According to a study of traffic stops along a portion of I-95 in Maryland, African-Americans made up 70 percent of those who were stopped and searched even though they only made up 17 percent of drivers on the road. A similar study of the New Jersey Turnpike found that although African-Americans accounted for only 15 percent of speeding violations, they made up 46 percent of those pulled over.
These were only some of the many startling statistics revealed at the "Declaring War on the War on Drugs" Town Hall Meeting on May 11. The event sponsored by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century examined the disparate role of the criminal justice system in the "War on Drugs."
"I don't think we can talk about the 'War on Drugs' without talking about the criminal justice system. When you talk about arrests for drugs, you should talk about how people view other people," said George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. "You have to talk about a system that's riddled with racism. The deeper you go into the system, the deeper the disparity."
As the event's keynote speaker, Curry listed a slew of statistics demonstrating racial disparities in the criminal justice system as related to the investigation and prosecution of drug offenses. He also highlighted disparities in sentencing and incarceration rates and how the "War on Drugs" has led to these disparities.
"The War on Drugs" is a campaign of drug prohibition launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971, which has resulted in the incarceration of an estimated one million Americans each year for drug offenses. African-American activists say it has had a devastating impact on the Black community.
"It doesn't take a brain scientist to figure out what's happening here. The jobs have gone out and the drugs are coming in," said IBW President Ron Daniels. "This is serious stuff. Our lives are at stake. We are in a state of emergency."
African-Americans make up 12 to 13 percent of the United States population and 15 percent of all drug users. However, Blacks make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted for drug offenses, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
"I used to be one of the worst prohibitionists in the state of Maryland. For me it was violence that got me to this point. Most of the homicides and shootings and violence that occur in our cities revolve around the drug culture," said Neill Franklin, executive director, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "The harder we push the more violence we generate. As we take down different groups, there's going to be a quick move to fill that void. There are many police chiefs and leaders who don't understand that."
Despite the meeting's overwhelming opposition to the "War on Drugs," one person raised the issue of why people in the Black community are addicted to drugs to begin with. Another said he does not feel sympathy for a drug dealer facing a harsh sentence because they are selling drugs to their own community.
"It's not an accident that our government likes to use the words War on Drugs, instead of drug prohibition. The kinds of killings that occur in our communities are considered casualties of war. We still live under this misconception that drug laws are there to protect us," said Deborah Small, executive director, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs. "It's not an accident that the War on Drugs came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. What is it about us that lets us tolerate it. Legalizing drugs would not be the worst thing that could happen in America and it would be the best thing that could happen to the Black community."
The Pittsburgh town hall meeting was part of the IBW's nationwide initiative to examine the legalization of drugs and the impact it would have on reducing violence in the Black community. Similar meetings are being held in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
"In each of these cities we're going to have a criminal justice collaboration," said Rick Adams, IBW chairman. "Pittsburgh has always played a role in the struggle of our people."