On March 14th thousands of students walked out of school to protest gun violence, demanding legislators enact more stringent gun control in the U.S. Later that night, black Brazilian city council member and vocal critic of Brazil’s militarized law enforcement, Marielle Franco, was assassinated.
Four days later, 22 year old father of two, Stephon Clark, was shot in his back eight times by the Sacramento Police. While news outlets and social media made note of these murders, the national conversation instead largely focused on the March for Our Lives protest that took place the following weekend. As the media continued to cover the responses to the March for Our Lives, news broke that the two officers responsible for the murder of Alton Sterling would not be facing charges for their use of lethal force that left yet another black father dead. In the span of two weeks, the country was engrossed in the discussion of gun control and gun violence, yet there was very little discussion of the main victims of gun violence: people of color.
Communities of color (primarily black and Latinx communities) face increased gun violence at the hands of both community members and the police ostensibly charged with protecting them. While these communities were addressed by some of the courageous students at March for Our Lives, the solutions presented – stricter background checks and weapons bans – are ultimately ineffective for these vulnerable communities, as they only addresses a small percentage of the victims of gun violence. A more complete attempt at a solution must address the war on drugs, its role in militarizing the police, and the effect it has had on communities of color.
Consider historical precedent. During Prohibition, supply of alcohol was illegal, yet demand remained, causing the rise of an illicit market. Given the illegality of that market, ensuring some sense of justice fell to individuals rather than police and rule of law. As a result, the country witnessed an increase in organized crime, violence and murder – all directly stemming from the prohibition of alcohol, which effectively decreased with the 21st Amendment. The war on drugs has had the same path, with the exact same results, but more dire consequences. We have seen decades of remarkable gun violence, in Miami, LA, Chicago and even internationally, all in the name of the illicit drug market. The current response by the powers that be to this violence, faced largely by black and brown people, benefits neither from learning from history or understanding community need. Instead of calling for an end to this failed drug war, the main driver for the gun violence, or re-evaluating the legal status of drugs in our society, our government has responded through the militarization of law enforcement.
First, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 authorized the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, providing a monetary incentive for anti-drug policing. Then, the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990 authorized the Department of Defense to transfer military equipment to law enforcement agencies, for use in so-called “counterdrug activities.” This was further catalyzed by Bill Clinton’s creation of the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033 Program), which further armed law enforcement with surplus military equipment. For decades, law enforcement has been affected by this feedback loop, making drug policing both the rationale for and result of more militarization of our local police departments.
Providing local police departments with military grade weapons and equipment in order to fight the drug war has resulted in police who look like soldiers patrolling communities that feel like combat zones. Furthermore, in spite of the reality of nearly uniform rates of drug use and sales across racial lines, blacks and Latinx communities are policed for drug activity at a disproportionately higher rate compared to their degree of engagement in drug activities. It then comes as no surprise that black and Latinx individuals suffer higher rates of gun violence at the hands of the police without any justice. In this drug war, the propaganda motivating the police soldiers features enemies painted as black and brown.
During wartime, propaganda is an effective, arguably essential, tool, particularly wielded by the media. In the case of the war on drugs, the media’s stigmatization and dehumanization of black and brown people has had the strongest effect on the war. For decades, the media has focused on black and Latinx communities when warning of the horrors of drugs. Drug use became a racial issue, with people of color being labeled “crackheads”, “thugs”, “drug dealers”, and, as Hillary Clinton put it, “super predators”. This has not changed, even in the wake of the “gentler” drug war. We need only to look at the instances of police violence on communities of color over the past five years, as well as the various justifications given for said violence to see that, for communities of color, the drug war is anything but gentle. Besides using marijuana use and past criminalization to justify lethal force, the same drug war narrative of the violent, savage black or Latinx person is all that is needed to ensure impunity for police officers from ever being held accountable for the murder of black and brown people.
Thanks to centuries of racism and slavery, in conjunction with decades of racist drug war rhetoric, people of color are deemed criminals first, people second. The same cannot be said for white offenders. On February 14th, Nikolas Cruz went to his former high school in Parkland, Florida and carried out one of the deadliest school shootings, killing 17 of his peers. Little over a month later, Stephon Clark fit the description (young black male) of a suspect accused of breaking car windows and was pursued on foot by two Sacramento Police officers. Today, Nikolas Cruz, having confessed to the shooting, is sitting in jail awaiting his day in court. He was safely and successfully apprehended and arrested by the police without the use of any force, let alone lethal force. Stephon Clark, on the other hand, is dead at the hands of two trigger-happy officers, bolstered by a historical, financial and societal context that allowed it. We can hope for some justice in this case, but if history is of any indication, neither officer will see their own days in court. For black and Latinx people, every day is a struggle to prove their own humanity, as victims of community gun violence and as victims of state sanctioned murder, both of which are permitted and committed by the war on drugs.
Morgan Humphrey is a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, based in Los Angeles office.