Lifelong Mississippian Christina Dent is a politically conservative Christian who supported a criminal justice approach to drug use until she became a foster parent. As she saw the effects of criminalizing drugs up close for the first time, that support wavered (see TEDx Talks). She now opposes the War on Drugs and actively seeks to share her new perspective with others in Mississippi. “I’m a Christian. I’m from Mississippi. I run a nonprofit that I founded there to invite people to change their minds, specifically working with a conservative, largely Christian audience in Mississippi, where we self-identify as the most religious state in the nation. “For most of my life I had to deal with the War on Drugs. I thought it was helping people. I thought I was supporting laws that were in line with my faith and with my political values. “Only through experiences as a foster parent did I become close to … what’s happening with the War on Drugs. I got to know one of the moms of a child that we fostered. I did not know anything about addiction or about drugs. I could not understand why a mom would use drugs while they were pregnant, if they loved their child. “Her incredible vulnerability in letting me see into her life and into her love for her son deeply shook me. It made me begin to rethink the drug war. “That was three years ago. Exposing what was in my heart has been the most humbling experience of my life—the judgments I had and the harm I participated in by voting for laws that were unintentionally hurting people. “Almost every area of our lives is impacted negatively by the drug war. If you’re vulnerable its impact is a hundred times worse. But all of us are living in a world that would look far better if drugs were not criminalized. “I’m a foster care parent and I want to help vulnerable children. I now think that one of the best things I can do to help them is to work to end the drug war. It’s causing so much destruction to families and communities. “That is why I started End It for Good. This is difficult work because what I want to do is yell from the rooftops, ‘We’ve got this all wrong.’ It is not consistent with our values as conservative people or Christians. “I’m speaking to an audience that is where I was five years ago. They don’t understand why people are dying, why is there fentanyl in our heroin supply, why is there so much crime in our city and community, why so many children are growing up without parents in the home with them. “Mississippi is the third highest incarcerator of people in the nation, on track to become the highest, because the two states ahead of us have had a decrease in its population. “Early on I became convinced that the best way to help people change their minds is to apply a harm reduction approach to messaging: start where people are. Whatever it is that they believe, how can I help them take one step to changing your mind. I can’t ask them to take that massive jump from ‘I supported the drug war my whole life’ to ‘I’m totally committed to a legalized regulated market’ in one day. “I wanted to invite people to change their minds in a way that would allow somebody like me to be able to engage. We schedule community discussions. I travel around the state and host dinners with all the elected officials, pastors, business owners, people in the recovery community, everybody from the community that we can find email addresses for. We invite them to come and engage. They hear a presentation about what’s actually happening—non-emotional, fact-based. I tell the story of me changing my mind. If you criminalize the market, it goes underground and creates havoc in our communities. If you criminalize the substances, they become adulterated. We see people dying of fentanyl. When we criminalize users we are destroying families. “Here is one quick story about a man that came to our last discussion in a small town in Mississippi. He is a typical example of somebody you would consider hard to reach: white, mid-sixties, lifelong Republican, evangelical Christian, Mississippi roots for generations. “About a year ago he asked me to send him a copy of Chasing the Scream, a book by Johann Hari. If you have conservative friends, reading that book is the best possible thing that they can do. “I didn’t hear another thing from him for a year. Then he came to a discussion we were holding in another town. Somebody said, ‘I think decriminalization is enough. I don’t want to legalize anything.’ He spoke up: ‘But if you don’t legalize, you’d have to get rid of all the crime that’s being driven by the illegal market.’ “Here’s a man who went from getting curious about whether we might be doing something wrong to wanting to know how can I be an advocate. “I work on screening that change. Mississippi is kind of a stronghold in the South, for how people think about things. And if we can change [minds] in Mississippi, then there is hope for change everywhere.” (These comments are excerpted from Christiana Dent’s participation on the panel “Having Faith in Harm Reduction” during the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis on November 9, 2019.)
