When it matters most- exclusion in ideas of political unity

Many liberal White folks are still angry that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is demanding mainstream attention through various protest methods, the most polarizing of which was when two #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupted Bernie Sanders’ speech in Seattle. They’re angry because they feel like Bernie Sanders is already doing his best. They’re angry because they feel like #BlackLivesMatter is undermining a delicate grassroots political campaign, one that is battling behemoth corporate interests that masquerade as competing presidential candidates. Bernie is talking about many pressing concerns – things like class, healthcare, poverty, prisons, and the environment. These are issues that affect everyone. These folks wonder why #BlackLivesMatter activists can’t see that Bernie is on their side.

On the whole, Bernie Sanders has stepped up. He’s added “Racial Justice” to his platform and he hired Symone Sanders as his press secretary, a woman active in the #BlackLivesMatter and criminal justice reform movements. This isn’t to say that Bernie can just sit back and wait for Black supporters and votes to come rolling in – but it does mean that he’s listening. And he’s one of the few candidates making concrete efforts toward racial justice.

But this isn’t about Bernie Sanders.

This is about Bernie’s White supporters. And no, “#NotAllBernieSupporters” are disparaging the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but a whole bunch of them are. I’m talking about the ones who feel outrage when #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupt their rallies.  I’m talking about the mostly liberal and well-intentioned Bernie enthusiasts who make up the bulk of his supporters – those who feel that if everyone would just ‘stand together’ and stop bringing up race, Bernie might actually win the primary. And, above all, I’m talking about people like me. Immediately following the Seattle rally interruption, I experienced anger, confusion, disappointment, and exasperation right along with the vast majority of my fellow White Bernie Sanders supporters. My knee-jerk reaction was to simultaneously write off the #BlackLivesMatter movement and dismiss the activists as rogue outliers. “Don’t they know they’re hurting their own cause?” “Why go after Bernie – he marched with Dr. King!” “Interrupting speeches is rude.” Yes, I actually got annoyed and dismissed an entire civil rights campaign because I thought the activists were being rude.

Many White liberal people, especially those who come from middle to upper class families, feel that the most important topics are environmental, political, or economic.  White people commonly believe that these are the root issues by which all others become important or relevant – that these are the core and universal issues facing our populace, and only by addressing these first will we be able to tackle issues of racial injustice. Because if we don’t have a habitable planet, we can’t fix racial inequality, right? Or if we continue to see increasing levels of corruption and austerity, our economy will go down the shitter and none of us will be happy. Or if unemployment rates increase, more people will fall into poverty.  

The troubling aspect of these lines of thinking is that each assumes that it’s okay for a smaller portion of our society to suffer as long as the rest of us are happy and comfortable. Yes, the environment matters! No doubt if we continue to use fossil fuels at current rates, our children and grandchildren will face dire consequences. And absolutely, topics such as Citizens United and the corporatization of our government need to be addressed, as do harmful institutional practices that contribute to increased rates of poverty and incarceration. Yet, at the heart of each of these concerns runs a common thread. Racial inequality is an exacerbating factor in every political platform championed by progressive White Americans:

  • The environment: families of color are more likely to live in areas where there are higher levels of ground and air pollution
  • The economy: unemployment and poverty rates are higher for people of color;
  • Mass incarceration (and the war on drugs): people of color are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than White people
  • Reproductive justice: women of color are disproportionately targeted and surveilled by Child Protective Services and have a more difficult time accessing reproductive services
  • Corruption in government: gerrymandering and voter ID laws are disenfranchising voters of color at alarming rates – also, this.

While there is no universal message that will meet every need of our diverse population, racial inequality intersects with all of these ‘conventional’ platforms. And not only do these platforms intersect with race; racial injustice is in fact a root cause of many political issues dear to the White liberal heart. The centuries long American tradition of perpetuating and maintaining racial inequality drives policy and business decisions and reinforces long-standing racially oppressive social norms.

