchal figures, and their replacement by different, more diverse figures. Last season ended with the death of HVF leader, Bill Macey, shot dead by Ken Burton, who, himself is killed in an ULA attack in the first episode of season 2. Later on, Vicar Oddie, a big anti-PDS agitator, dies of a heart attack (and MP Martin could have helped him but decided to do nothing, in effect, letting him die). So, three old white men are out. Enters the black female MP (Martin). And then, younger characters take more center stage: Phil Wilson (the young town councillor who used to take his marching orders from Vicar Oddie, and now from MP Martin… up to a point), Gary Kendall (the new HVF leader who claims for himself the rank of captain), Simon (of the ULA), and Kieren Walker and Amy Dyer, of course.

In this season, the themes of the previous one (stigmatization) are still here, but the in-group / out-group dynamics are much more salient and obvious. Living and PDS sufferers position themselves in opposition to each other, extremist living not longer considering PDS sufferers as humans, and extremist PDS sufferers rejecting the label and considering themselves a kind of superior race to the living. How these distinctions and ideologies are created, sustained, amplified, and transmitted is the most interesting part of this season.

There is one narrative thread that is started in season 2, and, is one the most promising for season 3 (hopefully, there will be season 3): the two doctors that created the drug that keeps PDS sufferers from “turning rabid” also created the pharmaceutical company that mass produces it. In the last episode, the government agents are sent to Roarton to collect someone (we never know who it is until the very end) but we don’t know why. That government / corporate storyline will hopefully be developed more in season 3, as there are references throughout the season, to experiments (torture, really) conducted on PDS sufferers at treatment centers (Nazi experiments, anyone?).

In all, it is hard to avoid the comparisons with the rise of fascism and seeing the PDS sufferers as the racial/ethnic target of hatred, along with their economic exploitation, and the curtailing of their rights. It is hard not to think about the current situation in Europe, with the rise of far-right / fascist parties all over the EU.

There are also still interpersonal storylines going on throughout the season, that add a human (see what I did there?) dimension to the socio-political aspects.

I like the way that Kieren’s homosexuality is treated as a non-issue in itself, and so, his burgeoning affair with Simon is only a story because because of Amy’s crush on Simon, or the fact that Simon is then tasked by the Undead Prophet to kill Kieren. There is the Amy / Philip story, the Jem / Gary / Henry storyline, and a series of other secondary characters that really add texture to the entire series.

I highly recommend it.

Via The Guardian:

Amnesty International executions around the world

Click on the image for a larger view.

There are no big surprises there (although, frankly, I thought the US had more executions). However, it seems rather clear that most Western countries have no longer the death penalty, which is, at this point, a phenomenon of developing countries and non-democratic (or nominally democratic) regimes. The trend is definitely downwards, in terms of numbers of countries still having it on the books and using it.

It is also interesting to see the types of crimes that lead to death sentences. But no doubt that China is in a class of its own.

A while back, Dave Mayeda posted a great series of posts applying sociological theories of deviance to the TV show The Wire. So, I just thought I’d list them all here so you can all go read them as they were really great.

Hallsworth[Disclaimer: the publisher sent me a copy of this book for review.]

Simon Hallsworth’s The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is as much a study on gangs in the context of street informal organizations and of critical criminology. Come to think of it, it reads like a “how-to” and “how-not-to” study gangs.

The focus of the book is on the UK context but some of critiques and prescriptions are more broadly applicable (especially considering the apparent fondness of US “gang experts” in the UK policy-making circles). Overall, the book does not pull punches when it comes to the current state of the field of gang research and policy-making, and advocates for a different way of analyzing gangs.

In a sense, what Hallsworth advocates is a return to Durkheim’s original prescription for social research: do not accept commonsense categories as the unquestioned starting point for analysis. These categories are not neutral. They are the product of history and power relations within given field (to rope in Bourdieu). And so, to accept these categories without subjecting them to analysis is to commit an elementary mistake and therefore contribute to the reproduction of the power relations that gave rise to these categories in the first place.

