As George Floyd, a former high school sports star and hip hop artist, was filmed slowly dying while police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine minutes, another officer said to the crowd of shocked onlookers: “Don't do drugs, guys."
It was a telling thing to say. Not just because they had pinned the 46-year-old father to the ground after wrongly presuming he was dangerously out of control on drugs, but because for more than 100 years drugs have been used by the authorities as a pretext and a justification for ultra-violence against Black citizens.
The war on drugs, in the words of veteran American political activist Angela Davis, is a war on communities of colour, and it continues to unfairly target Black people. It’s not just about prejudiced policing and stereotyping. Black people are more exposed to this war – a dehumanising war that derails any normal sense of justice – because it plays out in poor communities that are subjected to heightened policing.
“You can't fight 'racism' as a monolithic entity, you have to identify the mechanisms through which these tragedies occur,” Hamilton Morris, a drugs journalist and pharmacological researcher, noted last week on Twitter. “[Drug] prohibition transforms medical problems into criminal ones, providing a pretext for unnecessary intervention and a justification for excessive force.
"These laws ensure mutual fear between citizens and law enforcement and are discriminatory and unjust, even when they are enforced without prejudice. They are a cornerstone of institutionalised racism in the US and something you can fight to change.”
The dynamic works in many ways: drugs are the trigger for the initial contact in many fatal confrontations between armed police and unarmed black people; intoxication is treated by police as a criminal rather than a medical problem; someone’s involvement with drugs is used in court to exonerate violent and lethal actions by law enforcement, and the chance of any police officer receiving justice for killing a black person who has anything to do with drugs is incredibly slim.
Police in the US kill an average of three people a day. In 2019, more than 1,000 people were killed by police, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research group. Black people accounted for 24 percent of those killed, despite making up only about 13 percent of the US population. All this comes with very little redress. Only a handful of police officers are ever convicted of these killings. In the UK, there have been 1,741 deaths in police custody since 1990, although not one police officer has been convicted of manslaughter or murder since 1986.
Many instances of deaths of Black people in police custody occur in mundane circumstances, such as traffic stops, and have nothing to do with drug prohibition. But under the guise of protecting the public, drug prohibition has for a long time been a major contributor to this slaughter, and a powerful enabler of systemic racism in the US.
It’s been like this for more than a century, because the war on drugs is steeped in racist beginnings. The age-old myth of the foreign “drug fiend” is the golden thread that runs through these state sanctioned killings. In "Negro Cocaine Fiends Are a New Southern Menace", a now famous article in the New York Times in 1914, a doctor noted that police needed higher calibre guns to kill Black men because cocaine made them impervious to normal size bullets.
Carl Hart, a professor of psychology at Columbia University with expertise on drug use and addiction, told me: “We have this trope, this story from a long time ago, with white folks worried about Black folks being violent on drugs. It’s also about Black folks intermingling and enslaving white girls with drugs. What this narrative does, it gives white men – white officials – the protector status of white women. We continue to use this Black folks being violent on drugs trope because it works so well, because you can say anything about drugs because the vast majority of the population don’t use those drugs, and as a result they are willing to believe any incredible story.”
The “high on drugs” defence will sound familiar to many Black families seeking justice after police killings, which is often slow moving and mired in low level corruption even if it comes.
This past week’s protest and riots in America have echoes of the 1992 LA riots, sparked when an unruly mob of LAPD officers were acquitted of police brutality with the assistance of the “drug fiend” defence. In 1991, construction worker Rodney King was savagely beaten with batons by up to 15 police officers after he took them on a high-speed car chase. The attack was filmed by a bystander and broadcast across the world. During their trial, one of the key lines of defence was that officers were scared he had “superhuman strength” from being high on PCP, even though King didn’t test positive for the drug.
The same defence has been used time and time again.
It was used after police officer Jason Van Dyke was filmed shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in Chicago in 2014. During his trial for first degree murder, Van Dyke’s defence attorneys portrayed McDonald as a violent drug user who became aggressive when under the influence of PCP. The court was told that because McDonald had used PCP, he had “superhuman powers”. Five year later, with four officers dismissed after they exaggerated the threat McDonald posed to Van Dyke, McDonald was convicted of second-degree murder and given just under seven years in prison.
It was used in 2017 after a white police officer in Tulsa shot dead Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man, even though he had his hands in the air. Defence attorneys said Officer Betty Shelby, who was charged with first degree manslaughter, was justified in killing Crutcher after a toxicology report revealed he had PCP in his system. At the trial, the American Civil Liberties Union said this tactic was aimed at dehumanising Crutcher, a 40-year-old father and musician. Even so, Shelby was acquitted later that year.
