Parker: The drug war targets Black communities, promotes mass incarceration

Commissioner Mariah Parker
Commissioner Mariah Parker

UPDATE (12/7/21): ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill has responded to Parker’s letter to the editor. You can read his response below.

ACC Commissioner Mariah Parker has been questioning the need for the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force since they first took office in 2018. On Tuesday, the commission will consider whether to accept a $139,460 grant to help defray the cost of continuing the drug war here in Athens.

In the speech below, which Parker plans to give just before the vote, they describe the reasons why they will be voting no. -APN

Thank you, Mayor Girtz. I will not be supporting this item tonight, and to demonstrate why, it’s helpful to revisit this quote from Lee Atwater in 1981, while working under Ronald Reagan: 

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff… and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… 

Just as “busing” and “states’ rights” were used to justify segregation and slavery, Reagan’s “War on Drugs” was meant to cloak the maintenance of racial control in neutral language about “criminals” and being “tough on crime.” Drug laws were changed to disproportionately impact Black people, and billions were funneled into drug law enforcement in order to round up and dispose of Black people en masse and destabilize the communities from which they came. And it worked: in our state, incarceration rates for Black people are nine times higher than the rate of incarceration in any other Western democracy in the world. 

Michelle Alexander details in The New Jim Crow how, when the War on Drugs began, it had many law enforcement officials confused. After all, why would they prioritize drug enforcement when drugs weren’t a significant threat? The federal government used the JAG grant, which we are asked to approve again tonight, to bribe law enforcement entities into rolling out Reagan’s war against Black communities with hundreds of billions of dollars for specialized narcotics task forces (Alexander 2012, p. 72-73). 

The evidence strongly suggests that we have fallen for Lee Atwater’s con. We talk of public safety, but data from the ACC Manager’s Office reveals that 76% of those arrested by the task force this year were African-American, despite studies that have indicated that white and Black people use and sell drugs are similar rates

Now, let’s talk about outcomes. As one journalist at the press conference on Operation Tourniquet noted, most of the men arrested in the operation had previously served time. And it makes sense that, barred from many kinds of legal employment as felons, they would return to drug dealing to sustain themselves. We know that incarceration has a null or even negative effect on re-offense — a criminological fact recently verified by researchers at the University of Chicago — so somebody needs to tell me what we’re doing here beyond routine maintenance of white supremacy. 

The drug market is another senseless cycle. Time and again, we snatch up drug traffickers, who are swiftly replaced by competitors. That’s why, even after Operation Benchwarmers in 2020, we find ourselves in the same position in 2021 with Operation Tourniquet. So long as people abusing drugs can’t get help, the market demand will exist. After many kinds of drugs were decriminalized in Portugal, utilization of treatment services increased sharply and drug related deaths and heroin usage decreased because drug users were no longer scared to seek help. But if they’re scared to get help, and if they can’t get help with housing, employment, and other social determinants of health that, when lacking, drive drug abuse, the black market demand will continue to exist. It doesn’t have to, but so long as we prioritize punishment over rehabilitation and prevention, it will. 

If we judge the Drug War on whether it has made our communities safer and healthier, it has been a failure. It’s only lasting success is in maintaining racial control and destabilizing Black communities. 

So, no, I am not interested in continuing to fund the narcotics task force, federally or locally. I would much prefer to actually disrupt the black market for drugs through well-resourced drug addiction treatment and decriminalization. I would rather see us invest in job programs that create pipelines away from organized crime and into dignified, well-paid work; in youth programs that steer young people away from gangs; and into housing, community gardens, and other interventions based on the legitimate science of public health and not the scheming of racist Republicans who are mostly all dead now.

I am not keen on taking Lee Atwater’s advice or mindlessly perpetuating Ronald Reagan’s legacy. So I will not be supporting acceptance of this grant this evening and hope that, in the coming year, we can reflect on these truths and finally get serious about public safety. Thank you.

Commissioner Mariah Parker

“The Athens-Clarke County minority community continues to be disproportionately impacted by crime, gangs, shootings, violence and deaths, all fueled by the ongoing regional drug trade. The Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force plays a critical role in combating this violence and the negative impacts of the illegal drug trade on our community.

As we prepare for an Athens-Clarke County Mayor & Commission vote concerning a grant application and funding renewal (if awarded) for The Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force (DTF), I want to heighten community awareness of drug-related crime and violence in Athens, and to dispel rhetoric that has recently surfaced in anticipation of this critical vote.

Such rhetoric undermines the legitimate activities of our dedicated officers, turns a blind eye towards the violent crime conditions in Athens-Clarke County, and impedes the collaborative actions we must foster as we address crime and the fear of crime in the Classic City.

In a recent editorial (5 December 2021, Athens Politics Nerd), Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker (District 2) expresses a lack of support for the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force (DTF) and its contributions, and also asserts that such actions directly contribute to disproportionality within the criminal justice system.
Given past efforts to disable, disarm and / or defund the Athens-Clarke Police Department (ACCPD), I am not surprised by the opinions expressed in the editorial. However, with all due respect, I vehemently disagree with such defamatory assertions as to the mission and work performed by the ACCPD, and offer this counter argument in support of the continuation of the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force, a critical element of ACCPD’s crime reduction strategy.

I am of the opinion that the commissioner’s argument ignores the drug-related violence currently plaguing our communities, ignores the vital role the DTF plays in addressing violent drug networks, and attempts to “use the race card” to excuse the behaviors of high-level drug traffickers, violent gang members, and armed prolific offenders who are targeted and arrested by the DTF. It suggests that their behaviors and subsequent consequences should be ignored simply because they are black. I vehemently disagree, and am committed to ensuring that the DTF continues to exists and be allowed to fulfil its mission of removing high-level, violent offenders from our community, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the offenders.

