03/11/12 Edwin C. Sanders

Century of Lies

Rev. Edwin Sanders speaks at James A. Baker drug conference "The War on Drugs Has Failed. Is Legalization the Answer?" + Rice Prof William Martin

Audio file


Century of Lies / March 11, 2012


DEAN BECKER: The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more. Now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.


DEAN BECKER: The following was captured at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy Rice University Houston,Texas. The moderator, Professor William Martin is introducing Reverend Sanders immediately following a presentation – a video featuring Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of color blindness.” This is Professor Martin.


WILLIAM MARTIN: He’s been dealing with ways to reduce the harms of drug abuse for a long time. He’s been a staunch advocate of needle exchange programs to provide sterile syringes to injecting drug users which is a fairly proven method of reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.

He’s currently involved in further health related efforts supported by both the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. So we have a number of reverend clergy with us today. We hope they will be especially interested in Reverend Sanders reflections but from hearing him on several occasions I believe you will find him inspiring regardless of where you stand with respect to theology.

I’m happy to welcome Reverend Edwin Sanders.

EDWIN SANDERS: Thank you. It was hard not to stand up and applaud after listening and watching the video because, indeed, Michelle Alexander has become such a vital voice in this movement that I think we are going to spend some more time talking about today and hopefully not just “we’ll talk about” but we’ll find this experience being one that will translate into a new level of activism in all of our parts.

There are a few things I want to say very quickly about what I’ve been doing in this regard over some time. There is an organization called Religious Leaders For a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy. A number of years ago we were blessed to have Howard Moody who was one of the pioneers in this area – who actually developed this organization called Religious Leaders For a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy.

What Howard Moody did was he actually effectively went into the theological faith in this country and was able to get a number of the leading voices in the United States to become a part of this whole agenda of trying to develop a new perspective for our clergy persons in the United States and beyond. One of the things is if you look at the organization as a…and I was blessed that Howard at some point decided to hand it over to Ed Sanders.

It was interesting to me because he had put together this phenomenal group of people who were a part of, I think, the foundation of helping us with theological perspective talk about this issue. One of the things I realized when I inherited what Howard had done was that Howard got all the superstars. He had all the people who were distinguished professors. He had all the people who served the major congregations. I always tell people, “My good friend Will Campbell says there are three kinds of churches. He says there are high steeple churches, there are low steeple churches and no steeple churches.”

Howard got all the high steeple churches and he had people whose names you would easily recognize but yet there was a way in which we realized as we began to go forward with this movement that, indeed, to be effective in this work there was a way in which we had to begin to make sure that there were people in the low steeple churches and the no steeple churches or the lower low-steeple churches to be able to hear and understand how important it was for us to be engaged in this movement.

I appreciate that and I give you that perspective because one of the things I think has to happen to take this next step is how we engage, how we involve, how we create an atmosphere in which those persons who are serving congregations that might not end up being the ones that fall into the categories of being the mega-churches. You know, the churches that are of mainline significance around theological circles.

The church that’s the church on the corner. The church that has only 100 or maybe less members. The church that ends up serving, in terms of social-economic terms, that end up serving the people that probably most reflect those who end up being victimized by mass incarceration.

You do need to understand that the more money you have the more likely you are to be able to avoid that trap. The people who end up there are often populating no steeple churches. They do not have the resources and end up being subjected to the ways in which the criminal justice system - the criminal injustice system as I prefer to call it sometimes – ends up meeting out the kinds of response to who they are in a way that regulates them to being victims in this mass incarceration.

There’s a language that Michelle Alexander uses in this presentation today that I want to suggest to you is a very important language because she says that what is necessary is a confrontation with the truth. I think it’s very important that she was forthright and honest enough to speak clearly to the fact that this was something that she had to come to almost in terms of personal epiphany. It wasn’t something that she easily understood at first.

I want to suggest to you that many of you in this room probably don’t understand, I’m convinced, some of the dimensions of this problem that are going to have to be addressed and embraced if, indeed, we are going to be able to take it to the point where, indeed, we put an end to this insanity that is actually being visited upon the communities that many of us can identify intellectually, understand statistically and, in some instances, have involvement in personally.