Following are key excerpts from the full text, available here. In so many ways this is the best and worst of times for drug policy reform. There has been an extraordinary tidal wave of … successes—mind-blowing victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization, due in no small part to the brilliant and strategic advocacy of people in this very room. And yet, … in the very same moment, we face an unprecedented drug crisis in this country. Drug overdoses are at a record high, making the crack epidemic seem somewhat mild by comparison. America has 4% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s overdose deaths. … There is an outcry over the opioid crisis, but it’s relatively new considering the magnitude of the crisis. And I know that I am not alone in being struck by the drastic difference between the two recent drug epidemics that have swept this nation—opioids and crack [cocaine]. The crack epidemic killed just a tiny fraction of those who are dying of opioid overdoses today. And yet a literal war was declared on the users of crack—a purely punitive, militaristic war. Today the opioid crisis is much, much worse. And yet there is no wall-to-wall media coverage demonizing and shaming opioid drug users and dealers.…Things are very, very different this time around, and we all know why. Whiteness makes the difference. If the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were black rather than white, we wouldn’t have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion for people struggling with drug addiction… I’m concerned about the cyclical nature of reform and retrenchment in this country, particularly with respect to race. The great legislative victories for legalizing marijuana in several states did not occur in a vacuum. They occurred on the very same night that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. …From where I sit, there is no paradox, no mystery at all. There is a common denominator underlying both this drug reform victory and the election of Donald Trump. It is called whiteness. While some may argue that the racial justice gains of the Obama election were symbolic, the symbolism was powerful, and deeply disturbing to millions, inciting an electoral backlash that we should have seen coming. … The movement convened right here in this room stands at a critical crossroad. What happens in the months and years to come will likely determine whether our movement succeeds or fails in the long run. And I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the path we ultimately choose may have enormous implications for the success and failure of our democracy as a whole. … I want to challenge all of us here today to think big, to go big, or stay home. Let’s be reckless, throw caution to the winds? Not at all. But I say … we must begin to think bigger—much, much bigger, beyond drug policy—and consider more carefully how drug policy fits into the bigger picture of American democracy. Any victory that is dependent on whiteness in whole or in part is truly not a victory for us all. For some advocates, making race central means quoting a lot of racial disparity data. It means posting to social media the latest, most horrific thing that Donald Trump has said. I’m not a fan of this approach. Nearly all of the available research shows that merely sharing racial disparity data without a great deal of political and social and historical context, and lots of story-telling, only confirms pre-existing racial stereotypes and biases. … Mark Mauer, in his excellent book Race to Incarcerate, provides data showing that the most punitive nations in the world are the most diverse. The nations with the most compassionate or the most lenient criminal justice policies are the most homogeneous. We like to say that diversity is our strength; it may actually be our Achilles heel. Can we evolve morally and spiritually to learn to care for each other across lines of race and class, gender and sexuality, across all forms of difference? Clearly, these questions are pressing in the Age of Trump. These are also the very questions that we must be asking regardless of who is president. The good news is that this drug policy [reform movement] presents incredible opportunities for reimagining what our democracy can and should be. We have the opportunity to educate people of all colors about how our racial history defines us all. We have the opportunity to demonstrate how the same forms of racially divisive politics that helped to birth the drug war and mass incarceration are playing out all over again in strikingly similar fashion, this time leading to a system of mass deportation on a scale rarely seen in human history. Few issues, few causes, few movements provide a better opportunity to practice reparation. We have a lot to learn. As a nation, we don’t have a lot of practice repairing historical harms caused to poor people and people of color. But we can get started in a real way in this movement, right here and right now. Finally, this movement gives us a chance to talk about capitalism, our culture of ruthless competition and individualism, its possible role in creating so much of the despair that makes the United States the world leader in drug addiction as well as incarceration. If we choose to think big, really big, and deliberately align our drug policy with the larger work of building a thriving multiracial, multiethnic democracy that truly honors the lives of all of us, a world of possibilities begins to emerge. Suddenly we’re not just fighting isolated drug policy reform battles anymore, we’re steadily building the foundation for a new way of life together. I hope and pray that one day when the history of this movement is written, that it will be said that we, those of us in this room today, vowed to do more than win kinder, fairer, more compassionate drug policy. Instead, we committed ourselves to a revolution, to placing racial justice at the center of our world, and committed ourselves with all the courage we can muster to building a New America.