Reader, you and I might have quite a bit in common, or we may have nothing in common, but just as an example, consider my (White middle class) family’s hierarchy of needs:

  1. We need high speed internet and two vehicles.
  2. We need to buy milk.
  3. We need to work on recycling more.
  4. We need to mow our lawn so our neighbors don’t get pissed off at us.
  5. We need to take our dogs to the vet and the groomer.
  6. We need to not get angry when our asshole neighbors play loud music at 12:30 am on Tuesday…
  7. We need to stop buying so much shit on Amazon (this should be closer to the top but I’m in denial).

My family lives in a safe, comfortable neighborhood. My children can walk to school without the looming threats present in high crime areas. My young sons can grow into teenagers without fearing the police or being subjected to excessive levels of state surveillance. My husband can speed on the interstate without being profiled by the highway patrol. I can use cannabis without worrying that Child Protective Services will remove my children. We have health insurance and have never had difficulty getting or keeping a job.

So, it would make sense that if I live day to day in a world where most people are just like me, I would likely prioritize the environment and universal healthcare as my main political priorities.

But if I lived in a different world, one where my children and husband had a one in three – one in three – chance of being incarcerated; where unemployment rates among people like me were much higher (and underreported) than the national unemployment rate; where I had fewer educational opportunities and was more likely to live in poverty and less able to escape it, well… my hierarchy of needs would be much, much different than what it is now.

And if while attending a rally to hear a politician talk about an issue that perhaps had little relevance to my day to day life, I witnessed two women – who looked like me and had the courage and audacity to interrupt a celebrated politician – speak about issues that directly impacted my daily existence (issues that are glossed over or diminished by the mainstream media and most politicians), I imagine I wouldn’t be too upset that I didn’t get to hear about social security.

I say ‘imagine’ and ‘if’ a lot because I don’t actually know firsthand. What I do know is Black friends and scholars are talking about their experience and it’s imperative that we listen and attempt to imagine how our comfortable lives could be much less comfortable. We have to imagine what it must be like to fear the very institution sworn to protect us, and we have to imagine having to instill that same fear in our children. For millions of Americans, it didn’t matter that Bill Clinton was a ‘progressive’ president or that Barack Obama is a ‘progressive’ president. Americans of color were, and continue to be, unemployed and incarcerated and killed and impoverished at higher rates than White people. So I have to imagine that many Black Americans don’t believe things will be any different under yet another ‘progressive’ president, even one as progressive as Bernie Sanders.

What can we do? We can listen! We can support people who experience these injustices firsthand and those who are surviving our system rather than thriving in it. We can participate in protests and/or we can counter dominant dialogue in the many different venues where it is produced (at work, in social media, at church, among our family and friends). We can understand how race intersects with every issue being discussed by our politicians and we can use our voices and our positions to highlight how people of color are disproportionately affected. We can use our privilege to speak with (NOT for) marginalized Americans.

We cannot, in good conscience, remain silent about the injustices perpetrated by our own system against our own citizens in order to win a primary – or even a presidential election. Bernie Sanders understands this and it’s past time that his White supporters understand it as well.

DARE to Stop Buying into Drug War Propaganda

I don’t want to lose you so I’ll start slow:

The Federal Government should legalize all illegal drugs.

Whoa- sorry. That just popped out. I was going to start with some statistics, walk you down the path that led me to make that very controversial statement. My bad.

Let’s start over.

You know, I think most people find the idea of doing meth distasteful. Same goes for heroin and crack cocaine. We shake our heads in dismay at the physical toll it takes on the body. We worry about our children and the choices they’ll make when they encounter illegal drugs.

I was first introduced to the concept of decriminalization1 in 2008 by a neighbor of mine in Colorado. He said the most shocking thing: “We should decriminalize all drugs.” And I freaked out. Freaked. Out. (Because: A. I’m a product of the D.A.R.E. generation; and B. At the time, I worked as a Corrections Officer at the county jail and a large number of inmates were obvious meth users and had sad, scary lives.)

