Courtesy of asha bandele

This Saturday, April 22, at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, the Drug Policy Alliance is delivering a message from the front lines of the war on drugs: “Not One Step Back.”

Featuring Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.); author and political commentator Marc Lamont Hill; Black Lives Matter co-founder and organizer Patrisse Kahn Cullors; and some of the most committed activists, policymakers and community leaders in the country, this is a sleeves-rolled-up strategizing and planning session that makes the stakes clear and DPA’s position plain:

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We, as a country, those of us invested in freedom and liberation, equity and justice, cannot and will not take one step back.

It is a declaration of determination, resistance and revolution. It is a statement of intent: Those who have toiled and triumphed, loved and lost so much during a generational white supremacist war on the most marginalized and institutionally vulnerable people in the United States, shall not be moved.

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Not by Donald Trump.

Not by Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III.

Not by stigma or by shame.

Blacks and Latinos are still being unfairly targeted and arrested on marijuana-related charges—even though whites are more likely to sell drugs—and many former felons are prohibited from participating in the cannabis industry, the nation’s fastest-growing economy.

Here are a few more statistics that reveal whiteness at work for its own good:

  • One in every 106 white males age 18 or older are incarcerated; 1 in every 36 Hispanic males age 18 or older are incarcerated; 1 in every 15 black males age 18 or older are incarcerated.
  • African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • Marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
  • Despite using and selling drugs at rates similar to those of their white counterparts, African Americans and Latinos (pdf) make up 62 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses and 72 percent of those sentenced for federal drug-trafficking offenses.
  • Despite making up only 15 percent of the juvenile population, black juveniles are arrested two times more often than their white counterparts.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison (pdf) for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).

The so-called gentler war on drugs has not been gentle for black and brown people in this nation, and it was never intended to be. Even if had been, anti-blackness is entrenched and intentional. Drugs are just the top layer, the proxy target. For this reason, we must be fiercely committed to dismantling systems of violence that relentlessly batter black, brown, and indigenous communities in the name of protecting them.

Beloved author, activist and organizer asha bandele, who is also senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance, sat down with The Root to discuss DPA’s Not One Step Back strategy session and the cumulative and pervasive scars deeply etched into black and brown communities by the perpetuators of the war on drugs.

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The Root: The Drug Policy Alliance has consistently fought back against the violence, both structurally and physically, that has been inflicted on black and brown people across the country. So let’s start with the very core of the so-called war on drugs. How did we get here?

asha bandele: It’s important to say not only what the drug war is but to place it into the right frame. The drug war, as it was initiated by then-President Richard Nixon in 1971, was the legal response to black resistance in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. At that moment, we were at the height of the moral mountain. Legal segregation had technically ended with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and then Nixon put forward this set of policies that were supposed to be colorblind, right?

But they weren’t. They were manufactured to go after black people; they manufactured the evidence about drugs and they manufactured the evidence about who the perpetrators were. Nobody wanted to see their kid high and endangering their lives, which is why so many black people bought into the idea of this drug war. Now, we know that white people use and sell drugs more than black people do. But black and brown people were the people who went to jail.

TR: Tell me about the significance of holding the Not One Step Back strategizing session in Atlanta.

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ab: The South has borne the brunt of mass incarceration. DPA held a conference in Louisiana [the prison capital of the world] in 2007, and now we’re coming back to the Deep South at a time when the U.S. attorney general is from Alabama. Black people are 32 percent of Georgia’s population, but 76 percent of those incarcerated for marijuana offenses. We’re not taking one step back.

TR: The stigma attached to drug use leaches onto systems of oppression. Both are damaging to black and brown communities. There is a robust activist community in the South. It is where many of our ancestors are buried, and ground zero of the liberation struggle. But we’re also talking about the Bible Belt, where there’s still respectability politics. Some people are still ashamed of family members, sometimes even of themselves, because of drug addiction.

The fight for black and brown people to have autonomy over our bodies takes place right beside the critical need to recognize and dismantle systems of oppression strengthened by our trauma, including economic violence, that can lead to self-medication.

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ab: That’s exactly right; so when we’re talking about African Americans, we’re talking about a group of people who have lived under the stigma of simply being born. Just being born here, we were told that we were inferior and lazy. Now, the vulgarity of the drug war, with all the brainwashing it’s done, is that it’s convinced us to hate our own family and hate our own people. As long as we’re talking about drugs, we don’t have to talk about poverty. We don’t have to talk about trauma.

We are struggling to maintain dignity within a white supremacist framework, but that dignity is maintained at the expense of those who are the most vulnerable. What we know for sure is that the use of drugs is not the final arbiter of whether or not a life is undone. If that were the case, then during the Wall Street era in the ’80s and ’90s, what happened to all those white boys who were using cocaine?

TR: And that’s so real. Drug use for some is a choice; for some it’s an addiction. But this country’s addiction to pathologizing and criminalizing blackness is the biggest addiction of all. It seems to be much easier for those in power or angling for power to address the symptoms and not the illness.

ab: Yes! People don’t have access to healthy food; people still don’t have clean water—not just in Flint, Michigan, but across this country. That requires real structural change. Extreme poverty in the United States is defined as a family of four living on less than $13,000 a year. And in many ways, we actually still believe that this is a free country. We believe this even as so many of us suffer this way. We still believe it even as we watch people getting shot down by police officers who suffer no consequences.

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TR: This administration is following in the time-honored American tradition of ruthlessly dehumanizing black people. Has DPA had to change course in the wake of Trump’s unexpected Electoral College win?

ab: Well, I think that, like most people, we thought that Hillary Clinton would win. We thought that we would continue working to end mass incarceration. Now, we find that we’re going to have to defend and protect a lot of our victories. We don’t want the Trump administration going into Colorado, or any of the other states where marijuana has been legalized, and start arresting people again. We don’t want people being deported. All these issues are on the table with this administration, so we’re going to have to play some defense.

When they go low, we go hard. We don’t give up ground. We’re not taking one step back.

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TR: So many lives have been disrupted or ended. There has been so much pain and devastation. At the heart of this combat is the reality that black lives matter to us, holding fast to the vision that black lives must matter in policies and practices that shape this country going forward.

ab: That’s exactly right. I buried my stepson. I don’t want to watch another son, daughter, or child go in the ground for a ridiculous set of policies that we’ve somehow accepted. We need to pull apart these dangerous myths about drugs and the drug war so that we can face them with courage and with character. We must determine who we need to be in this moment. We haven’t tried treating everybody as human. It’s time that we do.


Not only is it time to declare that we’re not taking one step back; this is a warning to those who continue to occupy our communities with hypermilitarized police forces weighed down with weapons and prejudice—and backed by white supremacist policies and practices—that it’s in their best interest not to take one more step forward.

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Read more about Not One Step Back here.