‘War on drugs’ is the number one priority for Bart De Wever. This war was already conducted in the US and in the UK and wasn’t won. Nevertheless: now that De Wever has become the mayor, Antwerp is next.
While Patrick Janssens (previous mayor of Antwerp) chose ‘urban development’ as his priority during the debate between the leaders of the political parties on VRT (tv station), De Wever put ‘drugs’ forward ‘because I’m really concerned about this’ and ‘I believe that drugs should get a losers reputation while it currently has a winners reputation’. Drugs have a ‘winners reputation’? If De Wever says so, I guess it has to be true.
The journalists nor the other party leaders dared to ask any questions on De Wever’s (who is also the leader of the biggest political party in Flanders) comments about drugs and crime. There are, however, many remarks to be made on his assertions.
At the moment, we’re in one of the worst economic crises since long. A crisis that has also serious social consequences. Inequality, poverty, unemployment and exclusion have increased. Shortage of schools and of social housing has increased as well. However, not these problems but crime is the main focus of the majority of Belgian (not just the Flemish) political parties. Is that really our biggest problem?
Crime is always a problem and needs to be tackled. But that it definitely is not the biggest problem, was to be seen from this very same debate when numbers were specified. There are several reasons why the politicians choose the crime issue. I will give some more details on two of these.
First: if the social-economic situation worsens, the crime rate goes up, since crime has causes and these are mainly social-economic. Unless you believe in evolutionist racist theories that claim that certain ethnic groups have blood cells with a tendency to crime. Or unless you believe in the also racist culturalistic theories in which the Moroccan Belgian is aggressive and the white Belgian pedophile. If you believe in one of these theories, then you don’t need to read any further.
Secondly: while the social and economic problems increase, we see that politicians cannot handle these. Politicians are supposed to do something. They are the ones in power and are elected to govern our society and tackle its problems. They have to show us that they’re working on them. When they don’t succeed to handle the real problems, the issue of crime is the easiest and most obvious to legitimize their power.
Crime is an issue that traditionally is used by right and far right parties. This is different today. From the Left to the Far Right, they jump on that bandwagon. We know by now the reason for this. The last 30 years, the Left has not been able to construct their own ideology and their own themes, so they tap from the same source as the Right.
‘War on drugs’
In 1971, Richard Nixon, the President of the United States at the time, declared drug use as Public Enemy Number One. Since then, this ‘war on drugs’ has not left. Time and time again, it was one of the main priorities on the agenda of the US and afterwards also of the UK. Especially conservative thinkers and politicians believed and still believe that this war is an important issue.
So has this war had any effect? According to the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, a special commission established to analyze drug policy in the US and in other countries, this war has been completely disastrous. In an important report published last year, it is illustrated how the ‘war on drugs’, with its focus on repression, has not only completely failed, but has even resulted in more crime and violence.
The numbers in the birth place of this war are incredible. In the US, more than 1.5 million Americans were arrested in 2008 on drug charges. 500,000 of them were put in prison. In the UK, the Secretary of Justice Ken Clarke has claimed a few months ago that his country “has completely failed in its war against drugs”. President Obama said earlier this year that it’s completely legitimate to discuss the current laws because ‘these have made things worse in certain places’.
Decriminalizing does have positive results
An open conversation is not such a bad idea since in Europe, we have seen already examples of how it can be handled otherwise. In 2001, Portugal has decriminalized drugs for personal use and eight years later, the results are impressive. I cite just a few: in 2000, drug users infected by injection needles made up 52% of the new HIV-infections. In 2009, this number decreased to 16%. Between 60 and 70% of users who have followed the detox program, do not relapse in the following year. This has among others to do with the fact that the addicted people ask for help quicker because they don’t have to be scared to be arrested. This policy has chosen for decriminalization, prevention and social reintegration. Why then would we choose a policy that has been proven to fail while we can chose one which has had positive results?
It’s not nice to say but on those occasions I often think: “Thankfully, the Americans and British are usually ahead of us, so we know how we shouldn’t do it. They even mention it themselves that this kind of policy has failed.”
