Police Brutality & the War on Drugs
The 2014 police killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri caught heavy media attention, sparking a national conversation about police brutality and the propulsion of the Black Lives Matter movement into that conversation. The strong reaction from the Ferguson community, supported by concerned citizens across the country and globe, set a precedent for community mobilization and involvement in instances of police brutality to follow. Despite the increased attention to this issue and measures taken to retrain police departments, no progress has been made in recent years to decrease the number of police killings. Many activists see the continuing problem of police brutality as an indicator of how much has gone wrong since the Civil Rights Movement, especially due to the 2.5 times higher likelihood of Black people to be shot by police than whites. A lack of accountability — around 1000 citizens are killed by police each year, but only 80 have been charged and 28 convicted since 2005 — has increased suspicions of how police interact with the communities they’re supposed to serve. To understand the War on Drugs’ influence on police brutality today, we’ll briefly examine the historical ties of policing and the drug war to slavery, how police exploit the stigma surrounding drugs to vilify victims and get away with murder, and what we can do as drug policy reformers to fight police brutality.
MASS INCARCERATION IS AN EXTENSION OF SLAVERY
The 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 to outlaw slavery. Article I reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The amendment makes an important exception — those convicted of a crime can be punished with involuntary servitude. Because slavery was not protected by or even mentioned in the Constitution until this point, the de facto effects of the 13th Amendment were that A) our traditional conception of plantation slavery was no longer allowed, but also that B) slavery was now protected by the Constitution so long as those forced into servitude were convicted of a crime. The southern economy suffered greatly after the amendment was ratified because of its heavy reliance on slave labor;violence and hatred toward Black people persisted, exacerbated by economic hardship. The loophole in the 13th Amendment was quickly exploited, forming the base of our modern prison industrial complex. Blackness was criminalized and Black people were arrested in large numbers and forced to provide labor to rebuild the South after the Civil War. As the Civil Rights Movement grew in the following decades, activists were arrested for demonstrations and portrayed as dangerous terrorists to defame them and discredit their work.
The cultivated association of Blackness and the Civil Rights Movement with criminality and danger was so strong that politicians began exploiting this association to speak to southern whites’ racism and fear to pick up their votes. Politicians called for “law and order” — a thinly veiled phrase they knew would activate racial thinking — and promised they were the candidate to deliver it. This was done intentionally to grab the attention of racist voters and gain public support for harsher law enforcement measures, and that’s exactly what politicians are doing when they recycle the phrase “law and order” today.
Previous drug policies were also motivated by racism, but Nixon’s War on Drugs and establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration quickly became the greatest front of racially motivated mass incarceration. Although African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, the rate of imprisonment of African Americans for drug offenses is nearly six times that of whites. Prisoners today continue to provide cheap or free labor — sewing clothes for Victoria’s Secret, scrubbing products for Wal-Mart, manning call centers for AT&T — and some are made to pick cotton, corn, and soybeans in the same fields in which their ancestors have been enslaved for centuries.
It is crucial to consider the modern (though not at all new) issue of police brutality in its historical context to understand why people of color, especially Black people, both are approached by police more frequently as suspects and experience police brutality at higher rates than whites. Because these historical ties are often omitted from the coverage of police brutality today, we continue to see the media paint victims of police killings as thugs, portray activists and protesters as violent criminals, and focus on the property damaged during protests instead of the victims slain by law enforcement. The omission of this history is also why the many young people who say they wouldn’t have tolerated slavery if they lived during that time are tolerating mass incarceration and police brutality today.
DRUG STIGMA LETS POLICE GET AWAY WITH MURDER
Because we have so thoroughly stigmatized and ostracized people who use drugs with our language, with our lack of meaningful resources for drug education and addiction recovery, and with our focus of criminalization, the mere mention of a police brutality victim consuming or possessing controlled substances is a powerful blow to their character and helps police escape accountability for their actions.
Last month, Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s defense used the odor of cannabis to justify shooting Philando Castile. Hours after he shot Castile in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter during a traffic stop, Yanes told investigators, “I thought I was going to die. And I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me.” Mr. Yanez’s fears seem to be contradicted by video showing Mr. Castile to be compliant, alert, and courteous, but his allegations played a large role in the jury finding him not guilty. In any case, secondhand smoke is not intent to harm a police officer, and it’s time to stop allowing claims like Mr. Yanez’s let police off the hook for killing citizens at otherwise routine traffic stops.
During July of 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over for not signaling before a turn. In the dashboard recording, Ms. Bland seems annoyed about the stop. The officer, Texas state trooper Brian Encinia, demands Ms. Bland put out her cigarette and exit the car. Ms. Bland asks if she’s under arrest. Encinia says yes but refuses to tell her what for, points his taser toward her, and threatens to “light [her] up” as he forces her to exit her car. Ms. Bland grows impatient as she continues to assert her rights, tries to call her lawyer, and is forced into handcuffs. They move out of frame, but it is clear that Encina handles Ms. Bland harshly. Ms. Bland begins crying and scolds Encina for pushing her head into the ground because she has epilepsy. Encina responds yelling, “Good!” He then orders a bystander to leave. After some more struggling and profanities, Encinia takes Ms. Bland into custody on accusations that she assaulted him. Ms. Bland told police during her intake that she had previously attempted suicide, and she was found dead in her cell three days later — apparently having committed suicide. Although it was Officer Encinia who escalated the initial encounter, claims were made that Ms. Bland consumed cannabis beforehand, causing her to behave aggressively and exacerbated her mood disorder to the point that she would commit suicide. Toxicology reports debunk this narrative, but the allegations of cannabis use were effective in demonizing her. Nobody involved with the events leading up to Ms. Bland’s death was indicted.
These are two of many cases where drugs were used to vilify victims of police brutality. From Eric Garner to Sam DuBose and many others, police continue to use deadly force during routine encounters, defame their victims for possessing or selling drugs as if these actions give police the authority to kill them on the spot, and get away with their horrendous actions.
WHAT CAN DRUG POLICY REFORMERS DO TO FIGHT POLICE BRUTALITY?
It’s useless for us to know about the relationship between the drug war and police brutality if we do not bring that knowledge into our work. Here are some ideas to help you do just that:
- Host a screening of a documentary that explores connections between drug policy and policing — “13th,” “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” and “The House I Live In” are a few great examples
- Research what other student or local groups are organizing around police violence and collaborate with them
- Develop a prison divestment campaign — ask your school to stop supporting prison labor by purchasing and selling products made in prisons
- Host a demonstration or vigil in memory of victims of police brutality
- Encourage your local police departments to undergo de-escalation trainings
- Write op-eds and letters to the editor to raise awareness of police brutality and its connection to the War on Drugs
- Hold a “Know Your Rights” event and educate your peers on protecting themselves from police
- Reach out to school/local news and radio stations. Talk on their show. Raise awareness and bring more people to the movement.
- Write letters to people incarcerated for drug charges — they’d probably love to hear that you’re fighting for them
- Write, call, and meet with local politicians to discuss your concern about police brutality, mass incarceration, and other harms of drug prohibition
- Speak up when you hear friends or a classmate say that the drug war isn’t racist or Officer X’s victim deserved to get shot for breaking the law. It is. And they didn’t.
- Keep this issues central in your drug policy reform efforts — it’s great if you’re focused on legalizing cannabis, but shouldn’t we make sure that growing cannabis and owning dispensaries is accessible to people who have criminal records for selling cannabis? Shouldn’t we be including efforts to expunge records and release incarcerated people for a crime we believe shouldn’t be a crime?
- Share this post — make sure your activist friends are aware of and care about this issue
Interested in learning more about this issue? These links are great resources to get you started…
“[Police] are not a permanent fixture in society. While law enforcers have existed in one form or another for centuries, the modern police have their roots in the relatively recent rise of modern property relations 200 years ago, and the “disorderly conduct” of the urban poor. Like every structure we’ve known all our lives, it seems that the policing paradigm is inescapable and everlasting, and the only thing keeping us from the precipice of a dystopic Wild West scenario. It’s not.”
“Police are fully aware that they have a dangerous job in which they may get killed or injured dealing with criminals when they sign up for the job. Criminals whether they be Black or white do not represent the Black community but police do represent the government. Black citizens did not sign up for being at risk for police brutality or killings. When unarmed peaceful civilians are killed by the police, they are being killed by agents of the government that is supposed to represent them. It is this failure of government that must be addressed.”
