Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: Police disparities in drug arrests

It’s a Friday night in StuVi2 and you and your friends are getting ready to go to a frat party. Music is blaring, the vibe is good and everyone is celebrating the fact that it’s the weekend. For a few hours, you can escape the overwhelming amount of work you have.

While taking a few hits of marijuana, you are aware that the RA can come in and write you up for possession. If you get caught, it’s a 50-50 chance that you will get actually kicked out of that dorm. But it’s an even smaller chance that the RA on call will “stop and frisk” your room, even if they do smell it during nightly rounds.

Not so far away from nearby universities, separated white wall to white wall inside the tiny, but homey duplex, is the Section 8 housing complex located in Pittsburgh’s Hill district. The Hill — a predominantly black neighborhood full of public housing — is framed by the media for drug usage, gun violence and police control.

Sneakers line the floor neatly with pictures of family members and black jazz artists hanging above. Marijuana fills the space that occupies 10 Meiner St., along with the the lyrics “In the kitchen, wrist twistin’ like it’s stir fry,” the same Migos song I hear at frat parties weekly. The same cranky, uneven steps in fraternity basements lead me to the so called “speakeasies” which host Friday night parties. For 21-year-olds, Friday night means fun and partying everywhere, in all communities and spaces.

The only difference? Being caught with possession of marijuana at 10 Meiner St. has vastly different consequences than being caught with marijuana at 33 Harry Agganis Way. A noise complaint from neighbors in StuVi2 could land a write up and low-level consequences, but a noise complaint from neighbors in the Hill district could end your life.

Once you’re a person of color in the criminal justice system, the odds do not go in your favor. Not only would you become a statistic of mass incarceration, but things could also escalate from there. As cases of police brutality storm American houses, neighborhoods and spaces, police violence ending in tragedy is not out of the question.

According to the ACLU, black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, but black people have been around four times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana.

According to Jay Z, during the war on drugs, students at Columbia were using the same amount of drugs as kids in Harlem, but it was the kids of Harlem disproportionately being sent to prison.

The criminal justice system is a racist system, and mass incarceration has transcending effects on many areas of life for black families. Kids growing up without fathers suffer emotionally and become socialized into having lower aspirations by seeing so many people in their communities sent to prison. Families are stripped of their primary source of income, which affects one’s access to resources in life.

If they wanted to, cops could target college kids and find plenty of weed. If mass incarceration was truly about locking up everyone for drugs, all they would have to do is switch the target from low income neighborhoods to frat houses. The amount of substances would certainly be the same — the color of the skin of the people behind bars would not.

Fraternities on a systemic level, and note, not all, have the propensity to promote violent behavior. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “What’s the Difference Between a Frat and Gang?” wrote in his piece for The Atlantic: “The fraternity may be as violent as the gang. Collegiate America may be as dangerous for women as urban America. If sexual violence is a violent crime, then the fraternity of today may be committing as many violent crimes as the gang of the 1990s that spooked fearful Americans into tough-on-crime policies.” Some frat brothers can exhibit more violent behavior than some gang members and never suffer the consequences.

That’s called privilege.

This is not to say that parties do not get busted, that arrests don’t happen or that college is a total free for all. But there is a fundamental difference in policing public spaces on college campuses and in urban neighborhoods, rendering college a safe space for recreational substance use.  The privilege of higher education serves as a protective coat to recreational drugs and avoid becoming a statistic of the mass incarceration epidemic. With that said, the irony of policing emerges as a potent record of structural racism in this country.






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