Chapter 1: Gateway to the War On Drugs: Marijuana, 1975
In 1975, DC’s city council and general population were largely comprised of black people. The head of the city council, David Clarke, made a proposal to decriminalize marijuana and soften the punishment for marijuana-related offenses. His argument was that these new laws would help the black community–at the time, 80% of marijuana arrests in D.C. were black. This proposal was opposed largely by the black community on the grounds that these new laws would lead to more addiction and crime in the black community. Many people believed that marijuana was a gateway drug to harder drugs like heroin, and at the time, there was a heroin epidemic in D.C.’s poorer black neighborhoods. The heroin epidemic was also partially the cause of the very high crime rates at the time. There were two main approaches to the heroin epidemic: the community approach and the government approach. The government wanted to ease up on the enforcement of heroin laws and instead try to rehabilitate heroin addicts with methadone maintenance. The community approach, largely led by anti-drug warrior Hassan Jeru-Ahmed, was to prosecute heroin users and dealers, targeting white dealers with Mafia connections.
David Clarke’s proposal was met with resistance because people believed that decriminalizing marijuana would lead to more use of heroin. Many people also believed that marijuana had negative psychological effects. David Clarke’s bill was given preliminary approval by the city council but was later brought down by a group of clergymen.
Chapter 2: Black Lives Matter: Gun Control, 1975
In 1974, the #1 cause of death for men under 40 in D.C. was gun violence. Many D.C. residents described feeling unsafe walking around at night due to the extremely high violent crime and murder rates. This spike in crime led to the discussion of stricter gun control laws. Councilman John Wilson proposed that the sale, purchase, and possession of all handguns and shotguns be outlawed and that a minimum sentence for violations be implemented so that more people who broke gun laws would go to jail (only 7.6% of people convicted of illegal gun possession in 1974 had received jail time). Many people believed that these new gun laws would negatively affect the black community, which had the highest rates of gun violence and gun-related crimes. The rate of gun violence was not evenly distributed across black America, however. It was concentrated in poor areas with living conditions that generated violence.
Many well-known black activists including Malcolm X were advocates for guns for self-defense. Historically, most black households in the south owned firearms because the rate of white-on-black violence was so high and it was necessary that black people be able to defend themselves from white supremacists. However, there had gradually been a shift towards black-on-black violence, and the threat was more internal than external.
Many people argued that gun control would not be the solution to violent crime, because the high crime rates came from deep-rooted social and economic injustice. Despite this, in a 12-1 vote, D.C.’s city council passed one of the strictest gun control laws in the nation: current gun owners were required to register their weapons, and residents were prohibited from acquiring new ones.
Chapter 3: Representatives of Their Race: The Rise of African American Police, 1948-78
For most of history, black people were kept from positions of power, including law enforcement. By the late 1940s, more black civilians started to join the police forces, but they were not treated equally to white officers. Police cars were kept separated, and black officers did not have the same career paths. A good rating from your supervisor was required to be promoted, but because of racial bias, very few black officers ever received high ratings and as a result, very few were promoted. In 1958, two black officers, Burtell Jefferson and Tilmon O’Bryant, who were both unable to get promoted, formed a class for black officers, since having high test scores was the only way to make up for low ratings. Out of the class of 15 officers, 12 of them scored high enough to receive a promotion. While this was important for having more black police officers, having black officers did not greatly reduce police violence towards black people. Additionally, black officers were only slightly less prejudiced than their white counterparts. In a 1966 study conducted by the University of Michigan looking at both black and white officers, while black officers were not as prejudiced as the white ones, 28% were still classified as prejudiced. One of the reasons for this prejudice was class division: poor black people were often perceived as a risk to black communities which resulted in the use of excessive force.
Chapter 4: Locking Up Thugs is Not Vindictive: Sentencing, 1981-82
In 1981, D.C.’s city council passed new drug-related legislation. David Clarke had proposed to categorize different types of drugs into groups with different penalties. For instance, marijuana dealers would be sentenced up to one year, whereas the penalties for dealing harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin would be higher: five years and ten years respectively. Council member John Ray opposed David Clarke with harsher maximum penalties: up to three, ten, and fifteen years for marijuana, cocaine, and heroin respectively. A ballot in 1982 mandated minimum sentences for drug dealing. Initiative 9 stated that dealing marijuana, cocaine, and heroin would result in minimum sentences of one, two, and four years respectively. While this mandate was strongly supported by John Ray and the chief of police Burtell Jefferson, it was opposed by many people who were concerned with civil liberties. Prior to the vote for Initiative 9, the pair campaigned by visiting different murder scenes to demonstrate that crime was a large problem in D.C. In September of 1984, Initiative 9 won by a landslide. While the new laws had no effect on crime, drug-related prosecutions increased by 300% between 1982 and 1984.
Chapter 5: The Worst Thing to Hit Us Since Slavery: Crack and the Advent of Warrior Policing, 1988-92
By the late 1980s, the war on drugs was in full swing, and police were being trained in a militant fashion. Law enforcement officials became highly aggressive, and these new tactics were referred to as warrior policing. Police began to see young people from poor neighborhoods as the enemy and were ready to attack at any minute, which led to young people changing their clothing, behavior, and speech patterns to appear “not guilty.”
Warrior policing was a result of the crack cocaine epidemic. Crack is a highly addictive and cheap form of cocaine. In 1984, 15% of people tested by the DC police department tested positive for crack. By 1987, that number had increased to 60%. A representative from the NAACP claimed that the crack epidemic was “the worst thing to hit us since slavery,” because the drug was commonly used in poor black communities. The crack epidemic led to a spike in violent crime. In 1989, 90% of homicide victims were black.
Forman, James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Abacus, 2018.