Thursday, October 30, 2014

Investigative Reporting: My boy Marco Asked me Something...

Marco came over today and realized I'd written another cover story on truancy in Texas for the Fort Worth Weekly. He shook his head and asked if I remembered when he'd gone to truancy court--I let him sleep in during a free period for 10 days running while the school team he was on was playing for a slot in the county finals--and we both were slapped with Class C misdemeanors.
    Anyway, that talk led to Marco asking me why I fought so hard for so many years with High Times to end the war on drugs. I told him there were the obvious reasons--that kids/adults shouldn't go to jail for non-violent offenses; that junkies should not go to jail for years when most junkies voluntarily quit their heroin addiction in about two years; that crack cocaine should not get people sentenced differently than regular cocaine: At the time 5 grams of crack got you sentenced the same as 500 grams of cocaine. Yes, you read that right. 5 grams of crack--cocaine with baking soda--got the same five-year mandatory minimum as half-a-kilo of cocaine. Turned out, of course, that black kids did crack while white kids did cocaine.
    But beyond those obvious abuses of the war on drugs were subtle ones that most people didn't know about and they were things we kept trying to get out there so that other reporters would get schooled and get the story out nationally. Most people thought of property forfeiture as happening when a drug kingpin got caught with a million bucks worth of drugs in a house he bought with drug dealing proceeds. That wasn't exactly true: Most property forfeiture occurred when people had a joint or two in their fully-paid-off homes, or two plants at the back end of their paid-off-farm, or were busted in a police prostitution sting when they were lured by a cop posing as a prostitute and stopped to negotiate and after a quick check that the car was paid off, lost their vehicle. The key was that the goods/property were paid off. No one wanted to seize a house worth $300,000 if the owner, even if he had tens of thousands of dollars of heroin in it, owed nearly the whole $300,000. Why? Because the local police force shared in the profits from that seizure, and you couldn't give yourselves guaranteed overtime pay with a house that couldn't be sold for a profit.
    I told Marco that most people also didn't know about the "LSD carrier-weight" issue. That was one where a person caught with LSD was charged with the entire weight of the LSD including the packaging. So, for instance, someone caught with 500 drops--hits-- of LSD in liquid form would be sentenced to that 1/4 gram or so. Someone else put one hit in a watermelon and they would be charged with the weight of the watermelon--which would have been a lifetime sentence.
   A team I used to play softball with occasionally had a jug of magic juice show up before games. It was good fruit juice with maybe three or four hits of LSD in it. Shared among 20 people it was just a nice, tiny buzz to help make the game more interesting when you didn't know which of the three or five balls coming at you was the real one. But if the cops had ever arrested us, whomever was holding the jug would have been charged with the weight of the juice and the jug, not the three or four hits of LSD.
   Most people didn't know that half the police in the country--give or take, my number, not an official one--never bothered to check an informant's story before getting a search warrant if their snitch said drug dealing was going on at a particular place. They just busted in and that led to lots of people being killed, thousands injured.
   Those were the sorts of things that were the underpinning of the drug war and they were some of what we were trying to get the public and other reporters to see and understand so that they could write about them and put them into the spotlight of awareness, which we knew would kill them.
   This all relates to truancy in Texas in this way: Truancy typically ends with a Class C misdemeanor and a fine and court costs. What people don't realize, even the principals in the schools and the guidance counselors at the schools sending the kids to truancy court is that the Class C misdemeanor, in nearly all the cases, will stay on that student's record for his/her entire life. It will keep you out of the US Military, kill your chances for a scholarship at most universities, come up as you having a criminal record at every traffic stop. It is not a small thing. It is a criminal record.
   Worse, most people, even those working to change truancy law here in Texas, don't know that a lot of judges here are ordering the kids found guilty of truancy to turn over all their user names and passwords for their email, their Facebook page, their twitter and whatever else they are on, to the court. That is a huge invasion and has nothing to do with stopping truancy. An immediate downside is stifling free speech, but another downside angle is that anyone of the several people who has access to that information can post things that might affect that kid. And by kid, in Texas, we're talking 12-17 years old, inclusive.
   Those are the things investigative reporters try to find. The things hidden in the dark that most people don't know, don't care to know, refuse to believe. It's like poor people saying they've been beaten and routinely abused by policing agencies around the county. Us white folk with an education have never seen that, so it sounds like poor whites, blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans crying bull spit. And then comes the age of digital cameras in phones and we are routinely getting 5-10 instances of unbelievable police brutality on our Facebook pages weekly. We're watching people who have not been convicted of any crime, not been charged with a crime, get shot 3-5-45 times. We're watching policemen kicking the heads of suspects who are on the ground on their stomachs in handcuffs. We're watching a system that is out of control and now we cannot deny what those poor whites, African-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans--hell, all Latinos--have been saying for decades.
   It only stops when it's brought into the light.
   Bring it all, all the injustice, into the light. Let us look at it and see if it really is the reflection of ourselves that we want to see when we look into the mirror.

1 comment:

Bill Freimuth said...

Bless you for this work, Peter.