#BlackLivesMatter and the cannabis stigma

Posted on May 4th, 2015 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , .

BlackLivesMatterHere we go again. As with Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, conservative pundits are now exploiting the cannabis stigma to tarnish the reputation of Freddie Gray, the young African American man whose death at the hands of the Baltimore police last month led to an uprising in the city, a new national wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests, and finally charges against six officers. Daily Caller gloats in a headline: "Freddie Gray Had A Long Rap Sheet"... But take a look at the provided list of charges: "Possession of a Controlled Dangerous Substance... Possession of narcotics with intent to distribute... Possession of marijuana... Distribution of narcotics, unlawful possession of a controlled dangerous substance..." Yeah, burglary and assault are on the list as well. But Snopes, examining the veracity of the claim, quotes the Associated Press: "Court records indicate that Gray's arrests were mostly for drug possession/distribution charges and various minor crimes, many of which were not prosecuted."

And—much more to the point—why is any of this relevant? Do prior arrests and charges give cops the right to be judge, jury and executioner? Further: illegal drugs have filled the economic vacuum of post-industrial urban America, leading to the systematic criminalization of Black youth.

Columnist Dan Rodricks provides a little corrective perspective in the Baltimore Sun, finding: "Freddie Gray a victim of America's longest war." Guess which war that is? "Overall, the record on Freddie Gray reveals a young man who had frequent encounters with police as they carried out local operations in America's longest war: the war on drugs," Rodricks writes. "The assault is the only thing on the record that suggests violence, and it was a charge, not a conviction. Though police say Gray had a switchblade-like knife on him when they arrested him April 12, he had never been accused of possessing a weapon. So, generally speaking, Gray was a low-level, nonviolent offender." The drug war "goes on, day after day, constantly creating needless encounters between police and people like Freddie Gray."

And this was written before Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn J. Mosby, in bringing charges against the six cops, found that Gray's arrest on April 12 was itself illegal, as the knife he was carrying "was not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law." (NYT, May 2)

In the pattern of deadly police violence, sometimes it is the cases that are not making big headlines and drawing national protests that are the most egregious. The Washington Post on April 28 noted the maddening case of Natasha McKenna, a Black woman in Alexandria, Va., who "died after she was restrained with handcuffs and leg shackles and shocked four times" with a stun-gun by Fairfax County deputies. "After the shocks were administered Feb. 3, she stopped breathing, was taken to a hospital and died several days later." In April, the Virginia medical examiner's office ruled the death an "accident." Stigmatizing the victim, the examiner's report noted as "contributing" factors her supposed "Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar Disorder." The cause of death was named as "excited delirium"—a term which was not defined.

McKenna had been arrested for assualting an officer, and was restrained when "she began resisting after being handcuffed and tethered to her cell door," according to the WaPo. It is not clearly explained why she was tethered to the door, or whether or why she continued to be shocked even after being further restrained: "During the confrontation, a deputy shocked her multiple times. Within minutes, McKenna stopped breathing."

So in the contemporary United States, a distraught woman can be tortured to death while in irons—and the killers exonerated as having done it by "accident," while the victim is stigmatized as "schizophrenic." 

Hardly a coincidence that cannabis has been (dubiously) linked to "schizophrenia" in media-hyped studies. A propaganda system is at work here to legitimize state violence against the oppressed and excluded.

Graphic:  Checkin Trapps



Cannabis stigma exploited against Sandra Bland —of course

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 As predictable as clockwork. From Reuters, July 22:

Evidence from an autopsy on Sandra Bland, the black woman found hanging dead in a Texas jail days after a traffic stop, supports the medical examiner's initial ruling of suicide, a county prosecutor told reporters on Thursday.

The preliminary results also found high levels of marijuana in Bland's system, although officials are seeking additional tests to confirm when and how much she might have smoked or swallowed...

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, whose office operates the jail where Bland died, searched her cell for evidence of marijuana and found nothing... 

