A few days before last week’s Super Bowl, I walked into my colleagues’ office to discuss the marijuana themed naming frenzy taking over Facebook and other social media circuits. Our conversation on naming the Super Bowl was short lived and quickly shifted to the story of Demaryius Thomas, of the Denver Broncos.
The story of Thomas’ mother and grandmother hit the media days after the Broncos won the AFC Championship game. Both women are serving a drug sentence in a Florida prison. His mother, Katina Thomas, is completing a 20 year sentence, while his grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas is doing a life sentence on conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. The Controlled Substances Act established a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for a first time trafficking offense for five grams of crack. An offender convicted of trafficking 500 grams of cocaine would get the same sentence of five years in federal prison. This is a travesty. These mandatory minimum laws has had a disproportional effect on Black families. Regardless of our moral position on drugs, drug use and drug users, separating parents from their children should always be the last resort. Advocates across the country are now demanding that judges consider the financial and social cost of imprisonment including the impact of a prison sentence on family life and the community the at-large.
In communities across America our sisters are disappearing from our midst. The Thomas’ story represents all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system. What you may not know is that drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, yet Black and Latina women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white women. Furthermore Black women are more than two and half times more likely than white women to be sent to prison. Shouldn’t we all be outraged? Additionally, black women are far more likely than white women to be reported to child welfare services for drug use. Black women, like black men live in institutionalized communities where over policing and pathologizing of black life is routine and service provision and state sanctioned punishment go hand in hand.
As many as 2.7 million children are growing up in U.S households in which one or more parents are incarcerated. 54 percent of people in prison are parents of minor children. On any given night roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars for a drug law violation. In 2008, one in nine black children was in Demaryius’ situation – growing up with a parent in prison. As a community and a society we too should embrace a “not under our watch” mantra. How did we allow this to happen in the first place? Did we not see our sisters, mothers, friends disappearing from our midst?
As we celebrate Black History Month and in the spirit of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hammer, Dorothy Heights and other ancestral mothers – the time is now to stand together to protect and defend our sisters. We are morally obliged to say no more Demaryiuses, not today and not ever again. An African expression of Ubuntu says: “Your pain is my pain, my wealth is your wealth and your salvation is my salvation.” Our disappearing women is our pain and saving black children is our salvation.
Yolance Cadore is the director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance.