John McWhorter

Murder in the Bronx, Business as Usual: A Suggestion for Obama in 2014

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It’s one of those hideous little episodes making minor headlines this week that will be forgotten by the media next week. 15-year-old Vada Vasquez of the Bronx is in a coma with a bullet in her brain, after being caught in the crossfire when a group of Bloods took aim at 19-year-old Tyrone Creighton (and succeeding; he’s in the hospital, too).

The Bloods went after Creighton at the behest of friends of a man in Rikers who suffered a beatdown by Creighton’s two brothers in Rikers with him. The shooter was allegedly little 16-year-old Carvett Gentles, “baby-faced” as the stories are terming him with the regularity of a Homeric epithet.

Tuesday night there was a vigil for Vasquez, the usual scene with the usual “Stop The Violence” placards. This is the kind of event about which wise heads regularly intone about how the problem is with family discipline, with inadequate schools, with inadequate community policing, with the availability of guns.

All true. But there is another primum mobile in this case, as is also usual: drugs. Creighton’s brothers are in for killing a Bronx man three years ago – and it is doubtful that they did it simply for sport because there were no deer around to shoot. Ghetto murders of this kind are typically connected with maintaining turf in the sale of drugs. Plus, the Bloods are not exactly uninvolved with selling drugs, and Gentles was the only one of his group without a criminal record. And Tyrone Creighton himself has been out on bail for attempted murder and drug charges.

There is good money to be made by selling drugs on the street, because they are illegal and prosecuted, driving up the profit margin. And that means that details aside, we can all agree that what happened in the Bronx on Monday would have been very different if there were no War on Drugs. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all.

It’s one more indication of what a tragedy this modern replay of the disaster of the Volstead Act currently is. The simple fact is that if there were no profit to be made in selling drugs on the street, no one would bother. For all of the “root causes” reasons so many young black and Latino men turn to this trade instead of seeking legal work, if there were no War on Drugs, they would seek other solutions to the obstacles that face them. And whatever those were, they would involve less murder, fewer crossfire injuries and killings of the kind that have likely ruined Ms. Vasquez’ life at 15, fewer men in prison for long periods, and fewer of their children growing up fatherless and on their way to repeating their father’s mistakes.

I am moved in the light of this by the recent policy paper by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, carefully outlining what a world could be like without a War on Drugs, where instead, even hard drugs are treated as controlled substances.

Yes: heroin by prescription. It sounds weird and menacing now, but so, once, did injecting people with viruses as vaccines. To someone who was born in the teens or early twenties, it looked strangely libertine when the sale of alcohol was reinstated – they had never known anything else.

Just as today, ever fewer of us have vivid memory of a time when selling drugs was not yet a common lifestyle choice among disadvantaged men, for the simple reason that there was no nationwide regime devoted to “stamping out” drug use and driving up the profit to be made in selling them underground.

The new report lays it down straight:

We recommend making drugs available in standard units, with the base unit for each drug carefully calculated on a case by case basis. The riskier the product, the more limited access should be. Illicit diversion into secondary markets could be mitigated through the use of microtaggants, ensuring full traceability of all drugs thus supplied.

Remember: the motivation here is not some kind of Timothy Leary-esque libertinism. The primary reason for trying this is to eliminate the incentive to sell drugs illegally, which, under current conditions, is a logical calculus despite the risks connected with it:

Illicit drug traders are strongly motivated by the huge profit margins available to them. Simultaneously undercutting their prices, and providing more reliable products, will have a substantial negative impact on the viability of their businesses as a whole.

What we need is a kind of imagination:

An injecting heroin user under a more stringent prohibition regime might be funding a “street” heroin habit with prostitution and property crime, using adulterated drugs in unsafe environments, supplied by a criminal trafficking/dealing infrastructure that can be traced back to illicit sources in Afghanistan. An equivalent user under a regulated regime would be using legally manufactured and prescribed heroin in a supervised clinical setting, thus obviating any need for, or support of, criminal behaviors or organizations.

The report is pure common sense. Any quibbles you have about advertising (there wouldn’t be any), use by minors (ditto), whether drugs should be sold near schools (guess!), whether the new regime would include rehabilitation (ditto), and what we would do about the loss of income to countries like Afghanistan dependent on illegal drug sales (NGOs and academics, get to work) are answered in it. Including: the program would be introduced in steps – pot first, check how that goes (and the chances it wouldn’t go just fine are minuscule), and then move on to the harder stuff.

