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American Violet Shows How War on Drugs Is the New Jim Crow

Imagine if someone with a grudge against you told the police you were a drug dealer. Officers would come to your work and arrest you. Then you'd be told that you could go home right away by taking a plea bargain. That, however, would come with probation, the loss of your right to vote and to accept federal benefits like food stamps and public housing. If you chose to fight the charges, you would have to come up with $70,000 for bail or stay in jail. And if you lost, you'd be facing 15 years.

That's the choice that character Dee Roberts has to make in the new film American Violet. The movie is based on the true story of Regina Kelly, an innocent woman who was urged to plead guilty to drug charges by her family, friends, and public defender so she could return to her children. She chose to fight the charges, and with the help of the ACLU, she took on the system.

I had a chance to see the film at a screening also attended by the filmmaker and Regina's ACLU lawyer. To find out what I learned, and to see the trailer


American Violet depicts a terrifying picture of the American justice system. The district attorney wields totalitarian power over a hardworking single mother who faces shaming and unemployment after her wrongful incarceration. While she struggles with the decision to sue the blatantly racist attorney general and the police, she ultimately decides to do her part to stop those preying on her community.

Filmmaker Bill Haney was moved to make the movie after Regina's story brought him to tears. The reality that this was not an isolated incident encouraged Haney to share her story.

ACLU attorney Graham Boyd explained that drug law and enforcement practices target the black community. And when 95 percent of criminal convictions are a result of aggressively pushed plea bargain deals, millions of innocent African Americans lose their right to vote, especially in the South.

It's no coincidence the panel argued, that the so-called War on Drugs was soon declared after the Voting Rights Act was passed in the 1960s.

American Violet is now playing in select theaters. The story of a woman who took on the system — bolstered by her strong bond with her mother and four daughters — it will make you second guess the War on Drugs if you hadn't already.


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