A Review By Dr. Mary Nelson We are in the midst of an opioid crisis. In 2016 there were an estimated 64,000 fatal drug overdoses across the US. Our response has been inadequate and unsuccessful, but the work of activists in Vancouver provides paths for action. Travis Lupick tells the stories of those who paved that path, interspersed with insights into the effort to replicate that model in the US, in his book Fighting for Space. In 2016, I was able to visit the pioneering Vancouver treatment program, Insite, and to meet the people involved. I can attest to the power of a more humane and life-giving approach. Lupick offers a moving introduction to harm reduction and describes how it can be a model for the US. “Our government and police have waged war on people that use drugs,” says Lupick, resulting in bloated prisons and rising death rates. He depicts the effort to find a better way in Vancouver over the period 1990-2014 through the eyes of service providers who came to understand that criminalization and abstinence don’t work for many struggling with addiction, and that new approaches need to be tried. One of these health workers was a nurse, Liz Evans, who left a hospital job focused on the immediate medical needs of addicts to manage a last-resort housing complex, the Portland Hotel. Under Evans’ leadership, the Portland accepted drug addicts and mentally ill people as they were, asking, “How can we help?” The result was a hectic but caring “community” of residents. Other staff brought their own strengths and perspectives to this work. Mark Townsend identified creative ways to convince politicians to increase funding for alternative approaches to drug treatment. Organizer Ann Livingston, committed to engaging addicts themselves in shaping and advocating for their own solutions, facilitated their involvement in designing a more effective and humane response to addiction. Frustrated by the indifference of politicians, and society more broadly, to the HIV/AIDS crisis and escalating deaths in Vancouver’s downtown, an organization of drug users took shape, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or VANDU. They began with a demonstration in a major downtown park, where activists and addicts bore 1,000 crosses inscribed with the names of victims of drug overdose, and a large sign reading, “KILLING FIELDS.” A year later the network organized an international conference in the same park, with speakers from Europe who ran safe drug injection sites and other humane efforts sharing their experience, expertise, and validation. Their testimony opened the eyes of some government and medical officials and created the opportunity to push for harm reduction approaches in Vancouver. Lupick describes harm reduction as “strategies all about keeping people alive and as healthy as possible until they can arrive at a place in life where treatment or abstinence works for them.” Drug users who lived in the Portland Hotel could shoot up in their rooms, and staff became equipped to deal with overdoses. But many users were still on the streets and in dark alleys, and too many were dying. Several times temporary injection sites popped up only to be kicked out by landlords. Slowly, HIV/AIDS activists, enlightened health care practitioners, police, and politicians frustrated by the failing status quo came together around a four-pronged approach to addiction: prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction. Finally in 2003 a single drug injection site was approved as a 3-year pilot to test the harm-reduction approach. It provided a safe space where people who bought their drugs outside were welcomed, provided with water and sterile equipment, and supervised by a medical professional in case of overdose. A second room provided post-injection “cooling spaces,” and a friendly community coffee pot humanized the place. Statistics showed a significant reduction in deaths from overdose and HIV/AIDS. This safe haven also opened the door for connections to other forms of health assistance and care. Research on Insite validated anecdotal findings of significantly reduced deaths from overdose, people moving into more stable living situations, and healthier action. These findings have been documented and published in countless journals. Insite and its housing components (Portland Hotel, etc) are still operating today, but expansion has been glacial. Lupick recounts how opposition from downtown business associations and, city officials have threatened the pilot model. VANDU and its allies continued to organize for decriminalization of drug possession, harm reduction efforts, and legal drug injection sites. Aided by lawyers, a court case went to the Supreme Court, which rendered a narrow decision that applied only to the existing drug injection site. The struggle continues, but there is hope, and lives are being saved in the process. What can we learn from the Vancouver experience? It takes the selfless commitment and compassion of pioneers like Liz Evans. It takes creative efforts to raise awareness and destigmatize drug use in the minds of politicians and voters. It takes outreach to allies, including HIV/AIDS advocates, public health advocates, communities of faith, families of drug users, and politicians. It takes involving drug users in organizing and action, both for better results and to empower them to take charge of their lives. It takes persistence and resilience for the long journey with small successes along the way. As people of faith, we know all are created in the image of God, including drug users. God calls us to work for justice for all God’s people. God gives us infinite hope that sustains us in the struggle for a more humane and life-giving approach to drug addiction. Mary Nelson was the founding President and CEO of Bethel New Life, a faith-based development corporation on Chicago’s West Side. Over 45 years in that community and 27 years in that role, she brought a perspective of faith and hope to a community many considered beyond redemption. Nelson holds a doctorate from Union Graduate School and has taught asset-based community development to pastors and community leaders. In April 2016, she visited Insite as part of a pastoral delegation organized by Clergy for a New Drug Policy.
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.
Rabbi Jacob Schram (Ben Stiller in Keeping the Faith) called Yom Kippur the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar. It’s probably the most coveted ticket of the year for temple-goers, so it makes sense to say that. To me, Yom Kippur is more like a combination of Lent and New Year’s. If you don’t know, Yom Kippur, which occurred just over a week agond, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last chance to make yourself right with God before the books are closed for the year. Yom Kippur also falls eight days after Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day on the Hebrew calendar. In addition to repenting for what we’ve done wrong in the past year, Jewish people use Yom Kippur as a time to recommit ourselves to do good deeds in the coming year. Essentially, we’re atoning and making resolutions all at the same time. In thinking about this High Holiday, I realized some of the ways that it’s linked to my thoughts on drugs and drug policy.
I want to preface my remarks with three comments. First, I see I am the last in a line-up of clergy speaking. I am assuming it is my job to bring the message home. Second, I was introduced as a Baptist minister. I don’t know if you realize it, but that means that I am an evangelical Christian. I hope one of the things you come to appreciate is that not all white evangelicals sound like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham. Third, I brought my Bible with me, and I plan to use it. I was asked to speak here today as a member of the clergy, and no Baptist preacher would think to step into the pulpit without a Bible in hand. Growing up in an evangelical household, memorizing and reciting scripture came as second nature, even before I learned to read or write. As a matter of fact, I was only three years old when I first stood up in front of the congregation a recited perfectly John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
I am thrilled to see so many of you here today. I am Incredibly grateful that you took the time to prioritize being here with us, to vision how we collectively shape sanctuary, to ensure that all people hear their names welcomed into loving community and connection. This gathering is long overdue. It is true we are in the midst of an overdose crisis. In this city alone, we are losing an average of four beloved made in the image of all that is good and love, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, lovers and friends each day. Last year in NYC, we lost over 1,374 wonderfully and fearfully made human beings.