MICHELLE ADDRESS: KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA – October 12, 2017 It is really such an honor to be here with all of you. I look out and I see so many faces that I recognize, so many people that I deeply admire, people who have inspired me, whose work has guided me and challenged me in countless ways – (names obscured by applause) — the list could go on and on. People who have made such a remarkable difference in my own life. I’ve been giving some thought to what I might say here today, how I spend my short time that I have with you. I could spend all of it just singing the praises of the people in this room and celebrating the extraordinary accomplishments, the victories that have been won in recent years, as recently as yesterday. But I want to be more than a just cheerleader right now. I want to speak candidly as someone who, like many of you, considers myself part of this movement but also as someone who is concerned for its future. Standing here I’m filled with such an odd mixture of overwhelming gratitude and some trepidation. In so many ways this is the best and worst of times for drug policy reform. There has been an extraordinary tidal wave of extraordinary 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. Public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have never been higher – at record highs. Last November marijuana legalization initiatives prevailed in four states, medical marijuana prevailed in another four states. It seems as though we have reached a tipping point. And yet, at the same time, at the same very 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. A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that drug overdose deaths totaled over 64,000 last year, a 21% increase over 2015. About 3/4th of all those deaths involved opioids. America has 4% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s overdose deaths. And many experts predict that we have not seen the worst of it yet. Already drug overdose deaths are more numerous than HIV deaths were in 1995 in the first year ever of the AIDS epidemic. Drug overdose deaths last year alone outweighed American fatalities in the entire course of the Vietnam War. And, yes, 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 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. There’s no live TV coverage of drug addicts and dealers rounded up in mass raids. (applause drowned out some words here). And there are few politicians portraying them as people worthy of care and compassion, not as despicable scum of the earth that have to be gotten rid of by any means necessary. 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 want to be clear that I am very glad that the Executive Police Research Forum is actually bragging in a recent report that many police departments are sending officers to the home of addicts to pay them kind visits and invite them to treatment and offer support. But I’m not as optimistic as some of my friends about the future of drug policy. I’m told that this new-found tolerance and compassion for white users will translate into a permanent ceasefire for the drug war and that the shift in law and policy will ultimately benefit peoples of all races and classes in the long run. I have my doubts about this. Clearly, the victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have benefitted people of all colors as arrest rates have declined dramatically in many states, even though severe racial disparities still remain. Discriminatory enforcement hasn’t changed much. But at least the total number of people arrested and criminalized has declined. This is a positive development of all peoples of all colors. No, my concern lies elsewhere. 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, an election that was made possible in no small part by deliberate and explicit appeal to white racial resentment and anxiety. Some have said this is a very strange paradigm – progressive drug policy sweeping the nation at the very same moment that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States and fierce drug warrior is appointed Attorney General. How do we explain this crazy state of affairs? Yet 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. Over and over again in American history, this nation has unleashed a wave of punitiveness whenever a drug came to be associated with black and brown people. And then predictably – you can set your watch to it – when the color of drug users and dealers fades to white – our nation suddenly reverses course. Attitudes change. Policies change. Compassion bubbles to the surface in the public discourse. Numerous historians have documented this unmistakable pattern. And by the same token, throughout our nation’s history, there has always been fierce, the overwhelming backlash against even the appearance of racial progress. Always. You can set your watch to that one, too. And 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. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the presidential election and the drug policy victories of the last year were solely about race. But at the same time, can we honestly imagine that the drug reform victories of the last year in all those states would have been possible in the midst of the crack epidemic? Just for a moment try our nation legalizing any drug, of any kind, in the middle of any drug epidemic that was affecting primarily black or brown people. Imagine pot being legalized near the peak of the crack epidemic. And then try to imagine that all the newly legal drug empires that are being launched are being led by young black men with wild Afros and tattoos rather than young rich white men with ponytails and beards. Drug reform policies became possible in these years because the media was no longer saturated with images of black and brown dealers and addicts. The color of drug users and dealers got whiter in the public imagination, so we as a nation got nicer. Now that’s not to say that these changes were inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying at all. An enormous amount of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears went into those victories. I’m just asking us today to pause long enough to absorb the truth that the white face of medical marijuana in the media, and the white male face of legal pot entrepreneurs, and the white male face of drug users and abusers of the current opioid epidemic, and white face of drug heroes in the media, such as those featured in Breaking Bad, made it possible for mainstream white voters to feel a kind of empathy that was entirely lacking for black and brown folks just twenty years ago. Again, my point isn’t to minimize these legislative victories in any way. Rather, it is my hope that we will interrogate these victories and consider what they might teach us about the future of our movement. As I see it, 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 hope it is not controversial to say that our democracy is in a state of crisis. The gravity of the situation can be overwhelming. And it’s tempting in times like this to narrow our focus and think small. To think narrowly, very, very pragmatically and even defensively about what can be done to advance a single issue in a complex and worrisome political environment. But 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 think big. 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. We must dig deep enough so that our victories truly become truly victories for all of us. All of us. As I see it, any victory that is dependent on whiteness in whole or in part is truly not a victory for us all. When my book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was first released, and no one was reading it, I had a meeting with a very influential leader and thinker of drug policy reform. He said to me, “I’ve read your book and I agree with just about everything you say here. But there’s one thing that bothers me. It seems like you’re arguing here that we need to end racism in order to end the War on Drugs. I don’t think so. I think we can win this War on Drugs without ending racism. I don’t think we’re going to end racism in our lifetime and I intend to end the War on Drugs with or without ending racism. Shortly after Trump was elected, and a drug warrior was appointed attorney general, with his white supremacist attempted a revolution, I sent an email to this individual: “Remember what you said you didn’t have to end racism to end the War on Drugs? What do you think now?” I was half-joking. I’m not so naïve to think that we are going to end racism just by having better organizing strategies or by waving a magic wand. But I do believe that we must be committed to placing race and racial justice at the very center of the drug policy movement. Lately, I find that when I talk to drug reformers and say things like that, racial justice must be central to our movement, people nod, and they say, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s so right, oh yeah.” And for a while, I was just really encouraged by these platitudes until I started asking some follow-up questions. And then I found that whoever gave this new-found commitment to racial justice was a little thin in practice. For some advocates, making racial …
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 likely confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general is deeply troubling. He believes people who possess marijuana should be arrested. He has recently opposed reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and appears to support privatized prisons. Surely clemency is beyond the pale. But the real difficulty goes far deeper than his views about particular policies. He threatens to take us back to the days before we became aware of our national collective responsibility for mass incarceration. It is only seven years – how much longer it seems – since Michelle Alexander told us in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that the United States puts more people in prison per capita than any nation on earth and relegates African American and Hispanic communities to third-world status. Her landmark book exposed the War on Drugs, exploding in the 1980’s, as the primary cause.
For those who seek a “health not punishment” response to drug policy in this country, there is much to be thankful for this Christmas and Hanukkah season. Yes, nationally are we more divided politically than at any other time since the 1960’s. But over the past twelve months, there has been a remarkable “coming together” as we seek to end the failed War on Drugs. In the face of a national opioid epidemic, police chiefs, including several in the northern Chicago suburbs, are promising to help those suffering from addiction find treatment rather than arresting them.