Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hope Versus Despair: The Uninhabitable House We Live In

The recent presidential campaign dredged up a barely-hidden reserve of bigotry in America. That doesn’t seem surprising, of course, but maybe it’s something to sing about. Two lefties, Abe Meeropol and Earl Robinson, composed “The House I Live In,” a 1943 tune about their progressive yet patriotic vision for a country mired in hatred. The lyrics convey faith in our better natures, sort of like the dialogue in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Neil Diamond each recorded the anthem for tolerance. Also Frank Sinatra, whose neutered version was delivered in a November 1945 short movie with the same title that denounced anti-Semitism. But he angered Meeropol – who had penned “Strange Fruit” to decry lynching almost a decade earlier – by deleting lines such as “my neighbors white and black.”

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki offers a sharp focus on neighbors white and black with The House I Live In, a wrenching documentary that won the top prize at January’s Sundance festival and has been released theatrically in time for possible Oscar consideration. Robeson’s sonorous bass-baritone is heard over closing credits, after 108 minutes of searing cinematic testimony that points out how far we are from the song’s plea for “a land of wealth and beauty with enough for all to share.”

Eugene Jarecki
The failed and futile War on Drugs, which Jarecki (Why We Fight, 2006) traces in its many manifestations throughout U.S. history, clearly has intensified existing racial disparities. Blacks comprise 56 percent of all those incarcerated for these crimes though they represent only 13 percent of the total population. The country has spent $1 trillion and arrested 45 million people since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared illegal drugs “public enemy number one.” In the wake of Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign during the 1980s, more people than ever were just saying yes. States enacted “three strikes” laws, in which a third felony automatically requires a 25-years-to-life sentence. With just five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of its prisoners.

Nonetheless, the drug trade continues to flourish, as several talking heads attest on camera.“It would be one thing if it was draconian and it worked, but it’s draconian and it doesn’t work,” suggests David Simon,” a former journalist whose acclaimed HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) tackled Baltimore’s inner-city narcotics scene. Like The House I Live In, that gritty TV show addressed institutional dysfunction. One of the true realists in our culture, Simon – he writes a blog called The Audacity of Despair – arguably serves as Jarecki’s intellectual muse. His emotional muse is Nannie Jeter, the elderly black woman who helped raise him. Despite her first name, she was less a nanny than the loving spirit of the house he lived in while growing up.

The loving spirit of the documentary encompasses the sacrifice Nannie Jeter made to continue working for the upscale Jareckis when the family moved from Connecticut to a New York suburb. She agreed to relocate with them. Her salary doubled but, back home in a much poorer neighborhood, her own son wound up an addict. Rightly or wrongly, she feels guilty of neglect. By logical extension, her rich white employers might also bear some responsibility as does society as a whole.

This is the most personal of the many tragedies that are exposed in the film, which travels from the Empire State to Rhode Island to Florida to New Mexico and beyond. There’s also a stop in Vermont, where Jarecki is a resident. In the town of St. Albans, he zeroes in on Anthony Johnson, a young African-American man busted for being in the company of people with crack cocaine. “The guy had no drugs on him at all,” Jarecki explained during a phone interview earlier this year. “He was guilty by association. But courts have the power to throw the book at you because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”

Mark Bennett, an Iowa federal judge in the documentary, laments that his hands are tied when it comes to defendants convicted of even non-violent drug crimes. Mike Carpenter, a law-and-order prison guard in Oklahoma, acknowledges the awful absurdity of the status quo. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (2010), is outraged that more black men are incarcerated today than there were living in slavery before the Civil War. Those caught with crack versus powder cocaine faced punishment that was 100 times more severe, Jarecki said, despite the fact that they’re the same substance. “The U.S Supreme Court ruled that unfair in 2007, but now the ratio is 18 to one for crack. Crack is thought to be more prevalent in the African-American community. Actually, only 13 percent of users are black.”

In voice-over narration, Jarecki reveals that his father fled Europe as a child in the 1930s because the Third Reich began persecuting Jews. This heritage resonates when Simon describes American drug policies and the judicial system as “a holocaust in slow motion.”

David Simon
”Our war on drugs is a national scourge,” noted Jarecki, who interviewed cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys, wardens, inmates and their families. He went out with police manning road blacks to arbitrarily stop cars and question occupants. “I asked one officer why. He said, ‘We’re on a fishing expedition.’ I told him, ‘My father came from Germany. When they began stopping citizens, it was a really bad sign.’”