Even cannabis, a drug now legally available across America, has been used as an excuse to kill young Black men. Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez claimed the reason he shot Philando Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, to death in front of his girlfriend and baby girl in their car in 2016 was that the smell of cannabis made him fear for his life. The incident went viral when his girlfriend filmed Castile dying on a Facebook live stream video.
“I thought if he [Castile] has the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second hand smoke… then what care does he give about me?” Yanez told investigators before being acquitted of second-degree murder in 2017. After the judgment, Castile’s mother Valerie said: “My son loved this city, and this city killed my son. And a murderer gets away. The system in this country continues to fail Black people and will continue to fail us.”
In 2012, volunteer neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman shot dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked home with sweets in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. It took a media campaign for Zimmerman to be arrested 44 days later, but it wasn’t long before drugs came into play. Local police leaked to the media that Martin had once been caught with cannabis at school. During the trial, the defence team made a big deal of the fact Martin had (barely traceable amounts of) cannabis in his body, implying this could have impaired his judgement. The prosecution was ordered to stop inferring that Zimmerman’s actions had been racist, even though two years after being acquitted of murder, Zimmerman was calling Barack Obama an “ignorant baboon” and retweeting images of Martin’s dead body on social media.
Cannabis was also used as an excuse for the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old student Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Brown was stopped and shot dead by officer Darren Wilson on suspicion of stealing some cigarettes. But, after a hearing in which Brown’s use of cannabis was flagged as a potential cause of aggressive behaviour, a grand jury decided not to indict the shooter, triggering protests and a violent reaction from the police. An investigation into the Ferguson police department published a year later by the US Department of Justice found evidence of racial bias against Black citizens.
“We all saw the video of what happened to George Floyd,” said Hart. “So as their defence they have to get us away from that video, and as long as they got us talking about drugs, they’ve accomplished their job. You are creating a smokescreen, a distraction, if you are talking about George Floyd’s toxicology. You are moving people away from what their eyes saw. We saw this with Trayvon Martin’s toxicology. He had levels of THC in his system that were placebo level, he could not have smoked on the day he was killed. But that didn’t matter. All they [Zimmerman’s defence team] had to do was introduce that he was positive for THC and create a nice smokescreen so you were not talking about the real issue.”
It is highly likely that when Chauvin goes to trial for second degree murder – and his three colleagues for aiding and abetting him – their defence attorneys will hype the fact Floyd had traces of drugs in his system and use it as an excuse for their brutal tactics, even though the video footage shows Floyd did not appear dangerously intoxicated.
Unlike the official autopsy report, an independent report ordered by Floyd’s family did not find an underlying health condition or traces of fentanyl or methamphetamine significant factors in his death. It simply concluded that his death was due to “asphyxiation from sustained pressure” from an agent of the state.
“Floyd's intoxication is used to justify keeping him prone and restrained with the knee-to-neck maneuver, it's used to undermine the seriousness of what's happening in Floyd's final moments, and it will almost certainly be used post-mortem by Chauvin's defence in his murder trial,” said Morris. “If Floyd's murder hadn't been recorded, it's likely that Chauvin would have gotten off by claiming the deadly force was warranted by Floyd's intoxication, the detection of methamphetamine and fentanyl in Floyd's autopsy will still be used as evidence to support this claim.”
There is even a pseudo-scientific condition – "excited delirium" – to describe the behaviour of people who freak out when they are pinned down while high on drugs. The authorities appear to be using this diagnosis, an unrecognised condition by doctors and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as a way of justifying excessive force.
During Floyd’s suffocation, one of the officers is heard telling Chauvin that he is worried pinning Floyd down could cause “excited delirium” and Chauvin replies, “that's why we have him on his stomach”. But according to Eric Balaban of the American Civil Liberties Union, it is used as “a means of white-washing what may be excessive use of force and inappropriate use of control techniques by officers during an arrest".
Excited delirium or not, if people are in dire medical danger – even if it may be connected to drug use – it seems logical that police should be calling an ambulance or releasing suspects, rather than suffocating them or hitting them on the head with a baton.
In March, Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died in handcuffs as he was being restrained by police in Tacoma, Washington. His last words were: “I can’t breathe”. Police said Ellis had attacked a woman and a patrol car, although a witness said she saw him having a “friendly” conversation with two white police officers when one of them then knocked him to the ground with their car door. The medical examiner listed oxygen deprivation and physical restraint, listing methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors. Officials said Ellis was suffering from “excited delirium”.