For Hallsworth, this applies especially to categories such as “gangs”, “gang culture”, or “gang problem” which are then used to deploy a whole field of experts, policies, and prescriptions dedicated to dealing with the “gang problem”. The contestation of this deployment is the central theme of the book:

“Where do I situate my analysis? To begin with, it marks my response to the position staked out by John Pitts and his followers who see gangs today as the new face of youth crime and who, by and large, appear happy to blame them for everything. As will become clear, I have no time whatsoever for this position. I do not accept that gangs are the new face of youth crime; I do not accept that gangs today are large and corporate, and nor do I hold with other widely-held gang ‘truths’ as exemplified in claims to the effect that they coercively recruit members or are habitual rapists. The book is, then, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK.” (13)

And so, Hallsworth proceeds to debunk the current myths (used and taken as true, though) regarding gangs:

  • The myth of the corporate gang as key drug-player: gangs exercise control over the drug trade in the UK in a very structured fashion with gang elders at the top of gangs structured as corporations all the way down to “tinies” and young gang members at the bottom.
  • The myth of the new gang violence in urban context.
  • The myth of the new weapons of the gang world: guns and dogs.
  • The myth of rape as new gang weapon.
  • The myth of gangs as forces in social destabilization (for instance, as causes and actors in the 2011 London riots, as blamed by PM Cameron).

For Hallsworth, the bottom line to all these myths is that they are variants of “kids, these days”. They assume the complete novelty of drugs and violence rather than a permanent, and long-standing feature of street life in the UK, especially in working class areas. There are many continuities between past street life features and present, such as

  • violent territorialism
  • drug dealing
  • street-fighting kids

But then, if these continuities were acknowledged, where would the moral entrepreneurs du jour find their moral panic?

One of the main critiques that Hallsworth deploys is against what he calls gang-talk and gang-talkers. Gang-talk is the commonsense narrative (constructed and repeatedly used by gang-talkers – the “experts” on gangs – and conveniently propagated by the media and politicians), repeating most of the myths listed above: that the gang threat is new, unprecedented, growing, more dangerous than ever, because the gangs are now structured like corporations (except criminal) and recruit younger and younger members who can never leave the gang once in.

“‘Gang talk’ has come to provide the interpretive grid by and through which divergent social problems are rendered legible, even when the events in question are by no means solely or even remotely gang-related.

(…)

Gang talk, I will argue, constitutes a free-floating discourse that can operate wholly independently of gang realities as these unfold in any street context” (68-9)

As Hallsworth puts it, gang talk is a language game (a la Wittgenstein), with its own vocabulary, rules of composition, and structure. Therefore, gang-talk propagates a series of tropes about gangs, that are then accepted and repeated without examination, but that are supposed to expose the “truth” of the gangs. This is all performative logic: the more the tropes of gang talk are uncritically repeated across media, the more they are taken as accurate description of the reality of the gangs. Conversely, any alternative perspective on gangs will be met with resistance and skepticism, and ultimately silenced as not fitting the tropes of gang talk. As dominant discourse, then, gang talk becomes the only plausible narrative as it becomes embedded in commonsense.

Gang talk, however, is neither neutral nor benign. It is a discourse of power:

“By ‘gang talk’, I mean to designate a discourse about gangs that has wide currency. It is a discourse that operates to make meaningful the world of gangs both to those who produce this discourse and to others who are receptors of it. By and large, the producers of gang talk (hereafter ‘gang-talkers’) are those with a vested interest in gangs (of some sort) but who are not of the world of gangs they talk about. They may be journalists looking for a good story about them, enforcement agencies that want to suppress them, practitioners on the hunt for gang suppression money, the public who are scared of them, academics wanting to study them, or policy-makers who have been given the mission of developing anti-gang strategies.” (70)

Again, this sounds a lot like Becker’s moral entrepreneurs and it is not surprising that gang members themselves adopt the tropes of gang talk along the way, as dominant cultural discourse. Nevertheless, gang talk is a fantasized representation rather than objective description but it is treated as such.

