Sometimes We Fight (or “Drug Free” in America)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rebecca Parker urges us to “bless the world.”[1] In her 2006 book, Blessing the World: What Can save Us Now, she tells the story of a time when she and a friend were walking with one of her mentors, the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. She writes, “At the threshold where we would part, Charles turned around, took our hands in his, looked us squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Be a blessing to the world.’ One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will have been faithful to this charge.”[2]  Be a blessing to the world.

I’ve been wrestling with a claim I made in my March 2nd sermon on surrender. In that sermon I named a variety of reasons why spiritual surrender is difficult. I talked specifically about how the dominant United States culture is a “fighting” culture that frowns upon surrender, weakness, compromise, etc. I critiqued my own instinct to fight, saying “if and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world.”[3] I made that claim with a confidence I still feel. I still feel that in cultivating our capacity for surrender—learning to fall, letting go, yielding, remaining quiet, being gentle, backing off, bowing down—we open pathways to deeper spiritual experience, richer lives, clarity, happiness and peace. But even as I made the claim I felt a tug, a pull, a pin-prick, a nagging at the edges of my words. Since then I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that sometimes it’s essential that we not surrender, that we not fall, not bend, not back off; that we stay and fight. I feel confident about that too. I’m searching this morning for understanding of how and when ‘not surrendering’ is a spiritual act.

I turn to Rebecca Parker’s charge to us to “be a blessing to the world” because, while she doesn’t use the word fight, she leaves room for fighting—fighting for what is of highest worth to us; fighting for what is sacred to us. She says, “And while there is injustice, / anesthetization, or evil / there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.”[4] These are not words of surrender but of engagement. There are times when choosing to bless the world requires a confrontation, an exertion, a protest, an argument. There are times when our choice to bless the world comes legitimately in response to our rage at complacency, at greed, at callousness, at injustice, at evil, and we choose to fight—not fighting in the sense of perpetuating violence, but fighting in the sense of struggling, working, contesting for something that matters. I think our best guide—our measure of when something matters enough to fight for it—is our principles. Do we discern some way in which our principles have been violated? Then we may choose to fight. Can we discern some facet of life where we feel our principles must be brought to bear? Then we may choose to fight. And perhaps more fundamentally, if we’re going to fight for something, does our desire to fight emerge from a deep and abiding love?

I want to tell you about a fight I’ve been party to recently, along with the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee: the fight to reduce the size of “drug free zones” in Connecticut. If you don’t know anything about this issue, your first response might be, “what on earth is a drug free zone?” If you happen to know that the term refers to zones around schools, daycare centers and public housing, zones that extend 1500 feet in all directions from the property line of these facilities, zones in which, if you are caught in possession of illegal drugs, you will face “enhanced” criminal penalties including mandatory jail time; and if you happen to know that the laws establishing these zones came into being in the late 1980s to keep drug dealers away from children, then it is possible your first response might be, “Why on earth would we want to reduce the size of drug free zones? Won’t that make it easier for drug dealers to gain access to children? If that is your response then you are not alone: many people have a similar response.

Drug Free School Zone

Like “nuclear free zone,” “drug free zone” has a potent, pleasing ring to it. It sounds like a good thing. It sounds, well, safe, healthy, even wholesome. So, it is somewhat disconcerting to find myself fighting to reduce their size. So why do it? There’s a technical reason. And there’s a moral reason which, for me, has to do with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

ABWFThe technical reason is that the zones don’t achieve their stated intent of keeping drug dealers away from children. This past Friday morning, at a legislative breakfast organized by our Social Justice / Antiracim Committee and our partner, A Better Way Foundation, an organization called the Prison Policy Initiative released a report entitled “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss PPI logothe Mark.” The report states: “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law … arbitrarily increases the time people convicted of drug offenses must spend in prison without any evidence that their underlying offense actually endangered children. In fact, the Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee looked at a sample of
300 [drug free] zone cases, and found only three cases that involved students, none of which involved adults dealing drugs to children…. Except for those three cases in which students were arrested, all arrests occurring in ‘drug-free’ school zones were not linked in any way by the police to the school, a school activity, or students. The arrests simply occurred within ‘drug-free’ school zones.’ All of the other 297 cases in the legislature’s sample involved only adults.”[5] The point is, if the intent of the law is to keep drug dealers away from children, you’d think arrests would reflect that, but they don’t.

Which brings me to the moral reason to reduce the size of drug free zones. On Friday morning, State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked a provocative question: If the drug free zones don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then what do they do? He didn’t answer the question, but I want to share my answer here. Drug free zones ensure that an unreasonably high percentage of young, urban people of color end up in prison or otherwise enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How? Schools, daycare centers and public housing are so ubiquitous in cities, and the drug zones are so large (five football fields in all directions) that there is virtually no area in any Connecticut city that isn’t a drug free zone. In Hartford, pretty much the only area one can possess drugs and not be in a drug free zone is the middle of the landfill or the middle of Brainerd Airport. What this effectively means is that anyone caught possessing or selling drugs in a Connecticut city is automatically subject to the drug free zone’s enhanced penalties. Which is not what happens to people committing the same offenses in suburban and rural towns where drug free zones are more rare because schools and daycare centers are not densely packed and there is much less public housing.

