November 3rd, 2016
The wall-to-wall crowd in the vast ballroom of the San Diego Sheraton this morning made confirmation feel hardly necessary—but yes, the 11th iteration of the Harm Reduction Coalition’s biennial conference is the biggest ever, with almost 1,500 activists, service-providers and drug users attending from across the US and around the world.
The energy in the room was matched by the introductory speakers’ confidence of identity. “My name is Shilo Murphy and I am very proud to be a drug user,” declared one. “I’ve been clean every day of my life because I was never dirty to begin with!”
“There have been some suggestions that harm reduction may have lost its soul,” commented Robert Suarez, his fellow activist for drug-user rights. “I have put them to the test, and the Harm Reduction Coalition—their soul is intact!”
This opening plenary session of the four-day conference featured a poignant handover from the former leader of the organization—and a panel that demonstrated the focus his successor has promised to bring.
“There’s a little note down here that says, ‘Don’t cry,’” said Allan Clear as he took the mic. Clear led the Harm Reduction Coalition for two decades, departing earlier this year to become the director of the New York State Office of Drug User Health.
“Every single [harm reduction] program that existed in the country spoke, and it was over in one hour,” he recalled of the first ever such conference, when the movement had a fraction of its present size and influence. However, “the highlight of enjoying this job is this conference, because the rest of the time you don’t always get to see all your friends, colleagues, comrades … Really all it is, is this big family reunion.”
“That’s what I want to hand over to Monique,” he continued. “When we’re here, we’re all crowd-surfing, up in the air, and you trust the people carrying you … We’ve done well, we’ve brought it this far, but shit’s gotta change, motherfucker! And she’s the one to do it. The country might be afraid of putting a woman in charge, but I don’t think any of us are.”
Monique Tula, who became HRC’s executive director in September, was recently profiled in The Influence. Taking the stage in San Diego, she betrayed little of the willingness to stay in the background that she described in that interview.
“I’ve been labelled as a bureaucrat, as aggressive, as bossy,” she told us. “I guess my assertiveness was mistaken for aggression—and that’s not an unusual response for some women to evoke in people. And my response is that I’m not bossy, I’m nasty!”
“The future of harm reduction begins today,” she declared, after the cheers had died down. “Almost 30 years have passed since our founding sisters and brothers decided that people who use drugs matter.”
And she reminded us of the movement’s essential mission: “To lift people up, to remind them that they’re worth more than the rest of the world tells them they’re worth.”
Its achievements have included the lifting of the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs. A supportive video message this morning from US “drug czar” Michael Botticelli was more evidence of the movement’s mainstreaming. And Tula got some of the biggest applause of the morning when she mentioned progress towards introducing supervised injection facilities in the US.
But, she asked, “Why are we finally just now beginning to see some momentum? A lot of people in this room might think it has something to do with ‘the new [white] face of heroin.'”
She then began to outline the viciousness of the war on communities of color waged in the name of drugs—leading to hard-to-process statistics like “in DC, three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison.”
“Multiple systems are in place to keep bodies churning through the prison-industrial complex, because bodies are a commodity,” she said. “I’ve come to believe that we’ve replaced nooses with bullets.”
Among the grave obstacles to progress worldwide, she mentioned Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous campaign against drug users in the Philippines, and “two [US] presidential candidates who are at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to people of color—if they’re not talking about super-predators, they’re talking about a goddamn wall.”
In contrast to the way drug users are characterized by such politicians, Tula looked out over the crowd and said, “I see people who are change-makers, rabble-rousers, risk-takers …. and I am proud to be part of this tribe, y’all!”
Tula has made clear that racial justice will be at the forefront of her approach to leading HRC, and it was significant that the opening panel of this conference—chaired by Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance and titled “Harm Reduction That Heals the Most Harmed”—consisted entirely of women of color.
“We don’t live single-issue lives,” said Bandele, pointing out the important of “doing our work in a manner that is intersectional,” of operating with awareness of how factors like race, poverty, gender and sexuality intertwine with the victimization of people who use drugs.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, underlined this point when speaking of her own father’s death. “It was not drug use that ruined my family; it was poverty and the War on Drugs,” she said. “Our work is about re-orienting what the root cause is.”
Bandele told the story of a black trans woman, Treasure. Facing a drug charge, Treasure became a police informant after cops threatened to put her in a male prison. Her identity as an informant was then revealed, and in retaliation she was burnt alive and her body dismembered. Her mother, Bandele said, was at least grateful that she got some body parts to bury.
“What does harm reduction look like for Treasure?” Bandele asked. The ballroom was silent.
Deborah Small, found of Break the Chain, spoke of the poisonous impact of racism as it applies to her own family. “I look at my grandson [who is not yet aware of the concept of race] now, and I know that he’s going to discover in the near future that he’s black,” she said. “I want to believe that my grandson’s grandson will not have to face the reality of being black and all that burden—that he can just be a human being.”
She spoke, too, of policing that has “everything to do with our addiction to the rituals of enslavement.”
But there are hopes for an inclusive future. “Black women have been the leaders of every major social movement in this country,” said Small. “It’s not about black women assuming positions of leadership, it’s about having that leadership recognized—and financially supported, because quite frankly, we always had work, but we just weren’t getting paid for it!”
With a black woman leader, the harm reduction movement can embody some of the change it wishes to see, and it will be fascinating to see how this is reflected over the next few days.