Thursday, October 15, 2009

drug users, civil rights, and A&E's "The Cleaner"

I haven't written in this blog in so long, that instead of writing an extended essay, I'll warm myself up by going over several short items in the next week or so.

1) A&E's "The Cleaner", currently the most offensive show on television re: the drug war. The main character, William Banks, played by Benjamin Bratt, is heroicized for "extreme intervention" on drug users which includes a) breaking and entering into their homes, b) kidnapping them, c) hacking into freezing their financial accounts, to name just a few of the invasive crimes the character is shown committing, actions paid for by their families or friends. The vast majority of these users are adults, which means their families have no legal power over them. If a character committed crimes like these against any other group of people, the audience could hardly be expected to have sympathy for them, but somehow the fact that these people are drug users justifies these acts to most viewers.

Note to A&E--not since fanatical first drug czar Harry J Anslinger of the 40s and 50s has the state of simply *being* a drug user been a crime. (Anslinger instituted an extralegal edict that allowed people to be stopped and searched for track marks and detained indefinitely if any were found. A lot of creative body parts used to inject at this time in order to evade the arm search, ha...(If you'd like a vivid description of this era, you can find it in Burroughs' _Junky_..) Anslinger, ironically and hypocritically enough, became a user of illegally procured morphine later in his life to treat pain from angina and an enlarged prostate gland, and distributed this drug to his friends. We also have Anslinger to blame for most of
the hysteria and misinformation about marijuana in the middle of the last century and its criminalization in the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, through the use of racism and lies about its supposed violent effects.

What's most chilling is that "The Cleaner" is based on a real life "extreme interventionist", Warren Boyd,whose methods were similar and who also avoided prosecution for them--beyond that, he's lionized in the special A&E does on him and admired by many law enforcement officials. He's actually co-producer of the show, so one can't argue that the station is misrepresenting him--it obviously has his stamp of approval. In the interview I link, he claims he doesn't break the law, yet in A&E's special on him--which I didn't have the stomach to watch to completion, but even a few minutes of watching revealed this much--he himself proudly relates that he held a heroin user hostage in his house by threat of physical violence. And even in the interview, though I doubt he realizes what he's admitting, he says he's not beyond the use of fraud. He also claims he participates in "The Cleaner" to lend it authenticity--so I can't quite believe his methods are drastically different from what the show portrays Banks doing.

A dramatic and totally unrealistic gimmick that the show uses in almost every episode is to have the drug user Banks is "helping" overdose right in front of him, so he can resuscitate them. Not only is this an instance of laughably overly convenient timing, it doesn't make any sense--these are habituated users with high tolerance, so why is it that they suddenly miscalculate their doses as soon as Banks is around? Of course, this perpetuates the fiction that any drug user is one step away from death at any time, regardless of any harm reduction methods used or the user's experience,justifying any violation of their person because the drug user's situation is an immediate life or death one. It also glosses over the fact that so many of the dangers of drug abuse are born from criminalization itself--such as the fact that overdose is often due to the unreliable and changeable purity of black market product.

This is doubly disappointing to me because Benjamin Bratt is one of the few mixed race actors successfully working in TV and film today--and actually a very accomplished actor in all the other roles I've seen him in. In fact, according to Wikipedia, "Bratt has been a strong supporter and board member of San Francisco Bay Area's Friendship House Association of American Indians and Native American Health Center for years". Doubtless the fact that he's playing a character who oppresses another marginalized group is totally lost on him.

The show perpetuates the idea that drug users are somehow a special category of human being, whose rights are null and void. Despite the fact that the show purports to be about redemption and compassion, in reality it is an example of the same attitude that has allowed ultra right wing drug warriors such as Newt Gingrich and others, to suggest the death penalty for drug dealers. "People who are dealing crack and dealing heroin have zero social value and should be put to death," said one politician, expressing the core of this attitude quite well. Dealers and users have no social value like other people do, so why bother with going through the pretense of pretending we have rights? This without any consideration of the extenuating circumstances, the poverty, that has so many people depend on the black market to survive--that poverty which is itself often a result of right wing policies.

Warren Boyd praises "Intervention", another A&E show, and I'm looking forward to dissecting that show for you as well--a reality show where real life addicts are manipulated and violated.