*Editor's note: In this monthly blog series, the Drug Policy Alliance will examine the nexus between the War on Drugs and law enforcement practices that result in the mass criminalization, incarceration and dehumanization of communities of color. These pieces will reflect on the ways in which the institutions of policing and prosecution- both driven by calls for “law and order” in the wake of the War on Drugs- continue to function as instruments of reinforcement for the overarching structural racism on which the drug war was founded.
Over the past several weeks, the details surrounding the tragic killing of Jordan Edwards have been revealed under the intensely watchful eye of a public that continues to face a seemingly never-ending flood of stories recounting instances of police brutality and the pervasive lack of justice for black victims on the receiving end of police misconduct.
Outside of a media sphere permeated by meticulously crafted, state-serving narratives marked by the use of coded language as a form of fear mongering that encourages brutalization in carrying out the war on drugs and cultivates public apathy towards the victims of such violence, a situation in which a police officer responding to a neighbor’s call about possible underage drinking that ends with the use of lethal force on a car full of frightened kids could not be dressed as anything other than a senseless act of violence. This murder reinforces the message that the protections associated with the assumption of innocence and positive police discretion towards instances of youthful indiscretion are not privileges extended to black youth.
Further, a failure to also identify this situation as one where the duty to protect and serve was superseded by an institutional obsession with policing and restricting the autonomy of black people would require willful ignorance of the history of enslavement and subjugation of black people in this country.
Jordan’s story is not anomalous. The explosion in exposure of police brutality across the nation and subsequent reflection on my own experiences with law enforcement while growing up in Dallas quickly led me to the sobering realization that any of the nights I enjoyed not long ago, when I was Jordan’s age, could have ended in tragedy. The price of this realization has been an existence marred by constant feelings of fear and anxiety about what could happen and how my personal relationship with drugs might be used in an attempt to strip me of my humanity posthumously.
As a result, I often find myself preemptively policing my actions, my speech, expressions of my emotions, my movements, and even my writing, but none of these things have proven adequate in protecting me from potentially volatile interactions with law enforcement or figures that have been endowed with authority to use force by whatever institution employs them.
What is much more devastating, however, is reading in the Dallas Morning News that kids who occupy some of the same spaces I once did experienced such a degree of psychological trauma from Jordan’s death and similar situations that they feel they have no choice but to forfeit simple joys of youth like playing basketball and partying with friends.
Living with the psychological burden imposed by the constant threat of state violence is not freedom. We cannot begin to chip away at the hyper-criminalization of black and Latino youth until we end the war on drugs. If not, the reality most of America is privileged enough to enjoy - the assumption that an interaction with law enforcement will not end in their demise - will remain an aspiration at best.
When I was in elementary school, a large part of the school’s efforts to convince us to “just say no” to drugs involved encouraging us to “dare to be different.” As an adult, I am imploring the powers that be and those who have been complicit in cultivating this drug war climate to put the same amount of time and resources into daring police to allow all youth the space to enjoy their lives without fear of those entrusted with the responsibility of protecting them.
Zacchaeus Stanton is policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.