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

The Prison Policy Initiative report says “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law effectively imposes a harsher penalty for the same crime depending on whether the person who committed it lives in a large city or a small town. In practice, the law’s effects are even more insidious: the law increases pressures on urban residents, but not rural ones, to plead guilty solely to avoid the enhanced penalty…. Mandatory minimum sentences, such as those created by Connecticut’s [drug free] zone policy, warp the criminal justice system by steering cases away from trial and toward plea agreements. By creating mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement zones in disproportionately urban areas, the legislature has created a two-tiered system of justice.[6] What the report doesn’t say, but which I will say, is because people of color make up much higher percentages of city populations, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these enhanced penalties, and thus the legislature has created not only a two-tiered system of justice, but a racist system of justice. This is where it becomes clear to me that our justice system achieves outcomes that violate our Unitarian Universalist principles: it fails to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It fails to dispense justice equity and compassion to all people. And it fails to advance the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Druf Free Zones in Urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

I am convinced that one of the United States of America’s greatest moral failures in this post-civil rights era is the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women as a result of the war on drugs. Just as Jim Crow laws emerged in the decades following the abolition of slavery in order to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color, so mass incarceration has emerged in the decades following the end of Jim Crow fifty years ago to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color. I hear myself say this and I hear how extreme it sounds, and yet when you look at how our state’s drug free zone laws penalize urban communities of color radically differently than white suburban and rural communities, it’s hard to deny. After forty years of the war on drugs, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and people of color make up a huge percentage of that population in numbers that far exceed their relative numbers in the population.

This phenomenon decimates urban lives, urban families, and urban communities. In a March 10th interview for StoptheDrugWar.org, Ohio State University law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, said:

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. [Our] common narrative … suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom—bad schools, poverty, broken homes….

But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them—and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status….

Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”[7]

What is wrong with us is that we—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in the United States of America—are allowing the destruction of lives, the break-up of families, the decay of urban communities, the excessive criminalization of urban people of color, the excessive incarceration of people for non-violent offenses when what they really need—and what would be so much less expensive—is treatment for substance use disorder and mental illness. We are allowing an egregious waste of financial and human resources by investing in incarceration at the expense of education, jobs, drug treatment and mental health. I believe this. And I don’t feel comfortable just sitting back and watching it happen, even though I could argue that it isn’t my issue, that it doesn’t impact me or my children, the community where I live, or the community I serve. I don’t feel comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist who affirms and promotes seven principles, many of which mass incarceration violates with impunity. I don’t feel comfortable as a minister whose vocation it is not only to provide spiritual and pastoral support and guidance to the members of the congregation I serve, but to bear witness to injustice in the wider community and do what is within my power and my congregation’s power to address it. And I don’t feel comfortable as a human being who has some semblance of a conscience, some modicum of moral sensibility and, I hope, a basic grasp of what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair—as flawed and as limited as that grasp may be. I don’t feel comfortable.

Reducing the size of drug free zones is one way to arrest the madness of mass incarceration. Connecticut can do this this year. There will be a moment in the next month when the bill to reduce the size of drug free zones will come up for debate in the legislature. That is a moment for our voices to be heard. Our Social Justice / Antiracism Committee will do everything they can to let you know when it’s time to advocate. In the meantime, if you want to be part of this effort, we have sign-up sheets in the lobby. Another related project we’re working on is the creation of supply kits for people being released from prison. The transition from prison is difficult. At times former inmates have trouble getting their basic needs met. These kits include toiletries, super market gift cards, socks and underwear, etc. We’re going to start creating these kits as a congregation. You’ll be hearing more about this project over the next few months.

Sometimes we fight. And clearly fighting and surrendering are contrasting if not opposite spiritual endeavors. Though I wonder, is it not possible that fighting for the right reasons is itself a form of spiritual surrender. Rebecca Parker reminds us “there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.” Is it not possible we fight because we finally surrender to that holy disturbance, that benevolent rage, that revolutionary love—and allow it to guide our actions? Perhaps there are times when our principles demand that we surrender the comforts and privileges of our lives so that we may bring a greater love to bear in the world. Perhaps there are times when we realize we’ve spent our days resisting the call of some great cause, and we finally surrender our resistance begin to struggle. Perhaps this is just semantics. Perhaps. But here’s what know: We care called to bless the word. And there are times when that blessing won’t be realized without a fight. Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 163-165.

[2] Parker, Rebecca A., “Choose to Bless the World,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) p. 161.

[3] Pawelek, Josh M., “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” a sermon delivered on March 2, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/surrender-i-search-of-the-present-moment/.

[4] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 164.

[5] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014). Read the full report at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html.

[6] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark”

[7] Read Asha Bandele’s full March 14, 2014 interview with Michelle Alexander at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk.