The Personal is Political: How the War on Drugs is a War on Communities

The Personal is Political: How the War on Drugs is a War on Communities


UC Berkeley SSDP Co-President Oliver Zerrudo

Written by UC Berkeley SSDP Co-President Oliver Zerrudo

My first International Drug Policy Reform Conference left me with many amazing conversations to mull over. One of the things that resonated with me most was when, during the Reform For Those Who Sell Drugs: Challenging a Taboo of Drug Policy Reform workshop, someone said, “Nice people sell drugs too.” For me, hearing this was a profound humanizing moment. No matter how simple this statement seems, it deeply moves me, because it is the label of ‘drug-dealer’ that allows so many people of color to be legally killed by our government. In the drug policy reform community, we are often hesitant to acknowledge that often, people of color, people from communities and background like mine, sell drugs. As a person of color and drug policy activist, I wonder why it is so easy for that label to take away from our legitimacy as good people, as worthy members of society.

The number of hashtag names we’ve memorialized on our social media outlets constantly reminds me of the overwhelming amount of violence that the police and the state are permitted to inflict on communities of color via the failed War on Drugs. In the Bay Area, recent local police murders made this apparent to me –if gang injunction hadn’t painted Alex Nieto as a drug dealer, maybe the police wouldn’t have shot him immediately. If Kayla Moore’s roommate hadn’t had an outstanding warrant for drugs, maybe the police could have let him explain her mental state before they killed her. And on December 2, 2015, in the midst of another public shooting, San Francisco Police executed Mario Woods, a black San Francisco resident, via a 6-man firing squad. Police injustice is not uncommon in San Francisco’s Mission District and Bayview/Hunter’s Point. For my people in the Bay Area, the War on Drugs has manifested itself in the forms of mass incarceration and gang injunction. Like in many major cities affected by the War on Drugs, urban youth in San Francisco are perpetually excluded from mainstream methods of monetary acquisition and economic access. Socially, many from our backgrounds accept and place value on sub-economies –understanding that the neighborhood drug trade had more room for upward mobility than the K-12 system/school-to-prison pipeline. Selling drugs is often a very sustainable and viable means of taking care of oneself and loved ones. The War on Drugs turns that into a space of criminality.

The War on Drugs in California is part of several efforts that have been started to subjugate people of color throughout history. It is the most recent incarnation in American history of the commodification of black and brown political disenfranchisement. Following the Great Depression, WWII plunged California into a warfare-welfare economic system upon the realization that immense wealth could be made through military production. This created hubs of working class people of color communities along California’s coast in places like Bayview, Richmond, and Oakland. During this period, we see people of color contributing to, and reaping some benefits of, the economic growth of the state. By the 1960s this economic model of ‘Military Keynesianism’ was deeply rooted in California, to ensure that military construction provided the most amount of public jobs and funding. From the abandonment of the Gold Standard in 1971, to the numerous droughts and irrigation disasters in 1975, the state used military production to keep money flowing in times of economic hardship, primarily via Department of Defense contracts. Recessions from 1980-1992 crippled the California economy, sinking many markets and bankrupting many of the wartime industries and factories, turning former middle class communities of color, gutted of economic opportunity, into public housing projects. This trend of economic decline, whose effects were felt most deeply by communities of color, set the foundations for the California Prison Expansion Project.

In the face of economic recession, California politicians sought to monetize the state’s four main surpluses: Financial Capital, Land, State Infrastructural Capacity, and Population. First, extra state funds made through taxes and municipal bonds were used to transform outdated and underused agricultural areas into state facilities where money could be made. Prisons and jails sprung up throughout the state’s Central Valley, amongst other rural areas. Under the guise of fighting crime and drugs, California used its large political infrastructure to create fiscal, political, and ideological tools to support mass incarceration. Following rises in unemployment and immigration into the nation, pools of social undesirables or ‘others’ in our society were targeted for incarceration. The framework of laws and lawmakers, the access to and perspective of the media, and the social understanding of what is criminal all helped to ensure the prison system is as profitable as possible. Crime was treated like communism, and containment was the only understood option. Punitive measures and tough on crime rhetoric have become Californian political specialties as the state builds itself up by building and expanding prisons. Meanwhile, at the local level, it is evident that programs such as gang injunction and phenomena like gentrification serve to further legitimize the removal of ‘othered’ identities, people of color identities, for profit.

The connection between drug policy and police murders lies in the connection between money and punishment; in the connection between punishment and identity; in the connection between identity and money. As certain bodies, certain identities, become equitable to profit, we fall back into the routine of neoliberal dehumanization that justified the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Natives. Along this slippery slope, one’s humanity has become reduced to a feeling: that death or removal from society is meant to serve a greater good.

Mario Woods was not a drug dealer, but he is still a victim of the drug war. In this moment, I realize, and we must all realize, that the violence enacted by the drug war goes beyond the presence of substances and the scope of actual drug deals. Our communities are the feeding grounds for capitalist profit, our dehumanization and compartmentalization a necessary and inherent factor of wealth acquisition for those in power. The drug war and mass incarceration: heads of the same beast aiming to maintain an underclass. As a person of color and drug policy activist, this is something I am too aware of.


For further reading:

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, & Opposition in Globalizing California; Ruthie Gilmore

The Disorientation of the Teaching Act: Abolition as Pedagogical Position; Dylan Rodriguez

Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness & the Criminalization of the Unprotected; Lisa Cacho

The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism; David Theo Goldberg