In the future, the America of our times will look antediluvian for considering this a risky proposition. Jack Cole, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who I blogged a bit about a little while back has an apt blurb for the book-length report: “In years to come we’ll look back at prohibition, and the only question we’ll ask is why it lasted so long.”

Or, never mind the future: our “War on Drugs” is beginning to be yet one more way we look antediluvian to other countries. Portugal stopped prosecuting drug possession in 2001, and since then there has been no increase in use – and an increase in those seeking rehab. Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and parts of Germany and Switzerland have also stopped prosecuting for possession – and the sky isn’t falling yet.

Is it that employment opportunities for poor minority men are so very sparse that selling drugs is their only choice? On that, I have always been struck by a weak spot in Katherine Newman’s diligent minor classic No Shame in My Game, in which she tries to make that kind of point but has to acknowledge that within families, there are people who go the wrong way but others who do okay. “We have no compelling explanations of why the same family produces such divergent pathways in life,” she writes – but the thing is, this does happen, and constantly. One guy sells drugs and goes to jail while his brother is a security guard and his cousin installs cable.

Negative role modelling is clearly a major issue. Tyrone Creighton’s life path so far, for example, likely has something to do with what he grew up seeing his older brothers now in Rikers doing – it’s all he knew. In a context where quick money is available selling drugs, a Zeitgeist even sets in that legal work is a vanilla, submissive copout, “chump change” -- Newman describes ghetto teens mocking peers for working:

To go there and work for Burger Barn, that was one of those real cloak-and-dagger kinds of things. You’ll be coming out – “Yo, where you going?” You be, “I’m going, don’t worry about where I’m going.” And you see your friends coming and see you working there and now you be, “No, the whole Project gonna know I work in Burger Barn.” It’s not something I personally proclaim with pride and stuff.

Or, think about the scene in The Wire when Stringer Bell, head of the Barksdale gang, wants to smoke out a snitch. His strategy is to hold back payments for a while and see which person doesn’t complain – because that person must be getting cash from some other source for informing. As to the others, “What are they gonna do, go get a job???” he asks in jocular fashion. But crucially, Stringer doesn’t mean that they couldn’t – as we see when in a late episode in the series Poot leaves gangbanging and gets a job selling shoes. Not glamorous but it’s something – a start.

Tyrone Creighton’s brothers would have done the same kind of thing in a world where a crazy and futile War on Drugs didn’t present them with a reasonable alternative, with an air of normalcy in a neighborhood where they grow up watching peers make the same choice.

The Congressional Black Caucus of late have decided to concentrate on health care and employment in their advocacy for the black community, which is all well and good, but it would seem that young black men would be best poised to take full advantage of the latter in an America in which there was no shady but tempting alternate choice of work ever looming.

And between that and the endless procession of scenes like the recent one in the Bronx – lately, several in Chicago, for example, including ones (gang-related) over the past few days – I find myself wishing the Obama Administration would take yet one more thing on its plate as an urgent mission in a new America, the War on Drugs.

Not now, I know. Drug policy czar Gil Kerlikowske has harrumphed: “It is not something the President and I discuss; it isn’t even on the agenda.” He goes on that “legalized, regulated drugs are not a panacea – pharmaceutical drugs are tightly regulated and government controlled, yet we know they cause untold damage to those who abuse them.”

Surely this isn’t what Kerlikowske or Obama think in private, turning a blind eye to the larger harms that the War on Drugs creates. Clearly, they have decided the nation has other priorities at present, and the brutal truth is that they are right. As hideous as what happened to Vada Vasquez is – as well as to Tyrone Creighton, not only in the bullet he took but in the kind of occupation he drank in as a norm rather than as a fate to be avoided like kryptonite -- perhaps the unemployment crisis, the real estate crisis, the health care crisis, and even global warming are more urgent matters in the grand scheme of things just now.

Now, that is. However, how about in 2014, when Obama has just two years to go and other things are presumably taken care of to the extent that they can be (and assuming that John Thune, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin will not turn out to be the GOP’s secret weapons three years from now)? By then Obama will not be facing re-election, nor will he likely be mired in a sex scandal to distract him from real work.

For now, maybe we have to face things like what happened in the Bronx Monday as a weekly kind of event. But what kind of a nation are we to treat episodes like that one as business as usual? The War on Drugs stands as an obstacle to people becoming the best that they can be. It is, in its way, un-American.

And how can we consider ourselves a country of any serious intellectual or moral advancement to suppose that a constructive response is to settle for idle recitations about “stopping the violence,” utopian notions that we could keep guns out of the hands of people whose livelihoods depend on them, and empty calls for strong parenting?

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