Many taboos left to be broken

December 19, 2012

Filmmaker Matt Pillischer explains why Breaking the Taboo, a new documentary about the "war on drugs," falls short of explaining the real background to U.S. drug policy.

THE ENGLISH-language version of Breaking the Taboo, a polished hour-long Internet documentary about the failure of the "war on drugs," narrated by Morgan Freeman, was released for free on YouTube earlier this month to much fanfare. However, this is a movie that mostly lobbyists, not activists, will find useful.

Its policy argument can be summed up in a paragraph, and its only relevant contribution to the discourse around the war on drugs in the U.S. is that there are some heavy-hitting world leaders who are finally signing on to drug law reform as a good idea.

Let me acknowledge that I've made a film, Broken On All Sides, on the overlapping topics of mass incarceration and systemic racism in the U.S., so I have my own view on how a story like this should be portrayed. My movie comes to some of the same conclusions that Breaking the Taboo does--namely that we should decriminalize drugs and treat them as a public health issue not a criminal justice or law enforcement issue--but we have different ideas on who should lead us there and how it relates to other tightly entangled problems in society.

Bill Clinton interviewed in Breaking the Taboo
Bill Clinton interviewed in Breaking the Taboo

One thing is certain: The prominent talking heads of the 1 Percent who are featured in this film won't end the problems associated with the drug war, and the movie breaks one fading taboo (the war on drugs doesn't work) while avoiding other crucial ones (racism and class warfare are alive and well).

While it's welcome that sitting leaders of countries around the world (the presidents of Guatemala, Columbia, Brazil, Portugal and beyond) are shown acknowledging some of the massive destruction the drug war causes, especially in Latin American countries, Breaking the Taboo astonishingly but perhaps predictably avoids the third rails of American politics: structural racism and economic inequality.

It's almost as though the British and Brazilian filmmakers were told by those mostly rich, white men that they interviewed, "You cannot lobby American Congress with a movie that talks about racism or capitalism, so steer clear."

THE MOVIE intends in part to influence an American audience, since, as the movie makes clear, we are the largest drug consumer in the world and the most powerful country leading the law enforcement approach to drug abuse. But the movie doesn't seek to empower the people most affected by mass incarceration in the U.S. Instead, it becomes a platform for many of the people who caused the problems in the first place--former President Bill Clinton, for one.

Review: Movies

Breaking the Taboo, a documentary by Cosmo Feilding Mellen and Fernando Grostein Andrade, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Focusing on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, with the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, the U.S., Switzerland and Mexico, the movie pays lots of attention to the higher-ups in society, while only briefly allowing a couple of people who were incarcerated to share their experiences.

Breaking the Taboo talks a lot about the "human toll" the war on drugs has had but explains nothing about how the drug war was launched by President Ronald Reagan at a time when the majority of Americans had drugs fairly low on their list of concerns.

It ignores the context of social and economic crises facing the U.S. 1 Percent coming out of the 1960s and '70s, and how Republican Party leaders stirred up racism through "law-and-order" rhetoric in an attempt to push back the gains of the civil rights movement. Republicans used the image of the "drug criminal" (read: young, Black urban male who no longer has a job because all the inner-city factories closed) in order to win back the Southern white vote.

The movie doesn't discuss the enormous racial disparities caused by police and prosecutors' choices for stops, arrests, charging, prosecution, plea deals and sentencing (all of which cannot be challenged as racial discrimination in court). Breaking the Taboo doesn't discuss the massive amount of money being made through the prison industrial complex through the caging of human beings.

And it only briefly mentions the second-class status that's created by law for people who were formerly incarcerated through exclusion of housing, access to education and jobs because of their convictions--what author Michelle Alexander has coined "the New Jim Crow."

And where are the scenes of activism? One of the few activist-sounding clips we hear is from a speech by racist libertarian Ron Paul. Instead of the grassroots, the movie is content to sit in the room of old, mostly white men--part of the ruling elite that created the problem in the first place.

The filmmakers rightly call out President Obama's hypocrisy in proclaiming before being elected that the war on drugs was an utter failure--and then turning around and preventing any real change from taking place once in the White House. Obama has basically maintained the same ratio as George W. Bush--twice as much law enforcement funding as funding drug treatment or education.

But Bill Clinton--arguably the single-most responsible person for ramping up the war on drugs and the greatest explosion of incarceration during the 1990s--is given a "get out of jail free" card by the movie's directors. They even let him throw a small message of personal responsibility in at the end. "As long as you have your personal freedom, the ability to think, you have a chance to do better," Clinton says. "Don't give that freedom up, that's my message."

Tell that to the millions of people who were arrested, sentenced to excessive mandatory terms, put to death and terrorized in communities under your watch, Mr. Clinton.

TO ME, the most important thing about ending the war on drugs is ending the abuse and violence so many people face because of: 1) the disgustingly militarized and punitive response to drug use, and 2) the massive crime in poor neighborhoods and countries like Mexico and Latin America.

It's important to treat people who are experiencing problems with drug abuse, but we must face that the drug war has a bigger problem than drug abuse. And it's an obvious outcome if you look at why the war on drugs was launched in the first place, because of race and economics, but the filmmakers of Breaking the Taboo avoid this aspect of the historical and political context.

Ending the war on drugs also means our society must find employment and education for people who are currently employed by the illegal drug trade. It means providing opportunities and resources for large segments of our society who have been cut out of the "new economy."

It means caring for segregated communities of color that have been abandoned by U.S. society. It means working people of all colors understanding that the drug war and mass incarceration are largely about social control--criminalizing all Black men, and perpetuating fear and a racial divide among working people.

The movie ends with the positive slant that the mainstream media is covering the story about the drug war's failure. But unfortunately, they still aren't telling the whole story about mass incarceration, how we got here, the systemic or structural racism involved with law enforcement in the U.S., and the human destruction done in poor communities, and communities of color in particular.

That's why independent media and documentarians need to take on this story--and why Breaking the Taboo was a missed opportunity.

Let's talk about how to actually stop crime in communities. If we take the illegal drug trade out of poor communities, but don't replace it with massive jobs programs, quality education, and affordable health care and housing, how will we reduce crime and prison populations? If we don't get rid of the laws that create second-class citizens in this country, how can we end racial caste? These vital questions are ignored in Breaking the Taboo.

The movie ends with 30 seconds talking about the role of protest and public pressure, when it should have easily taken up a full chapter of the movie. We will need to do more than break the taboo if we want to end the war on drugs--we will need to break the back of American racism--and ultimately the capitalist profit system that needs racism to ensure the 1 Percent continue raking in the big bucks.

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