But the real realities in most instances those communities are isolated and those communities are not easily understood by most of us in this room. We need to talk about that because that’s a community that we have to partner with. That’s a community that we have to move into a relationship with. That’s a community that we’ll have to line up with as we go forward in this struggle.

I want to try to say some things about what I think that means and what I think the implications are for us. It’s not as though what Michelle Alexander is talking about is not something that we have seen bits and pieces of over time. I never assume that I’m not really saying things to people that they have not heard or they don’t know but rather it’s a way in which you arrange the facts and you put the information together in a way that might lead to a different kind of understanding. It might even translate into a personal awakening when you realize it is something that is other than the bits and the pieces that seem to be a problem and you come to realize that it’s a part of a fabric that has a history - a part of a fabric that has been woven over the entire experience of black people and other people of color in this country.

It’s not as though this has transpired just since the drug war started. The drug war just ends up being the port in which there’s a galvanization. There’s a point where there’s a coming together of a reality that represents a historical horror that goes back at least 400 years and you cannot understand what’s going on unless you’re honest enough to face forthrightly and appreciate that that’s exactly what it is. It is the new Jim Crow.

But the new Jim Crow, you have to understand, is built upon a reference to the old Jim Crow. The old Jim Crow existed because of 300 years of social disenfranchisement and the ways in which the reality of disinheritance had been a part of those people of color especially those of African descent in this country.

So I want to suggest to you that one of the things you have to do is be willing to forthrightly deal with the issue of race. I find to be very problematic in that regard is that most of us because we know that we are a part of this activity, that we are a part of this movement that we can see as being right and being something that needs to be addressed. I think we can feel good about the fact that we have somehow come to the point that we see the problem and know that something has to be done about it.

But it’s much harder when you realize, and I will quote that great philosopher of the 20t h century who just went on to glory not too long ago (as a matter of fact I was at a DPA meeting the day it happened) and that is the great Michael Jackson who said that it does not work until you are willing to look forthrightly at the “Man in the Mirror” because we are often what we appreciate is that what continues to fuel and perpetuate this problem is that something that all of us end up being involved in and involved with.

I’m especially appreciative of anybody …Any United Methodists in here?

AUDIENCE: Oh yeah.

EDWIN SANDERS: Good. I’m especially appreciative that evidentially Michelle Alexander rung your bell in a way that just recently the United Methodist church divested,?> itself completely of all stock that had to do with the prison industrial complex.

AUDIENCE: [applause]

EDWIN SANDERS: And for them that was millions of dollars because of their pention plans and the like. What would it mean for all of us in this room to go and examine our 401Ks and see the degree in which some of the investments that allow you to have some sense of security in retirement end up being a part of what’s driving this system.

What happens if you go to your Southern Baptist church, what happens if you go to your Presbyterian church, Episcopalian church, what happens…Do you understand what I’m saying? There’s a way in which we all can play a part in this but to some degree you have to look at the “person in the mirror.”

Racism has taken such a different turn and a different shape in modern society. You have to understand what institutional, systemic and structural racism is. Institutional, systemic and structural racism are the things that drive this prison industrial complex. Institutional, systemic and structural racism are the things that continue this horror to be advanced and to end up taking on new dimensions beyond anything we can begin to understand.

What has happened over time, especially with this mentality, that has turned into the fiscal assessment of the value of humanity - the fiscal assessment of a value of play but a fiscal assessment of human life into the equation. You have to go back to slavery and understand that as a matter of fact the people who came here of African ancestory are people who were, indeed, valued in fiscal terms.

So there’s a way in which…it’s not just true though about African-Americans. It’s really true of all people – that who you are is often ascesed in terms of what you are worth and what you are worth will…and what is that driven by? It’s often driven by opportunities of education. There are offers driven by having been in a line of anscestory which allows you to have multi-generational wealth. What that ends up meaning is you end up being a part of a reality where there’s privilege just simply because of the color of your skin.

What you have to realize is that’s a part of something that to deal with it forthrightly because in many instances it does end up being about who we are that continues to perpetuate the situation.