As conspiracy discourse, gang has the following elements:

  • Novelty: the kinds of gangs we have today are completely new and we have never seen anything like it before… and they are spreading.
  • Proliferation: they were a few of them, now there are many (add: immigration has something to do with that), and now, there are even women and children joining in.
  • Corporatization: gangs used to be disorganized, but now, they are structured like corporations and formal organizations.
  • Weaponization (I’m not sure it’s a word and Hallsworth spells it the British way, with an “s” rather than a “z”… I americanized it): instead of fists and boots, now, they have guns and dogs. They are more violent and deadly.
  • Penetration: they expand outside of their usual territories and colonize new ones.
  • Monstruousness: gang members are different from “normal” people.

[Sorry but those are the concepts used by Hallsworth.]

Out of these generic ideas, gang-talkers can extract gang membership checklists (Hallsworth provides a full one) and they read like the old Reefer Madness and include such things “dropping out of positive activities”, whatever the heck that means. Such items of gang membership are convenient because they can depict pretty much everybody, and so, if one goes looking for gang members, then, one is guaranteed to find them.

But again, gang talk is neither neutral nor benign:

“But there is also an ideological function to gang talk that needs to be acknowledged. In the post-welfare, neoliberal state where penal-fare as opposed to welfare increasingly defines the way in which poverty is managed (Wacquant 2009); gang talk helps establish the terms in and by which the global precariat, the losers in the neoliberal, winner-takes-all society, are now defined. Together with underclass thinking more generally, it reconstructs the lives of the urban poor as feral outsiders; as a population to whom pain dispensation appears necessary and not least just. It constructs them in Neil Christie’s terms as a suitable enemy at the same time it establishes the included society as a suitable victim.” (83)

And it accomplishes this through othering those designated as gang members as part of logic of the moral panic involving the usual components of exaggeration, distortion, prediction, and symbolization.

In addition to his critique of gang talk and gang-talkers, Hallsworth provides a counterpoint to a specific trope of gang talk, namely, the idea that gangs are not structured like corporations and formal organizations. According to this trope, the gang now resembles a typical Weberian bureaucracy, with its hierarchy, impersonality, rules and regulations, top-down governance, and division of labor, etc.

Hallsworth describes this mode of thinking (the gang as bureaucracy) as arborealism and describes it as shown below (sorry, bad picture from page 117):

Arborealism

Hallsworth argues that gangs are informal organizations with a rhizomatic structure (see Deleuze and Guattari), as depicted below:

Rhizome

 

This structure is very much akin to a flexible network, with nodes, clusters, and links, always in a state of reconfiguration based on the demands of the situation and the structural constraints under which the gang operates. Nodes move in and out of the network and are loosely connected to it (as opposed to the “military” model of recruitment promoted by gang-talkers). A rhizomatic structure is decentered and non-hierarchical and the intersections between nodes are not as predictable as those of bureaucratic structures. And where a tree-like bureaucracy is heavily territorialized, a rhizomatic structure is deterritorialized.

Now, Hallsworth does not argue for an “either/or” typology here. Gangs may follow hybrid structures as well but it is misleading and inappropriate to use the corporate structure as model for the gang, as this would lead to a Gilbert Ryle-type of category mistake. How could gangs be bureaucratic when relationships are based on kinship and clientelism and violence is valued. Gangs are also not impersonal organizations. Quite the opposite, actually, as relationships are highly personal. Moreover, because of the larger social context and the illegal activities that gang members engage in, reality is highly unpredictable and cannot be made more certain just by wishing it or issuing a few memos and new regulations. Most of gang actions are situational and contextual, and ever-changing. And if there is a business logic at work sometimes, it is complicated personal and emotional factors that can lead to violence and deaths, and sometimes, for stupid reasons. Because gang life is inherently unstable, so is its structuring. And it is this instability that make it almost impossible for gang to structure bureaucratically and territorialize. In this sense, gangs are assemblages more than formal organizations.

And when gangs do end up territorialized, it has more to do with discriminatory practices that “lock them up” in ghettos (or estates) than with anything else. Those are usually deprived environments where the legitimate economy is poorly represented and therefore where the informal one is more likely to take roots with the corresponding informal organizations. And so then territorial borders are not as hard and fast as gang-talkers make them to be as gang members are not just tied to the gang but also to family members and relatives living in the same projects or estates.

