In the middle of the dual crisis of COVID-19 and opioid overdose, the systemic racism of our criminal justice system raised its ugly head with the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, after a long line of violent and unjust law enforcement incidents. To remain silent was simply no longer an option, so people have taken to the streets to condemn racism and demand justice.
Mothers across the cultural spectrum mourn the loss of their children to an overarching and punitive criminal justice system and incarceration, but dramatically more so in black communities, where it has become infuriatingly normalized to have a father in prison. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
My two sons struggled for decades with addiction to heroin, although they were born to white privilege. My older son was arrested for possession of marijuana when he was 20 years old, and spent 11 years cycling in and out of prison for non-violent drug offenses and relapse. He is a survivor of both incarceration and accidental overdose. My younger son was also damaged by criminal justice involvement, which created significant roadblocks to recovery. Both were stigmatized and criminalized, and our family struggled with societal shame, mounting financial pressures and emotional pain.
The drug war is a war on people and it was designed to control and harm people of color. It has cost over a trillion dollars over the past 4+ decades, and created a system of mass arrest and incarceration, disproportionately affecting black and brown communities.
Moms who have gone through immense hardships to migrate to another country so that their children have a chance to live and prosper are having their sons and daughters torn from them when they arrive in the United States. We have a humanitarian crisis at our border.
Mothers who were found to be using drugs, despite any evidence of child neglect or abuse, have had their children taken away by Child Protective Services and placed in foster care, a flawed system that during COVID-19 can affect a parent’s ability to even visit their child. Besides the trauma of separation, removing a child can be a missed opportunity to provide a treatment incentive for the parent. These policies have had a deeply harmful effect on communities of color and poverty.
Moms are deeply grieving the loss of a loved one to overdose. A person dies every 11 minutes of an overdose in the US today. This is particularly frustrating and enraging as many of these overdose deaths could have been prevented with harm reduction strategies and naloxone (a safe drug that can quickly reverse an opioid overdose).
And although our country has endured decades of blatant prejudice and injustice to communities of color by the criminal justice complex, most recently and vividly we heard George Floyd call out for his mama as he was being slowly murdered by a police officer who held him down with a knee on his neck for almost 9 minutes.
My sons are now in their forties, and both are in long-term recovery, working as drug and alcohol counselors. Together we advocate for harm reduction strategies and an end to the failed war on drugs. They came through my body and will forever be connected to my spirit and soul. We all are human beings and we share the fact that we all have a mother who brought us into this world. So, it’s time to listen to moms. We see, feel, smell and taste when our children are harmed. We hope, we fear, we experience sadness and joy as our children go through their life experiences.
We understand the intersection of racism, the war on poverty, immigrant and LGBTQ prejudicial policies and the drug war. Silence creates a form of acceptance, so we must speak out for tolerance and equality, particularly when times are tough and we fear we no longer have a voice. If we hesitate and fail to protect the rights of others and look away in a self-protective stance, we will have lost our humanity, and in the process, evil will have won over good. Now more than ever, we need to work in coalition and with respect for one another.
We must all raise our voices for change together because we are losing far too many precious lives. Moms must be vigilant in promoting and protecting humane and life affirming policies, and in resisting all forms of hatred and bigotry. Too many moms are mourning.
Gretchen Burns Bergman is Co-Founder / Executive Director of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing), and Lead organizer of Moms United to End the War on Drugs. www.momsunited.net
This article appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune 7/14/20