There was a veritable explosion of information, energy and events around the 40th Anniversary of the War on Drugs. Numerous reports were released (including one by the prestigious Global Commission on the War on Drugs), and there were countless interviews, town hall meetings and forums in scores of cities across the country. Throughout the flurry of activity, one fact consistently emerged: African Americans and Latinos have bourne the brunt of the War on Drugs. As Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out at the Institute of the Black World 21st Century’s (IBW) Forum at the National Press Club, the “war” has been even more devastating on Black communities because in large measure it was politically motivated – a contention that Dr. Michelle Alexander confirms in her extraordinary book The New Jim Crow. The “law and order” strategy fit the Republican Party’s playbook for galvanizing and recruiting White voters based on perceived lawlessness and criminality in the Black community. These biased perceptions also made it easier for Republicans to call for and implement an agenda that shredded vital social and economic programs of benefit to poor people of all races but disproportionately of value to Blacks in urban inner-city neighborhoods.
With the law and order mantra building to fever pitch and the withdrawal or drastic reduction of federal resources, depressed urban inner-city neighborhoods increasingly became the battleground for the War on Drugs. Utilizing aggressive paramilitary policing methods, advocated by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, all across the country police departments were unleashed to “stop and frisk” young Black and Latino men with little regard for the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The targeting of Black communities also meant that arrests for drug offenses skyrocketed, literally sending millions of mostly young Black males into a burgeoning prison-jail industrial complex. To add insult to injury, many depressed neighborhoods were further disempowered by the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons. Clearly this “double jeopardy” had the effect of diluting Black voter strength as a vehicle to reverse policies which have severely damaged Black communities.
At IBW’s Forum Deborah Small, Executive Director of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, cited what may be the most debilitating consequence of the War on Drugs, the Black community has yet to mount the kind of fight-back movement to nullify the policies and practices that have brutalized our community. This is not to say that there are no efforts, projects or initiatives aimed at ending the War on Drugs. The problem is that these efforts are disjointed and insufficient to decisively turn the tide of decades of disastrous policies. Indeed, much of the Black community seems almost numb, anesthetized into grudging acceptance and inaction. Young Black and Latino men have become so accustomed to being stopped and frisked by the police that many have come to accept this humiliating practice as a fact of life in America’s “dark ghettos.” However, as Dr. Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X used to say: We may be oppressed, but we do not have to cooperate with our oppressors.”
If the War on the War on Drugs is to achieve victory, then African Americans must awaken and take our place in the forefront of the fight. IBW has initiated an Online Petition Campaign to recruit an Army of Advocates and Organizers to end the War on Drugs (www.ibw21.org). And, we will be working with the Black Family Summit to educate and mobilize African centered Black professional organizations to actively engage this issue. Though this will be an important contribution, ultimately those most affected and their families, neighbors and friends must emphatically resolve that enough is enough. Formerly incarcerated people must be galvanized as a crucial constituency in the fight. Unfortunately, it is often those who are most adversely affected by negative government policies who are missing in action in the struggles to defeat draconian laws or to advance just and humane policies for change. This is understandable because the affected are often the most oppressed in terms of poverty, unemployment, underemployment and a myriad of maladies that often lead to apathy and inaction. This is particularly true of the formerly incarcerated who are compelled to struggle to survive in a society where they are frequently deprived of opportunities for employment, education and social services. Notwithstanding these barriers, organizations like All of Us or None and the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions have emerged and are committed to organizing the formerly incarcerated. We must encourage and support these kinds of organizations by all available means.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com.
This is the first of a two-part commentary chronicling the role of Black Americans in tackling the failures of the "War on Drugs." It follows the Institute of the Black World 21st Century's recent forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.