The War on Drugs is a commonly-used term to describe the prohibition of drugs in America. The War on Drugs sparked a political movement in America, prompting state and federal legislators to militarize the police and crack down on drug offenders. The War on Drugs has its roots in racial pandering, as its laws have long been used to target people of color. Though the laws are neutral on their face, their enforcement and effect lay bare their intent for all to see. According to Michelle Alexander, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration have come to politically and socially oppress African-Americans.
Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow that the War on Drugs signals a shift in America, where the systemic racism seen in the past has not ended, but has rather just shape-shifted to something new and palatable. With the end of legal segregation came a new form of oppression, as communities used drug laws to criminalize and incarcerate populations that are heavily of color. This movement in America has manifested itself in the killings of many young black men by police and vigilantes. In particular, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a movement and helped to bring into clear focus the connection between the decades-old movement toward mass incarceration and the current killings of unarmed black men.
In his writings for Deadspin, current New York Times Carr Fellow Greg Howard contextualized the way Michael Brown’s killing was emblematic of larger trends mentioned by Alexander in her book. Howard wrote in his article America is Not For Black People, “Part of the reason we’re seeing so many black men killed is that police officers are now best understood less as members of communities, dedicated to keeping peace within them, than as domestic soldiers. ” (Howard). This article draws a clear line between systematic oppression and the current killings. It notes how the War on Drugs produced a police force that was ready to treat young black men as enemies, and war armed to do the same. Howard notes that America, through its long-standing drug policy, has made black men the enemy. More than that, this mindset has manifested itself in the killings of people like Michael Brown.
Howard does an excellent job of drawing the contrast, noting that the thing that killed Michael Brown was not his personal qualities, but rather, the structures around him. Howard writes, “To even acknowledge this line of debate is to start a larger argument about the worth, the very personhood, of a black man in America. It’s to engage in a cost-benefit analysis, weigh probabilities, and gauge the precise odds that Brown’s life was worth nothing against the threat he posed to the life of the man who killed him” (Howard). Howard went on to write about the contrast in the way that police treated Brown and how they treated James Holmes, the man who killed the people in the movie theater in Colorado. In his writing, Howard noted the unequal treatment of Brown, who had just been involved in a small altercation, and Holmes, who had committed mass murder. Howard demonstrates that it is only black men, the so-called enemy of the state, who suffer this unequal treatment. Brown was not killed because of something he did, but rather, because of something he was in a country and time when it is dangerous to be a black man. Howard notes that the War on Drugs served as a clear tool for allowing police officers to confront and control black men as they saw fit.
The War on Drugs created a new era of policing in America. Rather than enslaving black people, or outright segregating, as had been done in the past. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs created a paradigm shift. All of a sudden, the police were used to control black people. And as Howard writes, the police, armed with military weapons, have been treating black men like the enemy ever since they were empowered to do so. The links between these eras have been stark, with the War on Drugs setting America on a course in which it was all but guaranteed that police would treat black people less like citizens to be protected and more like people to be controlled.