There’s a great book that was written in the late 1960s which is entitled, “The Choice” written by a gentleman named Samuel Yet. One of the things that Samuel Yet talks about in that book (and it’s really interesting to see how this has evolved into one of the realities of our day) is he says that the last thing you want to do is end up being obsolete in this society.

If there’s any way in which…that’s what Michelle Alexander is talking about when she talks about becoming obsolete. When she talks about getting to the place where you no longer fit into the system of employment. You no longer fit into the framework and the construct by which people are able to earn their living. Then you end up being vulnerable in a way that allows you to seem as obsolete.

Another book, I’ll tell you, go back and find that book…I don’t know if you remember this one, Ethan, but it was “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” It’s a great book. It talks about what happens in this society when you become obsolete – when you’re no longer of any value to what drives the engine of the economy. Then there’s a way in which you find yourself being relegated to a place where the possibility of genocidal assault upon you and those like you becomes a very significant one.

I want to suggest to you that you have to appreciate that as being a truism that is scary in terms of what its full implication might be because what that means is that when you come to that place…Now this is kind of interesting in terms of what’s happened with mass incarceration because it does seem like for a while there was a point when we were seeing some decline just simply in terms of numbers of particularly African-American men.

But all the sudden as that decline is occurring it’s like somebody figured out how to quantify, once again, the value of African-American men and develop a new system in which they could become a part of what drives that engine. I call it mining black gold.


DEAN BECKER: You are listening to Century of Lies on the Drug Truth Network. We’re tuned into a recent conference at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy Rice University Houston, Texas. The speaker, the Reverend Edward C. Sanders, II, Senior Servant Metropolitan Interdenominational Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


EDWIN SANDERS: Black gold is being mined in our communities every day because each one of those young men that goes into prison ends up representing at least 30,000 dollars a year to that engine. Those young men who end up being incarcerated end up being the fuel that allows that engine to continue to turn and whether you appreciate it or not many of us end up unwittingly being a part of it - being a part of it because of institutional, systemic and structural racism.

We need to study and understand that because there’s a way in which process, a way in which procedure, there’s a way in which order as we know it – civil order – there’s a way in which the legal system has been designed and operates…all you got to do is go downtown to your courthouse and try to figure out why it is that it’s hard to find a white person there who’s not a lawyer.

It’s something that you have to face. And you don’t begin to deal with this problem unless you deal with it forthrightly. I want to suggest to you and let me be very clear, unequivocally, when you ask me to preach…I tell people all the time – come and speak – I don’t care if you ask for a lecture. I don’t care if you ask for …whatever you ask for you’re going to get a sermon.

AUDIENCE: [laughs]

EDWIN SANDERS: Alright?! That’s basically all I know how to do. I’m going to quote somebody to you. I’m going to quote one of my young Jewish friends who I hold very dear to my heart, as a matter of fact. I usually don’t go through a day without having a conversation with him. I want to just tell you something he said.

He said this prison lords upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to who?! The poorest. This is, you know, just a young jewish rabbi who I’m convinced is my ace buddy. To bring good news to the poor. Send me to proclaim lease to the captors, recover a site to the blind and let the oppressed go free.

Now anybody who dares to say they partners…he’s just my young, Rabbi friend. It doesn’t make any difference whatever faith/position you’re in. It doesn’t make any difference if you are a Buddhist, if you’re a Muslim. It doesn’t make any difference if you are, obviously, the geo-christian or any other. There’s some truths that are hard to escape in terms of what it is that we are called to do if, indeed, we are the people that are going to take up the responsibility of justice, to take up the responsibility of equality, to take the responsibility of doing that which is right and fair.

When you take that responsibility what I’m saying is that you don’t set it over here and say this is who I am as a religious person or spiritual person and this is who I am as a person of the civil world – it’s one fabric and I think it’s until we…but there has to be some basis. There has to be some foundation. There has to be some rheometric of logic. There has to be some sense of who you are that allows you to be able to see yourself in relationship to everyone else is.

