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The Drug War is a War on Communities of Color

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.

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"It's bad but what are we to do?"

From my past experience listening to representatives of communities of color, they will tell you a long list of sad stories but in the end they use it to push their social welfare agenda rather getting to the heart of the matter: drug profits.

Often I hear the following:

"If youth are dealing drugs because it's the only game in our little third world microcosm, we just need more jobs, better housing, more qualified teachers and afterschool programs, more police etc. etc. and then all the youth will just forget about the quick cash they can make off drugs."

I'm curious if there was any serious in-depth discussion of initiatives to divert profits from drug dealers like the Switzerland heroin maintenance program.

Conservative Black Leadership hinders Drug Reform

William Aiken

Back in 1998, I produced a documentary, "The Drug War in Black & White" which examined the racial disparity in the enforcement of the drug war as reported by The Sentencing Project. I interviewed community and political African-American leaders about the SP report and none of them embraced the idea of legalization or decriminalization. They impressed me as being quite conservative on the issue.

Inspite of the fact that there is no doubt African-Americans suffer disproportionally in the drug war, the call from that community has been for more police and more enforcement. In my documentary, the majority of whites I interviewed on the street felt that the drug laws weren't racially bias, even when I showed them the SP report.

This conservative thinking is rooted in the Black Church as most leaders in the African-American community are religious people. I was encouraged to see the clergy video, where religious leaders of all faiths spoke out against the drug war. That video should be circulating in your church. In the Drug War debates, often it's not the message but the messenger that draws the most attention.


That's why conferences like Breaking the Chains are so important. As a white drug policy reformer, there's only so much I can do to persuade people of color that the drug war is such a huge part of the problem facing our inner cities. This conference brought together the right messengers for that argument and calls for reform dominated the conversation.

Religious yes, but practical too

I think we give too much credit to the religion's role as their reason for not adopting regulated drug market policies. They just have to look around their neighborhoods and see what a lousy job we do at regulating the large concentration of alcohol stores, kids drinking in the middle of night and getting into street fights, and homeless people with paperbag bottles in their hands on the street corner.

Black leadership?

Black leadership views are just a reflection of the communities they represent. Blacks in general are the least likely to support the legalization of any drug. This is backed up by the exit polls for the Question 7 ballot initiative in Nevada.

If there is a racist white oppression in the form of the "War on Drugs", it continues because the majority of blacks want it to continue.

The root of the problem

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada Anyone that's read anything of the origin of our current drug policies knows they sprung from a racist society fearing what it didn't understand.What's the excuse now?Here in Vancouver we never saw the racist side because we had no other race.We had a small Chinese community and that's where most of the heroin came from.Now we have drug gangs and they are mostly racially aligned.There is a UN gang that takes all comers and there are still a few white guys trying to hang in.(The Hells Angels are even racially mixed in town)The reason most whites don't realise what's going on is because they have no interest.Life's a bitch,then you die.


White America, willfully blind to the harm caused by their Jim Crow policies, blithely shove their victims aside with gentrification once they strip from urban and minority communities all vestiges of capacity to thrive economically and socially within authoritarian Jim Crow America.

"[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." H.R. Haldeman's diary according to former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum in his book "Smoke and Mirrors".

The war on drugs was then and still is today that "system".

Jim Crow had two legs before 1965. Direct denial of access to polling places using oppressive rules was one tactic. The other leg was trumped up 'morals' laws. The Voting Rights Act reduced, for a time, the direct denial of access gambit. The war on drugs reinvigorated the trumped up morals laws.

The war on drugs has been intentionally subverting America's democracy since its inception in 1971.

Directly the war on drugs criminally disenfranchises millions of mostly minority Americans and enables subversive tactics like the criminal disenfranchisement voting roles purge in Florida in 2000 that directly changed the outcome of that election more than any other factor.

Covertly the war on drugs enables subversion of America's constitutional apportionment process by using prison populations to empower the Gerrymandering needed to create "safe districting" for politicians. The Jim Crow drug warriors are forcibly taking the urban poor to rural white prison districts where these now 3/5th citizens are counted in the local white community apportionment population but they have no vote there. At the same time the home urban districts are electorally weakened by the lack of presence of these citizens in the census count.

Politicians without a large well established personal support base, like Obama, know that the system is long since rigged in favor of the drug war authoritarians. The only way to get ahead in American politics today is to tow the drug war line. Obama does that like a pro.

The war on drugs

has been a war on American democracy since its inception. At this it is a total and absolute success. America has not had a valid federal election since 1972.

Drug war!

We must all accept the fact that the Federal Government has taken on the role of Morality Enforcer. We have the freedom to get drunk until we are stupid and a danger to society but you can't smoke that evil herb. All hell will break loose in America!!! We here in America don't have the option to choose which intoxicants we can consume regardless of your scientific data that say's Pot is safer that Tobacco or Booze. We here in the U.S. support the monopoly of recreational consumables. So what if homeless drunks roam our cities and who cares if someone gets beat up or killed by a violent drunk. At least we will be sending kids the right message. That responsible Adults who get their thrill from a baggie and not a bottle are criminals. All we need to do now is start arresting responsible Adults who have Sex because it is illegal for minors to engage in and we need to send them that message too RIGHT!!!
J. Velasco Brownsville Texas

Status Quo Jim Crow

During the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, drug prohibition was at least one of many racist policies that was overlooked in all the excitement of dismantling Jim Crow. As such, the drug war may be one of the last columns supporting the racist policies of the antebellum South.

Throughout its history, the U.S. government has encouraged racist attitudes among poor whites in order to target the poor in a divide-and-conquer strategy.  The status quo’s intent was, and has been, to stop poor whites and blacks from coming together in a way that could create an effective, single political force, thereby threatening the monopoly of the plutocrats. [For more info see:  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States].

The same divisionary politics exists now.  Poor blacks are often linked to the Democrats, while rural whites of the American heartland are prone to side with the Republican Party.

Those in power in the United States play a zero-sum game in which a stratified, hierarchal society assures their predominance at the top of the heap.  Keeping some arbitrary group of people down, whether they’re non-whites, drug users, or whomever, is absolutely critical to their political formula’s success.

Persecuting the powerless, the disenfranchised, the demonized down-and-out, is also an easy and effective way for parasitic bureaucrats and others of a similar mindset to create a useful political agenda or to make a lot of money.


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