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.
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.
By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Have you ever known something to be true, and then felt that you were discovering it again for the first time? Grief can be like this: you think you have come to terms with a loss, and then realize you have not. This happened to me last week as I reread Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. What struck me was not just the absurdity and cruelty of our drug laws. It was the degree to which we have created an entire criminal justice system that conspires against those who are black, brown, and poor. All parts work in relentless sequence against whoever has been drawn in.
Our guest blogger is Jeanne Bishop, assistant public defender at Cook County Public Defender’s Office, adjunct professor of law at Northwestern, author of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer (Westminster John Knox Press) and a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. On February 11, 2015, newly-inaugurated Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner did a bold and widely-applauded act: he issued an executive order designed to solve a serious problem facing the State. That problem: mass incarceration.