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Casualties of war

July 28, 2009

Robert Saleem Holbrook
Robert Saleem Holbrook
by Robert Saleem Holbrook

“The soldier has to be the baddest and strongest of our kind: calm, sure, self possessed and completely familiar with the fact that the only thing that stands between Blackmen and a violent death are the fast break, quick draw and snap shot.” – Comrade George L. Jackson, “Blood in My Eye”

I have never met Lovelle Mixon. I do not know if, while in prison, he read the works of the legendary George L. Jackson. I do not know if he considered himself a revolutionary, a rebel or an outlaw. I do not know if while imprisoned he resolved never again to allow himself to be taken alive by the police. I do not know if he viewed himself as a “soldier” in the street wars that dominate the inner city or if he just viewed himself a brotha trying to make it in the hood.

I do not know if on that fateful 21st day of March, 2009, he felt a genuine fear of the police who pulled him over or just said to himself, “This is it.” Likewise, I do not know if the officers who pulled Lovelle over that day viewed him as just another stereotypical Black criminal inner city asshole or thug they were charged with ridding the streets of.

What I do know is this: The confrontation that occurred on March 21st in Oakland was another episode in the long running social conflict between youth of color and police departments in the United States. It is the original “street beef” in urban communities of color that even predates the beef between the Bloods and the Crips, as well as other gang beefs in inner cities throughout the country.

This poster of Lovelle Mixon was a familiar sight at gatherings after his death. – Photo: Dave Id, Indybay
This poster of Lovelle Mixon was a familiar sight at gatherings after his death. – Photo: Dave Id, Indybay

There may be various disputes by both sides as to what happened that day and what triggered the deadly confrontation but what is not in dispute is that five “soldiers” lost their lives that day. Whether or not Lovelle Mixon knew he was a soldier that day is not publicly known; however, I am sure that the officers who died that day knew they were soldiers. They were trained to believe they were soldiers and that Lovelle Mixon, a civilian, was an “enemy.” Lovelle, too, was conditioned to believe the officers were the “enemy.” Both sides graduated from institutions that identified each other as the enemy. In the case of the police officers, it was the Police Academy and the militarization of law enforcement in the United States. In the case of Lovelle, it was the academy of the streets and prisons of the United States.

The responsibility for these attitudes rests in the government’s war on drugs, the nation’s longest running war or police operation depending on how you see it. The language and debate that surrounds this war employs all the features of a military campaign. Ever since President Nixon stood on the White House lawn in the early ‘70s and declared a “war on drugs,” law enforcement agencies, prosecutors’ offices, the prison system and courtrooms of the United States have operated on a war model, particularly in communities of color.

Criminals and drug addicts are enemies, drug addiction is considered a crime, not a health issue, and neighborhoods that are caught in the grip of poverty and drug abuse are considered “enemy territory.” The police are not responsible for the war on drugs but they are responsible for patrolling the neighborhoods considered enemy territory. They are the enforcers of this government policy and, like the communities they patrol, they suffer the consequences of a national crime policy that identifies civilians as enemies.

All of the men who fell that day Lovelle Mixon decided to hold court in the street were casualties of a failed war. Casualties of the militarization of law enforcement and a national prison policy that is more concerned with dehumanizing prisoners than rehabilitating them. Casualties of a criminal justice system that has been hijacked by right wing ideologues and right wing victims’ rights advocates more interested in the pursuit of vengeance than justice.

People who are outraged that Lovelle Mixon was a “parolee” just released from prison should not be that surprised that he didn’t benefit much from his imprisonment. In the era of mass imprisonment, there are no rehabilitation programs in prison. The state doesn’t have money for the programs because the majority of the money is spent on building new prisons or maintaining current ones.

“All of the men who fell that day Lovelle Mixon decided to hold court in the street were casualties of a failed war. Casualties of the militarization of law enforcement and a national prison policy that is more concerned with dehumanizing prisoners than rehabilitating them. Casualties of a criminal justice system … more interested in the pursuit of vengeance than justice.”

Mass imprisonment is a consequence of the war on drugs. It is estimated that over 600,000 of the 2,300,000 people in state and federal prisons are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. This does not include the other 5 million people who are either confined in county jails or on probation or parole, a majority of whom are nonviolent drug offenders. This means out of a United States population of over 250 million people, over 7 million people are in one way or another under the supervision of the prison system.

No nation in history has ever confined that percentage of its population in prison. It is unprecedented and it is a complete failure. Yet the war on drugs continues.

There will be many more casualties in this domestic war playing out within the United States and not all of the victims will be combatants. Unfortunately, the majority of the casualties will be the innocent or those suffering from addiction. The casualties will be the communities under siege from poverty and drugs or overly aggressive police. The casualties will be the families whose loved ones were murdered in the countless skirmishes that play out on the streets across the country.

There appears no end in sight for this domestic war. Despite its failure, the war on drugs is entrenched in the halls of government. Even President Obama is reluctant to call a halt to this war. Why is this? The answer is the war on drugs and all of its consequences; i.e., mass imprisonment, increased law enforcement budgets, training, equipment, lobbying, confiscation of assets etc. have spawned an industry that is now a vital component of the economy of the United States.

The war has taken on a life of its own to such an extent that whatever motive may have been behind the war on drugs has long been lost to the priority of maintaining the industry. It is perpetual war, and its casualties are the addict, casual drug user, street thug caught up in the game, police officers enforcing the war, innocent bystanders, families losing loved ones to the cemetery or prison system etc.

We can only hope, and work, for an end in sight. There may be light at the end of the tunnel. As the United States continues to expand its influence globally while at the same time its economy is contracting in a new world economy, there may be a breaking point where the nation cannot sustain the costs of a domestic war on drugs within its borders. This could compel government to abandon its war on drugs and repeal the bulk of its laws that criminalize drugs.

Already, in the present difficult atmosphere of the economy, politicians are beginning to question the costs of the war on drugs and the criminalization of addiction. What is certain, however, is that in the United States, morality will not determine whether or not to abandon the war on drugs; the economy will. That is unless the people rise up and demand a change in direction, but that is another story for another time.

In the meantime, both sides will continue burying their fallen. In the weeks following the March 21st shootout, the four police officers were laid to rest with honors. Officers from all over the country flew in to salute their fallen brothers, the state of California’s flag was flown at half mast to their sacrifice and they were praised as heroes.

On the other side, the family and friends of Lovelle Mixon laid him to rest and celebrated his memory. Throughout the hoods, barrios and prisons of the United States, young men of color gave silent nods of the head and silent stares to one another identifying with the rage that was within Lovelle Mixon and mourning the loss of another one of their side. Both sides mourn their fallen soldiers and await the next skirmish in this ongoing war with no victors, only endless casualties.

Robert Saleem Holbrook writes: “I am a prisoner serving a life-without-parole sentence for a crime I was convicted of as a juvenile offender. I have been in prison for over 19 yrars. Throughout my imprisonment I have evolved into a prisoner activist and writer, using the example of George L. Jackson as my inspiration … More of my writings and life story can be found on my website: www.freesalim.net.” Send our brother some love and light: Robert Saleem Holbrook, BL-5140, SCI-Greene, 175 Progress Dr., Waynesburg, PA 15370.

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