It’s a point in which you come to the awareness that who we are is very much connected in a fashion that is inseparable, undeniable, unavoidable – you can’t get away from it. And there is a way in which even when you think you do and you decide that there’s another human being that does not mirror, does not deserve or does not fit into your equation of understanding it automatically ends up being a part of your own internalized demise because you find yourself, at that point, having diminished your personhood by the way you end up diminishing person of another.

So what I am saying to you is that this mass incarceration, this prison industrial complex, is something bigger really than is just involving the black men and the other men and women of color who are really being victimized by it. It becomes something that eats at the heart of the humanity of all of us.

It’s not just the slaves that have to be set free it’s the owner that has to be set free. It’s not just those who are at the bottom of the scale who end up being the black gold it ends up being the ones who drive and turn the engine and profit from it. And if you don’t understand that then you will don’t understand why, perhaps, there are so many other things that are creeping.

When I think about in biomedical terms I think of it in terms in which syphillus represents itself. Houston is one of those cities, by the way, that has syphillus rates that continue, very often, to fluctuate and to spiral. Public health officials have discovered that if you have incidence of syphillus in your community that the overall health status of your community is definitely going to be determined to be low.

What I’m saying to you is that if you find yourself being a part of a community where this dynamic that we’re talking about, that Michelle Alexander is talking about, that I’m trying to share another perspective with you about, is that when you see this as something that is going on in your community – it says something about the overall condition of the quality of life - not just in the city, not just in the communities of those of the disinherited, dispossessed and oppressed, the beat down, the cut down, the held down – you know what I’m talking about – the folks where often just easily you allow to see get paraded off into the prisons without any reaction because somehow that doesn’t seem to be how you are but what I’m saying is when that goes on it affects what’s going on in your suburbs, it affects what’s going on in your communities that end up being the places of the elite, the rich and the successful.

So…Michelle Alexander ends her talk by saying that one of the things that has to happen is that there has to be a movement. One of the things that I have come to appreciate about a movement is that ultimately it has to be driven by something other than what’s theoretical. It has to be driven by something more than something that is intellectual. It has to be driven by something more than that ends up being a byproduct of what you might be able to begin to try to wrap your mind around.

There’s a point in which for this to happen. There’s a way in which it has to have been a part of your heart is. I’m a great fan of the writing of Howard Thumond and he talks in his autobiography about this whole business of head and heart. You know, how you get those two things to work together. It’s one thing to have all the information, all the knowledge. It’s one thing to be able to look and be able to analyze and be able to critique and be able to…We’ve seen a lot of analysis today. We’ve heard a lot of statistics today. We’ve heard a lot today that would seemingly lend itself to what I think is a very rich and wholesome debate but how you translate that into a movement is when you come to see yourself as being inextricably a part of it.

Not what you are doing for somebody else but rather that you’re doing it for yourself and for your community as well. It’s not just somebody else’s child. You have to understand that it has to be a sense in which you have a level of kinship. You have to have a level of ownership. You have to have a level of relationship to those persons who end up being a part of that pipeline.

Think of how sinister this thing is. I’m amazed by statistics that just run by us and it doesn’t hurt. To me it’s painful to hear that these prison industrial systems, these corporations that have been developed around prisons that when they do their demographic studies they go into our communities and look at the reading level rates of children in the 3rd and 4th grade to determine where they should build a prison.

That’s sinister. That bores upon in my language is downright evil. There’s a way in which it’s happening every day. And we sit by and treat it like, “Well, that’s not me.” Yeah, well – it is! Because it ends up being a part of what paves our roads and it ends up being a part of what allow the infrastructure….it’s like going into South Africa. I tell you about that all the time.

I go to South Africa sometimes and I think to myself, “You know, I could live here.” And then I think twice and think, “Of course I could live here because they have 45 (how many years) of free labor to build highways and put sewers and put water systems in.”

The fact is don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that the foundation of America is built upon the free labor of the same people who are the victims of this prison industrial complex. You can’t get it right unless you deal with the truth

You see, one of the problems we run into is that our history keeps on interrupting our present. We’re moving along thinking that we’re doing alright, that we’re progressing and we’re doing better. Then history jumps up and smacks you in the face.

