On Thursday and Friday I attended the Breaking the Chains Conference in Baltimore, MD. The event brought together a passionate and diverse group of experts and activists to explore the impact of the war on drugs within communities of color. I'm rather familiar with the topic, but I heard some things I won’t soon forget.
I heard Baltimore youth share their visions for the future of their neighborhoods.
I heard "Little Melvin" Williams, the biggest heroin supplier in Baltimore history, tell us he'd never have done it if it wasn't so profitable.
I heard a trauma surgeon describe what it's like telling a mother she lost her son.
I heard a woman who couldn't have been a day over 40 describe her recovery from 30 years of addiction on the streets of Baltimore.
I heard current and former police officers acknowledge and vividly describe the overt racism of many professional drug enforcement officers.
I heard about youth who excelled at inner city schools only to be targeted by gang recruiters interested in their math skills.
And I heard a mother beam with joy as she shared the news that her sons would be home four years early under the revised crack sentencing guidelines.
For two days, I was the minority.
Back in D.C. later that evening, I walked through Columbia Heights to a house party. On my way, I happened to pass the scene of a homicide that occurred two years ago while I was on a ride-along with the Metropolitan Police Dept. We were the first unit to arrive, finding a young black man sprawled in the street, unconscious and still breathing as his friends stood over his shattered body unsure what to do. He'd been run over by a car on purpose, but his friends dispersed without providing any information to the frustrated homicide investigators.
The last remnants of a once-thriving open-air drug market along the 14th Street corridor continue to operate discretely, generating sporadic drug trade violence in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Just one block from the scene of that still-unsolved murder, I entered a refurbished row house to find a few dozen white 20-somethings playing drinking games. Young professionals waited their turn at the beer-pong table as an ice luge slowly melted on the deck in the summer heat. Across the street, a gaping hole was fenced off, awaiting the construction of new luxury condos.
As I sipped my beer listening to my friends compare business schools, I thought back to a comment from Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy Jr. earlier that day at the conference. He described how three decades of drug war violence, widespread addiction, and massive incarceration have decimated urban communities, necessitating gentrification to raise the tax base in major cities. The drug economy and the criminal justice system have indeed played a prominent role in reshaping America's urban landscapes. But the violence doesn't stop, it just moves over a few blocks.
And so, the young people of color who grow up in drug-ravished communities in America continue to tell the same stories we've been hearing for decades. The "crack epidemic" that dominated the evening news when I was a child is supposed to be over, but the brave Baltimore youth that spoke up at the Breaking the Chains conference described a world that remains defined by everything the drug war was supposed to prevent. A world in which the most dangerous drugs are sold by children on the sidewalks. A world in which snitching is a capital offense, youth learn math by counting glass vials, prison slang permeates cultural vernacular, and a group of teens dressed in blue are not a soccer team.
These things are the legacy of the war on drugs. After so many years and so many lost lives, nothing should be more obvious to anyone who listens to the voices of the multiple generations that have now been born on the drug war battlefield. Nothing is changing, nor will it, until the day this terrible war is finally dismantled and replaced.