WASHINGTON – Two weekends ago, just across from a freshly fortified White House, the sun was initially setting behind the overtly symmetrical office buildings that house the likes of the Motion Picture Association of America and U.S. Chamber of Commerce you could smell freedom wafting in the air as many peaceful protestors used the first taste of shade they’d had throughout the 90 degree day to peacefully spark joints, spliffs and blunts.
The sweet to pungent aromas in the already sticky, humid air smelled foreign to many of the thousands who traveled to the nation’s capital to personally demand police reforms. But for the tens of thousands of DC-area residents who were marching – or chilling in the shadows of the nation’s unofficial monuments to unbridled capitalism – the smell was pure contemporary Washington.
Why? Since 2015, cannabis has been legal in the nation’s capital. That means a joint is just like cracking open a cold brew, even if marijuana’s supposed to be strictly confined to one’s property here. But just like pouring a cold one in a cheap, plastic red cup – or a Nalgene for the most sophisticated alcoholics – on steamy summer days, no one really cares when the tangy clouds of smoke alert their nostrils that someone nearby is having more fun than they are (“The whole town smells like weed. Everyone here smokes joints!,” a younger Democratic senator told me last year through what looked to be a smile dripping with jealousy).
Some of the nation’s federal politicians are now trying to tangibly connect those perpetually proverbial dots for their older and mostly out of touch – or maybe just out of date… – colleagues, but the people of color marching don’t need a lesson on their own lives. They need the political class – no matter the race, age, gender, creed, etc. – to see them.
That seemingly simple call – to be seen, known and appreciated for basic humanity; if nothing else… – isn’t the one that’s needed to be preached here: The robe-less choir is now on the pavement from coast to coast. They’ve endured enough sermons; now is a time for action.
As thousands swarmed the streets in front of the White House – which was newly renamed “Black Lives Matter Plaza” (a gesture some local African American organizers dismissed as if D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser personally blew puffs of meaningless smoke up their asses) – to protest decades and decades and decades and decades and decades of police brutality against unarmed African Americans, an inevitable question also hung in the early summer’s stale air: When are politicians going to end the ‘war on drugs’?
Seeing a white Minneapolis police officer casually knee the life out of George Floyd while unflinchingly staring down an iPhone camera from a resident he vowed to protect and serve has been eye opening for many Americans, especially white folks who have been mostly insulated from the carnage – both personal and community-wide in many lower income neighborhoods – wrought by the nation’s overtly racist, and thus ridiculous, ‘war on drugs.’ But being treated as less than 3/5ths of a human is nothing new to many U.S. citizens.
“A lot of my friends have been locked up a long time for a little bit of weed – for a long time, man,” D.C. resident Nyshaun, 29, told me after he finished smoking a joint a mere two blocks from the White House, even as people nearby sip hard liquor.
“It’s quite ridiculous. Even just a little bit – just you smell like weed in the car, you get pulled over, you get harassed off that. You know? Just marijuana alone. That’s a big thing. It’s really ugly,” he continued. “It’s really a double standard. The statistics prove it – over the years, you know, so there’s no lie in that.”
The stats back him up. While new data’s still being compiled – in spite of the perpetual resistance from local and federal law enforcement agencies – the ACLU says, “Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”
Those aren’t just static statistics. They have names (or had them, before they were assigned a number and jumpsuit). They’re our American family. While they’re our former neighbors – now uprooted (again) and shackled (again) – they still cling to the little bit of dignity U.S. officials at every level still allow prisoners to possess: Their humanity – that is, if they’re lucky.
More so, they’re our lovers. Nephews. Nieces. Sisters. Brothers. Cousins. Mothers. Fathers. Grandparents. They’re America. They’re fam. Our collective fam.
But you wouldn’t know that from the way the system – from many cops hitting the steamy pavement daily to the gilded elites who walk on marble in governor’s mansions, ornate legislative chambers and the whitest of White Houses – has relegated them to being eternal suspects. And the “war on drugs” is the legal code they swing as if it’s a billy club.
“Oh man, it’s so disproportionate in who it affects and who it penalizes: It penalizes me,” New Jersey resident Eddie Jones, 48, told me.
Being profiled by police – from verbal to physical intimidation – is regular for many, especially this towering dude rocking a Kaepernick jersey near the White House. Police officers often don’t feel like protectors to Jones.
“Absolutely right. Many times. I’m a big black man, you know what I mean? So that’s two strikes,” Jones said through an all too common sigh.
He’s not alone in losing his faith – along with hope, and often too allusive dreams – in what promised to be the most inclusive and diverse political class ever witnessed in the nation’s history that’s now seated in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I have zero faith in politicians; Republican and Democrat, like, they both suck,” Jones said without hesitation.
Some politicians on Capitol Hill are trying to change that. Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) penned a letter to their Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives begging the party to rally around cannabis reform as a step – a small, but potentially significant one – towards righting years, decades and centuries of wrongs.
“We have all seen the pernicious effects of selective enforcement of cannabis prohibition across the country, and it is not just in red states or rural Republican America,” the two co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus penned. “We have seen for the last 50 years the cannabis prohibition used disproportionately against people of color, especially young Black men. The use of cannabis is fairly uniform across different racial groups, but the people caught up in the net of cannabis enforcement are heavily skewed towards these young Black men.”
“It is time that we as Democrats take a stand against this pernicious hold-over from Richard Nixon’s blatant attempt at criminalizing the behavior of African Americans. These policies have resulted in an explosion of the American prison population. The prison population in 1970 was 372,000 people; this exploded by a factor of 300% by 1990, almost doubled again by the year 2000, and currently is 2.3 million,” the senior lawmakers wrote. “The statistics of racial disparities in the corrections system are appalling, known to us all, and driven by non-violent drug offenses coupled with selective enforcement.”
As has been the case for more than a half century, American minorities are now once again sidelined. But dreaming seems to have rapidly evolved beyond the mere longing to be unshackled by an unjust system. Now they’re demanding equality.
“It’s not all about chokeholds and the police,” Reps. Lee and Blumenauer wrote. “It’s about blatant, discriminatory, irrational drug laws that have destroyed so many lives.”