You’re history comes along and taps you on the shoulder and says, “I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m still the factor that’s haunting you. I’m still the force that’s threatening you. I’m still the thing that you cannot sleep at night because of your own sense of fear that is borne out of really a kind of guilt that you have to figure out.”

All I’m saying is today is we’re looking for a movement and I hope that when we leave here today we don’t just leave here feeling like we’re more well informed, we don’t just leave here feeling like, “Well, we have more information than we had before.” We don’t just leave here feeling like, “Yeah, I can go out and be involved in the debate underway.”

There’s a way in which I can say it means I have to go out and involve myself in this.

Now some people would say (because I know who’s in this room) some people would say that what we’re doing here today is preaching to the choir. I’ve been a pastor for a long time and one of the things that I’ve discovered as a pastor is that it is critical to preach to the choir periodically.

AUDIENCE: [laughter]

EDWIN SANDERS: Because, you see, sometime the choir thinks they’re running the show. The choir thinks the reason it’s going on is because of who they are. But I’m telling you you have to change that because you have to realize that if, indeed, who you are is not intrically connected to the people, the “they”, OK, that are a part of this horror that is being visited upon us then the movement does not happen.

It happens in a way where it’s not about whether Open Society give you a grant and you become a Soros fellow. It’s not going to happen if you wait until you get some support from…I tell people all the time I’m so glad that the Civil Rights movement was not dependent upon whether or not Ford, Rockefeller or any other foundation funded it before it happened. If you had waited until it would have been funded it would not have happened.

There’s a way in which there’s already enough resource it’s a matter of what we decide…where’s the priority, you know?!

I’ll tell you this one last thing. Go to … especially those of you in churches. Go to your church. I love that thing that you learn about boards where they say they’re making a difference. You know you’ve done your strategic plan and you’ve got that beautiful statement about who you are. I love it when they say about boards when they say, “If you want to understand about what an organization is don’t look at the mission, look at the budget.”

So how much you invest in trying to make the change that we’re looking for…how much do you put out of the resource that you have the ability to control. How do you deal with that because it’s all a part of how we begin to change this madness that we’re in.

So we’re talking about a movement. There is a conversation that has to go on. We’re working with a group of people here …there are a number of people in the city of Houston right now that we’re involved with in terms of trying to clear new levels of conversation around…we’re talking about HIV and AIDS…this is…let me just end on this point.

Ya’ll need to get this. If you do this right…This is why you should be excited about this movement….If we do this right in terms of the issues that are related to drug policy it will allow us the opportunity to deal not just with the issue of substance abuse and drugs and the whole business of mass incarceration but if we do it right we’ll deal with all of the social issues that haunt and systematically undermine the potential of our society.

Because you’re not going to get it right if you don’t deal with jobs. You’re not going to get it right if you don’t deal with education. You’re not going to get it right if you don’t deal with access to health care. You see what I’m saying?!

To get it right you’re going to deal with the larger fabric of the issue in a way that should have a transformative effect on the totality of the community. I get excited about it on that level. That’s why we’re here doing this thing around HIV and AIDS because you realize that you are the same people that ends up being disproportionately impacted…the same people who end up being the ones who end up carrying those social burdens. The same people who end up being everyday haunted by this insidious, mean-spirited, sinister reality that lives in our midst.

All of us live in the midst of it and we need to appreciate that if we’re going to bring about a day where, indeed, we don’t have to have that perpetual sense of diss-ease because of what is transpiring in our midst it will be when all of us realize that all of us are a part of what the cause is the diss-ease and that all of us have to take a part in seeing to it that we bring it to an end.


DEAN BECKER: I truly wish you could have been there. Again, that was the Reverend C. Sanders II of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church of Nashville, Tennessee. Please be sure to check out the recent Cultural Baggage show which features a great speech from Ethan Nadelmann, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance speaking at the James A. Baker III Institute.

As this content underscores there is no basis for this drug war. It is a scam, flim-flam, we have been bambuzzeld. It’s possible that the drug lords run both sides of this equation. Please visit our website, http://endprohibition.org. Prohibido istac evilesco!


For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

Drug Truth Network programs are archived at the James A. Baker III for the Policy Studies.

Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org