Last Thursday evening, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission held a remarkable hearing on the human rights impacts of the drug war. Thirteen experts and more than two dozen members of the public gave cogent and powerful testimony.
“I’m a recovering slave, point blank,” said Dorsey Nunn with group for recovering addicts, All of Us or None. “The war on drugs is a war on me. So if I showed up today, I showed up to ask that you stop chasing my children.”
Many people think of San Francisco as a progressive hip place. But African Americans in the city face felony drug arrests at a rate 19 times that of other groups in the city, and more than seven times the rate of African-Americans in other counties in the state, according to a study presented by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (minute 24).
Yet most of those who have died from illegal drugs in San Francisco have been non-Latino Whites. Though African American female youth account for over 40% of felony drug arrests in the city, seven in 10 people dying from illegal drugs are aged 40 or older.
The data is part of a pattern for more than 40 years of racial disparities in drug law enforcement in San Francisco. “We have a disease in America, and that disease is racism and discrimination,” said Martin Reed as he stood with his young daughter before the commission (minute 1:41). Yet city authorities have not explained why its law enforcement practices are so discriminatory, nor why that has grown worse in the last few years.
Dorsey Nunn at San Francisco Human Rights Commission on the human rights impacts of the drug war, April 12
Local NAACP chair Alice Huffman pointed out that the drug war laws that born out of racism and discrimination. “It’s not an accident that we’ve chosen to target cocaine, as opposed to Ridilin,” noted Deborah Small (minute 1:18), founder of Break the Chains. “All the laws that we’ve passed were linked to minorities.”
Linda Evans of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (minute 54) spoke of the impacts of incarceration on civic engagement, because those who have been imprisoned frequently cannot vote, serve on juries, or run for public office. Others addressed the difficulty of those who have been imprisoned in the drug war in obtaining employment. “When you’re looking for a job, on the application you have worked in structural discrimination,” said Nunn. “The question is ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’ You used to ask the question a different way. It used to be ‘Are you a Negro?’”
The same questions are asked when people apply for public housing and student loans, and even – when people want to leave something for their children – on life insurance applications.
One recovering addict, David Moss (minute 1:52) recounted going to jail 14 times for being under the influence of a narcotic, and not once was he offered treatment. He said he never robbed or assaulted anyone, but he was treated like a criminal. “Having a disease is not a crime,” Moss said.
He emphasized that drugs and alcohol are symptoms of a deeper problem. “So rather than building more beds, building bigger prisons, give people a chance to find out what’s beneath the alcohol and drugs, so they can be moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and husbands and wives again.”
I spoke about the drug war’s impact in Latin America (minute 2:09), two days before several presidents from the hemisphere appealed to President Obama to revisit the whole drug war paradigm because, as I said, their people are paying for it in blood.
Community members had many recommendations for addressing the drug war’s impacts. Here are a few:
· to re-examine stop and frisk rules;
· to do away with “jurisdiction shopping,” by which local prosecutors bump up cases to the federal level to impose more prison time;
· to support state legislation that – like Portugal – would reduce drug convictions from a felony to a misdemeanor and provide treatment on request;
· to expand the definition of San Francisco as a sanctuary city;
· to sit down with Nancy Pelosi to ask what she and her party are doing in Congress to change the drug war paradigm;
· to pass a Board of Supervisors resolution urging the federal government to shift funds from incarceration and war in Latin America into treatment;
· to investigate San Francisco’s policing policies and practices to see why there is such extreme racial discrimination in its drug felony arrests, and adopt concrete plans to address it.
“Why are we willing to tolerate a law enforcement strategy on drugs,” asked Deborah Small, “that basically makes it decriminalized for people with money, people with status, for people with power, for people without melanin, and a violation for everyone else?”
You can view the entire hearing online.
FOR is working with Breaking the Chains and other groups in the Bay Area to organize a “people’s movement assembly” focused on the drug war in June. Stay tuned.
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