However, he added that the high level of the drug in Bland's system could have influenced her mood while in jail. "It is a mood amplifier, so it is relevant in our opinion to determine whether or not marijuana may have played a role in her death as well, exacerbating existing conditions," he said.

So, once again, an African American victim of murderous policing is implicitly blamed for her own death because she (perhaps) consumed some flower tops. Matt Taibbi calls this bullshit out in Rolling Stone, accurately predicting:

Many news outlets are going to engage in an indirect version of the usual blame-the-victim game by emphasizing the autopsy finding of suicide, questioning Bland's mental health history, and by highlighting the reports of marijuana found in her system...

After the Garner, Brown and Freddie Gray cases, of course, law-and-order commentators flocked to the blogosphere to explain the secret to preventing police brutality.

It was simple, they explained. There's no police corruption problem. The real issue is that there are too many people who don't know how to behave during a car stop. Don't want to get murdered by police? Be polite!

Taibbi cuts through this obey-the-cops-or-die line that is being terrifyingly mainstreamed:

[I]f you're continually handcuffing people, sitting on them, putting knees in their backs and dragging them to jail in cases when you could have just handed over a summons, a certain percentage of these encounters are going to end in fights, struggles, medical accidents and other disasters. Like the Bland case.

We'd call it murder if a kidnapping victim died of fright during the job. Of course it's not legally the same thing, but a woman dying of depression during an illegal detention should be the same kind of crime.

The allegation that Bland used pot shortly before her death, moreover, fits a pattern in high-profile cases involving the questionable death of a black man or woman that has become so common that it is practically a cliché. During the uncertain period where investigators and reporters are trying to figure out just why someone died, news suddenly leaks that this individual was a marijuana user. Generally, the alleged marijuana use is raised to discredit someone is is no longer able to speak for themselves, and to imply that the marijuana use somehow contributed to their death.

It's just a shame that Taibbi uses the word "corruption," as the problem here is far worse than that: murderous racist terror. The only possible "corruption" is in the cover-up. Bland wasn't killed for any reason having to do with illict monetary gain. Using the word "corruption" belittles the entire history (going back to the dawn of the republic, and earlier) of lynching as a political tool to terrorize Blacks into submission.

Ian Millhiser on ThinkProgress points out a particular irony of use of the "marijuana smear" here. If, as is claimed, Bland used cannabis shortly before her death, this is no an indictment of her—but of the jail authorities. 

 If it was indeed possible for Bland to consume a “large quantity of marijuana” while incarcerated, that suggests that the jail may have lacked other important safeguards, such as procedures to ensure that suicidal inmates do not act on these impulses.

We can't say it enough. The cannabis stigma is political. It is a part of the matrix of oppression in the United States. This isn't just about your right to get high (although we do support that right). It is a question of life and death.

Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jul 27th, 2015 at 11:36 am

Cannabis stigma exploited against Samuel DuBose —of course

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And here we go again. African American father of 11 Samuel DuBose was killed by a white University of Cincinnati police officer at a traffic stop. Video released under public pressure shows that he was shot in the head— seemingly arbitrarily—as he shouted "Stop! Stop!" The officer, atypically, has been charged with murder, and DuBose's mother has filed a "wrongful death claim." (The StrangerCincinnati Enquirer) How does Breitbart respond? By trumpeting claims (from anonymous sources, of course) that DuBose "had two pounds of marijuana in his car, along with thousands in cash." Note the disgusting sleight-of-hand here:

Sources within University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Police Departments told retired NYPD officer John Cardillo that police found two pounds of marijuana and thousands of dollars in cash in his car. Cardillo called to confirm these new facts with the public information office of the Cincinnati Police Department, and they did not deny them. Neither did the prosecutor's office when Cardillo contacted them.

"The narrative has been: 'Well, he was taking his son to a movie,' and 'he's just fed up with being pulled over, yet again, for something minor.' That appears now not to be the case," Cardillo said in an interview with WJNO radio.

