By Russ Belville
The United States has a serious racism problem.
That should come as no surprise for a nation founded on kidnapping, slavery, genocide, and occupation.
But this week, events have brought our racism into tragic focus. We’ve experienced the extra-judicial homicide of two more black men by police. We had barely started hashtagging Alton Sterling’s execution in Louisiana when we were shocked by the news of Philando Castile’s broadcasted shooting in Minnesota.
Now in Atlanta, we have the case of a black man found hanged from a tree in a central public park. Authorities say they find no evidence of foul play and are ruling the death a suicide.
(Sure. Suicidally-depressed African-Americans in the deep South tend to eschew offing themselves at home where nobody could interrupt their final act. Public suicidal hangings where witnesses could stop the suicide are all the rage now. Right.)
Alton Sterling was selling CDs in front of a convenience store with the permission of the store owner. Police had a report of someone menacing people with a gun at the store. Cops show up and confront Sterling. Reports state that Sterling had a gun in his pocket that he carried for protection after recently being mugged.
As the bystander cell phone video shows, the cops have Sterling pinned to the ground when one yells “he’s got a gun!” Even with both cops on top of Sterling and both of his arms controlled, one cop unloads his weapon point blank at Sterling’s chest, killing him.
Philando Castille’s killing was even more horrific. He’s pulled over with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter for a broken taillight. When the cop asks him for his license and registration, Castile politely informs the cop he’s a got a license to concealed-carry. As Castile obeys the cop and reaches for his documents, the cop opens fire. Castile bleeds out as his girlfriend livestreams the aftermath on Facebook.
Louisiana is what’s called an “open carry” state – Sterling was perfectly within his rights to be carrying that gun. Castile followed the gun laws of Minnesota to the letter and even informed the police he was armed, which concealed-carry holders aren’t required to admit unless police specifically ask.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the NRA to cry out about the violation of the rights of these people to keep and bear arms. It’s almost as if the NRA is still using the original Constitutional definition of “the people” – maybe Sterling and Castile should have only been carrying three-fifths of a gun?
(Let’s table the gun control discussion. About half of us weed reformers are for it, about half are against it. But can we all at least acknowledge there’s something racist going on when a white guy shooting up a theater is taken alive by cops and we call him “crazy” and allege that guns are just inanimate objects that don’t kill people – people do; but when a black guy is legally carrying a firearm and shooting nobody, the mere existence of that gun is reason enough for cops to kill him? Which is it – inanimate object or inherent danger?)
So what does this have to do with marijuana? Neither of these homicide victims (or the alleged suicide) apparently had anything to do with drugs.
Simple – the War on Drugs is just the latest incarnation of this symptom of America’s Original Sin, a shameful history that spans from chattel slavery
through Jim Crow and redlining to drug war policing that consistently and overwhelmingly ensnares people of color more often than not.
The drug war doesn’t create the racism; however, it is the product of it and one of the tools that maintain it. Early twentieth century prohibitions didn’t demonize the drugs so much as their users: the cocaine-fueled Negroes impervious to police bullets, the diabolical Chinese who were addicting white women in opium dens, and the job-stealing Mexicans who smoked the loco weed. Later twentieth century drug laws were knowingly crafted to undercut the Flower Power and Black Power movements of the 1970s.
But while the drug war is the tool that turns pretext stops into stop-and-frisks, the mechanism that decimates black neighborhoods and families, and the engine that funds racist law enforcement, ending the drug war without addressing its purposes will do little to end racism.
We need only look at the results of legalization in four states and DC so far. Yes, it is an unimpeachable positive that we’ve dramatically reduced the arrests and prosecutions for marijuana. Since those disproportionately affected people of color, the overall arrest reduction will largely consist of minorities.
However, we’ve also found that for the marijuana crimes that still remain, such as public consumption or unauthorized sales, the citations and arrests are still disproportionately black and Latino. Clearly, the whole legal system is racist; it doesn’t seem to matter which laws are passed or broken, it always seems to screw over the black people.
We must begin a truth and reconciliation process to deal with our legacy, much like South Africa went through when it threw off apartheid. Part of that must include ending our racist war on drugs and beginning a top-to-bottom reboot of our law enforcement practices. We cannot strive for our more perfect union and ensure domestic tranquility when citizens are more likely to be burglarized by cops than robbers and more likely to be shot by police than by terrorists.