Baltimore and the War on Drugs

It is not always crystal clear what causes things like riots to get out of control. One politician even blamed gay marriage for what has been happening in Baltimore recently(!) I try to be open minded about other people’s opinions, but seriously?

A more serious claim made by both teachers and parents, is that the riots last Monday were caused in large part by overly aggressive police who were determined to stop a riot that was not happening, thereby creating one. They state that heavily armed police prevented students from leaving school as they usually do, by shutting down their school buses, thus forcing the kids out onto the streets, where random groups of typical teenagers were then harassed by those same police because they were gathering precisely where the police had forced them to gather. Quite a claim. And one which should be looked into more closely.

What is clear is that something bad happened. A whole lot of people were out there doing a whole lot of damage, committing a bunch of major felonies, who seemed to be enjoying acting badly on national TV.

But notwithstanding that this out of control behavior was wrong and bad and criminal, we are still left with the nagging question of exactly why they are so upset?

They may have been upset about the “Nerd Prom”, a formal event held in Washington D.C. within a short drive from Baltimore, where all the power players were so busy slapping each other on their backs for being so much better than ordinary people that they were unable to consider how that might look to the rest of us. Jon Stewart was upset about that. I was too. The idea of all of the Nero pundits fiddling while Baltimore burned was at least unseemly. At most it was the best example of how the arrogant elite in this country are completely out of touch with reality. That is not a political statement. It is a fact.

Although many think of the stuff going down in Baltimore right now is a recent development, the roots of this problem go way back.

Whenever I think of Baltimore I hear Randy Newman singing in my ear….

“Beat-up little seagull On a marble stair Tryin’ to find the ocean Lookin’ everywhere
Hard times in the city In a hard town by the sea Ain’t nowhere to run to There ain’t nothin’ here for free
Hooker on the corner Waitin’ for a train Drunk lyin’ on the sidewalk Sleepin’ in the rain
And they hide their faces And they hide their eyes ‘Cause the city’s dyin’ And they don’t know why
Oh, Baltimore Man, it’s hard just to live……….”

That song came out in 1977. So, do you still think this is a new problem? I think not.

One aspect of the discussion about what is going on in Baltimore that I find especially intriguing is the link between the dissatisfaction of the local community with their lot in life, especially where the police are involved, and the War On Drugs. Ironically, that War on Drugs began not long before this song was written, in June of 1971, when Richard Nixon announced the “War on Drugs”, his plan to dramatically increase the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and to push through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. What on earth does that have to do with people being unhappy?

Easy. For you see the greatest impact of the War on Drugs beginning back in the 70’s was not on upper middle class white kids from the suburbs, smoking weed in their basements while listening to their high end “record players”, waiting to head back to their high priced private colleges to protest the Viet Nam War. Meanwhile kids in the ghetto were being harassed, searched, arrested and imprisoned with impunity. Or, of course, being sent off to Viet Nam to fight that war the white kids were so eager to avoid.

Here are some interesting facts about the impact of the War on Drugs:

  • More than 60% of people in prison in the U.S. are now racial and ethnic minorities.
  • 1 in every 10 African American male is in prison or jail on any given day.
  • Two thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

But for those of you thinking that this is because black people use drugs more or commit more drug crimes, think again.

According to the NAACP:

  • About 14 million Whites and only 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug.
  • 5 times as many Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
  • African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).

There are many other disturbing statistics. The fact is that the War on Drugs has essentially disenfranchised an entire segment of the population.

The societal fall out is a primary impact of the policies and practices of law enforcement for the past few decades. For example, education statistics show how the door has been closing on opportunities for the disadvantaged.

In 2000 there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college versus 1980, when there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 enrolled in college. During those two decades the War on Drugs raged on, making virtual enemies out of an entire segment of our population: the poor and disadvantaged who had nothing better to do or no other way to make a living besides being involved in drugs.

Of course we can say that it is their fault. But I call that blaming the victim. I mean, I worked hard, went to Stanford Law School, practically killed myself working 100 hour weeks as a public defender. But I don’t kid myself. I had two very positive role models, my Mom and Dad, lived in a peaceful prosperous community, went to great schools and had enough money to afford to go to the best law school in the country (sorry Harvard, but you know it’s true). But I don’t kid myself. If I had been born into poverty where drug dealers, not Caterpillar engineers, were the role models — I am nowhere near arrogant enough to think I still would be where I am today. I mean, I am conceited but there is a limit. I’m not stupid.

Reasonable people can argue about how to interpret statistics like these. I do that type of thing every day. But, at some point, you gotta throw up your hands in the air and say, “What’s Goin’ On?” It makes me wanna holler sometimes………

What’s Goin’ On
Song by Marvin Gaye
Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh
Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on
In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe
Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Oh oh…

Originally published at on May 7, 2015.

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