“I was 13 when I first became a target of the War on Drugs. Back then, I didn’t know we were at war.”
In 2010, the Guardian reported that the proportion of Black people in prison in England and Wales is higher than that in the United States. In the US, the proportion of Black people in prison is up to four times greater than their share of the population, while in Britain (excluding Scotland), the number of incarcerated Black people is almost seven times greater than their share of population.
This, of course, is nothing new, and the issue has divided Western societies ever since the end of slavery. When confronted on the topic, politicians and academics typically retreat to their right-left comfort zones of ‘disproportionate crime in certain communities’ versus ‘unfair social factors’, such as racism and poverty. Some would give you an elaborate explanation about a disenfranchised and alienated community who feel excluded from society, and feel no obligation to obey the rules. However, what many ignore is the vast number of young Black males targeted by police due to the so-called War on Drugs.
I was 13 when I first became a target of the War on Drugs. Back then, I didn’t know we were at war. It was the summer before I was entering Year 9 of secondary school and I had a lot of time on my hands. There were three of us; two of us walking, one on push bike as we made our way to the local summer club. We were walking slowly and taking the day in as my friend went on about Manchester United winning the League, and protesting that Ruud van Nistlerooy was a better striker than Thierry Henry. Then a car pulled up, a green Ford. We paid it no attention and carried on walking, until they got out of the car. Two large white men, dressed in jeans and fleeces. The handcuffs and truncheons hanging from their belts were the only indication that they were police.
“Stand over there, boys,” the bald one said, pointing at a wall.
“Why?” my friend asked. He was always defiant and quick to argue.
“Because I told you too,” the cop said, brazenly flashing his badge. Once we had done as we were told, the second officer walked up and stood over us – three 13 year old boys.
“I smell cannabis sarge’” he exclaimed, as he sniffed at the air.
“I smell it too,” the bald officer said as he put on his gloves.
“Your chattin’ shit we ain’t been smokin’,” my friend boldly retorted.
“Oi, watch it!” He snarled, threatening us with the wag of his finger. “Now, do you boys have anything on you that you shouldn’t have? Any drugs or weapons?”
“No” I replied immediately, feeling afraid of their presence.
“Well, my colleague and I are going do a small search because the smell of cannabis is very strong.”
Both my friends began to protest immediately by this point. “We ain’t been smokin weed” one would say, but my calm and collected friend simply said “it’s because we’re black”.
“Keep on with that mate and I will arrest you for racial abuse,” the bald police officer warned, and my friend fell silent. We all did. At that point we realised how powerless we were.
“My friend fell silent. We all did. At that point we realised how powerless we were.”
These officers were in control, and as they could claim to smell cannabis, we could do nothing to protest. Any complaints were likely to land us in cuffs for an hour or so. We submitted and they proceeded to search us, but not before another car arrived for back up – lest three apparently stoned 13 year olds were a threat or danger. They took us one by one, went through every last pocket and patted us down. Next came the name check, but only after we were all quizzed on whether we were giving our real names. Even now I remember how uncomfortable I felt, and how afraid I was.
In the end, the officers found nothing and sent us on our way, but that twenty minute encounter would be my first indication of what to expect during my summer holidays for the next five years.
Over the years it got a lot worse before it got better. Most of the time, the apparent smell of cannabis seemed to be the reason. There was one summer when a group of friends and I were stopped three times and searched twice within an hour; each time cannabis was the reason, and each time no cannabis was found. Most recently, when I returned home late after a night at the university library, I had a police car stalk me all the way to my road – driving less than a mile per hour, never stopping. They didn’t stop me, perhaps they couldn’t smell the mythical cannabis, but it did get me thinking.
Recently, I read a viral tweet that rang true to my experience. In my life, the places where drugs seemed to be most freely available – namely universities and festivals – the police have been absent. All my experiences with police officers who are fighting the War on Drugs have occurred in areas of high ethnic minority backgrounds. Perhaps that is why Black people maintain an average of 20% of Britain’s prison population, despite Black people only accounting for 3% of the national population. Indeed, figures released in 2012 show that British police are 28 times more likely to stop-and-search a person of colour, with no evidence, than a white person.
The truth is simple; the War on Drugs has done little else than target Black males between 13 and 21 – criminalising a countless number of them. How many young people have had their lives ruined because police found small quantities of drugs no more harmful than alcohol on their person? Further still, how many more young people will have to face useless and wasteful stop-and-search procedures because some cops feel the need to throw their weight around in poor areas which are mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities?
The amount of drugs one could find on the average boy hanging out with friends on a Peckham council estate could likely be eclipsed by the drugs that could be found in the possession of a UCL philosophy student. Yet the police won’t be spotted performing stop-and-searches due to the imaginary smell of cannabis in Russell Square.
Yohanes Scarlett is a former Evening Standard intern, Politics and International Relations graduate, broadcaster, writer, social activist and the founder of the Diaspora Channel.