Gun violence — or more appropriately, the response to it — is rapidly becoming the new drug war.
The most important thing about the “drug war” is that it was a barely disguised war on Black people. It became the vehicle Republicans, “new Democrats” and timorous Black elected officials used to justify enacting repressive legislation, installing intrusive surveillance technologies and adopting military-grade weapons and tactics. The so-called war on gun violence is poised to follow the trajectory of the fake war on drugs.
It, too, is morphing into a war on Black people. It’s not just being fought on the terrain of majority-Black neighborhoods; its ability to attract public support turns on its ability to seduce a sector of the African American community.
The first “war on drugs” was a Trojan horse. President Richard Nixon hid COINTELPRO, the government program to crush the Black liberation movement, inside the so-called drug war. Under the guise of “getting tough on crime,” all levels of the U.S. state adopted an assortment of harsh new instruments that they used to demolish the Black liberation movement and erode civil liberties.
Since the 1970s, the state has enacted harsh new laws. Among them were preventive detention, no-knock warrants, mandatory minimum sentences, longer sentences and several “lifetime punishments,” such as disfranchising felons.
During the 1980s and 1990s, presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (aided by then-Sen. Joe Biden) expanded Nixon’s phony drug war and its draconian polices to expand the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty, deploy “stop and frisk,” authorize prosecution of children as young as 13 as adults and institute a “three strikes” law that imposed mandatory lifetime imprisonment for a third felony conviction.
Additionally, the state and its corporate rulers manipulated the public’s fear of drug-related violence in service of buying new surveillance tools and adopting militarized weaponry and tactics. The government’s “law and order” rhetoric preyed on Whites’ racial antipathies. And it also played on Black folks’ anxieties and real fears of drug-trade violence. The punitive turn would have been exceedingly harder without the support of sectors of the Black community.
James Forman Jr., son of the former executive director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, explained in his 2017 book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” (2017), how and why African American political leadership and large sectors of the community supported punitive criminal laws.
As a public defender in Washington, D.C., during the 2010s, Forman came to understand that African Americans comprised the critical decision-makers sentencing young Black men to lengthy prison terms. This discovery forced him to ponder “How did a majority-Black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?” Researching the question, he uncovered an interesting contradiction. Forman discovered both a “racial gap in punitiveness” and a class divide in the Black community.
He found that in general, Black and Latinx people favored less-punitive policies than did White people. In 2013, 63 percent of White Americans supported the death penalty, compared with 40 percent of Latinx Americans and 36 percent African Americans. And while White people’s support of “three strike” laws and trying juveniles as adults was at 70 and 60 percent, respectively, Black people’s support for those respective approaches was only 52 and 46 percent.
Yet these racial discrepancies masked class divisions and dynamics within the Black community. The incarcerated tended to be the poorest and least educated. They lacked a high school diploma, were generally unemployed and were also the most alienated from African American institutions and associated life. Moreover, since crime is overwhelmingly intra-racial, working- and middle-class Black people were the victims. Thus, they became susceptible to supporting overly punitive policies. Urged by their constituents, most Black elected officials voted for the harsh laws of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the 1994 crime bill.
We find ourselves in similar territory today.
Locally, Minnie Pearson, president of the NAACP of Champaign County, and a few other Black community activists have aligned themselves with the police on this issue. Desperate for a solution to gun violence, reminiscent of the Black elected officials of the 1970s-1990s, Pearson has allowed fear to force her into giving the police a dangerous tool — one which history dictates they will eventually, if not immediately, use in a racially discriminatory fashion.
Pearson et al. are shortsighted. The companies marketing automated license-plate readers and city administrators have not presented evidence that they have substantively reduced gun violence in any locale.
Ironically, the support of a few myopic Black people is essential to selling these devices. The two city administrations cannot afford to be seen as racist. They need some Black people to legitimize the technology to a skeptical Black community. Perhaps Black people like Pearson are even more crucial, because their support helps to convince some White civil libertarians to surrender another step along the road toward a police state.
We find ourselves once again perched at the abyss. We are crouched on the ledge ready to leap toward enacting ineffective draconian policies that will not curb gun violence but will further curtail civil liberties.
Black people can play a critical role in pulling both communities away from the chasm. It is imperative that Black elected officials and community activists take a long view and not be seduced or bullied into adopting an approach that will further solidify a resurging punitive agenda.
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