America’s War on Americans
April 14, 2013
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Abraham Lincoln, and the abolitionists of the time, rightly believed that all people were created equal by their Creator and deserve equal and fair treatment under the law. They rightly believed that when our founding fathers wrote the following excerpt from the Declaration of Independence “all men” were not limited to only white men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” With the greatest and noblest of intentions, the writers of the thirteenth amendment and those who worked tirelessly to ensure its passing, fell short of their goal. By including the caveat of “punishment for a crime” the thirteenth amendment left open a window for racism and injustice to remain woven into the fabric of our society.
One hundred forty-seven years after passing this important and profoundly necessary Constitutional amendment, the United States has turned mass incarceration into a modern-day form of slavery. The United States has more African-Americans enslaved and locked in cages than it had enslaved and working on Southern plantations in 1850. Rather than being a social justice atrocity exclusive to the South, African-Americans are now systematically incarcerated throughout the United States at a rate of thirteen times that of white people.1 African-Americans comprise only twelve to thirteen percent of the United States population, and yet they make up seventy-two percent of the more than two million people incarcerated in the United States.2 Of the two and half million people incarcerated in American prisons, ninety percent are men, which makes the above statistic even more alarming when you consider that African-American men represent only six percent of the population in the United States but almost seventy percent of the prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice, one in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime. The devastating impact the War on Drugs has had on African-American men cannot be overstated, and we must not overlook the impact their incarceration has had on their families, their communities and our nation.
A modern-day form of slavery
One hundred years after the passing of the thirteenth amendment, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists continued to fight for justice, leading a nonviolent movement to bring the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence to all people. In 1968, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically assassinated, the Nixon Administration launched the War on Drugs. This war, waged almost exclusively in densely populated, African-American, urban ghettos, is the most costly (the federal government spends an estimated $500 per second), ineffective war—in terms of both lives and dollars—ever fought by Americans.3 According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, the number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased five-fold since 1972 without a comparable decrease in crime or drug use.
Yet, to most middle class Americans, the War on Drugs seems to be more of a public relations initiative associated with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign than an actual war. Why? Because the war—waged by the American government on American citizens—occurs in slums, barrios and ghettos, where no middle class Americans live. Both the drug users and drug sellers are carted off to massive prison complexes built in rural areas many miles from roads or highways. They are out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. The War on Drugs is very much a war, but a more appropriate title would be the “War on African-Americans and Poor People” because the government is not rounding up white, middle and upper class drug dealers and users. There are no air raids at expensive private schools where drugs are sold and bought in ample supply. There are no police SWAT teams barging into the homes in white, middle- and upper-class neighborhoods where a stop by the local bar or country club would mostly likely yield as much drugs as the convenient store parking lot of the ghetto.4
Prior to meeting Nanon Williams, I was the middle class American who had given little thought to incarceration. Prison and prisoners were not a part of my life, nor were they a part of anyone’s life I knew. Or so I thought. It is not that I was callous to the suffering of others. Rather, I had never thought to make myself aware. Even though many people I know, as well as many of our United States Presidents, at some point or another experimented with drugs in their youth and/or young adult life, I did not know anyone who had ever been arrested for drugs, much less incarcerated. My education about prison came from televisions shows such as Law & Order and Breakout. I was naive to the realities of incarceration in this country. I did not know that while the United States represents only five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. The United States—home of the free and brave—incarcerates twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. Now consider this: sixty percent of the people imprisoned in the United States are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.5 The majority of people in prison are not serial killers, rapists and child molesters. No, they are drug addicts (i.e., seriously ill individuals in need of treatment) and people who are so economically disadvantaged they often have no other source of income than to sell drugs in order to put food on the table and keep the electricity on. Imagine if, during the days of prohibition, we incarcerated—locked in six by nine cages—everyone who drank illegal moonshine or bathtub gin. Is marijuana, cocaine or crack that much different than hard liquor? The answer is no. One is currently legal; the others are not. And at one point in history they were all legal, and at other points in history they were all illegal.
And then there are those individuals like Nanon Williams—those who are innocent of the crimes for which they are charged. According to the Innocence Project, an estimated two to five percent of all people incarcerated in the United States are innocent. To put that in perspective, fifty thousand to one hundred twenty-five thousand people are incarcerated in the United States for crimes they did not commit. This statistic should make the hair on your arms stand up and prompt you to ask yourself, “What can I do to change this?”
Nanon, an African-American man who grew up in the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles, found himself entrapped in the economy of drugs. At seventeen years of age with a promising football career ahead of him, Nanon had never consumed a single drop of alcohol or drugs. As the oldest male in his family, he wanted to contribute financially to his household. Foolishly, he got involved in the economic opportunities available to him—the drug dealing activities he saw on just about every street corner in his neighborhood.
By his own account, he was “no choirboy,” but he also was not a murderer. He was an impoverished, African-American boy who grew up with challenges so extreme few middle class Americans could imagine. He got involved with the wrong crowd who did not hesitate, at the hands of an over-eager, career-zealous prosecutor, to point the finger at the least experienced and youngest boy in the group. Nanon Williams has now been incarcerated for over twenty years—more than half his life—for a murder he did not commit while the man who actually committed the murder lives freely in our society.6
Still Surviving: A Memoir of Life on Death Row
But that is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning. Amidst violence that rivals the worst of battlefields, daily brutality, extreme isolation, racism and inconceivable injustice that are standard operating procedures in America’s prisons emerged a young man dedicated to shaping the minds and hearts of fellow Americans in order to create a better tomorrow for us all. Nanon wrote Still Surviving when he was twenty-nine years old. At the time, he had been incarcerated for twelve years, three while awaiting trial in Harris County and nine on Texas’ notoriously cruel death row. He was rightfully angry, but even in his anger you will see a wise young man, whose only protection was to shield himself in muscles and tattoos, desperate to find his way in a world that drives even the toughest men mad—a world few live to tell about.
Ten years after the first printing of this book, Nanon continues to fight for his freedom. Along the way, he has met with hard-fought successes and bitter disappointments. And he has grown into a man committed to exposing the injustice, abuse and inhumane conditions that have largely resulted from America’s most failed war—the War on Drugs—and society’s lack of awareness about it. He has also grown into a man with the desire to positively influence and improve others’ lives so that in a world of madness, there can be meaning. In order to improve the world, we must be educated about the darkest shadows within it.
Still Surviving provides an intimate look into a world so horrible and unjust you may be tempted to put the book down and look away. I encourage you to look deep within yourself to find the compassion and courage necessary to bear witness to the suffering of others. Allow Nanon Williams’ wrongful conviction and two decades of imprisonment, and the fifty thousand or more others just like him, to spark in you the same passion for justice that slavery sparked in Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists responsible for the passing of the thirteenth amendment.
In his book, The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay wrote, “I have found in life that everything, no matter how bad, comes to an end.” Each and every one of us holds within ourselves the power to change the world. As Gandhi so wisely instructed, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” You will no doubt be surprised by how much one determined person can truly accomplish.
Learn more about mass incarceration in America here.
Robyn Short has ghostwritten numerous books and is the founder of goodmedia press and goodmedia communications. She is a student of A Course in Miracles, a self-study system of spiritual psychotherapy. Robyn is a passionate believer in peace and social justice. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Auburn University, a Masters of Liberal Arts from Southern Methodist University and will graduate with a Masters in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution from Southern Methodist University in 2014. Robyn is the author of Prayers for Peace, and the forthcoming children’s book Peace People, co-authored with Nanon Williams. Robyn is available for book signings and to speak on topics of peacebuilding and nonviolence, especially as it relates to these core issues. Contact Robyn by email.