Since George Floyd was horrifically murdered by Minneapolis cops on May 25, events have unfolded dramatically, and amid worldwide protests, conversations about police brutality and racism—and responses from defunding to abolition—have become mainstream like never before.
One powerful voice in the outcry will come as no surprise to people familiar with harm reduction and drug policy reform. Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance* has been speaking out compellingly on these issues for years. Currently DPA’s managing director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Frederique will, in September, take over as that preeminent organization’s executive director—a prospect that energizes the whole field.
On May 28, Frederique issued a statement in response to Floyd’s death: “With George Floyd most recently, Breonna Taylor earlier this month, and countless others before them, perceived drug possession and drug use served as a justification by law enforcement to dehumanize, strip dignity from, and ultimately kill people of color,” she wrote.
While Frederique had previously said she wanted to hold off on media interviews until taking up her new position, circumstances are exceptional, and she agreed to elaborate on her statement to Filter. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Elizabeth Brico: At the beginning of your press release, you discussed the fact that Officer Thao, who prevented bystanders from interfering in George Floyd’s murder, used anti-drug rhetoric to defend what was happening. “Don’t do drugs, kids,” he said. What are the wider implications of those words?
Kassandra Frederique: I think it’s important for folks to realize that it is not an innate thing that Black people get killed by law enforcement. Some people might struggle with that because of the history of people of color and law enforcement and slavery and child slavery and different institutions that have criminalized and killed and maimed people, but the fact that people of color—Black people and Indigenous folks—are getting killed is based on a set of decisions and policies. It’s a culture that we have built.
So it’s important, when people are killed by law enforcement, that we point to the reasons that create the circumstances of the issue at hand. There are countless decisions that were made that led to the killing of George Floyd. There were countless decisions made that led to the situation of Breonna Taylor being killed in her bed. If we are not situating these killings in that way, then one can feel completely overwhelmed, and have no sense of direction about how to get to the answer.
Is there not another potential actor who can fill in this role?
What are the surrounding circumstances that create the confluence of factors that lead to an extrajudicial killing? Why do they have so many officers responding? Why is it we are calling law enforcement to deal with something like potential forgery? Is there not another potential actor who can fill in this role? Why is it that law enforcement feels the need to restrain someone, and be on camera and feel like the camera is not a deterrent to the abusive acts that were happening?
And then, why does Officer Thao think that saying, “Don’t do drugs, kids,” is an effective line of reasoning to try to quell down the crowd that has now surrounded them?
There are multiple decisions, multiple strategies creating the confluence of factors that killed George Floyd that day. Leading them all is that he was a Black man, and society’s decision about Black men in public space, in private space, is that they must be watched, must be surveilled, must be met with aggression, and that killing is a justifiable outcome in navigating situations with them. And obviously that can be said about anyone who is not a cis white man.
How is the drug war used as a tool for racism, particularly against the Black community?
Audre Lorde says we are not single-issue people. She has that beautiful quote, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” It’s important for folks that do drug policy reform work to acknowledge that.
While the drug war might be the most present factor that is criminalizing, harming and killing our folks, there are multiple other issues that are happening in the lives of our people that are exacerbating the fact that the drug war is present in their lives. It can be housing, it can be unemployment, it can be mental health, it can be food insecurity, it can be so many different issues. The drug war, though most present in some of our lives, is not acting alone.
When it comes to racism, the drug war is most certainly not acting alone. The drug war is acting as a force multiplier in the everyday lives of people, and our strategies and our campaigns and our messaging have to take that into account. Ending the drug war will not end racism, just like legalizing marijuana did not legalize Black people. So we can’t say it will, and we have to build out the capacity to understand what else is going to be necessary to care about the people we care about.
Just like naloxone isn’t going to be the thing that ends the overdose crisis, [ending] the drug war is not the thing that is going to end racism.
It’s not just that I care about people who use drugs, right? I care about people who are struggling with homelessness, people without active healthcare, and those people might be the same people. In order to end the drug war, we might need to pay attention to: How are we making sure people are housed? How are we making sure people have access to healthcare? How are we making sure people have access to food? All these things matter.
I think one of the biggest examples of this is if you look at syringe exchanges and you see all the additional services that they offer in addition to giving people access to unused equipment. We can’t just care about people’s drug use; we have to care about how they are operating in the world. If you give someone naloxone and you revive them, and then they leave and they walk down the block and get killed by law enforcement, did you really save a life? You saved it for that moment, but if we’re not really working to end state violence, all you did was delay their death.
