Essay by Phillip Alden
I’m currently reading “A Colony In A Nation,” by Chris Hayes. Hayes is a top-notch journalist who as a correspondent for MSNBC has reported on crime and policing in America for over ten years.
Some of the things in the book, particularly about the so-called War On Drugs, are things I already knew and/or read. But the concept of “white fear” that Hayes talks about struck me as something both unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. I may have heard the term mentioned at one time or another, but if I did I don’t remember it.
Reading about Hayes’ personal experience growing up in New York, I knew what he was talking about. Although we grew up in different areas and had different interactions, our experience is the same. Any white person who gives it some thought will likely identify the same experience in their lives. I grew up in Palo Alto, next to Stanford University on the San Francisco Peninsula. It’s a very nice, very white town. On the other side of the freeway is the town of East Palo Alto. When I was growing up East Palo Alto was unincorporated and predominately black. Shortly after its incorporation a guy named Joel Davis I went to high school with, a really good guy, became an East Palo Alto police officer. He was shot to death in the line of duty by a guy he was trying to talk down, a black guy high on crack cocaine. The shooter was just as much a victim as Joel was, but in a much different way. He was a product of poor education, lack of any kind of productive future, hopelessness, despair, and a ready supply of drugs and alcohol.
Am I angry at the guy for killing a guy who was trying to make things better? A guy that I liked? Of course I am. Joel and I weren’t friends, but he was a good person. Does that make the shooter an evil person? In hindsight, no. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t view him that way at the time.
The point is that East Palo Alto, like the Harlem of Chris Hayes’ youth, was a place of despair, crime, humiliation, degradation and hopelessness. I was raised with a healthy constant infusion of white fear. It permeated every aspect of living in Palo Alto. The “liberal progressive” adults around me and my peers cultivated an insidious form of racism and elitism. We ridiculed the “Southern trailer trash” for their outright racism when the fact was we were just better at camouflaging it with intellect. The racism of the South that we decried was just more honest and open than our brand of racism. Palo Alto had, and still has, a high burglary rate. We always blamed it on the people on the other side of the freeway-the black residents of East Palo Alto. I vividly remember one such spate of burgled houses that everyone blamed on the blacks in East Palo Alto. Upon police investigation it was determined that my peers were robbing their own houses, making it look like burglary to buy drugs. Those drugs were often purchased in East Palo Alto. I would occasionally buy dime bags ($10) of low-grade marijuana in EPA when all our white dealers were out of stock. Sometimes we got ripped-off. One time I got punched in the face, and the only thing that kept me from plowing through a group of young black guys was a cooler head that returned my money and told me to just back out the way I’d come in. That guy not only potentially saved the lives of his peers, but also kept me from getting into a world of serious legal trouble.
I was once robbed at gunpoint coming back on my bike from playing racquetball in a court that, geographically was EPA, although the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course was across the street with the Palo Alto Municipal Airport next door to it. The guys who robbed me and nearly shot me were a white guy and a black guy on a motorcycle. They were probably seeking drug money. I remember the fury I felt after the incident. I wanted to hunt them down and kill them.
Like most of us in the Bay Area I knew about police brutality against black neighborhoods long before Oscar Grant got shot on a BART station platform by a transit cop. Long before the Michael Brown shooting and the police murders caught on smart phones, we knew. We knew that we were living in two separate and very unequal Americas. We white folks knew that our black brothers and sisters were living in a nightmare world not of their own choosing.
How did it start? Without looking back to the Civil War and the Jim Crow laws, it started with the Civil Rights era and Richard Nixon. (Remember him?) Much of it I already knew, but Hayes articulates it so well that I’ll let his words speak;
“..When President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, more than 200 drug laws were brought under one statute. In 1973 Nixon created, through an executive order, the Drug Enforcement Administration to enforce the CSA, which would grow from a budget of $75 million and 1,470 agents to a budget of over $2 billion and 5,000 agents. The Reagan Administration would later launch an expensive and expansive propaganda effort to curtail drug use under the slogan, “Just Say No.” Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, established a White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The number of people in state and federal prisons serving drug sentences increased nearly 1,270 percent, from 24,000 inmates in 1980 to 304,500 in 2014. Years later Nixon aide John Ehrlichman seemed to offer up a smoking gun when he told a reporter:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that,
had two enemies; the antiwar left and black people. You understand
what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either
against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate
the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then
criminalize both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We
could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their
meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did..”
When I first heard about Ehrlichman’s admission I was infuriated. (This was long before I read Mr. Hayes’ book.) Ehrlichman is, (or was,) the last living member of the criminal Nixon Administration, and he and several other members served long prison sentences. But not for escalating the drug war. Until the Trump Administration the Nixon Administration was (arguably) the most corrupt Presidential Administration in history. Watergate was only one of their crimes. To my older brothers and sisters the perpetuation and cancer-like growth of the Vietnam War was the worst of their crimes. Fifty years gives one an incredible amount of hindsight.
But although my peers and I were vehemently opposed to the drug war, we turned a blind eye to its victims. Through apathy, indifference, and white fear, we allowed our local, state, and federal governments to turn American black neighborhoods into war zones. We turned our backs on our black brothers and sisters. Our fellow Americans. We allowed our government to turn black neighborhoods into colonies through our actions and our inactions.
“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
Black lives matter. All lives matter. The essence of man’s inhumanity to man lies in a simple concept; making another human being the Other. Us and Them. As soon as we make someone the Other we can begin to dehumanize them, to make them less than. Hitler did it with the Jews in Germany and Nixon (and the men who followed in his wake) did it to the blacks. In the case of the blacks they’re still doing it. Even after all the press coverage and excellent books like A Colony In A Nation, the oppressive systems remain in place, and a black American is in danger of losing their life every time they are stopped by the police. Imagine the stress of trying to live your life under that constant and very real threat. Black Americans don’t need to imagine it. They live with it every day. When an unarmed man standing on his own property can be hassled, arrested and even killed for doing nothing more than standing there, there is something terribly wrong.
The Department Of Justice (DOJ) report on the “criminal justice system” in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, is damming. The report was the result of an investigation into the police and the court system of Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown by a white policeman. It found that a system of rigid enforcement and inescapable monitory penalties created a police state that criminalized everyone, even for a parking ticket. But Ferguson is far from alone. Baltimore, Oakland, Houston-pick a city with a large concentrated black population. The police and the courts end up functioning like organized crime, with ever escalating violence and subjugation. This article from the guardian explains how the system works.
We like to shake our fists with righteous indignation when we see these events on the news yet we do nothing to change the system. It doesn’t affect us. It effects them. As long as we continue to view our fellow Americans as the Other we help to perpetuate the very systems we decry. We have the power to end the drug war and to stop the wholesale subjugation of our fellow Americans. To do that we have to discard a belief that is buried in the very marrow of our bones – that there is such a thing as the Other. We have discard the notion of us and them. Then we have to start talking with our black and brown brothers and sisters about how we collectively take action to change things. On a grander but no less important scale we have to discard the notion of the Other in America and around the world. But it starts in our own backyard.