By Calvin Dimmig | October 4, 2021
Imagine: a young man from Baltimore, MD, raised on and by the culture of the streets in the latter half of the 20th century. Ingrained deep in the American ghettos lies a reliable economic lifestyle, with illegal substances as its sole commodity and core, pulling in all aware of its presence. His first job didn’t require any past career experience or a resume. It needed him to stand on the corner. Demand is always high. The customers would come to him. The authorities are always watching, profiling. Discriminately surveying cars with out-of-state license plates. Observing them park at the decrepit gas station near his corner. Arresting for warrants that may or may not be real. Traffic stops and bleating sirens and confrontations. Violence. Slaughter. Real-life tragedy played out above the half-century-old ideological roots beneath American soil, molding our unconscious, blinding and silencing generation after generation
This, albeit a dramatized account, is just a classic example of an American citizens' complex experiences during The War on Drugs, a topic explored in Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In.”
On Sept. 29 a showing of Jarecki’s documentary was hosted by UAlbany’s Recovery Program. As a branch of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research, the program, according to a handout, “is an initiative to support students seeking and living a recovery lifestyle.” Through this program, one learns how to succeed as a student, protect their recovery process, navigate developing careers, and get the most out of their college experience; and, in doing so, become a Recovery Ally.
Before the movie played, Dr. Laura Longo, a licensed psychologist, posed rhetorical questions to consider while we watched. “How have your perspectives changed on drug use? What are your emotional reactions to the stories? How can information be used, virtuously, to create a recovery-safe environment out of the campus?”
The documentary took a modern style in detailing the War on Drugs. Jarecki purposefully (and unforgivingly) employed mechanics such as switching narrative focus on people, places, and periods; using a wide cast from colorful backgrounds–including Jarecki’s family friend Nanny Jenner, policy-skeptic policeman Michael Carpenter, “The Wire” director David Simon, and, my favorite, the enigmatic, luridly dressed “Magic Man.”
People’s experience is the central theme of Jarecki’s documentary, specifically their sorrows. Nanny Jenner was brought to tears detailing the story of her son, James, who, as she puts it, “used the needle.” Fathers who left their sons anxiously reminiscing on their departure and absence and its impact on their child. One father, Dennis Whidbee, was left unphased hearing the news his son became a dealer. He describes how they are the ideal role model, “...they [dealers] got me the Magic [Johnson] Converses, water, even ice cream...When they came it was like Christmas.”
Jarecki made one similarity between the characters vivid and explicit. Everyone involved is a victim. The imprisoned, the oppressors, our politicians, our neighbors: We the People. The War on Drugs’ culture stigmatized a complicated issue. The intricate, harrowing life of a drug abuser was condensed into a disgraceful image, infesting itself into the minds of Americans, shaping individuals and communities for decades. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Judgment, aggression, and cold shoulders replaced amiability and support.
The stigma and stereotyping are prevalent today, whether as whispers in the wind or the thunderous boom of the police department’s battering ram demolishing your front door. People were–are–brainwashed. (You know those old corny television ads against drugs which depict someone frying an egg and a narrator saying “This is your brain on drugs.” Do you see the irony here, now?)
It is worth mentioning the brainwashed got off easy. There’s an idea being discussed and examined relating the experience of African Americans and minorities to that of the Jews during pre-WWII Germany. There’s a snippet from the documentary briefly summarizing this I’ll leave here. It is really insightful stuff. Listen to it, watch it, and think for yourself. This is the first step in creating a knowledgeable, caring community, unlike the one people might find themselves living in.