Regarding the drug and violence aspects, Hallsworth identifies three main imperatives of street life (but not exclusive to it): the search for pleasure, the search for money, and the search for respect. On this, in a very Mertonian fashion (see: strain theory), Hallsworth argues that drugs and violence play a part in all three imperative in a deprived context. And all three imperatives are fulfilled in a context of hegemonic masculinity (see: Connell) that is not new to young working-class men. In this sense, a lot of the violence that is attributed to gangs is actually part of the larger context of street life for the working class. That is the appropriate framework and context to understand it.

These three imperatives are fulfilled young working class men in the context of their exclusion from upward mobility:

Mobility-Compared-nnwvjt

But this is also in the context of their inclusion into the larger consumer culture.

And so, they innovate, as, again, mode of adaptation to the strain, as Robert Merton conceptualized it. The persistent presence of these men on the street, hanging out, reflects their waiting for opportunities and figuring out where the action is, for pleasure, money or respect.

Finally, Hallsworth connects what is truly the novel aspect here: the rise of the precariat. This is the larger context for informal street life and informal street organizations. In the post-War period – the rise of the welfare state – violence and drugs were not unknown. However, there was greater local regulation of it. And as soon as young men left school for the factory, got jobs, got married, then, they left the informal organizations behind.

In the current neoliberal context, inaugurated by Thatcher, this trajectory no longer exists. Mass deindustrialization and precarization have destroyed the fairly linear path from basic education to factory work, from adolescence to adulthood. The normative context of regulation from within the working-class is gone. To be sure, part of this normative context was hegemonic masculinity, and that has not changed.

But again, what is truly new is the precarization of the working class and the structural violence unleashed by right-wing governance (yes, including New Labour). I do wish the concept of structural violence were used more as it provides a powerful explanation for self-destructive interpersonal violence at play now, in the context of stalled social mobility in the face of consumer culture. Paraphrasing Bauman, Hallsworth then call the members of street organizations the “flawed consumers” of late modernity.

But gang-talkers have no interest in that socio-economic context. Hence, Hallsworth ends his book with a tongue-in-cheek list of lessons on how to develop a gang problem:

  • Lesson 1: Turn a problem of groups into a problem of gangs (that is, treat any group or collective behavior AS gang behavior)
  • Lesson 2: work closely with journalists (they love sensationalism)
  • Lesson 3: create a dedicated gang-busting unit
  • Lesson 4: employ academic ‘gang experts’ to confirm your problem (bonus if they come loaded with meaningless data)
  • Lesson 5: create a gang-intervention strategy (ban all sorts of thing: like hanging around)
  • Lesson 6: bring on the practitioners: academics, of course, but also former gang members (everyone loves redemption stories) but do not include long-term field practitioners, focus on short-term strategies couched in buzzwords.
  • Lesson 7: cash in and live well.

Now, this is a really interesting book. I could have done without the chapter on biographical ethnography. It did not add much to the overall thesis of the book. And as I was reading it, I could not help but think that the famous Gang Leader for A Day fell into all the traps that Hallsworth warns against, and constitutes a form of gang talk in itself (after all, it made its author quite famous for an academic).

I think this is a must-read for all criminal justice, criminology students and academics, as well as sociologists of deviance.

[Spoilers!]

In the Flesh is the most intelligent zombie show I have ever seen. It totally destroys The Walking Dead (about which I posted a lot over at the Global Sociology Blog). The first season is only three-episode long but that is enough to produce a great show with interesting and diverse characters based on a premise that is much more interesting than blood and gore.

The premise in itself is rather original. The story starts actually after the end of “the rising”, the period of time where those who died in the year before come back as zombies. So, there is no bug, no epidemics. Just an unexplained revival of those who died at a certain time. Also, these zombies are not contagious. Getting bitten does not turn one into a zombie, even though everybody believes it because they have seen it in the movies.

