Moments before what Andrew Brown Jr.’s family would later describe as an “execution,” a street camera caught a SWAT-style team of sheriff’s deputies in tactical gear crammed into the back of a pickup truck as it pulled into Brown’s driveway in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on April 21. In the video, the deputies jump out of the truck and yell at Brown, who is sitting in his car, to put his hands up. The video cuts out before Brown dies under a barrage of bullets.
Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney representing Brown’s family and others who have lost loved ones to police, called this “militarized police force” an “inflamed modern-day lynch mob.” Brown died of a bullet to the back of the head, according to an independent autopsy.
A local district attorney who opposed releasing body camera footage to the public claims Brown’s car made contact with deputies, but members of Brown’s family and their attorneys who watched 20 seconds of the body camera footage of the shooting earlier this week said Brown had his hands on the steering wheel and presented no threat to officers.
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“He was trying to run because he was scared [for] his life,” Brown family attorney Harry Daniels said in a recent press conference.
With another Black life tragically cut short by police-perpetrated violence, some apologists attempted to justify the deadly raid by pointing to arrest warrants obtained by news outlets that show Brown allegedly sold small amounts of drugs to an informant. Brown faced small-time drug charges in the past; the warrants allege he sold just three grams of cocaine and three grams of methamphetamine.
“Like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Marvin Scott and Carlos Ingram Lopez and Daniel Prude and so many others, Andrew Brown Jr. would be alive today if it were not for the drug war,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group working to end the drug war. “What was supposed to be a search-and-arrest warrant for drugs ended up being a death sentence.”
Decades of drug war and millions of drug arrests and related police violence, such as that perpetrated against Brown, have not diminished the presence of drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, which are common stimulants available virtually everywhere in the country. Like other drugs, stimulants can be used safely, and their effects can be positive and negative depending on how they are used. However, prohibition makes drug use dangerous by pushing vulnerable people away from health care, increasing their chances of interacting with police, and creating a black market where stimulants and other drugs can vary in potency and be contaminated with adulterants.
Eyewitnesses told the New York Times that, after killing Brown, the deputies used a battering ram to enter and search his home (presumably for drugs). Family members and their attorneys told media outlets that enforcement found nothing — no drugs, no weapons. Local law enforcement has released few details, and the search warrant was dismissed because Brown is dead.
Across the country, drug raids, disproportionately targeting people of color, have resulted in injuries and death. A botched SWAT-style drug raid also led to the police-perpetrated killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. (The Justice Department has launched investigations into both the Brown and Taylor killings.) Former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin attempted to use George Floyd’s drug use to deflect responsibility for killing Floyd last year, although a jury rejected that argument and charged Chauvin with second degree murder one day before Brown was killed.
This is what the drug war violence looks like. Advocates emphasize that federal investigations and “accountability” will not prevent police violence against Black and Brown people as long as drugs remain illegal. Decades of drug war have pumped huge sums of tax dollars into policing, militarizing law enforcement agencies nationwide and encouraging countless interactions between people and police that result in violence. Drug enforcement, and the various forms of police brutality and psychological abuse that come with it, has always fallen hardest on communities of color. In Black, Indigenous and immigrant communities, the drug war regularly tears families apart.
Elizabeth City, where Brown was killed, is 50 percent Black. Taylor was shot and killed in a majority-Black neighborhood in Louisville. Illicit drug use pervades all of society, and Black and white people use illicit drugs at similar rates (Black people use less alcohol and tobacco), but research shows cops are more likely to suspect Black people who use drugs of selling them than they do white people. Prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences for Black people than for white people charged with the same drug offense, and the vast majority of people caged in prison for drug charges are Black and Latinx.
Thanks to long-term activist efforts, drug laws are now changing in many parts of the country. The partial decriminalization of drugs, which usually involves reducing penalties for possessing small amounts to a misdemeanor akin to a traffic ticket, is slowly spreading as a handful of progressive prosecutors and policymakers face mounting pressure to address racism in the criminal legal system, reduce mass incarceration and treat drug use more like a public health issue.