There is no naloxone for racism. Just like naloxone isn’t going to be the thing that ends the overdose crisis, [ending] the drug war is not the thing that is going to end racism. We have to work on multiple issues to deal with the overdose crisis, just like we have to deal with multiple issues to end racism. We can pick our piece of the puzzle as the drug war, but we can’t pretend like it’s the whole thing, and we can’t pretend that our work is going to be as helpful … if we are not talking about race as well.
What you think about the use of curfews in response to the protests and the pandemic, especially in the context of people who use drugs?
It’s so interesting to watch people engage with the curfew, because it’s the curfew in wide use. But I think for people who are of color, and people who are trans or non-binary, there’s always been a curfew. It seems like the curfew is about controlling where you can move and how long you can stay in certain places. You see this with Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper in Central Park in New York, where she’s telling this person to leave and move along, and she’s enforcing her own version of the curfew. She was done with this person and wanted this person to be out of her sight.
There are so many marginalized groups that are already living under a curfew.
People who use drugs and people who are drug-involved are consistently challenged in public space. It’s as if people don’t want to see them. What was incredible about the curfew is that [other] people experienced a modicum of that—to not have the agency to be in different parts of your neighborhood or other places because the state said so. That happens all the time to people who use drugs, people that are homeless, people that are broke, people that are trans.
There are so many marginalized groups that are already living under a curfew, that watching society rise up to push back on the curfew was incredibly inspiring. It gave me this incredible desire to stand up for other people who are living under a curfew every single day, in a pandemic or not.
In addition to racism, your release mentioned discrimination based on “one’s perceived gender—as our trans siblings know all too well—or one’s socio-economic status.” Can you recommend trans leaders who can teach us more? And what would you add about socio-economic status?
Tamika Spellman. Another person who is not a trans woman but does work on this directly and has done a lot of work on this is Andrea Richie. I’m a part of collective called In Our Name Network, and it’s a collective of Black women working against police violence, and it’s cis and trans women together.
We can’t pretend classism is not a defining factor in the way that people experience the drug war. Poor communities are more over-policed than other places. They have less access to supports, and are also not given the benefit of the doubt in the same ways as people with more resources, and there is a way that our criminal legal system looks down on poor people, and society does too.
The likelihood of people caring whether or not you live and breathe is based on this redacted version of dignity that people have ascribed to your life.
So when you have a situation where you’re seen as less-than, the punishment and the way that the system interacts with your life is seen as less-than. When you have a situation of people struggling with drugs, which is already an identity that is less-than, and then you are also of a lower socioeconomic status, that confluence is one that can’t be ignored.
Then, when you add race on top of it and potentially citizenship, you are literally a walking target. And the likelihood of people caring whether or not you live and breathe is based on this redacted version of dignity that people have ascribed to your life.
Some areas that saw an overall decline in overdose fatalities in 2018 still saw an increase in overdose fatalities among Black people. How are efforts to mitigate the harms of drug use failing Black communities and how can we do better?
I think the thing we are navigating is the same thing that we see with these police deaths. It’s this recognition that we don’t actually give a damn about whether Black people live or die. That the death of Black people is not a rallying cry, it is not enough to marshal resources or attention. They are not deserving of dignity and sanctity of life.
The perception is that Latinx, Indigenous and Black people are always going to struggle with drug use and addiction because there is something culturally inept with them.
That’s why movements like Black Lives Matter are so central, because Black drug users’ lives matter. They do, even if the doctors and the researchers and the agencies don’t think they do, they do.
The perception around the drug war and race is that Latinx, Indigenous and Black people are always going to struggle with drug use and addiction because there is something culturally inept with them. What we saw with the overdose crisis is the perception that this being a middle-class, white issue is not normal, and therefore we need to motivate and push forward together, so we can save those lives—white lives.
You’re asking about Black lives, but we don’t even hear the mention of Indigenous lives, whose rates [of overdose] are rival if not higher. We are also not always tracking the lives of Latinx folks, and so while we are ignoring Black lives, we are also not having full conversations about people who are struggling.
So it just reinforces the need for us to elevate that Black Lives Matter is a movement for drug policy and harm reduction. It’s not just the extrajudicial killing by law enforcement that is killing Black people—it’s the extrajudicial killings of the healthcare system that are killing Black people; the extrajudicial killings of the housing industry that are killing Black people; the extrajudicial killings of employment that are killing Black people; and it’s the extrajudicial killings of the drug war that are killing Black people, and Indigenous people and Latinx people.