Also an original premise: this time, scientists have found a treatment for what is now called “partially deceased syndrome”. The treatment stops the “zombification” process and actually reverses some of the brain damage, the PSD sufferers regain control of themselves, but they do get flashbacks of their time as zombies. Also, they can no longer eat or drink without being sick as their insides are still decomposed. They also keep the white “dead flesh” skin tone and weird pupils. They are partially dead, therefore, they do not really heal, cannot be killed except if shot/stabbed in the head.

The central character is Kieren Walker, who committed suicide at the “right time” and became a zombie. We meet him in a rehabilitation center where he is administered treatment and therapy (to accept his status as PSD patient and deal with the guilt of what he did during his zombie time). Kieren is getting ready to return home, so, he is also taught how to use make up to get a more ‘natural” skin tone, and contact lenses, all to make the living less uncomfortable.

So, when the story begins, the zombie apocalypse is over. The government seems to be in control. They are still zombies out there but they are few and far between, lost in the woods, not really a threat anymore. However, the perspective of having PSD patients (or “rotters” as they are called) back in their communities does not go over easy.

And so, Kieren goes home to a rural village called Roarton, to initially uncomfortable parents, and a hostile younger sister who has joined a militia called the Human Volunteer Force (HVF), people who took it upon themselves to kill rotters. The Roarton HVF is led by Bill Macey, whose son Rick was supposedly killed in Afghanistan (he actually comes back as a PSD patient, which creates a moral conflict for Bill). Bill, fired up by the local preacher, fights against the return of the PSD patients.

There is a lot in this series that can be used to show the relevance of sociological concepts, especially relating to deviance. Obviously, the “rotters” (a stigmatizing label) are treated as deviants. Once back in their communities, they are expected to be registered with the authorities (like sex offenders) and to subject to regular medication and check-ups. They are also expected to use the cosmetic skills taught to them at the rehabilitation center. Kieren’s mother is actually given a taser in case the medication stops being effective. But the stigma is such that the volunteer nurse who is supposed to check on him is hiding the fact that she is involved with this. Initially, Kieren’s parents hide the fact that he is back home, making him hide in a closet if someone comes to visit. They are right to be worried as Bill has shot an killed another PSD patient who had returned home.

Fueling the hostility against rotters is Vicar Oddie who considers the rotters to be evil and should be killed, as unnatural beings. The Vicar also leads the local town council from which he can exercise further power against PSD patients (such as painting PDS on the garage doors of homes where they have returned… shades of Star of David on Jewish businesses before WWII).

At the same time, the story also explores the patients themselves, and their perceptions of themselves as they regain their humanity and come back to live among the living.

In this first season, we see different patterns of reaction: Kieren, who feels guilty for both the way he died and what he did as a zombie; Amy, who goes through the entire deviant career, embraces her status as “rotter”, refuses to wear make up and lenses, and does not hesitate to go out, actually enjoying making people uncomfortable; and then there is Rick, the veteran, who is largely in denial (mostly for his father’s sake) of both his homosexual relationship with Kieren (before he left for Afghanistan, a first source of conflict with his father), and now his PSD status (he pretends to be able to have a drink at the local pub with his father even though it makes him sick, what with the rotting guts).

With the end of The Rising, the treatment and rehabilitation, and the return (and potential normalization) of the PDS patients in the community, Bill, and the rest of HVF, are afraid of losing the status and privileges they were granted at the height of the Rising. They were used to free drinks at the pub, and other perks due to their status.

When the series starts, one of them is asked, for the first time in a long time apparently, to pay for his drink, and the pub owner is in the process of taking down pro-HVF signs. Nevertheless, the pub creates a segregated area for PDS patients who might venture in. But for the HVF people, the fact that things might quiet down, that danger is no longer really present, and that zombies are being reintegrated into society, poses a specific status problem. And, as we know, people threatened with the lost of power and prestige, usually do not take it very well.

There is definitely a classist aspect to In The Flesh, Bill Macey and his two sidekicks are definitely portrayed as lower class from a rural area, totting guns all over the place. And the two sidekicks in question are definitely portrayed as complete moronic losers who got their status thanks to a rifle and an HVF armband. No wonder they don’t want to give it up (although the perspective of getting money for grabbing zombies and turning them in – instead of killing them – is incentive enough).