Within the discourse and research surrounding the War on Drugs, the experiences of women and gender non-conforming individuals have tended to be left out. This omission creates space for a tacit assumption that these individuals do not suffer from discriminatory policing. In her new book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Andrea Ritchie dispels this assumption. She shows that the War on Drugs actually increased rates of arrest among women of color more than it did among men. She offers the following statistics: “Between 1986 and 1991, the number of Black women in state prison for drug offenses nationwide increased by more than 800 percent. This was nearly double the increase for Black men and more than triple that of white women, making Black women the fastest-growing population of prisoners during this period.” “From 2010 to 2014, women’s drug arrests increased by 9 percent, while men’s decreased by 7.5 percent. These disparities were even starker at the height of the drug war. Between 1986 and 1995, arrests of adult women for drug abuse violations increased by 91.1 percent compared to 53.8 percent for men.” Not only has the War on Drugs disproportionately increased the arrest rates for women of color, but it has also tapped into broader, destructive cultural narratives that shape the manner in which police engage these women Fantastical Imaginings The Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes, a womanist thinker and one of the greatest ethicists of our times, coined the term “fantastic hegemonic imagination” to describe ideas fashioned by dominant groups that reshape the world according to their own understanding in a way that both mangles and subordinates the identities and experiences of non-dominant groups. According to Townes, “ the fantastic hegemonic imagination traffics in peoples’ lives that are caricatured and pillaged so that the imagination that creates the fantastic can control the world in its own image.” This hegemonic imagination gives rise to evil and maintains it in the structures of everyday living. While the images are fantastical, their malicious effects upon those whose lives are “caricatured and pillaged” are real and concrete. Townes offers multiple examples of caricatures of African American women dreamed up by the hegemonic imagination: the Sapphire, the bossy Black woman who usurps a dominant, male role; the Mammy, the desexualized maternal figure perfectly content to raise the children of her enslaver; and the lascivious Jezebel, the Mammy’s “evil twin,” who seeks always to seduce in predatory fashion. These stereotypes, have justified evils visited upon African American women during the era of slavery and in the decades that followed. The Mammy stereotype occluded the trauma of slavery with the illusion of women content with their enslavement, while the Jezebel stereotype justified the widespread rape of enslaved women. The Sapphire, who threatened the white patriarchal hierarchy and could not be subdued, justified the use of severe abuse to subordinate Black women. Policing Realities Through meticulous research, statistics, and case examples, Andrea Ritchie demonstrates the evil that these stereotypes- what she refers to as “controlling narratives”– continue to perpetuate through their insidious influence upon the policing and incarceration of women and gender nonconforming people. She writes that Under both Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes, Black women are perceived as subhuman, animalistic to be violated, feared, and punished. Any departure from the mammy role in a police interaction, therefore, becomes dangerous for a Black woman, her stance presumed to be unacceptably aggressive…her sexuality automatically deviant…her personhood undeserving of protection. Ritchie argues that these stereotypes legitimize aggression- including sexual violence- against women of color in encounters with police. She documents patterns of sexual abuse within police departments, in which officers would coerce women into sexual acts by threatening them with arrest. In the case of a police officer in Eugene, Oregon, who was convicted of serially sexually assaulting women, she reports that his supervisors had dismissed complaints because they came from ‘junkies and prostitutes.’” Within the War on Drugs, cavity searches also constitute a form of state-sponsored sexual assault. Ritchie shares multiple stories of women subjected to invasive searches of their vaginas. In one instance, police conducted such a search “under threat of having her teeth removed with needle-nose pliers.” In others, individuals were subjected to cavity searches alongside the road, in full public view.” These stories of threat, assault, and humiliation are the everyday realities of what Townes calls the “cultural production of evil.” Ritchie shares many stories of the abuse, trauma, and even death of women of color and non-gender-conforming people at the hands of law enforcement. Yet, as she notes, these stories have rarely garnered popular attention. They are eclipsed not only by dominating stereotypes that suggest the treatment was deserved, but also by a movement against mass incarceration and the War on Drugs that has largely focused on the experiences of men. Opposing Evil, Telling a New Story To oppose the fantastic hegemonic imagination and the realities of oppression it creates, Townes offers the response of countermemory. We must remember that the stories can always be told a different way, and look for those stories hidden underneath the dominant narratives. This is precisely what Ritchie offers in Invisible No More, as its very title suggests. The stories that she tells of the experiences of women and gender non-conforming individuals are brutal and difficult to read. Yet they are the testimony against the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire narratives that would claim that coercing sex is not rape and that lethal force is a legitimate police response to unarmed women who do not pose a physical threat. It is through the telling of these stories that we can begin to break up the controlling narratives that perpetuate unjust systems.
The word “criminalization” feels right and just to us. After all, it has the word “criminal” in it. Even if we feel that the punishments being inflicted are unduly harsh, at least we know who is being punished: criminals, law breakers, those who have shown disregard for the notions of right and wrong. But what if that weren’t the whole story? What if our culture of criminalization had far-reaching, unintended consequences we rarely even see or acknowledge, including forcing innocent people to suffer the loss of their homes, their families, their dignity, even their lives? This is what our culture of mass criminalization has produced. Its impact extends far beyond those who actually use or sell drugs.
Rev. Saeed Richardson has pastored for over 10 years in AMEC and Non-Denominational Churches in NC & VA. He came to Chicago in 2010 and currently serves as Ministerial Associate at the Faith Community of St. Sabina. “People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.” While these words may come from an unexpected source, the actor Samuel L. Jackson, how true do they ring in today’s regard; how true it is that Black souls dismantled day by day, before our very eyes.