Here’s a thought experiment to put the lasting legacy of the “War on Drugs” into perspective:
Imagine being back in the summer of 2015. It was one day after July 4th, a Sunday, mid-afternoon. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team was about to play in the World Cup final. Imagine being at a “viewing party” for that game. At least a hundred people, probably hundreds, all dressed in U.S.A. jerseys and soccer scarves and red, white and blue. All types of people were represented, and somehow everything was incredibly cohesive. Everyone was so friendly. And hopeful. Every so often you would join a chant of “U.S.A.!” Or you would fall in with the call-and-response, “I…,” “I believe…,” “I believe that we will win!” And the guys with the drums would start pounding away. And the unity made you well up in the eyes. And then the game started and the players were amazing. Goal after goal. A shocking win. An incredible performance, and for the World Cup final! U.S.A.!
Now, imagine that the viewing party was in downtown Los Angeles. You had taken the metro rail line because you knew parking would be a nightmare. So you took the train, and you shared it with dozens of other red, white and blue passengers. High fives all around. Everyone was all smiles. All types of people. This was Los Angeles, remember.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker that there was an issue with the track down the line, so everyone must exit the train at the next platform. At the platform you obliged. After a few minutes, the crowd around you dispersed, leaving you alone, surrounded by graffiti-covered walls and sidewalks littered with dirt and refuse. You could feel territorial stares from the dark corners all around. The sign at the platform told you that you were in a place you’ve only heard about in gangster rap songs. You were in the heart of gangland. This place did exist, and it was far more wretched than its reputation suggested.
What if, while you were standing there, doing your best to look street-wise and fearless despite your escalating heart rate, you learned that someone could have kept horrible places like this from ever existing. What if you learned that someone created public policy that not only ignored ways to prevent this, but that this was actually part of their desired outcome. That their governing philosophy wasn’t based on that unified feeling you had just a short time before, but actually required repression of some of the people around you and relegation of those people to slums like this. What if you learned that the someone who helped create this reality was a United States president, freely elected by the people of this country.
Who we vote for matters.
The April 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes an article by author Dan Baum called “Legalize It All,” with the purpose of making a case for drug legalization. He makes a moving case at that; however, it’s not the main premise that is so jaw-dropping. Contained in the opening background story is an account of Baum’s interview with John Ehrlichman, a former top aide to Richard Nixon, regarding the origin of the “War on Drugs.” Ehrlichman explained to Baum that the war on drugs wasn’t really about drugs; it was actually just a way to undermine two sets of people opposed to his agenda: “the antiwar left and black people.” The need arose in their 1968 presidential campaign, and their solution to dealing with those troublesome groups was to associate the antiwar left with pot-smoking hippies and blacks with heroin users. They could then “vilify them night after night on the evening news,” says Ehrlichman. This strategy apparently carried on into the Nixon administration as a way of managing domestic policy issues.
Mass incarceration and the modern disenfranchisement of African American communities were the direct result.
CNN’s Tom LoBianco described Baum’s revelation as “the first time the war on drugs has been plainly characterized as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House.” In other words, the War on Drugs wasn’t about protecting the health of Americans; it was about controlling people the president didn’t like.
In case you find this hard to believe, writer Andrew Gripp has a thoughtful analysis posted on the Independent Voter Project website ivn.us (link to it here) in which he examines Nixon’s motives. Maybe Nixon wasn’t explicitly out to banish African Americans to poor, destitute neighborhoods like the ones in south central Los Angeles. Or maybe he was. He certainly didn’t try to raise them up, or help them prosper after the Civil Rights Act was passed a few years before.
There is something else you should know, while you’re standing out on that graffiti-ridden train platform in your red, white and blue. How we get our information matters.
Dan Baum’s account of the War on Drugs should be read in conjunction with an equally startling article written by John Cook for Gawker in 2011 called “Roger Ailes’ Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News,” in which he describes documents obtained from the Nixon presidential library that reveal plans to develop “pro-administration” and “pro-GOP” news programming to bolster their agenda on the nightly news. Those plans were nurtured by Nixon’s media consultant, one Roger Ailes, who we know today through the success of his media powerhouse Fox News. Here is one of the most chilling quotes from the Nixon memos described in Cook’s article:
Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.
As Cook shows with hand-written notes from Ailes himself, the origins of the modern Fox News Network are in this statement. This is important to know because Nixon’s lasting success in suppressing an entire race of people owes a great deal to Roger Ailes and the power of the media.
It would be unfair to continue comparing the patriotic fervor of a sporting event to the disappointment in how our political system has failed some of our fellow Americans, and how it continues to do so today. But despite that disappointment, and the gut-wrenching frustration, we must keep faith in our system.
We are on the verge of selecting the next president of our country, the person who will represent us and guide us into our collective future. We have a responsibility to question the information we are presented, and to learn as much as we can so that we can make the best choice for our shared wellbeing. We must keep reminding ourselves that this is government of the people, by the people and for the people. Of us, by us and for us. All of us.