Democratic governments aren’t necessarily above fomenting mass hysteria. “The public is always worked into a frenzy by politicians who want to get tough on crime. We see ever-escalating rhetoric.,” Jarecki said, adding that Judge Bennett told him no mercy was permitted for an offender even if that person had won a Medal of Honor. “How could that possibly make any sense?”

It could not.

Jarecki said that the Nazis “fear-mongered the public into thinking Jews were the enemy,” and the same process has been unfolding for African-Americans and Hispanics. Good people can be caught up in a bad policy, thanks to which “America is more addicted to this system of punishment than addicts are to drugs.” In recent years, the ethnic equation has been altered a bit as more and more Americans are left without employment when factories and mills close or outsource their jobs.

The issue, he thinks, is now as much about class as it is about race. Jarecki meets with working-class white men doing time for meth amphetamines who express astonishment at the kinds of long sentences they had assumed only black people got. And poverty produces misery that can lead to drug dependence in any community, “where people are locked out of the mainstream economy.”

Anthony Johnson’s absentee father, also a drug casualty, eloquently outlines how dealers lure children on the streets of impoverished black neighborhoods by giving out free clothes, jewelry, cash, favors. “When they came around it was Christmas,” he recalled. Later, those kids are persuaded to sell dope so they too can prosper in a place with no other prospects. After being sent to jail, legitimate work opportunities on the outside are all but unavailable to them, so the cycle never ends.

Jarecki believes “the headless horseman of capitalism is the unholy alliance between our politicians and the prison-industrial complex. It has an insatiable appetite, which means there’s a need for a bigger and bigger market. This drains us of our economic and human resources. This is a form of self-cannibalization.”

And, in so many instances, a form of racism. Black youngsters like Anthony Johnson – arrested in St. Albans, tried in a Burlington court and now serving six years in a federal penitentiary – haven’t got a good chance of escaping the paradigm, no matter where in the country they find themselves. “The paradox is that Vermont’s such a quaint, rural, lily-white, liberal state,” Jarecki contended. “It would shock most Vermonters to discover that we’re the furthest thing from progressive in our drug policies. That would break their hearts. It broke mine.”

Unless the audacity of despair becomes obsolete, the house we all live in remains a heartbreak hotel.

Paul Robeson
The Abe Meeropol/Earl Robinson original: Go to the link below to hear Paul Robeson sing it.

What is America to me?/ A name, a map, the flag I see/ a certain word, “democracy”!/ What is America to me?

The house I live in, the plot of earth, a street/ The grocer and the butcher and the people that I meet/ The children in the playground, the faces that I see/ All races, all religions, that’s America to me.

The place I work in, the worker at my side/ The little town or city where my people live and died The “howdy” and the handshake, the air of feeling free/ The right to speak my mind out, that’s America to me.

The things I see about me, the big things and the small/ The little corner newsstand and the house a mile tall/ The wedding and the churchyard, the laughter and the tears/ The dream that’s been a-growin’ for a hundred-fifty years.

The town I live in, the street, the house, the room/ The pavement of the city, or a garden all in bloom/ The church, the school, the club house, the million lights I see/ But especially the people, that’s America to me.

The house I live in, my neighbors white and black/ The people who just came here, or from generations back/ The town hall and the soap box, the torch of liberty/ A home for all God’s children, that’s American to me.

The words of old Abe Lincoln, of Jefferson and Paine/ of Washington and Jackson/ and the tasks that still remain/ The little bridge at Concord/ where freedom’s fight began/ Our Gettysburg and Midway, the story of Bataan.

The house I live in, the goodness everywhere/ A land of wealth and beauty with enough for all to share/ A house that we call freedom, the home of Liberty/ And it belongs to fighting people, that’s America to me

The Frank Sinatra version: Go to the link below to hear Sinatra sing it

What is America to me?/ A name, a map, the flag I see
A certain word, 'democracy'/ What is America to me?

The house I live in/ A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher/ And the people that I meet
The children in the playground/ The faces that I see
All races, all religions/ That's America to me

The place I work in/ The workers at my side
The little town, a city/ Where my people live and die
The howdy and the handshake/ The air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out/ That's America to me

The things I see about me/ The big things and the small
The little corner newsstand/ And the house a mile tall
The wedding in the church yard/ The laughter and the tears
The dream that's been a-growing/ For one hundred and fifty years

The town I live in/ The street, the house, the room
The pavement of a city/ Of a garden all in bloom
The church, the school, the clubhouse/ The million lights I see
But especially the people/ That's America to me

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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