That goes back to the point that I made in the beginning, which is that we are not navigating single issues. All the reasons why Officer Chauvin felt he could put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes without fear of accountability are the same reasons why people can take victory laps on declining overdose numbers and not see that it’s still a major issue that overdose is rising among Black folks. It’s the same fruit from the poisonous tree.
The issue of breath seems to keep coming up: police chokeholds and “I can’t breathe” protests, COVID, opioid overdose deaths… I don’t really have a fully formed question, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
Breathing is what reminds you that you are alive. If you don’t have breath, you don’t have life. Breathing also, when you illustrate it, you know, they do the cartoon and when breath comes out, it’s the essence of your being. It can be a physical explanation of your soul.
I think COVID, the fact that people are being choked out, and overdose are all running into each other right now, and what we see on the streets and what we are witnessing as a society is potentially the last breath, the last dregs of this version of white supremacy.
We can’t keep doing CPR forever. We can’t keep reviving people to have to revive them again.
One of the things we know about overdose is that we have to teach each other CPR. We pump the chest and then we breathe into each other. But, you know, you can’t do that with COVID. [Chauvin] literally could have just lifted his knee. I think the thing is, we can’t keep doing CPR forever. We can’t keep reviving people to have to revive them again.
This moment is really about asking: How do we create new breath in a way that is more sustainable and is not based on someone giving a damn? How do we make sure that our movement is sustainable, that we are building sustainability, not based on whether people are paying attention to us or not? People paying attention [or not] is based on [their] assumptions. We want it to be as natural as your everyday breath.
What is DPA doing to continue the fight to remove drug involvement as what you described as a “cover for disregarding the dignity and sanctity of human life?”
What we are doing in this moment is really elevating the work that we have done in the past and what we will continue to do. We are reinvigorating our work on defunding the DEA, which is super-important considering that the DEA is one of the main agencies that funds and enforces the drug war. It’s wild that in this moment, the federal government gave the DEA more power to surveil protests and communities, using the same technologies that they use to surveil our community; these are now being used on everybody, which really reinvigorates our fight that the DEA should be abolished.
We know that our piece of the puzzle is to help starve the beast—so as everyone is talking about defunding police, DPA’s part in that fight is making sure to end the funding that leads to the militarization of law enforcement, which is largely funded because of the drug war.
Police departments got really suited up based on drug war money. Practices like no-knock and quick-knock raids are the things that kill people, like Breonna Taylor in her own bed. We gotta take that out. So DPA is joining the fight to defund the police by really focusing on what is the funding, how can we disrupt and end the funding streams of the drug war, and then how do we capture that money and actually put that into harm reduction services, housing, evidence-based substance use treatment?
We need to identify the “police” in all the systems.
And then also, how do we call out drug-war policing in people’s everyday lives? People are having a conversation about policing that’s focused on law enforcement, but we gotta talk about these social workers; we gotta talk about teachers; we gotta talk about hospital administrators that are creating the circumstances for people to be killed, and that are creating the circumstances for people to be harmed, and criminalized and destabilized. People aren’t doing cop-watch on that, but they need to.
We need to identify the “police” in all the systems. Where is the policing happening of people who use drugs that are applying to a job at Walmart? Why are we drug testing everyone? One in five people are food-insecure. Why do we have federal bans on SNAP or TANF benefits for people who have drug felonies? Why? I think, for us, it’s about elevating the role of: What does drug war policing look like, and how do we abolish it?
What are your recommendations for people who want to learn more about the relationship between racism and the drug war?
I think folks should follow DPA. I think they should follow Harm Reduction Coalition. I think they should follow the various drug user unions. There are a bunch of harm reduction coalitions in your state, and you should follow them all. I think people should watch films like The House I Live In, and Grass Is Greener. I think people should watch 13th. I think people should read Michelle Alexander’s book, I think people should read Carl Hart’s book. They should read Maia Szalavitz’s book. They should look at the work that Movement For Family Power is doing on child welfare and the drug war.
DPA has webinars every month with drug researchers highlighting different issues. I think people should look into groups like the In Our Name network. I think folks should look into Latino Justice, the Immigrant Legal Research Center, and Immigrant Defense Project. TruthPharm in Upstate New York is doing amazing work around child welfare reform, the drug war and justice; Alexis Pleus is doing amazing anti-racist organizing in Binghamton, New York. There’s so many people doing amazing things.
It’s just an honor and a privilege to be under the tutelage and leadership of people who are really putting their lives on the line every single day to fight for the dignity and sanctity of others, and it is an honor to fight.
Photograph of Kassandra Frederique by Daniel Shapiro, whose website is here.
*DPA has previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.