Bill himself, along with Vicar Oddie, is a complete bigot who had a problem with his son’s homosexuality then, and has issues with PDS patients now.

On the other hand, the Walkers and the Burtons (Ken Burton is played by the always excellent Ricky Tomlinson) are higher on the social ladder (as seen through their nicer houses), but also more open-minded (as the Walkers take their son back in, and Ken Burton accepts his PDS-patient wife).

The only character higher on the social ladder is a hapless minister that we see at the beginning of episode 1, whose job it is to explain to the rural community, how PDS-patients are going to be reintegrated in their communities. This is class conflict 101, with the lower class people shouting bigoted things while the minister (while completely ignoring their fears and concerns) patiently gives them bureaucratic, long-worded non-answers (“if you go to the website…”).

There are a lot more plot points that make the series interesting and even though the narrative is pretty tight and well concluded at the end of the third episode, there are enough loose ends to provide storylines for further seasons, especially, the existence of some sort of underground group of partially deceased.

But as I said, this is an intelligent show. Don’t watch if all you want to see and blood and gore and flesh-eating, because there is hardly any of that. That is not the point of the show. The show is about characters, and what happens when the horror is over. It is well written. There are many layers to the story and all the characters are interesting to follow. Also, and that is not negligible, the series passes the Bechtel test.

But you should go in there, armed with your Erving Goffman (stigma, presentation of the self) and Howard Becker (Outsiders, labeling theory) and you will find some rich material to analyze.

Also, go read PhilBC’s review. He got to see the series in the UK long before it aired on BBC America, but his review really made me not want to miss it when it came out here.

By SocProf.

This seems to be the message of The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki’s latest film.

I think this is a very important film to understand fully the War on Drugs. For many years, I used the PBS Frontline documentary Snitch to discuss the war on drugs in the US, but that movie has gotten old and a bit outdated. THILI can comfortably take its place because things have not gotten any less messy than they were when Snitch was made.

The film itself is about 1h40 long and the first half felt a bit disorganized to me as Jarecki jumped from one thing to another, from one case, one city, one person to another. I don’t really care for personal, tearing-at-your-heartstrings stories. But as the second half rolled around, it became gripping, and, to me, at least, way more interesting because it was less about individual cases, and more about the sociological aspects of the war on drugs.

I was especially glad to see a whole group of excellent contributors such as the great William Julius Wilson, Michelle Alexander, David Simon, of The Wire fame, Marc Mauer, Charles Ogletree, and Lincoln historian Richard Miller.

And, I won’t have to do my usual song and dance in class anymore, explaining how drug policy in the US is guided by racist considerations. There is a great short segment on just that. The film also does a great job of explaining how urban policy, by creating ghettos through redlining, fostering white flight to the suburbs, and the loss of inner-city jobs, also created the conditions for the emergence of an underground, informal economy based on drugs. And then, how the war on drugs policies unleashed the whole criminal justice system on disadvantaged, impoverished and precarized groups. And in inner cities, drug dealing is the only company in a company town. The film also shows the web of contradictory constraints that drug offenders face when they get released.

Interestingly as well, Jarecki interviews a lot of people from law enforcement and courts and demonstrates how the war on drugs distorted the functioning of these organizations by creating new systems of incentives based on mass arrests, mass conviction, and mass incarcerations, and how it distorted relationship between law enforcement and low-income communities. And how it has made a lot of private industries very profitable. And it only all cost $1 trillion dollars and 45 million arrests to get there.

David Simon:

“Nobody respects good police work more than me. As well as being a police reporter, my first book was about good police work. And there are a lot of detectives who I admire for their professionalism, for their craft, for their skill, for their nuance. The problem is that the drug war created an environment in which none of that was rewarded.

In a city like Baltimore, you can sit in your radio car and make a drug arrest without understanding or requiring probable cause [reasonable suspicion], without worrying about how you’re going to testify in court without perjuring yourself, without learning how to use and not be used by an informant, without learning how to write a search and seizure warrant, without doing any of the requisite things that makes a good cop into a great cop, somebody that can solve a murder, a rape, a robbery, a burglary. These are crimes that require police work. A drug arrest does not require anything other than getting out of your radio car and jacking people up against the side of the liquor store.

