We’re at at again. The shooting death three weeks ago of 16-year old Kimani Gray in New York City has led to the usual street rallies decrying the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. Hundreds attended his funeral this weekend. Yet the protests miss the forest for the trees. What we should be decrying is the War on Drugs.
The stop and frisk policies are indeed excessive, intruding upon almost every black male New Yorker between the ages of 15 and 18. But Gray’s story, as depressing as it is familiar, has larger implications. The police say Gray aimed a .38-caliber revolver at them. He was shot 7 times. His death was almost certainly grievously unwarranted.
Yet it is hardly unreasonable to wonder what a 16-year-old was doing with that gun anyway, or why his community doesn’t seem to find it especially noteworthy that he was carrying one. We get so used to hearing about kids carrying firearms that we can forget how bizarre it is in the historical sense. One of the most striking things missing in ethnographies of poor black neighborhoods before the seventies is the prevalence of guns. Most people reading this have probably never even held one. But in Gray’s world, they are ordinary objects.
And what are they for? Gangs. And gangs use guns not to shoot skeet, but to maintain turf.
And the turf is not just for hanging out. It is for selling drugs: gangs sell drugs. This drug selling is motivated by the simple fact that you can sell drugs on the street at a high markup, and you can do that because the drugs are illegal.
This means that if drugs – yes, even hard drugs— were available legally and America got serious about prevention and rehabilitation programs, no one could make money selling them on the street. Never mind that drugs are cheaper under the War on Drugs than they were when it started – this “war” creates a lucrative black market industry that tempts too many black boys dealt a bad hand from seeking legal employment. It gives ghetto men an ever-standing option for making a living without staying in school. Without it, they would have to seek other options. Inner city life for black and Latino Americans would be transformed in a way that no amount of rallies will ever accomplish:
For example, no more unspoken practices such as NYPD cops asking teens to empty their pockets, upon which they can nab them for having small amounts of marijuana “in the open.” It’s a scummy practice by cops trying to fill their arrest quotas, and it’s even scummier that statehouse Republicans have refused to seriously address it. The War on Drugs brings out the worst in its enforcers and victims alike. But Ultimately, the cops are assigned to black and Latino neighborhoods because there is more crime – i.e. gang activity – there. With no War on Drugs, the officers would be assigned elsewhere.
Gray’s mother says Kimani wasn’t in a gang. But the gun was likely traceable to someone in a gang, and even if Gray wasn’t in a gang himself, he had posted photos of himself striking Bloods gang poses. And he was carrying a gun — he was walking the walk.
Life had been hard for him lately. In his shoes, plenty of us would have sampled the same path. But with no War on Drugs, that path would barely have existed.