Though the war on drugs is far from over, recreational marijuana is now legal in three US states. This week, Alaska joined Washington state and Colorado in dialing back the conflict has been a staggering human rights violation, and fuel for the US’s increasingly militarized police. (To say nothing of its part in real wars throughout Latin America.)
Though the fight hasn’t stopped, public opinion has substantially shifted in recent years. Since 2012, a majority of US citizens have supported legalizing marijuana. Though it behooves us not to get ahead of ourselves in celebrating this victory of sanity, it is also time to turn attention to the victims of police and prisons in America. They are the ones who are likely to still be suffering even after some of our more foolish laws change.
This week, investigative reporter Spencer Ackerman wrote a Guardian piece about what sounds a lot like a black site for political dissenters and other unsavory folks. This place is in Chicago, and no, it’s not quite Abu Ghraib, but the eerie parallels with war on terror excesses are clear and deeply distressing.
The place is called Homan Square. Reportedly, lawyers are not allowed, and arrests are basically off books, meaning suspects disappear into a blackhole of bureaucracy for however long they’re held. If you can’t find your client, but they were taken away by police, that’s where they are likely to be. Suspects are denied lawyers for 12-24 hours. Kids as young as 15 have been taken there. One death has been reported, and numerous beatings. Ackerman relates the story of a NATO protester who was shackled for 17 hours, and not permitted to call a lawyer. Other attorneys claim similar stories of lost clients, and being barred from seeing them at Homan Square. MRAPs are reportedly parked outside the building.
This sounds terrifying — especially paired with, say, the Chicago police commander who tortured 100 suspects, and got away with it for decades, before finally serving four years in prison.
But is this unique? The proliferation of cheap cameras in everyone’s hands has given us a front row look at police brutality. Now, this hasn’t always translated into police accountability, as in the cases of Eric Garner, Kelly Thomas, and others who died by law enforcement hand. But cameras have begun to tell us what police are doing. We can see it instead of using subjective eyewitnesses.
When people tolerated the drug war-propelled explosion in the prison population, they didn’t see what they were accepting. Drug users and sellers were "others" who could be punished without that many qualms. The war on drugs was like any other war where casualties were tolerated and expected. Only in the last few years, when the 2.3 million people in prison figure has become common, meme-worthy knowledge, has the US’s prison population started to feel shameful to the public. Sometimes, even to the very people who helped put those people there.
American citizens still have a fair number of rights most of the time. But when they don’t, they don’t. And when you’re arrested, it is starting to look like you have to depend on the relative goodness of the arresting officer, not on your constitutional rights. The tie with the war on terror is clear. Once Gitmo is tolerated, Homan Square is not far behind. And vice versa. Both the wars on terror and drugs have fed off of each other. They are siblings, and sometimes they are identical twins.
There is still a strong trust in law enforcement in this country. Fifty-three percent of people had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in law enforcement, according to a Gallup poll from last year. Police come in third, under the military and small businesses. Pushing at police, and suggesting criminal punishment is still too hard for most media– to say nothing of juries or prosecutors.
And yet, people remain confident that powers of war and occupation will stay in their place, far away from Americans. (The right sort of Americans.) Two former Justice Department officials are disturbed by Ackerman’s article, and intend to look into it. (Never mind the Obama administration’s killing powers. They’re very troubled by this.) Conservatives are horrified by certain abuses, liberals by others, but both sides are willing to sell their souls for the price of enemies being abused and oppressed. And nobody, really, is against war and police running amok. That would be like being against small businesses!
Homan Square is what noble war-making really looks like. It’s just small, shadowy power tripping and abuse of smalltime criminals and activists. Gitmo and Abu Ghraib came home, along with all those surplus MRAPs outside. It’s just the baby version of its sibling, and it may not be as new or as novel as we think, but Homan Square should still make each of us feel less safe. It should also confirm that we have no clue what law enforcement is doing when we’re not watching them.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.