“Organizing Through Pain”—Harm Reduction Leaders Address Race and Structural Violence

    A panel session titled “Organizing Through Pain and Policy: Multiracial Organizing in the Opioid Crisis” was just one of well over 100 held at the Harm Reduction Coalition Conference in New Orleans over the weekend.

    Its theme was understanding the concepts of “structural violence” and white supremacy in relation to organizing to end the drug war. Panelists emphasized how new grassroots groups being formed to end the opioid overdose crisis need to understand the social determinants that contribute to different circumstances of drug use and overdose rateslike race, gender, class, poverty, unemployment and trauma.

    Daniel Raymond, policy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, styled his talk as “confessions of a policy wonk.” He outlined how in the past, the drug policy reform movement “centered the drug.” He argued that it would be a mistake to continue that strategy when advocating for drug-law reformand that instead, a “movement-building perspective” was needed to dismantle interlocking systems that simultaneously oppress drug users. These include, for example, the criminal justice and child welfare systems, which frequently exemplify structural violence in our society.

    “In the opioid overdose crisis, legislators see the pain of white people.”

    Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, discussed the role of white supremacy and applied it to how her thinking about organizing has evolved. “White supremacy takes away the ability to see someone else’s pain,” she said. “It takes compassion away.”

    Frederique recalled how, back in 2014 during packed community meetings to address skyrocketing opioid-related deaths that she attended, her attitude toward many of those present was: “Why do you care now?”

    Her anger arose from the racist double standards applied to how drug users are viewed. With more white people now dying from overdose, she pointed out, these attitudes have started to change. Instead of zero tolerance and mandatory minimums, a recognition that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” has been embraced by some politicians, nationally and locally. More often than previously, media sources cover drug use as public health issue and call for more evidenced-based drug treatment. And images of drug users in the media have softened.

    Where was the compassion, Frederique wondered, for people of color who have been dying from heroin overdoses in high numbers for decades? And why wasn’t the media talking about drug treatment for crack users in the ‘90s, instead of whipping up a drug panic that put hundreds of thousands of black drug users in prison?

    “In the opioid overdose crisis,” Frederique concluded, “legislators see the pain of white people.”

    Jawanza Williams, a statewide organizer for VOCAL-NY, further discussed how structural violence affects communities of color that are struggling with opioid issues. In New York City, black overdose rates have recently outstripped white ones. He also spoke of the community-specific specialization required to do this work effectively. “Not everyone is an organizer. You can’t just talk about organizing, you have to do the work on the ground.”

    Alexus Pleus lost her 28-year-old son Jeff to an opioid overdose in 2014. She turned her grief into action and founded Truth Pharm, an organization working to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorders, as well as advocating for reform.

    Pleus lives in upstate New York in a small, mostly white community. Truth Pharm recognizes the importance of embracing multiracial organizing all the same. “We invite speakers from racial justice and LGBTQ groups to speak to us,” she explained, “because they have the expertise.”

    If the harm reduction movement wants to effectively address the opioid overdose crisis and more, multiracial organizing isn’t optionalit’s essential to ending the war on people who use drugs.

    • Helen Redmond

      Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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