Jay Z, with prophetic courage has used his brilliant voice to expose the failed "War on Drugs" as a successful war on the poor, especially the Black poor. The casualties of this war have decimated Black communities, devastated Black families and destroyed Black lives. As a pastor, I have been challenged to minister to some of the casualties of this "war" while calling for an end to this calamitous criminal injustice that has made the Black community a "prisoner of war."
Sunday, April 23, 2006 was one of the defining moments of my ministry. The headline of the local newspaper screamed "Unequal Justice: Black & White." The front page article told the horrible story of a casualty of the war on drugs. A judge had sentenced a white man to probation for killing someone, but had brandished his "tough on crime" credentials by sentencing a Black man, Tyrone Brown, to life for smoking marijuana while he was on probation for committing a $2 robbery! This travesty of justice put the spotlight on one of the strategies of this bogus war: one is treated much better if they are rich, white and guilty than if you're poor, Black and innocent. Jay Z shows that a Black face was made the face of illegal drugs and Black bodies were demonized and criminalized, in the process. Tyrone Brown had returned the wallet and the money but by the time the article was published he had served 17 years of his life sentence as a "POW!" 17 years of his life were stolen by a war on drugs, mass incarceration and a justice system that is criminal and unjust. In a conversation with Tyrone after he was finally released he lamented that the experience with the justice system and prison had robbed him of his dreams and severely attacked his faith. The sad and sinful saga of Tyrone Brown is a tragic metaphor for the mess that is mass incarceration and the evil of the war on drugs.
Black men are underemployed and over incarcerated. Black men in their 20s without a high school diploma (growing up in job and opportunity deserts) are more likely to be captives of this carceral state. Devah Pager, a sociologist at Harvard, has written, "Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation's most marginalized groups, rather it is now a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to manhood." In a nation that values and espouses freedom, incarceration has become a "rite of passage" for criminalized and vilified Black bodies. Black bodies grow up in "war torn" communities discovering that we are the targeted ENEMIES of the state, in OUR country, of this "war!"
A coalition was formed to free Tyrone Brown. Our efforts to liberate him from the internment camp of prison put us on a collision course with a system that is broken. Of course the broken system, like any war machine, has profiteers who financially benefit from this "war." The prison was located in a rural community in Texas that benefitted, in its population count, from the prisoners of "war" but the racial demographic of the prison and rural community were extreme opposites. The rural community is White, but the prisoners are Black and Brown. The rural community received an infusion of tax dollars and jobs because of the prison population adding to the numbers in their area. Contractors and vendors enrich their bottom line because of the procurement opportunities provided by the placement of the concrete cage
Tyrone had been institutionalized, making it necessary to prepare him for re-entry into a different world. Our church, Friendship-West Baptist Church, gave him a job and provided counseling and mentoring. Every time I spoke with Tyrone I sensed he was grateful, but haunted by his experience as a "POW." He shared with me that his experience in prison was worse than any nightmare. There were days when he would break down, emotionally, as the ghosts of his POW experience in prison would try to invade and bedevil his sanity. I would pray with him and for him but my prayers came from a place of heartbreak and anger. I was handcuffed by an overwhelming sense of helplessness trying to minister to one who was broken by his experience as a POW! This was the son of a mother, whose heart was ripped by the trauma and terror of his capture and captivity. He is a father who was separated from his child for $2 and smoking marijuana. He would often shake his head "17 years of my life, gone. For what? $2 and smoking weed. Why did God let it happen?, pastor?" I had no answer for him that would make sense of the hell he experienced. I was ministering to a human being, a child of God, made in the image of God, but God's image and his sense of God had been marred and scarred because he was wounded in this fraudulent war with real and tragic consequences. The American empire, the most powerful military machine on the planet with a history of military invasions and conquests declared "war" on Black bodies in the name of a war on drugs and invaded "Black communities" causing Jay Z to rap "My mind been thru hell/My neighborhood Crown Central/Where cops lock you up rather than trying to defend you."
Words may have escaped me when Tyrone shared with me out of his brokenness, but I do know that America may hear these words in judgment from the God she claims to "trust" in my remixed version:
"I was in prison and you profited from a war on drugs with too many casualties and POWs."
Frederick Douglass Haynes, III
Chair, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
Senior Pastor, Friendship - West Baptist Church