My two main impressions about illegal drugs (and these are probably concerns shared by many other Americans) were these:

  1. Illegal drugs are worse for your health and more dangerous than legal drugs
  2. Illegal drug use is linked to higher rates of criminal violence

“What about heroin!? What about coke? And crack and meth!!! And…well, won’t it be dangerous for kids!?” I asked.

“Isn’t alcohol dangerous for kids? And cigarettes? And bleach? And riding in cars? And guns? And swimming? All of those things are legal.”

He was sort of flip and tended to disparage government services and regulation in general (he once told me we should eliminate speed limits and that driving drunk should be legal so long as you didn’t kill anyone), so I dropped the subject and wrote him off as one of those sovereign citizen types.

Health Concerns

But then I moved to Washington, and in 2012 it was one of two states to legalize recreational marijuana possession. I started doing some research about the actual safety and health concerns related to cannabis and came up with   … nothing. Really. In the history of all recorded causes of death ever, not one single person has died of marijuana overdose2. Not one.

Additionally, there are no long-term health effects (other than lung-related ailments if one is a long-term smoker of weed, and alternative methods of consumption eliminate this health risk).

Even the DEA and CDC fact sheets on LSD, “magic mushrooms” and mescaline were surprisingly benign (the exact words were “Deaths exclusively from acute overdose of LSD magic mushrooms, and mescaline are extremely rare.”) Yes, heroin and meth are more dangerous, and the instances of overdose are more common.3 But did you know that in 2010 more people in the US died of prescription drug overdose (22,134) than all other illegal drugs combined (17,000)?4 And even that number is peanuts when you look at the number of deaths caused by alcohol in the US alone: 88,000. In the world: 2.5 million.

Globally, tobacco use causes more than 5 million deaths per year. In the US, more than 440,000 people die every year from cigarette smoking (including second-hand smoke related fatalities). Yet smoking and drinking are legal, regulated, and taxed. And we know from experience that alcohol prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking or curb the distribution of alcohol (rather, it made drinking more dangerous than it is now due to unsafe manufacturing processes and unregulated alcohol content, not to mention the illegal enterprises that sprouted up to make money on the black market).

It’s clear that the most common illegal drugs are hardly a public health risk when compared to legal substances, so what are some of the other arguments against legalizing or decriminalizing illegal drugs?

Crime and Criminals

Along with concerns about the health effects of illegal drugs, my other immediate reaction to the idea of decriminalization involved public safety and crime related to drug use, trafficking, and dealing. Weren’t people who used and dealt drugs also violent? That’s why they go to prison, right? Wrong.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 3.9% of homicides are drug-related5.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom and popular myth, alcohol is more tightly linked with more violent crimes than crack, cocaine, heroin or any other illegal drug. In state prisons, 21 percent of inmates in prison for violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol–and no other substance–when they committed their crime; in contrast, at the time of their crimes, only three percent of violent offenders were under the influence of cocaine or crack alone, only one percent under the influence of heroin alone.”  – Joseph Califano, Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

In 2007, more than 14 million arrests were made in the US. Of those, drug abuse violations came in at #1 with over 1.8 million people arrested for possession, trafficking, manufacturing, and distribution of illegal substances. According to the same BJS report, more than 4/5 of those arrests were for possession. And while the number of arrests for sale or manufacture of drugs has stayed static at about 300,000 annually since the late 80s, the number of arrests for possession has tripled from around 500,000 per year to over 1.5 million arrests per year.

And when these people are arrested, they’re very often convicted and sent to prison. Federal mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing laws, and three-strikes laws have all played extensive roles in the prison population explosion in the last 20 years. Not only are people going to prison for non-violent crimes, they’re often going away for a very, very long time. Federal mandatory minimums outline the sentencing ranges for different amounts of illegal substances:

Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 960(b)(1), a statutory range of ten years to life applies to offenses involving at least:

1 kilogram of Heroin

5 kilograms of Cocaine (powder)

280 grams of Cocaine base

1,000 kilograms of Marijuana or 1,000 plants

50 grams of actual Methamphetamine or 500 grams of mixture or substance

Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(B) and 960(b)(2), a statutory range of 5 to 40 years applies to offenses involving at least:

