This week in Ferguson, MO, I joined a delegation of faith ministers to stand in solidarity with thousands of organizers and protesters decrying the injustice handed down by the local grand jury last week. The news of another white police officer getting off scot-free after shooting a young Black man, was a debilitating blow, at the hand of a criminal justice system I am supposed to trust and believe in.
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 the past 40 years, we have ruined the lives of millions of young Black men and women by locking them away behind bars, rendering their futures irrelevant to America’s growth and development. Despite similar drug use between Blacks and Whites, African Americans go to prison 13 times the rates of Whites. According, Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “…there are more African-American men in prison and jail, or on probation and parole, than were slaves before the start of the Civil War.”
If Black lives mattered, America would fix this broken system and keep Black families intact by not casually ruining their futures because of simple drug possession. We have become complacent and we’ve allowed our policymakers to enact laws and policies that make Black and Brown lives disposable. To make matters worse, we have used drug use and drug policies as weapons to demonize and devalue our beloveds. So, I will use my time in Ferguson, as we remind those of us gathered there that Black lives matters - even Black people who use and sell drugs.
I am in Ferguson carrying the No More Drug War banner. I firmly believe that America’s drug war has become the legs on which our broken criminal justice system now stands. The drug war has emboldened police departments to turn communities of color into battle fields, allowed police officers to engage in open combat with young Black men and women – stopping, frisking and arresting them with little or no repercussion. All across the nation, jails and prisons are filled with America’s future and we should be outraged.
We have failed to notice this three-legged monster because it has been disguised as justice and is masquerading as morality. It is time to end drug policies that serve to further dehumanize people. We must stop over arresting and imprisoning young Black and Brown women and men for petty drug crimes, we must reinvest drug war resources in marginalized communities, we must end mandatory minimum sentences, we must work to defund the Drug Enforcement Agency and invest in a public health system that serve those needing treatment and other services to address their drug use.
In the midst of my trip to Ferguson, we received news that was akin to pepper-spraying an already open wound. New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, also getting off scot-free in the choking death of Eric Garner.
Unfortunately, supporters of increased funding for law enforcement are driven by the misguided notion that an increase in low-level arrests, drug arrests in particular, would yield more federal dollars in the coffers of local and state police departments. This outlook assures that the assault on people of color at the hands of police is most likely to continue and there will be more Michael Browns and Eric Garners.
As Dr. Martin Luther King once said: “It is in darkness that the stars are their brightest.” I believe that this dark moment in the history of America’s criminal justice system will bring forth the brightest organizers and reformers to develop solutions that reaffirm Black humanity.
Ending America’s drug war is now a central part of the national discourse on justice, compassion and dignity.
Yolande Cadore is the director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance.
UPDATE: This piece was updated to reflect the news of the Staten Island, NY Grand Jury’s decision not to indict a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner. The decision was announced minutes after publication of this piece.