I Sit a Little Taller: DPA's Kassandra Frederique Shares Why Telling our History During Black History Month Matters
I first see her seven years ago, eyes brighter than the florescent lights of Broadway up the street from DPA-HQ. She’s an intern, but she takes over. All those pushy questions, and steady of her love for we whose voices had been diminished or twisted beyond coherence, when they were heard at all. It was like drug policy reform was getting a makeover, Dahomey-style. But Kassandra Frederique, Upper West Side by way of Haiti, a family girl and Ivy grad, wanted to know more because she wanted to know freedom.
As we say, She Who Learns Must Teach, which is why it’s not surprising that two years ago Kassandra pushed DPA to start a Black History Month series that raised up the names and the work of those who’d been erased or relegated to footnotes in history. This year as we focus on Black women who toil outside of the spotlight, but without whom little would get done, the newly appointed head of DPA’s New York Policy Office drops it on white supremacy, women and why we have to have the courage to tell the truth.
KF: 2012 was a seminal year for me. It began with the killing of Ramarley Graham, a young brother shot to death by police in his bathroom as his grandma and little brother watched. The early reporting said the police officers saw him doing a hand-to-hand marijuana sale, and later, that there supposedly a gun. None of that was substantiated.
I was in the midst of our marijuana decriminalization campaign and wondered what would it mean if we talked about Ramarley? Was it exploitative to say that policing around marijuana led to his death? It felt messy and wrong. I was co-managing the campaign and made the decision not to do it, scared I’d hurt the family. Then a couple of weeks later Trayvon Martin was killed.
I was devastated. Had I failed Trayvon by not making the connection between Ramarley’s killing and marijuana? The media was running stories that there were traces of marijuana in Trayvon’s system as though that justified killing him, but I knew in that moment if we didn’t connect the way the drug war was killing us, then we were complicit in disappearing their lives.
In 2013 I was at a reception for DPA at someone’s home. I was looking at a bunch of pictures on the wall. There were lots of white faces, and then suddenly: one Black man. I asked Ethan who he was. And Ethan told me it was a picture of Troy Duster, a brother who in 1970 wrote Legislation of Morality, a seminal work that informed all of today’s reform leadership on the question of race and drugs.
I lost it.
I’d been working in drug policy since 2009 and for four years I’d felt a deep shame because all I’d heard was that no Black people had fought to end the drug war, that our leaders had simply called for draconian policies. And when I realized that a Troy Duster existed I was shattered because I hadn’t questioned the narrative that had been given to me about us—even though we’re movement dedicated to shifting and challenging narratives!
This undertaking is all about ensuring that none of us—none of the truth—is disappeared, which is why I’m so grateful we’re focusing on sisters. Because we cannot ignore how white supremacy is gendered. There are very explicit ways in which drug policy affects sisters. We’re vaginally searched in public on the claim that there’s marijuana in our bodies. We’re illegally drug tested when we go for checkups or are giving birth. Our motherhood is criminalized. And even as we stand on the frontlines for our brothers, too often, they’re absent when we need them on the battlefield. So if we‘re going to talk about disappearances, we talk about the work and lives of Black women.
We’ve been foundational to all of our work for liberation. And my hope is that those who engage the series will sit a little taller—as I did—the day I learned the truth.
Kassandra Frederique is the director of the New York policy office at the Drug Policy Alliance.
asha bandele is the senior director of grants, partnerships and special projects at the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.