Crack babies, welfare queens, superpredators, thugs. That’s what they call us; those are the lies they tell about us.
The war on drugs—a war on the most vulnerable and targeted black and brown communities in the United States of America—shapes black history just as much as it shapes our present struggle for liberation from a white supremacist capitalist state. One cannot discuss black history in its entirety without discussing the war on drugs—and dismantling that war will shape our future.
In 2013, this truth led Kassandra Frederique, New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance, visionary, and 2016 Root 100 honoree, to create a series dedicated to drug-policy reformers to place the urgent need for justice squarely in the Black History Month narrative.
At its conception, DPA’s Black History Month series was the birth of awareness for Frederique, who has been at the forefront of the war against drugs since 2009.
In February 2012, New York Police Officer Richard Haste gunned down 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his grandmother’s home after targeting him on the street. Haste alleged that Graham was selling marijuana and used that unsubstantiated allegation as a rationalization for his cold-blooded execution.
When traces of THC, the chemical found in marijuana, were discovered in Trayvon Martin’s system during the autopsy of his body, racists used that fact to justify George Zimmerman profiling, stalking and ultimately killing him on that rainy night in Sanford, Fla.
“I knew in that moment if we didn’t connect the way the drug war was killing us, then we were complicit in disappearing their lives,” Frederique says.
She’s absolutely right. In 2015, the New York Times declared 1.5 million black men between the ages of 25 and 54 “missing.” Because of early death and incarceration, there are 1.5 million more black women who are not behind bars than men in that age group. That disparity for whites is virtually nonexistent. One in every 13 black Americans has lost voting rights due to disenfranchisement laws. In 2014, the imprisonment rate for black American women was more than twice that of white women.
These oppressive conditions under an expanded police state can be traced directly to the so-called war on drugs, which is a systemic tool of enslavement. It has ravaged black and Latinx working-class communities, leaving white communities relatively unscathed. It has been positioned as a necessary response to crime and poverty when we know it to be a primary cause.
For Frederique, it has been critical to connect those dots for people who might not see the broader and deeper picture. And what better time than February?
“The Black History Month project started out as an apology,” Frederique tells The Root. “From me to myself, to the future black drug-policy reformers that were on their way. I believed this narrative that what was happening to us—incarceration, addiction, family destabilization—was a result of us ‘getting for what we asked for.’
“I had always asked for a more definitive commitment from our movement on racial justice but I guess I always feared that they would throw back in my face that ‘we did this,’” Frederique continues. “I think back to my earlier years in this movement and wondered if I was assertive enough, if I asked all the questions that I needed to, did I study our movement hard enough.
“Now when I speak at forums, and attendees ask me what I think the role of black America was in the drug war, I reply, ‘Yes, we wanted some of us to be locked up, but we also wanted treatment and we never got that part,’” Frederique adds.
As previously reported by The Root, when Bill Clinton’s crime bill passed in 1994, it was with the help of 23 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were an expecting a reinvestment in the black community.
In addition to that never happening, the bill was stripped of the Racial Justice Act, which would have allowed death row inmates to use data showing racial inequities in sentencing. The bill was also stripped of $3.3 billion—two-thirds of it from prevention programs. A provision that would have made 16,000 low-level drug offenders eligible for early release was also removed.
“They urinated on us and told us it was raining,” Frederique says. “But I am not as gracious with our leaders of the past; Charlie Rangel’s apology in [Ava DuVernay’s documentary] 13th is not enough.
“We threw away whole parts of our community and we need to examine that, as well, because that is our history, it just isn’t all of it, and there is power in telling the full story,” Frederique continues.
Frederique also notes that it’s important to recognize that drug-policy reform is not an industry of white saviors. It is so easy to believe otherwise only because black pioneers have largely been erased from the conversation.
“For the most part, we are meant to believe that benevolent white folks are how we got to where we are at now in our war against the war on drugs,” she tells The Root.
“Yes, there are tons of brave, white drug-policy reformers who forged paths for the drug war to end, like Ethan Nadelmann, Craig Reinarman and Ira Glasser, but they all read Troy Duster’s book,” Frederique continues. “Beny Primm mentored Deborah Peterson Small. There was and is a resistance that has always been black.”
“Black people have been the most severely impacted by the war on drugs,” Frederique adds. “And in this moment when white faces have caused the nation to have a critical interrogation about what to do about drugs, black people need the whole story, so in the moment, that we can demand the necessary acknowledgment, atonement and action to build our communities.”
Drug policy is race policy. And to honor drug-policy reformers on the front lines, the Drug Policy Alliance, in partnership with The Root, is bringing you the stories of four phenomenal people who have been instrumental in shaping conversations around drug policy and its lethal effects on black communities around the country.
We begin next week with Wanda James, CEO of the Denver-based cannabis dispensary Simply Pure. James, the first black woman to own a cannabis dispensary, says that it’s time for black America to not only look at the economic opportunities that the cannabis industry represents, but to also do the necessary work of eradicating the stigma surrounding drug use.
“All of the people that come to the dispensaries and all of the lawyers and all of the doctors and all of the elected officials that pretend like they don’t know what weed is and they don’t smoke cannabis need to come to the table and get real.”
Let’s get real.
*This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.