In 2017 Darren Cumberbatch, a Black electrician, died in Warwickshire, UK after being punched, beaten with a baton and tasered by police. An inquest found the police’s restraint contributed to his death, which was a result of multiple organ failure relating to cocaine use in association with restraint and related physical exertion. The police said they recognised he was suffering from what they thought was “excited delirium”, but admitted they did not call an ambulance and instead kept him in restraint. An official review into Cumberbatch’s death has been delayed for a year.
Many Black deaths in police custody occur as a result of police seeking out drugs, and the war on drugs is an intensive one. There are an estimated 40,000 armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids carried out every year in America, most of which serve drug warrants. For reasons of prejudice and social reality, a disproportionate amount of these raids target the Black community.
In 2006, Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Black woman, was shot to death by three police officers during a botched drug raid in Atlanta, Georgia. Once police realised no drugs were in the house, they planted cannabis in her basement, handcuffed her and left her to bleed and die. They also submitted cocaine as evidence, claiming that they had bought it at Johnston's house, which they had not. The officers were given between five to ten years for manslaughter and falsification.
In 2012, teenager Ramarley Graham was shot and killed as he tried to flush a bag of cannabis down the toilet at his grandma’s home by an officer from a Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit in the Bronx, New York. The officer, Richard Haste, said he thought Graham had a gun, but he did not. A judge and grand jury opted not to charge the officer, although he later quit the NYPD after a disciplinary review recommended his dismissal.
In 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death in New York by a police officer after he was arrested on suspicion of illegally selling loose cigarettes. The same year Rumain Brisbon was shot and killed in front of his two children after police received a tip that a man in a car was dealing drugs. The officer opened fire because he thought Brisbon had a gun in his pocket. It was a bottle of oxycodone pills.
The killing of George Floyd was keenly felt in the UK, where campaigners have long been demanding scrutiny into deaths in police custody and racially biased drug policing. As with America, Black people are more likely to be searched, arrested and convicted for drugs than white people, at levels that do not reflect their use of drugs. In some of Britain’s big cities, particularly in poor neighbourhoods, Black people make up a significant proportion of convicted street drug sellers.
In 2017, CCTV footage of the last moments of Rashan Charles’ life as he struggled on a shop floor pinned down by a police officer provoked anger on the streets of east London. It was a drug stop. The officer had seen Rashan, 20, trying to swallow a plastic wrap of caffeine and paracetamol. The footage showed the officer attempting to pry it from Charles’s mouth while pressing down on his neck. Within an hour, Charles was dead.
A month before, another young Black man, Edson Da Costa, died under similar circumstances, also in east London, after his car was stopped and he was held down and CS sprayed by police officers after putting packages in his mouth. Again, Edson's death sparked street protests, this time in Newham. In both cases the packages had not been swallowed, but were found to be blocking the dead men's airways.
An inquest found Charles’ death was “accidental” with “justified use of force”, but that police did not take appropriate action for a medical emergency. The inquest into Da Costa‘s death found it to be “misadventure”. In both cases investigators found the police had no case to answer for misconduct. As revealed by VICE later in 2019, the avoidable deaths of these two men prompted the Met Police to issue new advice to officers against trying to stop people swallowing wraps.
Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, has identified a familiar pattern in the link between deaths in police custody and the war on drugs. “Inquest has been concerned about the hostile environments frequently created at these inquests where drugs were a factor, through the defensive and combative tactics of police lawyers often seeking to blame the deceased for their own death. Recent inquests have highlighted failures or delays in police responding to life threatening situations as medical emergencies. Too often, the pursuit of ‘evidence’ is prioritised above concerns of excessive force and risks to life. It is further evidence of how structural racism is embedded in policing practice.”
So how do we get out of this lethal cycle of injustice that leaves so many Black families in mourning? Carl Hart has two ways of doing this, both of which he says are simple concepts to grasp. “I’m a psychologist and if you want to change behaviour there has to be swift and immediate consequences for it," he says. "That means police have to be punished. When they are punished immediately and with certainty, other police see it, they know, and they change their behaviour.
"As long as America is just talking, telling Black people ‘we are listening, we hear you,’ then this is the same conversation we’ve been having for 60 years. If you don’t have swift punishment, things will not change.
His second solution isn't rocket science, either.
“If we thought of Black people’s humanity in the same way we think of white women’s humanity, this would not happen. Can you imagine if this cop had his knee on the neck of a white woman for that long? The police would be reformed immediately. The problem with our country is that we don’t see Black people’s humanity as equal to white people’s humanity. That is the problem. Everything else is just talk.”