100 grams of Heroin

500 grams of Cocaine (powder)

28 grams of Cocaine base

100 kilograms of Marijuana or 100 plants

5 grams of actual Methamphetamine or 50 grams of mixture or substance

Enhanced Penalties. Sections 841(b) and 960(b) include enhancement provisions based on the defendant’s prior record, which are only applicable if the government provides notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 (Proceedings to establish previous convictions). A qualifying prior conviction increases a 5- to 40-year range to a range of 10 years to life. A qualifying prior conviction increases a 10-year mandatory minimum to a 20-year mandatory minimum (the maximum remains life); a second qualifying prior conviction increases a 10-year mandatory minimum to mandatory life.

That’s a lot of numbers so I’ll take a break for now. What I want to point out here is that millions of people (including a vastly disproportionate number of Black and Latino/a Americans) are going to prison and staying in prison for a long time simply for possessing and using substances that are comparable to legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and acetaminophen.

Why?

There are a number of reasons why the war on drugs is still a viable platform for our politicians – too many reasons to discuss in detail today – But we’ve looked at two of the most successfully propagated myths (public health and crime prevention) and in my next post I plan to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system as well as examine the financial motivations in the war on drugs (like private prisons and the liquor lobby).

The fundamental question is this: Do people who choose to use drugs deserve to go to prison for doing so? Really think about that. And if your answer is still “Yes,” ask yourself if people who drink alcohol deserve to go to prison, or if people who use prescription drugs should be locked up? After prohibition failed miserably in the US, the US Government adjusted its approach. Rather than make the alcohol illegal, it was regulated and taxed. And those activities that presented a true public health or safety risk were made illegal (driving while intoxicated, contributing to a minor, etc.) So now that I’ve thrown some statistics at you, I’ll reframe my original statement: The war on drugs isn’t slowing drug use or reducing violent crime. It’s time to decriminalize all illegal drug use and possession.

 

 

 

————–This is Part 1 of a two-part series————-

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http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/01/18/1468591/police-made-more-arrests-for-marijuana-possession-than-for-violent-crime/

1The difference between “legal” and “decriminalized” varies by state. While Washington State has “legalized” possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, there are still a significant number of regulations restricting how it will be grown, processed, and sold. So, it’s legal in the state of Washington to carry and consume specified amounts of marijuana, but much like alcohol and tobacco there are laws to regulate the sale and manufacture of cannabis goods, as well as laws that detail enforcement and sentencing for selling to a minor, driving under the influence, and public consumption. “Decriminalization,” on the other hand, often simply involves a local or state convening authority declaring that certain activities will no longer be prosecutable offenses, or that those activities will now be considered misdemeanors or civil infractions punishable only by fines rather than felony offenses. In 2010, prior to I-502 (the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in WA state) the Seattle City Council voted to reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor, and the Mayor instructed the police department to make arrests and searches for cannabis the department’s lowest priority. This was essentially decriminalization. There were no laws explicitly authorizing possession of cannabis, but sanctions for violations were much more lenient, if/when they were enforced at all.

If it seems that I’m using these terms interchangeably throughout this post, it’s because I am. Decriminalization is the more likely than legalization for the majority of presently illegal substances.  I’ll take either one (or both).

2In contrast, according to propublica.org, over 1500 people died from acetaminophen poisoning between 2001 and 2010. That’s about 150 people per year.

346 people died of heroin overdoses in Minneapolis in 2011 – by comparison 204 people died in the same city during 2011 in motor vehicle accidents

417,000 deaths attributed to illegal drugs, including those deaths caused by vehicle accidents, HIV infections, and hepatitis

5 Victims of violent crimes who chose to participate in the BJS victim perception survey reported that just 4.9% of offenders were on drugs when they committed their violent crime. Alcohol, however, was reported by to be a factor in over 15% of violent crimes. 28.8% reported the perpetrator was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and 44.2% reported they didn’t know.