Lockdown, USA

Lockdown, USA

I think the topic of the advocacy documentary Lockdown, USA is very important, and I am on the same side as the filmmakers, but I don’t think this film as a film is anything special.

As the film points out, there are between two and three million people incarcerated in the United States, but enormously more in some kind of antagonistic relationship with the criminal justice system if you count parole and probation, and ex-offenders who’ve lost voting and other rights. Then if you extend it to the families, the loved ones, the dependents of the incarcerated, it’s vastly higher still.

It used to be at any given time the United States was behind only two or three other countries—maybe the Soviet Union, maybe South Africa, etc.—in the percentage of its population behind bars. Not anymore. For quite a while now we’ve been number one.

And incarceration is wildly disproportionate across different races, classes, etc. One of the oft-cited reasons for this being that in the War on Drugs a few random whites have been capriciously victimized, but minorities have been massively, systematically, targeted. Black people are incarcerated, or have a family member incarcerated, or know someone who is incarcerated, about as routinely as white people catch a cold.

If we really were a free society, then depriving people of some of the most basic liberties and most important political rights would be an absolute last resort kind of thing. Maybe there would still be some hardcore group of recalcitrant bad guys that had to be forcibly prevented from interacting with others in society, but not millions of citizens.

To some extent this documentary is about the War on Drugs and the prison issue in general, but primarily it is about the especially draconian Rockefeller drug laws in New York, with their insane mandatory minimum sentences for even quite minor drug offenses.

A fact-filled documentary about either that general issue or that specific issue has the potential to be very good, but I mostly didn’t care for the tack this film chose.

About 60% of the film is about hip hop impresario Russell Simmons’s activism on the issue of the Rockefeller drug laws, his organizing of a mass rally in New York about it, his negotiations with state officials. About 25% is about comedian/activist Randy Credico’s efforts against the same drug laws. About 10% is about a specific individual convicted under these laws under dubious circumstances and fighting for his release. And about 5% is everything else combined.

The Simmons stuff is somewhat interesting in its way, just not nearly as worthwhile, in my opinion, as going into the issues themselves more deeply would have been.

I was more impressed than not by Simmons. I admire the fact that he’s willing to spend a lot of time, spend a lot of money, and put up with a huge amount of aggravation to fight for a good cause. But then I don’t particularly have a problem with celebrities getting involved with causes. I think 95% of the vituperation and disdain that’s directed their way for doing so has been manufactured and manipulated by the powers that be. The overwhelming majority of public figures who aren’t directly or indirectly paid to express a certain opinion but instead are speaking sincerely tend to be liberal, and thus they must be discredited.

But I like his frankness. I like when he’s asked if he’s concerned it’ll hurt his reputation if he’s seen as being too willing to compromise, and he starts to say that he doesn’t care about that, but then catches himself and honestly replies that yes, it does matter, because if he loses credibility with people, he’ll be a lot less influential in furthering this or other causes he believes in in the future.

I like the fact that he’ll show a little temper, and utter a few choice obscenities when the situation warrants it.

I like the fact that he’s especially upset by dishonesty. As much as he disagrees with sincere opponents who favor these ridiculous laws, he directs the bulk of his ire toward the smiling, seemingly cooperative politicians who smoothly tell you what you want to hear and let you think you’ve reached an agreement with them, only to leak the opposite to the press. He notes that you can easily get shot for that kind of double dealing in the hip hop world, where the threat of violence is an ever present deterrent to dishonesty and disrespect. (Interesting, by the way, that he openly associates the hip hop community with the criminal or prison code of conduct.)

Credico is if anything even more impressive. They’re on the same side, but rivals in a way. Simmons is far more willing to make deals, to make compromises. He’s fine with reform rather than repeal, claiming they differ only in semantics anyway. Whereas Credico is the hard liner who insists they have to go all out for total repeal, such that whatever compromise does develop will be as close to that as possible.

The convict and his family are certainly sympathetic folks, and I don’t mind that they tried to humanize the issue by telling his story. But by focusing so much on a guy who’s probably innocent, they kind of take their eye off the ball. Yes, falsely convicting people of violating these drug laws is a bad thing, but the larger issues here are a) some of this stuff arguably shouldn’t be illegal in the first place, and b) even if it should be illegal, the laws are administered unequally and the punishment being meted out is outrageously disproportionate to the crime.

A few striking facts are doled out here and there, but really it should have been more like ninety minutes of them.

But I want to mention one specific claim that was made that really stood out to me. In the film it is stated that the companies that own privatized prisons have not only lobbied hard (not surprisingly) for stiffer sentencing laws and such to provide them with more inmates, but have lobbied to spend less money on education, so that fewer people would have the wherewithal to pursue life options other than crime.

Now let’s think about that. To me that’s outrageous even coming from conservatives. It’s not often they do something so evil it stuns me, because my opinion of them is about as low as it could be already, but wow. You’re not just benefiting from bad things, you’re not just refraining from trying to make a situation better because you benefit from how it is now; you’re actively changing things to bring about more crime because doing so means you make more money.

But ideology blinds people. In this case, the ideology that making money is always a sufficient justification for doing something as long as it’s not illegal (and sometimes even if it is).

It doesn’t have to be that way. Even believers in laissez faire capitalism aren’t logically required to take that position.

It’s always seemed to me that the intellectually less despicable position for such people to take would be analogous to the way commentators have summarized Voltaire’s civil libertarianism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That is, as bad as it is that people believe and express certain terrible things, attempts to coercively control or suppress beliefs and expression is even worse.

So why not, as an economic libertarian, denounce capitalist practices that are dishonest, harmful, exploitative, dehumanizing, etc., while also opposing their criminalization on grounds that that would allow for even greater evils? Why not agree that trying to increase profits by influencing governmental policies to generate more crime and more incarceration is a horrible, horrible thing for a human being to do?

To believe that people should be allowed to act in their economic self-interest doesn’t imply a belief that they are always in the right when they do so, any more than believing in free speech implies a belief that a North American Man-Boy Love Association member vehemently advocating “sex before eight, or then it’s too late!” is speaking the truth. In both cases you can disagree with, criticize, shun, or vehemently disapprove of such behavior or speech, even if you think they should remain free to do or say it.

If we ignored the private prison lobbyists and any and all other people—on either side—whose contributions to the debate were motivated by crass self-interest (economic, political or otherwise), how different these issues of the criminal justice system, incarceration rates, and the War on Drugs would look. And most other issues of public controversy for that matter.

I’m with Simmons in that what disgusts me most is when I realize the bulk of the people on the opposite side of an issue from me aren’t in fact reasonable folks trying to do right who happen to sincerely disagree, but liars, crooks, propagandists, slimy politicians, etc.

Yeah, allowing them to do some or all of what they’re doing is a necessary evil if we’re going to avoid the risk of a tyrannical government, but what despicable people they are.

Anyway, Lockdown, USA got me going on some rants related to its subject matter, but that’s because I already felt strongly about the issues themselves, not because this is a very effective documentary.

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