“So, you understand that the police force in the U.S. upholds a system of racialized violence and white supremacy. You know that, when police get involved, Black people, people of color, queer & trans people, sex workers, women, and immigrants are usually in more danger, even if they are the victims of the crime being reported. You know that police violently escalate peaceful interactions and murder Black people with impunity every single day in this country. But, your neighbor is setting off fireworks at 3am, or there’s intimate partner violence happening outside your window, or you see someone hit their child in public… What do you do? What do you do instead of calling the police? How do you keep yourself safe without seeking protection from a system that is predicated upon the surveillance and extermination of others?”
A look into the history and organization of Black Lives Matter.
“Many may ask – what does the death of Michael Brown and America’s war on drugs have in common? My answer is simple: Black lives matter. And other than slavery and Jim Crow laws, no other social policy has served to devalue Black lives more than America’s drug war.”
In Ava DuVernay’s thought-provoking documentary, scholars, activists and politicians analyze the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom.
Posturing as a tongue-in-cheek beginner’s guide to making fast cash selling dope, this documentary examines the sobering failures of the war on drugs.
DRUG WAR NEWS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The War on Drugs is an international travesty. This section of the Monthly Mosaic, co-sponsored by SSDP’s International Outreach Committee, will highlight some of the top drug policy reform news from around the world.
“Checkit! is a drug-advice center offering integrated drug checking and prevention work. Founded in 1997 at the peak of the Gazometer Raves, it established its drop-in shop homebase ten years later in Gumpendorferstraße 8, 1060 and has been a melting point for information exchange, discussion and support ever since.”
“The campaign’s second phase will run to the end of the year, and the Interior Ministry has allocated a $1 million budget to fund anti-drug education, drug treatment, equipment and bonuses for anti-drug police, said Meas Vyrith, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs.”
*Content Warning: article contains potentially triggering images for people in recovery*
“On June 27, Health Canada – the federal department that oversees public health – granted permission to two drug consumption rooms (DCRs) to allow people to use drugs orally and nasally.”
On June 28, members of the Catalonian Parliament voted to approve the creation of a regulated framework for cannabis social clubs (CSCs) across the autonomous Spanish region, with 118 legislators supporting the measure, and only eight opposing it.
“Dany’s father was caught growing 52 marijuana plants on the patio of their house, which he shares with his sister, his wife and four younger brothers. It’s not the arrest itself that they want to denounce, but rather the events that immediately followed it. Officials from the government’s housing program, along with officers of the National Revolutionary Police, arrived shortly after to inform the family that they had to evacuate the premises in 72 hours. The state was confiscating their home.”
“From now on, the country is turning its page, as Greece is now included in countries where the delivery of medical cannabis to patients in need is legal.” Mr Tsipras said at a press conference, as reported by the Greek Government Gazette.”
“Under our proposal, commercial supply and trafficking of drugs would still be punished, but people who are caught with drugs for their own use would not face criminal penalties. Why? Because the vast majority of people who use drugs do so without causing harm to themselves or others. Prosecuting them can have a far-reaching negative impact on their lives but has limited or no effect on their drug use.”
“Despite a strict prohibition on marijuana – which is made from dried cannabis leaves and flowers – and the threat of Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, Alden manages an underground network that provides marijuana to people suffering from a wide range of medical conditions – including cancer, neurological disorders, and arthritis.”
Prabagaran Srivijayan was arrested in 2012 after 22.24 grams (0.8 ounces) of heroin was found in the car he was driving when it was stopped at a checkpoint going to Singapore. He was sentenced to death two years later after being convicted of drug-trafficking.
It’s Time to End South Africa’s War on Drugs
“Certain members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and politicians with a “moral” agenda continue to oppose health services, such as needle exchange programmes, for people who use drugs despite official health department support for these initiatives.”
“Last week’s order by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is disappointing on several levels. The order to increase police action is a complete reversal of encouraging movement towards adoption of a more sane and sustainable policy on illicit drugs.”
*Content Warning: article contains potentially triggering images for people in recovery*
“Doctors and health authorities warned of the “devastating” impact of the new cuts on the future health and wellbeing of the nation after the King’s Fund revealed a total of £85m is set to be carved out of local authority allocations for public health.”
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Each Monthly Mosaic is edited by Elise Szabo and Kat Murti. This issue also features contributions by Rachelle Yeung.
Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war. The DARE Committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues.
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