Unfortunately, the right populists in Europe see their chance to play the voters with a sensitive theme because drugs are related with crime and security. In these uncertain times without employment security, without knowing if one can buy one’s bills, times in which even relationships seem not very stable, people are prepared to go far concerning physical security. This means: they are prepared to give the politicians a free hand.
London and Antwerp
The mayor of Antwerp (second biggest city in Belgium) does have other plans except for the ‘war on drugs’. He wants to install as many cameras as possible around the city. All kinds of technological cameras, just like in London where the conservative Boris Johnson, of whom De Wever is a big fan, has installed cameras everywhere.
The UK is already world champion in CCTV (closed circuit television). They have installed more than four million cameras. Or 1 per 14 inhabitants. In London, the example city for De Wever, you’re filmed 300 times per day and 40% of the public space is under video surveillance. These millions of cameras cost money, a lot of money.
Long before Boris Johnson, in the nineties, 78% of the budget for crime prevention was already going to the placement of more cameras. Billions of euro’s were invested during the last two decades. Mike Neville of Scotland Yard and responsible for the management of all these cameras, admitted that CCTV’s in the UK have been a ‘complete failure’. The numbers speak for themselves: 1 in 1000 crimes were solved thanks to CCTV images. Again: Why would Antwerp choose for this kind of policy?
Antwerp’s government is now already anti-social enough if you have a look at which kid of policy Janssens has carried out in for instance Antwerp North. Chasing away homeless, drug users and young people from a square is not the solution to the problem but just the relocation of the problem. The GAS-fines (administrative fines at local level) as well, of which Janssens is a big fan (De Wever as well), are not a solution if you know that especially the poor are being fined.
A merciless combination: neoliberalism and neoconservatism
It can get worse and De Wever would like to prove it. So why is De Wever worse than Janssens? Because the N-VA (separatist Flemish political party of which De Wever is leader) combines neoliberalism with neoconservatism and that is a combination that has caused a big crisis in Europe and in other parts of the world. It’s this combination that is the main cause of the current crisis. Taking this into account as well as the facts and figures we know and that each of us can check, it is painful to see these hard neoliberal and neonservative populists be so successful. It is hard to deny this.
We know it can get worse and then we need to ask ourselves the question: Are we ever going to be able to turn back time once the damage is done? No, we won’t. Are we going to be able to fix the damage? Maybe, but if you look at the US and the UK, you see there are zones in big cities that the state has given up on. They have been left on their own.
I dare to make the prediction that certain neighborhoods in Antwerp will end up similarly as so many urban zones in the US. Then we can all claim: ‘wir haben es nicht gewusst’, but that would be nonsense because we do know how it shouldn’t be done. I have mentioned arguments and figures from the US and UK. It’s about making choices. Again: It is not a coincidence that the UK is the Western country with highest inequality.
Speaking of choices. One quarter of all prisoners in the world is locked up in an American prison. In the US, they will for the first time in history invest more money in prisons than in higher education. That means choosing for more social inequality, more poverty, more police state and a society of fear. It is choosing a controlling society, giving up parts of the city and hostility between rich and poor. In short, such a city is no ones. Not of the rich either because they cannot enjoy it.
That’s why today we need other alternatives more than ever: a real left alternative for everyone that wants to see things differently in his or her own city. What should this real left alternative stand for? It has to guarantee the rights of all inhabitants of a city. That way, one lays the foundation for an equal and just city. With such foundation the inhabitants can and will do their duties towards the others, themselves and the city. This is the opposite to what De Wever wants. “I want to go towards a discourse of duties”, he recently said. I wonder how you can point out someone’s duties if you take away their rights?
Furthermore, a left policy would have to punish those who need to be punished. But the main goal should not be revenge, but re-integration of the perpetrator. That is the foundation of our criminal code.
What should be central is how the city’s policy can improve the lives of as many as possible. That is only possible if the right choices are made and if the means are being invested in those choices. The left choice has to strive for a policy that is just, equal, social and solidary. This way, you make urban life pleasant, but not only for a certain elite, but for as many as possible in the city.
Bleri Lleshi is a political philosopher. He currently works on a new book ‘De neoliberale strafstaat’ which will be published by EPO in the Spring of 2013.
Translation from Dutch to English by Natalie Lefevre