Monday, July 09, 2007

"One Democrat's different stand"

DeWayne Wickham (Gannett News):
Of the eight Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination, I think it's fair to say former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel is the longest of the long shots.
In presidential preference polls, support for him hovers around 1 percent. When it comes to fundraising, his campaign coffers are nearly bare. So it's not surprising journalists tend to treat Gravel as a gadfly.

And that's what I thought of him late last month when I sat across from the Democratic presidential candidates on the stage of Howard University's Crampton Auditorium.

I was one of the three journalists who got to question the full field of Democratic contenders during a PBS presidential forum hosted by Tavis Smiley.

The 90-minute, nationally televised program was billed as a chance for the candidates to "address issues of concern to black America." And a Who's Who of black America showed up to hear what they had to say.

Actors Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee were there. So were novelist Terry McMillan and poet Sonya Sanchez. Political activist Al Sharpton and intellectual Cornell West showed up. So did several members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

When the eight Democrats came on stage, they were introduced by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the only sitting black governor and only the second black governor ever.

Virtually everyone was there to see and hear the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination — New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. In both their polling numbers and money raised, they are light years ahead of Gravel.

But when the forum ended, it was what Gravel said that I found most intriguing.

When journalist Michel Martin of NPR asked the candidates what they would do about the "scourge" of HIV/AIDS infection among black teenagers, Gravel's answer, though not on point, hit an important mark.

"The scourge of our present society, particularly in the African-American community, is the war on drugs," Gravel said in response to a question about the high rate of HIV/AIDS infections among black teenagers.

Then he said this about the other Democrats on the stage: "If they really want to do something about the inner cities, if they really want to do something about what's happening to the health of the African-American community, it's time to end this war. There's no reason to continue it in the slightest. All it does is create criminals out of people who are not criminals."

His words drew applause from the mostly black audience, but not even a nod of agreement from the other Democrats on stage with him.

Maybe it's the certainty of his "also-ran" status that emboldened Gravel to call for an end to the drug war. Maybe he just wanted to make a splash among the sea of reporters that turned out to cover this gathering. Maybe what is said was really heartfelt. I don't know.

What I do know is that America's drug war has taken a heavy toll in black communities across this country.

Disproportionately, blacks are arrested and imprisoned for nonviolent drug crimes. In 2005, blacks — who are 12 percent of the nation's population — made up 34 percent of the people arrested for drug abuse violations, according to the FBI's 2005 Crime in the United States report.

While physicians understand that drug abuse is a medical problem, far too many black drug users end up with criminal records that reduce their chances of finding a job and escaping the gravitational pull of the drug culture.

That's not the fate that befalls people like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, who go in and out of drug treatment centers without fear of being jailed for using illegal substances.

A law enforcement sting caught former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who is black, using crack cocaine, and he was sent to prison.

But many high-profile white drug abusers are allowed to go to the Betty Ford Clinic to kick their habit instead of being sent to jail.

Gravel appears to understand the unfairness of this nation's drug war. And in calling for its end, he shows more courage than the Democratic Party's other presidential wannabes.

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