First, observe that these unverified claims are called "facts." Second, the cop in the stop would have had no way of knowing that DuBose had pot in his car, so even if the claims are true that was certainly not  the reason he was pulled over. So, even if the claims are true, the "narrative" remains unchanged. And finally, and most importantly: So the fuck what? Even if DuBose had cannabis in the car, does that allow the cop to be judge, jury and executioner all in one? This is, yet again, just an attempt to use the irrational prejudice against cannabis and those who use it to damage the reputation of a victim of racist police murder.

Comment by Bill Weinberg on Aug 4th, 2015 at 10:17 am

Cannabis bust leaves unarmed (white) teen dead

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This is a particularly painful one to watch. Zachary Hammond, 19, was on a first date July 26 when he was fatally shot by a police officer in his car during a pot bust in a Hardee's parking lot in Seneca, SC. His date was selling a 10-gram bag of weed to an undercover cop. What happened next is disputed, with the police department saying Hammond drove his car at the arresting officer, prompting him to shoot. Hammond's family denies this. An autopsy report to confirm which way the two bullets came from is still being waited on. Hammond was white, and race has unfortunately entered the debate. From the Washington Post, Aug. 6:

More than a week after Hammond's death, his family’s attorney says race is almost certainly playing a role in the disconcerting silence. Unlike the victims in the highest-profile police shootings over the past year—in cities from Ferguson and Cleveland to North Charleston and Cincinnati— Hammond was white.

"It's sad, but I think the reason is, unfortunately, the media and our government officials have treated the death of an unarmed white teenager differently than they would have if this were a death of an unarmed black teen," [family attorney Eric] Bland told The Washington Post this week. "The hypocrisy that has been shown toward this is really disconcerting."

He added: "The issue should never be what is the color of  the victim. The issue should be: Why was an unarmed teen gunned down in a situation where deadly force was not even justified?"

So far this year, 25 percent of the people shot dead by police have been black, according to data collected by the Washington Post. But black people make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

But Nick Wing on Huffington Post makes a different observation:

Hammond's whiteness has certainly factored into the response to his death. No public outcry has questioned the media's use of family photos that appear to show a younger boy, still wearing braces. No wave of Internet denizens has scoured the victim's social media profiles in search of ways to somehow blame him for his own death. Nobody appears to have called for a discussion of white-on-white crime. No stories have been written about whether Hammond's parents had criminal records or asked if he was ever in trouble at school. At least not yet.

These points are no consolation to a dead 19-year-old. But they differ from the reality of what black people routinely face in similar situations.

He goes on to note that it has mostly been Black activists on Twitter who have been raising the alarm about Hammond's death. 

This touches on the controversy over the dueling hastags #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter—the latter seen as a response to the former that seeks to divert attention from racism. #AllLivesMatter is too often used to obfuscate the reality that police violence victims are disproportionately Black. Could it be used differently—to build solidarity across race lines to oppose police violence and criminalization of youth under the "war on drugs"?

Honest question.

Comment by Bill Weinberg on Aug 7th, 2015 at 12:36 am

Forcible vagina search after cops (allegedly) smell weed

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 From Jezebel, Aug. 10:

On June 21, 2015, Charnesia Corley, a 21-year-old black woman from Houston, Texas, was pulled over by a Harris County Sheriff’s deputy after allegedly running a stop sign. The deputy claimed he smelled marijuana on Corley, and subsequently cuffed her and put her in the back of his patrol car while he searched her vehicle. Finding nothing, the deputy called a female officer to the scene to perform a vaginal search. Yes, a vaginal search. All because he suspected she had weed.

According to Corley, the female officer, upon her arrival, "tells me to pull my pants down, I said, 'Ma’am, I don’t have any underwear on.' She says, 'Well, that doesn’t matter. Pull your pants down.'"

After that, it gets worse...

Comment by Bill Weinberg on Aug 11th, 2015 at 8:41 pm

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