And while a few misguided individuals suggest that we should listen to the voices of academics who have never stepped foot in Athens and who are far removed from the violent and desperate situation that exists in our neighborhoods, I trust that the majority of Athenians will take a look at what is going on in our community and focus on the disturbing facts. The fact is that people of color are disproportionately victimized in their own neighborhoods, where drug overdoses, homicides, and residences riddled with gunfire are an ongoing reality and where the DTF plays a vital role in combating this violence.

The fact is that just yesterday in Athens-Clarke County two women lost their lives due to suspected drug overdoses. Two more African-American women, victims of the deadly drug traffickers who some suggest should be coddled and allowed to peddle their poison in our community without consequences simply because they are black. The facts are that since May 2021, there has been a 243% increase in suspected drug overdose deaths in Athens compared to the same period in 2020. Forty-one percent of the victims in the 2021 overdose death cases were African-American, nearly double their representation in the Athens Community. These numbers would likely be much higher but for many life-saving responses by ACCPD officers and other first responders in this community. In 2021 alone, ACCPD officers have delivered 67 doses of Narcan to individuals suspected of opioid overdoses to counteract the lethal effects of these overdoses. Many of these lives saved are minority lives saved.

Sticking with disproportionality and the facts, let’s look at homicides. Of the 11 homicide victims who lost their lives in Athens between 2018 and today, 9 or 82% were African-American. Three of the four murder victims that lost their lives in 2021 were African-American. Between 2018 and today, 473 or 73% of the total 649 Aggravated Assault victims were African-American. The 2018-2019 Jackson and Ruff homicide investigation should serve as a stark reminder of the drug and gang subculture that exists in Athens. Here we see how a single drug dispute among rival gang members culminated in the deaths of four African-American Athenians.

In December 2018, Walter Brown was fatally shot during a drug-related dispute between various gang members. Four days after Brown’s death Rodriguez Rucker (a relative of one of Brown’s suspected shooters) was gunned down in broad daylight by a rival drug gang member in retaliation for Brown’s murder. Additionally, two Athenians (Derrick Ruff and Joshua Jackson) were lured to Gwinnett County where they were brutally executed by fellow drug gang members. This case highlights the deadly drug subculture that exists in the region and illustrates the need for an effective regional drug task force: Fourth Suspect Charged in Slayings of Two Athens Men.

More facts you should be aware of are that since the beginning of 2021, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department has responded to 149 shooting incidents and recovered more than 898 bullet shell casings related to these shootings. The results of these shootings include 40 people in Athens being shot, with the majority of these being African-American. The latest examples of this ongoing violence include the two black men who were the victims of shootings just last night. In 2021, ACCPD officers have seized more than 393 guns off the streets as part of ACCPD’s efforts to prevent additional shootings and reduce violent crime. We know that shootings occur in our minority communities almost daily and that the large majority of the victims are people of color. These shootings are often carried out by violent drug dealers and gang members using AR-15’s or other high-powered rifles. They result in people of color being disproportionately shot, injured and killed in their own neighborhoods. Homes and vehicles are riddled with gunfire on almost a nightly basis, and in some instances with as many as 65 bullets being fired. Sadly, Athens has become a community where violent drug and gang members are emboldened enough to stream videos of themselves on social media while brandishing guns, AK-47’s, and other assault rifles with high-capacity drum magazines, all while making threats of violence.

I urge the Athens citizens and the Commission not to ignore these troubling facts and to vote to continue the DTF, whose sole purpose is to keep our communities safe from these violent drug offenders.

And what happened to the commitment to remember Auriel Calloway?
Auriel Callaway Press Conference

Have we so quickly forgotten the 24-year-old pregnant African-American mother who was gunned down in front of her home while shielding her 3-year-old child from a barrage of gunfire? Eighty-four bullets were fired that night by violent street gang members fueled by the regional drug trade. While naming a street after the victim is certainly a noble gesture, it will have absolutely no impact on the violence and carnage that is playing out in our neighborhoods daily. Where is the commitment to stopping the violence and not allowing Ms. Calloway’s death to have been in vain? I believe maintaining the DTF should be part of that commitment. The DTF has been and will remain on the front lines of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department’s efforts to remove dangerous, violent drug dealers and gang members from our streets.

I also understand that enforcement is only one aspect of a multi-pronged approach that is needed to address the longstanding social and economic ills that give rise to crime in our communities. With this in mind, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, under my leadership and in collaboration with the Solicitor General’s Office, became among the first and very few law enforcement agencies in the state to implement a Pre-Arrest Diversion Program. This program is aimed at funneling low-level, nonviolent offenders toward mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, resource provision, and other alternatives in lieu of prosecution and incarceration. Our commitment to youth engagement is also unquestionable, with our many youth programs and initiatives offered by the department throughout the year. And please consider that each year since my arrival in 2019, I have sought to expand this commitment by asking for funding for a Youth Cadet Program. I believe in the value of this program and the opportunities it would provide to at-risk youth in our community and will continue to request for funding to start this currently unfunded initiative.

By now you have all heard my story. You know that I come from a humble background, where poverty, crime, and violence were a daily reality. The same type of crime and violence that I see today playing out in our Athens communities. My past personal experiences and my more than 34 years of experience in policing have taught me the value of units such as the DTF and that they are our best opportunity to combat drug-related crime and violence in order to keep our neighborhoods safe. It is my sincere hope that tonight the Commission will look past the rhetoric and misinformation, and be attentive to the death, violence, and despair that plagues our communities by voting to approve the JAG Grant so that we can continue the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force.”

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