However, cops can still target people involved with drugs, even when penalties are reduced. Selling prohibited drugs, or simply possessing a certain amount, remains highly illegal everywhere in the U.S. Drug laws vary from state to state and are so broadly written that people caught with drugs for personal use can easily be charged as drug sellers, even if they weren’t selling at all. Cops routinely threaten vulnerable people with felony drug charges to manipulate them into providing information and taking plea deals.
Current drug policy is rooted in the debunked idea that police interventions reduce the drug supply, and therefore reduce the harms of drugs. That’s why reform laws, such as the 2020 ballot initiative that made Oregon the first state to decriminalize all drugs, tend to only decriminalize small amounts of drugs for “personal use.” This allows drug cops at all levels of government to continue targeting people who sell drugs with military-style tactics. It’s a framework that’s proved lucrative for police and helps them justify their continued existence in the face of a growing movement to defund and abolish policing.
Police budgets have ballooned during the drug war, which has cost an estimated $1 trillion so far. The drug war gives incredible power to cops on the street, fueling corruption and providing an excuse to harass, arrest and even kill people. Yet drug overdoses continue to climb, and millions of people in need of addiction treatment don’t get it.
Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated for selling drugs has exploded by 3,000 percent, but drugs are more readily available and cheaper today than they were 40 years ago, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Central to the Trump administration’s “strategy” for attempting to prevent overdose deaths was to crack down on illicit opioid sales, but overdose rates skyrocketed instead, in part because law enforcement efforts to disrupt the illicit drug supply made it more unpredictable and dangerous. Then the COVID pandemic hit, isolating people from health care providers and friends and impeding harm reduction services that help keep them safe.
Emerging research shows that Black people are dying from overdoses at alarming rates, but not because Black people are more likely to use or sell drugs. Experts say there are deep inequities rooted in the racist war on drugs behind the overdose data. Drug criminalization creates stigma and barriers to health care, addiction treatment, employment and housing, all of which are key to addressing drug-related disease and death. The most punitive impacts of the drug war fall hardest on Black and Brown people.
To end racist, drug war-driven police violence, advocates say, we can’t just rethink the criminalization of people who use drugs; we must completely rethink our approach to people who sell drugs as well. These are not two distinct categories. A 2012 survey found that 43 percent of people who reported selling drugs in the past year also had a substance use disorder. Moreover, plenty of adults use and sell drugs without harming themselves or others. When drug use is problematic, there are proven, community-based strategies for reducing drug harms and empowering drug users to take control of their own health. The same goes for people who sell drugs — even the FBI admits that drug sellers use harm reduction tactics to help keep their customers safe.
In response to the overdose crisis and mass protests for racial justice, the Biden administration has taken a few steps in the right direction with a vague pledge to remove barriers to lifesaving addiction treatments and prioritize harm reduction and “racial equity.” However, the administration remains committed to reducing the illicit drug supply, the same drug war strategy that has fueled injustice and death for 50 years.
“So long as the drug war remains and we continue to rely on police versus our public health systems to deal with drugs in this country, law enforcement will continue to exploit the premise of the drug war to excuse these deaths and shield themselves from accountability,” Frederique said.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Congress could decide tomorrow to abolish the Drug Enforcement Administration, the federal law enforcement agency charged with waging the drug war. Criminal penalties for drugs can be eliminated at the state and federal level. Policymakers can listen to the experts — medical professionals and people who use drugs — and get to work legalizing and regulating a safe supply of drugs that would shrink markets dominated by international cartels and reduce overdose deaths. All of the money spent on drug policing can be redirected into health care, housing, noncoercive addiction treatment and harm reduction services, so everyone has a chance at living a healthy life free of police violence, whether they are involved with drugs or not.
“Black, Latinx and Indigenous people deserve to live in a world — where regardless of whether or not they use drugs — they are given the same chance to live,” Frederique said. “Where they don’t have to constantly look over their shoulder, be afraid to go to sleep at night, or wonder if the next police stop for something as simple as an air freshener — or even the call for help they made — will inevitably lead to their death.”