Hard News by Russell Brown


Behind Baltimore

Away here at the bottom of the world, we have been experiencing this week's tumult in Baltimore, Maryland, in the modern way: through the real-time thrill, outrage and fuzzy context of live tweeting, brutal images and shaky Periscope streams.

It is worth taking a step back from the spectacle and thinking about how and why Freddie Gray was arrested then bundled into a police van where his spine was broken. If the actual means of his death was unusual, his death in police custody was less so – and his arrest for essentially no reason was just the daily reality of America's drug war.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to create The Wire, explained it this week in an interview with The Marshall Project:

The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Simon is even more lucid on his thesis as to how the War on Drugs destroyed "real policing" – in favour of a system where forces juke their statistics by simply visiting neighbourhoods where the fruit hangs low and making arbitrary arrests – in the award-winning documentary The House I Live In:

This film might be the best indictment of the drug war and its abject failure I've ever seen. It  also makes a vivid and explicit connection between drug law and race.

New Zealand's first drug laws – directed at Chinese opium smokers – were an act of racial persecution and they continue to fall most heavily on Maori. In the US, those laws have expanded into a broad assault on African-American communities. Virtually everything that could be wrong about them, is wrong.

The damage is such that a reversal today – and that would be a fond hope – might take two or three generations to work through. And yet, smaller steps help. In the year after Colorado legalised marijuana, black Americans were as dispropotionately represented as ever in arrest statistics:

The total number of charges for pot possession, distribution and cultivation plummeted almost 95%, from about 39,000 in 2010 to just over 2,000 last year.

Even after legalization, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be charged with public use of marijuana. Blacks were also much more likely to be charged with illegal cultivation of pot or possession of more than an ounce ...

In 2014, the year Colorado’s recreational marijuana stores opened, blacks were 3.9% of the population but accounted for 9.2% of pot possession arrests.

For illegal marijuana cultivation, the disparities didn’t just persist. They got much worse.

In 2010, whites in Colorado were slightly more likely than blacks to be arrested for growing pot. After legalization, the arrest rate for whites dropped dramatically but ticked up for blacks. In 2014, the arrest rate for blacks was roughly 2.5 times higher.

But it's a proportion of a far lower total. That's the mercy.

You may have watched The House I Live In on Maori Television on Tuesday night, before Media Take. If you didn't, it's there to watch in full on the Maori Television website. I cannot commend it to you highly enough.

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