April 19th, 2016
Last night, families who have been hurt by the War on Drugs, activists, and members of non-profit organizations gathered at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for an “Interfaith Service of Compassion and Care.” The evening featured stories from those who have been most impacted by the drug war, with speakers from countries including Afghanistan, Honduras, and Ukraine.
From the start, speakers emphasized an inclusive, interfaith feel. The event opened with Rev. Dr. Edwin Sanders of Nashville, TN inviting us all into the space, which he called “holy ground.” Later, Rev. Dr. William Barber reminded the audience that “Jesus was a convicted felon,” and one of the speakers, Murtaza Majeed from Afghanistan, explained he had taken off his shoes to respect the holy place he was in—a sharp contrast to how the US came into his country. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, spoke about being the son of a rabbi and connected the story of Jewish exodus to the black community’s need to escape mass incarceration and racist drug policy. Bishop Yvette Flunder closed the service by asking everyone to hold hands or touch in some way, while she told the story of “the spirit” guiding her as she helped her brother stop using crack.
Many others spoke from personal experience as well. Marlyn Scales of VOCAL-NY shared that she became addicted to heroin because it “took away the pain” of traumatic events, including childhood sexual abuse. As she used “more and more,” she explained, “I had to support my habit so I started selling.” She was caught in 1995 and locked up.
“People like me,” she said, “were sent away to prison and told that our lives didn’t matter. But that’s not true. I am a former drug user and my life matters!” She went on to speak about how a prison sentence doesn’t end once you get out of jail, and what a victory it was to get the Fair Chance Act passed in NYC—“The most progressive fair chance hiring act in the country, that will help people like me hold employers accountable for violating our rights.” She stated the hope that Rikers Island would be shut down. This was greeted with a massive applause break.
[A member of VOCAL-NY who was “drinking and drugging, hopeless helpless” before connecting with VOCAL-NY three years ago. Since then, she has done a peer internship to help those who are HIV+ and gone to Albany to lobby politicians.]
Ivan, a VOCAL-NY volunteer, said he was arrested for having a small amount of an illegal substance, and was deported back to Mexico. He returned to the US to avoid getting caught up in crime. Now, he’s undocumented, but fighting for rights of fellow immigrants.
“There are so many people in jail for small amounts [who are] stuck there without having the chance to see the judge,” he said. They have to choose between “staying in jail, or signing up to be deported.”
Many of the speakers addressed the global impact of the War on Drugs. Reverend Miriam Miranda, a member of the UNGASS Caravan, spoke passionately about how the Garifuna people of Honduras are among those most heavily affected by the drug war. She made a call to action for US citizens to “become informed about what is happening with these millions of dollars [the US is sending into Honduras]” and fight ”for the money to go toward health and education” instead of “this absurd and hypocritical War on Drugs.”
One of the highlights of the event was Rev. Dr. William Barber, Chair of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee and founder of the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina. He preached in a Southern, call-and-response style that had the whole congregation yelling out, clapping, laughing and singing. Gesturing to his wrist band, he explained that he was fresh out of jail— he’d been arrested earlier that day, he said, while protesting in Washington, DC over the fact that Congress has taken “1,027 days refusing to reinstate Section Five of the voting rights act.”
Rev. Dr. William Barber
Voter suppression is intimately connected to the War on Drugs, he said, because they are both “part of the ‘Southern Strategy,” that demonizes black people but in racially coded language because “you can’t use the N-word.”
He read from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and then went on to talk about marijuana legalization and the double injustice that’s being perpetrated. “The brothers went to jail for selling a nickel bags and now some white folks are making million dollars selling it out in the open … if you want us to accept that, you must be smoking some of that stuff!”
Ethan Nadelmann proposed recommendations for how drug policy should move forward. “There has never been a drug-free society and there will never be,” he said. “Our only option is to figure out how we accept that these plants and chemicals are with us and to learn how to live with them, to learn how to live with this reality in ways that cost the least possible harm.”