The problem is that that cop that made that cheap drug arrest, he’s going to get paid. He’s going to get the hours of overtime for taking the drugs down to ECU [the evidence control unit]. He’s going to get paid for processing the prisoner down at central booking. He’s going to get paid for sitting back at his desk and writing the paperwork for a couple hours. Then the case is going to get called to court and a prosecutor’s going to sign his overtime slip for two, three hours to show up for a case that’s probably going to be stetted [dropped] because it’s unconstitutional. And he’s going to do that 40, 50, 60 times a month. So his base pay might end up being half of what he’s actually paid as a police officer.

Meanwhile, nobody is learning the rudiments of police work that might make a patrolman into a good detective. In Baltimore, the clearance rates – our percentage of arrests for felonies – for rape, murder, robbery, auto theft, for the things that make a city unlivable – are half of what they once were.

Our drug arrest stats are twice what they once were. That makes a city unlivable. It creates a criminal atmosphere that has no deterrent. It makes a police department where nobody can solve a fucking crime.”

As the film progresses, the contributors’ words get harsher, as they take in the broader and broader picture of what has happened for the past 40 years (40 years!). David Simon, especially, explains how this policy – the war on drugs – is a way of disposing of the bottom 15% of society, considered to useless and disposable, and get rich (for some) while doing it. Ultimately, he calls the war on drugs a holocaust in slow motion.

In that sense, the war on drugs is a success. Not a success in terms of its publicly stated goals, but a success in terms of social control of the precarized classes. There is especially a very good segment on how methamphetamine is the new crack, except, this time, it is the displaced white, blue-collar workers who are targeted, and increasingly going to prison. The connection between economic deterioration for the working class, informal illegal economy and drug policy is a direct one. It is the social control of this potentially volatile population that mass incarceration successfully accomplishes.

So, again, with some qualification regarding the first half of the film, this is a great documentary with a lot of different, shorter segments that can be used separately. And, if my students are representative, they love to talk about drugs, so, this film has many segments that should provoke good discussions.

By SocProf.

I know this is Todd’s territory here but I found this article on the Portuguese approach to drug policy quite interesting:

“One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

(…)

“The police still search people for drugs,” Goulão points out. Hashish, cocaine, ecstasy — Portuguese police still seize and destroy all these substances.

Before doing so, though, they first weigh the drugs and consult the official table with the list of 10-day limits. Anyone possessing drugs in excess of these amounts is treated as a dealer and charged in court. Anyone with less than the limit is told to report to a body known as a “warning commission on drug addiction” within the next 72 hours.”

In other words, decriminalization. This was passed in 2000, so, they have had this policy in place for about 12 years. Enough time to have some evaluation.

So, what are the results?

“The data show, among other things, that the number of adults in Portugal who have at some point taken illegal drugs is rising. At the same time, though, the number of teenagers who have at some point taken illegal drugs is falling. The number of drug addicts who have undergone rehab has also increased dramatically, while the number of drug addicts who have become infected with HIV has fallen significantly. What, though, do these numbers mean? With what exactly can they be compared? There isn’t a great deal of data from before the experiment began. And, for example, the number of adults who have tried illegal drugs at some point in their lives is increasing in most other countries throughout Europe as well.”

Not bad. The whole idea is to treat addiction as a disease and not a crime.

What is interesting, from the article, is that the opposition to this law and policies is a based not on the possibility that it might actually work but on the moral idea that people should NOT want drugs and should be punished for wanting to use. It is a puritan argument and that is as far as it goes. There is nothing else:

“”It’s important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal,” says Manuel Pinto Coelho, 64, the last great opponent of Goulão’s experiment. Pinto Coelho wants his country to return to normalcy, in the form of the tough war on drugs that much of the rest of the world conducts.”

Of course, it is a war on drugs that does accomplish much except filling up prisons and keeping criminal justice systems overwhelmed with low hanging fruits. Perhaps we should have a Gans-type “functions of drug policy” list.

Again, it is not policy, it is moral standing irrespective of the results. It is interesting to have failing policies defined as “normalcy”.