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Decades of America’s drug wars led up to the riots of today

Decades of America’s drug wars led up to the riots of today
As riots across the US are making clear, rules in America don’t apply to black and white people equally. They never have, and the greatest unequalizer since the early 20th century has been the so-called war on drugs.

“Many police chiefs, myself included, want to make sure their officers can adequately confront the automatic weapons that they face. The problem with that is we are not to be at war with our people in the first place.”

Those are the words former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper spoke to me three years ago when I interviewed him on police brutality in America.

Washington is ablaze. The death of George Floyd has shined the spotlight back on killings of African Americans at the hands of the authorities. But while the cameras are turned to the protests and riots, few seem to mention the long-term, systemic reasons this keeps happening.

On March 13, police burst into an apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. They allegedly didn’t announce themselves as cops (the cops say they did, the defendant says they didn’t), and when the surprised tenants used their stand-your-ground rights and opened fire on the armed intruders breaking into their home, the officers hit 26-year-old ambulance worker Breonna Taylor with a hail of bullets. Breonna’s death was just the latest casualty of “no-knock” raids: the idea being the element of surprise won’t give suspects a chance to flush drugs down the toilet. No drugs were in fact found at the scene.

The war on drugs is the greatest cause of racial profiling and police brutality in the United States. More black American men are now behind bars, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, and a bigger percentage are imprisoned than South Africa in the final days of apartheid. Why?

Nowadays, polls show fewer and fewer Americans believe weed should be treated any stricter than booze. But back in 1937, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger really didn’t like jazz. “Like the jungles in the dead of night,” he called it. A lot of jazz musicians smoked the old reefer, so he pushed to get it banned to stop young whites going to jive bars and (gasp) mixing with coloured folk. Meanwhile, cocaine was banned not because it gave you heart attacks but after the New York Times claimed it made “Southern negros” go berserk, and since it’s also an aphrodisiac. Well… horny black guys, “innocent” white girls… you get the idea.

Other races didn’t fare much better: opium-smoking was seen as a sinister Chinese hobby, and they even renamed cannabis “marijuana” (as in Tijuana) to make it sound more Mexican. Even the alcohol Prohibition that made Al Capone rich came about as a result of WWI-era jingoism against Germans.

The laws were applied unevenly from the start. As Johann Hari explains in Chasing the Scream, Billie Holiday had a tough childhood, growing up in a brothel and being raped at the age of 10, then struggled with alcoholism and heroin addiction the rest of her life. But she had the voice of an angel and sang songs such as Strange Fruit, about lynchings in the Deep South. Anslinger ordered for her to be made an example of, to make sure black musicians knew their place. FBN agents turned up to her shows as fans, then betrayed her trust by planting drugs. They hounded her to the very end even as she lay dying, cuffed to a hospital bed, questioning her for the name of her supplier. She passed away in withdrawal. Meanwhile powerful whites like Senator Joe “Red Scare” McCarthy got a free pass for their own morphine habit.

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Under Nixon, the war on drugs was used to distract from the growingly unpopular war in Vietnam and was weaponized against black activists and members of the anti-war Left, such as John Sinclair of the White Panther Party. The FBN became the DEA and no-knock raids got the go-ahead from Congress, despite all the horror stories of cops kicking down the doors to the wrong house, opening fire and killing or wounding the families inside.

Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs, but Reagan took it to another level. Drug laws are sneaky because there’s no obvious victim (who snitches on themselves buying a bag of coke?), and they appear race-neutral on the surface. In the 1980s, Reagan passed the Anti-Drugs Abuse Act 1986, which gave out minimum five-year stretches with no parole for just five grams of crack, compared to half-a-kilo of powder cocaine. It’s no coincidence that regular coke was the favorite pick-me-up for white corporate execs and high-priced lawyers, while crack, despite being less pure, was better value for money and more popular in the ghetto. In other words, blacks were serving a hundred times the jail terms as whites.

Nixon and Reagan were Republicans, but for all their “progressive” credentials the Democrats were just as bad. Trying to stay ahead of the tough-on-crime race, President Clinton signed the 1994 Federal Crime Bill drafted by a certain Joe Biden. Between 1990 and 2000, the prison population nearly doubled.

Even though most individual cops aren’t racist, they’re part of a racist system. The war on drugs has made young African-Americans tempting targets for any local sheriff looking for easy arrest stats and confiscating cash. For civil asset forfeiture, you merely have to be suspected of a crime for the cops to requisition your stuff – it's state-sanctioned robbery. Keeping drug money provides a perverse incentive for underfunded police departments to make more arrests, which they do by going after the usual suspects .i.e. young black males. This leads to fatal police encounters and the largest prison population on the planet, even ahead of supposedly “tyrannical regimes” like Russia and China. Even though studies show everyone sells and uses drugs at roughly the same rate, over half of prisoners sat in state penitentiaries for drug offences, and almost 80 percent in federal jails, are black or Latino. Once you’ve been inside it’s hard to find a normal job, so you go back to the dope game. With so many mothers and fathers locked up, is it really that surprising the only ones to look up to in the hood are the more successful criminals?

Inner-city crime becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving neighbourhoods in never-ending cycles of fear and despair. Take something a lot of people want, ban it, drive the price up and make it worth shooting, stabbing and stealing for — the same thing as what happened with liquor in the 1920s. Now parts of cities like Baltimore and Chicago have murder rates on a par with actual warzones. Most of the victims are young black men. And while gang members may have pulled the trigger, who created the situation for this to happen? Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Anslinger.

As lawyer Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow, in several states ex-convicts lose their right to vote, effectively disenfranchising one of 13 black Americans in much the same way the pre-civil rights laws did in the 1950s. It also poisons the well – while in the past you had respectable activists like Rosa Parks and the preacher Martin Luther King, where can you find a “respectable” druggie or ex-con? Who wants to listen to them, or stand up for their rights?

Even today, the memories of innocent black people like Philando Castile, gunned down in front of his girlfriend during a routine road stop; Botham Jean, shot dead in his own home by an off-duty Dallas police officer; and Sandra Bland, who allegedly hanged herself in a cell after an argument with a traffic cop; are smeared by bringing up that they had weed in their system or apartment, as if that had anything to do with their deaths. Clearly, tales of the “drug-crazed negro” are not yet behind us.

Finally, America is the land of Big Macs and big guns, and local police are handed out army surplus to take on heavily-armed drug dealers — literally, weapons of war. But unlike the grenade launcher-wielding kingpins seen in films like Scarface, in real life most gang members stick with handguns. The drug menace has created a warlike mentality among law enforcement, used to justify military-style operations and no-knock raids like the one that killed Breonna Taylor.

“They don’t go out and think ‘I’m gonna kill African-Americans today’, but their mentality is we’re the police, you’re not,” Stamper told me. “We’re in charge. And that kind of mentality makes them arbiters of law, policy and practise.”

It’s not enough to kick out a few brutal or racist cops and call it a day when the problem is the whole system. The United States is at war with its own citizens.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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