Pushing the War on Drugs

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In the late 1990s, then Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman was photographed frisking a black man in the city of Camden. Even then people were starting to question these methods, which unfairly target men of color. 


A 1986 protest by the People's Organization for Progress against police brutality and lack of jobs and housing. These factors contributed to young men of color getting involved in the drug trade, something that the War on Drugs failed to address. 

After mass protests and riots in the 1960s, Americans elected Richard Nixon president on a “law and order” platform in 1968. He declared a War on Drugs in 1971. President Ronald Reagan expanded on Nixon’s ideas in the 1980s. Reagan’s hard-line approach included mandatory minimum sentences for sale and possession of illegal substances and the creation of drug free school zones that gave even stiffer penalties to those caught with drugs near a school.

 The main way that the police quantified the effectiveness of the War on Drugs was through number of arrests. Their methods, including stop-and-frisk policing and monitoring of public spaces typically occupied by people of color, led to the mass incarceration of black and Latinx men and women. In Newark, stings in public housing complexes allowed police to break up drug rings, but created an environment of constant surveillance for innocent residents. Police even sectioned off entire neighborhoods, forcing everyone to show ID to get past the barricade.

 Such tactics deepened the rifts between the police and community.

Some young people protested the tight control of their neighborhoods by stealing cars to joyride and perform “doughnuts” (spinning cars to leave skid marks). These acts of bravado, fictionalized in the 1995 film New Jersey Drive, were a way to assert ownership of the street.

“Some kids play sports for identity… Some kids read books to be somebody. And some kids steal cars. So one kid is the quarterback, and one kid is the president of the eighth-grade class and one kid is the doughnut man.”

- Sgt. Henry Alston of the Newark police auto-theft squad