Our relationship to punishment and our relationship to white supremacy and anti-black racism intersect. Within a carceral logic, “criminals” deserve to be punished. But blackness itself is always already criminal. Ideas and misconceptions about drugs, addiction and criminality mean that derivative moral judgements and racialised logic about "criminals" – as opposed to facts about drugs – is shaping drug policy. This is bad for all of us, and bad in particular and distinct ways for black communities.
Kojo Koram, editor of The War On Drugs And The Global Colour Line, articulates it like this: “To appreciate that racial classifications of difference are porous is to begin to understand better the violence that accompanies the instance of race’s certainty; the sub-humanity, the animalism and the deviancy projected onto the racial subaltern subject is a betrayal of what already exists in-potential within the idealised (European) human.” Racism goes further than a politics of different human identities, it actually configures who gets to be human.
If we think of drugs as ‘transgressive substances’, read as having the power to transform “even the most rational, autonomous, enlightened and sovereign European ‘man’ into the lazy, violent, depraved figure of the sub-human”, what happens when we hold this up to the fact of blackness? If blackness always already signifies a lack of humanity, we get to an awful and intriguing argument: that the criminalisation and stigmatisation associated with drugs as an act of transgression is the always already lived reality of black people, whether or not we consume drugs.
When white people who use drugs are criminalised and violently attacked, without care for their humanity, the act of transgressing what it means to be human is met with the punishment of carceral policies. But the very category of the Human, imbued as it is with the possibility of innocence, is never available to black people in the first place. The most egregious harms of the War On Drugs doubly confound the violence of racism through the carceral state and our ever precarious and insistent vulnerability to punishment in all spheres of our lives.
DPA mourns the death of George Floyd. “Drug involvement” is far too often used as a justification for illegal stops, arrests, and murder. Officers made callous jokes about drug use as he gasped for breath, as if drug use could justify his death. #GeorgeFloyd #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/HzBejXZNsP
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) May 28, 2020
The War on Drugs looks like a news heading that reads "Young dad who died after police struggle 'boasted of drug dealing on Facebook and dubbed himself Hard To Kill'" after the 20-year-old black man Rashan Charles died shortly after being restrained by the police.
Footage of the incident, which happened in east London in July 2017 appeared to show him swallowing a package. This led to speculation that the package contained illegal drugs, which was later proven false, despite being widely emphasised in media reports. Suspecting that somebody may have swallowed drugs to avoid being reprimanded by the police is not so much the issue. It is the denigration of Charles' character based on such a speculation that is a problem, and as George Floyd's recent murder reiterates, one that is certainly not unique to this case.
The War on Drugs looks like state sanctioned racial and social control.
Rashan Charles' death was justified by white supremacist consciousness because he was deemed a morally abhorrent character; somebody who not only consumed drugs, but sold them too. The message was that this black man was a criminal because he was black and because he was associated with drugs, and the logic extended that he therefore deserved his fate. It falls on all of us to consistently push back against this, and to speak up when our drug policies reflect and uphold such deadly narratives. From the moment Rashan Charles came into contact with the police, a young black father was shrouded in unfounded criminality and deep-seated anti-black racism.
The War on Drugs is the callousness with which black life is taken and justified without retribution. To recognise Rashan Charles, George Floyd, or any other black person as sentient life, is to refuse such conditions. Drug policy reform must be driven by the transformation of our relationship to punishment, which is to say a radical commitment to a new world, or it means nothing at all.