Blog Post

The Drug War Provides Post-Civil Rights Cover for an Old Problem

Art Way

It’s not hard to make the simple argument that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered by the police because they were black.  The lack of de-escalation employed in these tragic events is mind boggling when compared to white folks who verbally threatened police before brandishing weapons, or killing dozens of people in a movie theatre.

State sanctioned violence is nothing new for black, brown and poor communities.  What’s alarming is this state sanctioned violence not only continues but somehow appears business as usual in a post-civil rights America.

How has this continued after King, Rosa, Malcolm and Bobby? In our post-civil rights era this vestige of genocide and slavery has been maintained and justified through the wars on crime and drugs.

It is no accident that the drug war breeds racist violence. John Ehrlichman, former aide to President Richard Nixon, recently laid out the connection with alarming frankness: 

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

“Vilify[ing black people] night after night on the evening news” (as Nixon suggested) has taken its toll on public opinion. Whole generations of Americans, especially white Americans, have been taught to associate blackness with little more than drug trade crime and violence. 

Hollywood, certain aspects of hip hop and real life gang violence associated with the drug trade has not helped matters, but was Freddy Gray a Baltimore Scarface?  Was Alton Sterling the Nino Brown of Baton Rouge?  Philando Castile the Frank Lucas of Minnesota? No they weren’t, but the decade’s long association of blackness with violence helped lead to their deaths - and may justify them - all the same.

When media commentators note that Sandra Bland may have used marijuana or that Freddie Gray may have sold drugs, they are tapping into a drug war vein to say the lives of drug users and sellers matter less.  What they are also saying is that black lives continue not to matter even in post-civil rights America – tapping into a systemically racist vein that currently permeates via the drug war.

Those with vested interest in the devaluation of black life and the criminalization of black communities need the drug war for political cover. Those who want to end state sanctioned murders should consider joining forces to end the drug war. 

This is a war waged to keep the black, brown and poor disenfranchised all while using their bodies as commodities for a prison industrial complex similar to the human commodification witnessed during slavery.

Art Way is a senior director of national criminal justice reform strategy and Colorado state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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