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[OPINION] Why you can't support both #BlackLivesMatter and Duterte’s drug war

The past weeks have seen an explosion in worldwide protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. A number of Duterte Drug War proponents have also expressed support, some even invoking the #BLM hashtag and George Floyd’s name to attack American and British personalities who criticized Maria Ressa’s conviction as an abuse of state power. These people are, at best, ignorant of the history and context of the Black Lives Matter movement or, at worst, opportunistically latching on to something they see as trendy while supporting policies diametrically opposed to and disrespectful of the movement’s values.

Black Lives Matter is not just about the murder of George Floyd. It is about the systemic oppression and violence against black people that is built into the core of American criminal justice and policing. Among the most effective tools this system has for oppressing and committing violence is the so-called “War on Drugs.”

The grandfather to the modern American drug war is Harry Anslinger, who used his position as commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics to embark on a sensationalist campaign connecting drugs, mostly marijuana at the time, to racist fears about black and brown people and violent crime. Anslinger is famously quoted as saying, "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men" and "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers.” He did not actually believe that drugs drove people to crime, but was more than happy to stoke racist fears about black and brown people, especially black and brown men in relation to white women, for his political gain.

Fast-forward to the late 1960s and Richard Nixon is elected president. Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Erlichman, would later describe how criminalizing drugs was a political strategy to target the administration’s perceived enemies: the black movement and the anti-war left. “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.” In 1971, Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” accompanied by increases in the size and budgets of law enforcement and draconian “anti-crime” legislation that included no-knock raids and preventive detention for drug suspects. In addition, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act created a system for classifying drugs that has allowed political interests and racially-motivated hysteria to outweigh science.

A direct line can be drawn from the racist history of the US criminal justice system to the injustices that continue to be felt today, with the “War on Drugs” as one of its most insidious tools to systematically dehumanize and oppress black people. Black and white Americans use illegal drugs at similar rates, yet blacks are 6 times more likely to go to prison on drug charges. A recent analysis of California policing data shows that while black people comprise only 6.3% of the state’s population, they comprise 15.1% of all people stopped by police. Blacks were 3 times more likely to be searched by police than whites, even though searches of whites were more likely to yield drugs, weapons, or evidence. Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender when a police officer shot him 6 times. The officer assumed the 18-year-old was “on something,” a line later parroted by white supremacist pundits trying to justify the murder. Breonna Taylor was sleeping in her bed when officers executed a no-knock raid in search of a drug suspect and shot her 8 times. Trayvon Martin was killed by a vigilante who minutes before called local police to say "This guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something." The 15-year old was walking home after buying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.

A direct line can also be drawn from the destructive legacy of US drug policy to the Philippines today. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, then-president Ferdinand Marcos was desperate to be close to the Nixon regime and counted on the US president’s support for his plans to declare martial law and rule as dictator. Just 10 months after Nixon declared his “War on Drugs” and 5 months before the declaration of martial law in the Philippines, Marcos signed into law The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 which criminalized drug use and put in place mandatory sentencing minimums. According to the Dangerous Drug Board, this drastic, punitive approach was adopted despite there only being an estimated 20,000 drug users in the country at the time, mostly of marijuana. 

Nixon’s successors ramped up the War on Drugs and actively exported it to the rest of the world. President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was centered around fighting the dual “moral evils” of communism and drugs and his administration provided support to repressive governments, including the Marcos dictatorship, enacting prohibitionist policies and pursuing militarized strategies. Three months after the attacks of September 11th, President George W. Bush declared that the “War on Drugs” was a necessary component of the “Global War on Terror” and began transferring unprecedented amounts of national money to local police forces for military-grade equipment and training. It is worth noting that the U.S. began deploying hundreds of special forces to the Philippines for counterterrorism purposes in 2002, the same year that the Dangerous Drugs Act was overhauled. Despite every president since Nixon increasing resources for a punitive approach to drug policy, drugs are more widely trafficked than ever before. The US’s “War on Drugs” has utterly failed at controlling the potential dangers of narcotics, and has arguably worsened if not created them.

Duterte’s “War on Drugs” is a direct copycat of the racist American policy that was never actually meant to control drugs, but rather to control a part of the population, while at the same time allowing politicians to brag about being “tough on crime” as they fight a war they do not intend to win. As Columbia University professor, Dr Carl Hart described in a Rappler interview, when drug policy is not based on evidence, it is used as a “political football” that allows people to dehumanize those in society they do not like. Once that group is dehumanized, all sorts of atrocities appear justifiable, and we can be proud of ourselves for being the “good” people, crusading against the “bad.” (READ: Rappler Talk: Dr. Carl Hart on drug war and public health)

While the American drug war was designed to dehumanize black people, Duterte’s knock-off version dehumanizes the Filipino poor. While American predatory policing is fueled by the trope of the black urban thug, Filipino predatory policing is fueled by the tropes of the tambay and iskwater. While defenders of racist American policing refuse to acknowledge that the problem is systemic and by design, claiming instead there are just a few “bad apples” among an otherwise good police force, defenders of Filipino policing claim there are no structural problems, just a few “scalawag” and “ninja” cops to be weeded out. While American police have killed black people with impunity for hundreds of years, Filipino police are now killing poor people with impunity and applause. (READ: [OPINION] Witnessing #JunkTerrorBill alongside #BlackLivesMatter)

Kian Delos Santos begged for his life before police officers dragged him to an alley and shot him. The Caloocan police department tried to justify murdering the 17-year-old by saying social media showed that he was involved with drugs. Jefferson Bunuan was asleep at a friend’s house when police entered in search of another drug suspect and killed him. Police tortured and shot Carl Arnaiz 5 times, then planted marijuana and shabu on him before dumping his body on the side of the road in another city. The 19-year-old had been buying snacks. (READ: TIMELINE: Seeking justice for Kian delos Santos)

The point of this article is not to suggest that it is appropriate to compare the suffering of black and Filipino people, because it is not appropriate, nor is its purpose to take focus away from the Black Lives Matter movement. If anything, this history shows us that if you care about Filipino lives, you have to care about black lives. The point is: if you are performatively hashtagging about the murders of Michael, Breonna, and Trayvon, you cannot congratulate the murders of Kian, Jefferson, Carl, and over 20,000 other Filipinos. – Rappler.com

Cecilia Lero has been an activist and community organizer in the Philippines for approximately a decade. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Estudos da Metrópole at the Universidade de São Paulo and the Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento in São Paulo, Brazil, where her work focuses on political violence, organized crime, and democratization.