By Phillip Smith
The Black Lives Matter movement sprung out of the unjust killings of young black men (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown), either at the hands of self-styled vigilantes or police. But as the movement blossomed and matured, BLM began turning its attention to a broader critique of the institutional racism behind police violence against the black population.
While the war on drugs plays a central role in generating conflict between the black community and law enforcement, the critique of institutional racism in policing and the criminal justice system necessarily implicates the nation’s drug policies. The grim statistics of racially biased drug law enforcement are well-known: blacks make up about 13% of the population, but 30% of all drug arrests; blacks account for nearly 90% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions; black federal crack offenders were sentenced to far more prison time that white powder cocaine offenders; blacks and other minorities are disproportionately targeted in traffic stop and stop-and-frisks despite being less likely than whites to be carrying drugs, and so on.
People who have been spent careers working in the drug reform movement didn’t need the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to understand the corrosive and screamingly unfair impact of drug war racism on black communities, but the 2010 broadside helped open eyes outside the movement and deepened the visceral impact of drug war racism for those already in the trenches. The book continues to reverberate. And now, Black Lives Matter is bringing a whole new sense of energy and urgency to the issue.
>Despite efforts by leading drug reform groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the world of drug reform remains overwhelmingly white. With marijuana legalization proceeding at a rapid pace and business opportunities emerging, the unbearable whiteness of the marijuana industry is becoming an increasingly high-profile issue.
Last month, Black Lives Matter activists released Campaign Zero, a comprehensive platform for curbing police violence and reforming the criminal justice system in the US. The platform does not explicitly call for ending the war on drugs, but drug war policies and policing techniques are inextricably intertwined with the policing problems (and solutions) it identifies. Campaign Zero calls for decriminalizing marijuana within the context of a broader call for moving away from “broken windows” policing, as well as demanding an end to mass stop-and-frisk and racial profiling policies, both impelled in large part by the drug war. It also calls for an end to “policing for profit,” whether through issuing tickets for revenue-raising purposes or through another drug war creation, the use of civil asset forfeiture to seize cash and goods from people without convicting them of a crime (sometimes without even arresting them).
Most of the other Campaign Zero policy proposals regarding police use of force, militarization and community control don’t directly address the war on drugs, but because the drug war is so pervasive, it is implicated with them as well. According to the FBI, drug offenses were the single largest category of arrests made, constituting 1.5 million of the 11 million arrests nationwide last year.
How does a mostly white drug reform movement that is already intellectually aware of drug war racism, and that has used it to its advantage in efforts like the Washington, DC marijuana legalization fight and the struggle to roll back harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, deal with Black Lives Matter? To its credit, the Drug Policy Alliance took a big whack at it during last month’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in suburban Washington. While race and the drug war were an issue at numerous sessions during the conference, a Live National Town Hall on “Connecting the Dots: Where the Drug Policy Reform Movement and the #BlackLivesMatter Intersect” brought a laser-like focus to the topic. And it was a hot topic—event organizers had to move the event to a larger room at the last minute when it became evident that hundreds of people were determined to be there.
They came to hear from a panel that included BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors; Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs founder and executive director Deborah Peterson-Small; NAACP Legal Defense Fund senior organizer Lumumba Bandele; DPA policy manager Kassandra Frederique; and St. Louis hip-hop artist T-Dubb-O. DPA program director Asha Bandele was the moderator.
People have to open their minds to new paradigms, the panelists warned. ”People are so wedded to the institution of policing they can’t even imagine something different, something radical,” said Cullors. “We have to transform the way our communities have been completely devastated by the war on drugs.”
“We are at a historic moment right now, a moment where freedom looks different to people than how it looked before,” said Peterson-Small. “Harriet Tubman famously said she could have freed more slaves if the people only knew they were slaves—that’s the psychology of enslavement. What we need now is a conversation about white people who believe they’re free when they’re not,” she said.
“We black people already know we’re not free,” Small continued. “I worry about the people who believe they’re free, the people who think the police are your friends, that they’re here to serve and protect you. You have a lot of illusions about the role of police in your lives.”
The legacy of slavery lives on all too vividly in the modern criminal justice system, she said.
“Policing is the way white America continues to replicate the cycle of enslavement, the power dynamic on which this society is based. Every time a black man is arrested, it’s a reenactment of that dynamic,” Peterson-Small said.
“We believe in two incompatible things,” she told the audience. “We believe that we live in a free and democratic country where anyone who works hard can succeed, but we also know we live in a country established by and for the benefit of white men. White folks are in denial about that incompatibility, but it’s no longer possible to pretend something that’s been going on for 200 years hasn’t been happening.”
Removing the blinders from white people’s eyes is part of the struggle, she said. ”Our fight for freedom is your fight for freedom. Oppressed people have to be the agent and catalyst of freedom for their oppressors,” she told a rapt crowd.
DPA’s Frederique talked about the imperative she felt to make the connection between her work as a drug reformer and the broader issue of racism in America in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.
“We can’t wait to make the connection, I needed to understand how to make the connection,” she said, “but I was without words. Now, I locate the work I do as racial justice. If we’re going to continue to say that the war on drugs is war on people of color, if we continue to get nontraditional allies and say marijuana legalization is a civil rights issue and how we are winning, I find it hard to believe the idea that we can win the war on drugs without winning the war on people of color. If we think that, we’re doing something wrong.”
“Drug policy reform needs to systematically disrupt and destroy institutional racism,” she said. “If we don’t, we can’t ask black people to sit at the table.”
But as moderator Asha Bandele noted, it’s not just white racism that’s holding down black people when it comes to drug policy. “Respectable” black people have been a bulwark of the drug war, too. If you just obey the law, you won’t get in trouble, they say, looking down their noses at their troublesome brethren.
That’s wrongheaded, said Peterson-Small. ”If we were having this conversation 135 years ago, people would have said the same thing about the pig laws as we say now about the crack laws,” she said. “We’ve always been in a war for our survival in this country. The only reason we are here is to be a source of economic profit for other people.”
Alluding to Poland’s WWII-era Lodz Ghetto, Peterson-Small warned that meekly complying with harsh and arbitrary authority to ensure the survival of the community can end up with the elimination of the community.
“We’ve got to stop drinking that Kool-Aid,” she said. “When we as a community are willing to stand up for the brother with a blunt and a 40 the way we did with Trayvon, they won’t be able to keep us down.”
“Just look at me,” said hip-hop attired T-Dubb-O. “I have a dream, too. I don’t want to be a hashtag, I don’t want to sell drugs, to kill somebody who looks like me. It’s the system of white supremacy that puts me in that mind state. When you talk about the war on drugs, that school-to-prison pipeline, that’s what gives them that mind-state,” he said.
“We don’t own no poppy farms, but now we have a heroin epidemic,” he said. “The murders you see in Chicago, those killings in St. Louis, that’s heroin.”
T-Dubb-O took drug war solidarity to the next level, mentioning the case of the 43 missing Mexican student teachers presumably killed by drug gangs working in cahoots with corrupt local politicians.
“We have to have an international vision of the people who are repressed,” he said.
In response to an audience question, Peterson-Small got down to nuts and bolts. If we want to dismantle racism, drug policy provides a space to apply harm reduction to the problem.
“The work that really needs to be done is for people to understand that we’re not the ones who need fixing,” she said. “All of us have been infected by this thing. If we apply harm-reduction principles, we would focus on what is the intervention, not who is the racist. It’s a course of treatment, not a weekend of racial sensitivity training.”
The National Town Hall is just a beginning. We still have a long way to go.