Terence Crutcher, Latest Victim of Drug War-Fueled American Racism

Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby fatally shot unarmed Terence Crutcher, age 40, on 9/16/2016 (Image: Heavy.com)
Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby fatally shot unarmed Terence Crutcher, age 40, on 9/16/2016 (Image: Heavy.com)

Yet another unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, gunned down by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, responding to a call about Crutcher’s stalled SUV blocking traffic.

Yet another police report of an uncooperative black suspect who had to be shot to protect officer safety…

“He refused to follow commands given by the officers,” Tulsa Police spokeswoman Jeanne MacKenzie said. “They continued to talk to him; he continued not to listen and follow any commands. As they got closer to the vehicle, he reached inside the vehicle and at that time there was a Taser deployment and a short time later there was one shot fired.”

…immediately shown to be lies by video evidence showing the unarmed black man with his hands in the air as he’s gunned down by one cop with another three cops standing nearby.

Betty Shelby Terence Crutcher
Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby fatally shot unarmed Terence Crutcher, age 40, on 9/16/2016 (Image: Heavy.com)

“I’ve shot a subject who won’t show me his hands,” said Officer Betty Shelby over the police radio just after killing Terence Crutcher.

How does Shelby not see what we can see plainly in two videos – Terence Crutcher showing his hands?

Simple. According to Shelby’s attorney, “Shelby, who has completed drug-recognition expert training, believed that Crutcher was acting like a person who might be under the influence of PCP.”

The police in the helicopter overhead saw a madman on drugs as well. “Looks like a bad dude, too,” said one of the cops to the other cop who happened to be David Shelby, Betty’s husband. “Could be on something.”

Bad dude. On something. PCP!

In the killing of Terence Crutcher we can still hear the racist fear-mongering that led to our first prohibitionist drug laws over a century ago.

(Wikipedia) The drafters [of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act] played on fears of “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes” and made references to Negroes under the influence of drugs murdering whites, degenerate Mexicans smoking marijuana, and “Chinamen” seducing white women with drugs. Dr. Hamilton Wright, testified at a hearing for the Harrison Act. Wright alleged that drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers and caused them to rebel against white authority. Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania testified that “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain”.

I’m a tall, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-aged, middle-class, white American male. I’m just a Bible short of the gold medal in the privilege decathlon. So I ask the following questions from a place of ignorance borne of privilege but certainly seeking understanding:

How much of the police killing of unarmed black men owes to the War on Drugs?

Is drug prohibition a symptom of systemic racism, a mechanism of maintaining systemic racism, or some of both?

Certainly systemic racism in America pre-dates the Drug War, but can addressing systemic racism proceed without dismantling the Drug War?

My view as a white drug law reformer is limited, but what I see is a War on Drugs that by its design is waged largely in poor neighborhoods against black and brown people. Those people involved in the trade, by the nature of prohibition, must band together in gangs and arm themselves for disputes. This feeds the preconceived notion of cops that those are “bad neighborhoods” and they respond as an occupying force. Rinse and repeat and you have generations of law enforcement and the public conditioned to see black men, especially young and/or large ones, as an inherent threat.

But also as a white drug law reformer, I’ve seen legalization come to pass in four states now where the remaining marijuana crimes are still disproportionately charged against black and brown people, sometimes more so now than under prohibition. I’ve seen laws and regulations written that deny licenses to those who were caught and convicted in the prohibition market, who, of course, were more likely to be minorities. I’ve seen governments in the medical marijuana states hold rigorous licensing procedures that somehow include no minorities and write stringent licensing requirements unattainable by any black applicant.

So suppose we end the War on Drugs tomorrow. All drugs are legally available to adults over 21 nationwide, with reasonable limits based on drug potency and potential for harm. How much does that change racist law enforcement in America, really? I like to think that ending the Drug War can do nothing but help, but sometimes I wonder if it would.

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 191 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Russ Belville Show - The Voice of the Marijuana Nation, a two-hour live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on RadicalRuss.com (learn more on our Podcast page).  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 50 North American cities.