Casualties – An Unfiltered Look at America’s 40 Year Drug War

by Nia Wilson

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared his administration’s “War on Drugs.” Through significant fear mongering and grandstanding he increased the size of his federal drug control agencies and pushed punitive policies that aimed to eliminate drugs, our “public enemy number one,” from the United States. Years later, in 1982, President Ronald Reagan pledged his administration’s commitment to the same war, declaring “illicit drugs to be a threat to U.S. national security.” At the time less than 5% of the country felt that drug use was a top priority for the nation. However, in a very short time, and by using many of the tactics of his predecessor, President Reagan increased his drug war chest, by billions of dollars, and continued the all out war.

Declarations of war, a state of armed conflict, hostile combat and a destructive battle for power are never to be taken lightly. Powerful regimes have crumbled after these prolonged violent clashes.  In the end, the spoil and the story belong to the victor, while the devastation of the people, caught in the middle of the violence, is either minimized or absent. Regardless of where we may stand, an unfiltered look at the families in places like Sudan, Palestine and Iraq are evidence that the people’s suffering is real. Poverty, displacement, children losing parents, high rates of infant mortality and indiscriminate violence have left these, war torn, communities unstable and under a constant threat of collapse.

This is the non-negotiable price of war.

And so, what of this 40 year drug war being waged in communities across the U.S.? Has it followed the same patterns of the other wars we have named? Are there clear victors and casualties here? Has some threatening power been shifted or neutralized?

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A significant number of those who are incarcerated are casualties of the drug war.  We would be hard pressed to find anyone, in this country, who does not agree that this war has almost entirely been waged in poor Black communities. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow- Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “The drug war has been brutal—complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers and sweeps of entire neighborhood . . . This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of Color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” The impact on the families living in these neighborhoods is as real as it is in Sudan, Palestine and Iraq. According to the sentencing project, 1 out of 3 Black males can expect to go to jail or prison in his lifetime and 1 out of 15 Black children have a parent in prison. There are neighborhoods, in this country, where entire families have lost their rights to work, find adequate housing, go to college or to vote for people and policies that can make their lives better. And yet, we continue expecting these communities to thrive.

As we near the conclusion of Black History Month, it is paramount that we take an unfiltered look at the havoc the drug war has wreaked on poor and war torn Black communities. As we lift up the successes of those who’ve beaten the odds we must also uncover the truth about why so many others have not.

This February- April, in Durham NC, SpiritHouse Inc, as part of our Harm Free Zone initiative, is hosting a city-wide study of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow- Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Local churches, community groups, law students and business owners have committed to studying and discussing the book together, and on April 9th we will host a city-wide gathering to continue unraveling the complexity of this issue, and its impact in Durham.

If you are interested in participating in this book study and attending the city-wide gathering please see below or contact  Tia Hall at Tia@spirithouse-nc.org  for more details. SpiritHouse is proud to be leading this initiative in Durham.

We hope all who are interested will join us!

Selma 50th – The Sankofa Moment

by Nia Wilson

March 13, 2015 – One week ago, four members of SpiritHouse Inc., left Durham NC, to join our Southern Movement Alliance (SMA) comrades, in Selma AL, for the 50th Anniversary of the  Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing. This historic weekend was a commemoration of the first of three marches, from Selma to Montgomery, to secure voting rights for Blacks in Alabama. The violent, state sanctioned, retaliation on March 7, 1965, by the Alabama State Troopers, led to that march forever being known as “Bloody Sunday.”

On our arrival, we paid tribute to those who marched and survived unimaginable beatings on that day and we joined our fellow SMA anchor organization, The Ordinary People’s Society (T.O.P.S.) to lead their annual Backwards March across the same historic bridge. T.O.P.S. whose goal is “to create, build, promote and maintain a better humanity by remaining open to the needs of people in our society,” has been leading the Backwards March, in Selma, since 2007 because, as founder Rev. Kenneth Glasgow says, “we have to go back and get some things right before we can move forward.”

As we drove from our hotel through Montgomery we talked about the similarities between the Backwards March and the West African Sankofa proverb. The Sankofa which literally means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot,” is symbolized by a mythological bird that is flying forward while looking back in the opposite direction. In its mouth (or sometimes carried on its back) is an egg that represents the future.

Black people separated and displaced across the diaspora have been returning to fetch lost pieces of ourselves for generations. After the abolition of slavery, it was not uncommon for formerly enslaved and runaway Blacks to return to the places where they had been held captive in hopes of finding the loved ones they had lost, or reconnecting to the land that had absorbed so much of their blood and sweat. Today, many of us continue this journey by participating in events like the Selma 50th, joining ancestry.com or sending swabs of our DNA off, searching for pieces that will make us whole.

And so, from Durham to Alabama, between Erykah Badu, J. Cole and the O’Jays, we talked about the omitted stories left behind in Selma and across this country. How many  incarcerated family members, LGBTQ brothers and sisters and women experiencing domestic and sexual violence, remained silent for the sake of the movement? How have these gaps in our individual and collective histories impacted our community? And what lessons are waiting for our retrieval?

In his speech, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama spoke about how far we have come since 1965. He said that he “rejected the notion that nothing has changed” [in this country], and that “to deny our progress, would be to rob us of our own agency.” He acknowledged that there is still more work to be done, and referenced what has been happening in Ferguson as evidence of this. However, what he, and other presidents before him, failed to do, is to address those whom he/they intentionally abandoned for the sake of the most palatable progress.

Today, America’s 40 year Drug War, which began just after the Civil Rights Era, has placed over 7 million (mostly poor, mostly Black) people under correctional control, stripping them of the very rights to jobs, education and housing, that were won by their elders. Today, according to a Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report entitled “Operation Ghetto Storm,” every 28 hrs a Black person (mostly men between the ages of 15 and 35) is killed by police officers, security guards or vigilantes claiming self- defense.” Today, Trans women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate of almost one per week.

And today, young people, poor people, LGBTQ and formerly incarcerated people, who have been pushed to the furthest edges and made invisible, are refusing to remain silent. These brilliant souls have learned from the lessons hidden in the retrieval and are not only telling their own stories, but they are uncovering and telling the stories of their past kin left behind. They are claiming justice for all as a human right with the understanding that it will not be accomplished until we include everyone in the process. Bravo to T.O.P.S and the people of Selma for embracing ancestral wisdom and reminding us to fetch and learn from our past.