Content warning: racism, violence, forced miscarriage.
I was on my way to the airplane that would take me back home, to Canada. I boarded the train between the Atlanta airport’s two terminals, eyes bleary from sleep deprivation and last night’s makeup. A blind man and an airport employee helping him walked onto the train, led by his dog. Minutes passed in silence before he told a story, out of the blue, foggy eyes staring at nothing.
“One time I was leaving a store, and my dog, she led me into the wrong car,” he said to his helper. “It wasn’t my wife in the front seat. ‘I think you’re in the wrong car,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I think you’re right,’ I said.”
I shifted my backpack and smiled at the story.
“I’m just glad she didn’t have a .45 on her,” the blind man added.
“Yeah. That would have been messy,” the helper responded.
They said it seriously, but so casually. Like it was nothing. Normal.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down crying.
* * *
Just five days in the U.S. south, at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, changed how I view the work I’m doing. I’m a PhD student who studies the effects of drug prohibition on drug users and sellers. I know about gun violence, about racial oppression, about how the War on Drugs systematically targets the poor and people of colour. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve talked to people, I’ve done a Master’s degree’s worth of ethnographic research on the subject. I’ve lived in Mexico and seen the ugly effects of cartel power in person. There’s a reason I’m doing this work. But I’d never seen what I saw in Atlanta, so much in so few days.
Monstrous things that seemed to faze no one. Monochromatic homelessness, all black. I was catcalled constantly on the street, and then later told I was an idiot for walking alone at night at all – you can’t do that here. The transit security guard on the subway had a gun. I guess all of them do. I got a physical shiver when I saw it, a weight in my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a gun in person. I live in the kind of place where you can go months, even years without seeing a gun.
I heard story after story of people being arrested for drugs, years of their lives and their mental and physical health taken away from them, families destroyed. Racial tension was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Buzzing, insidious, toxic textures at the periphery of the senses. Fear seeped from the walls and coated every interaction. Hackles raised, human connection difficult without concerted effort. I made the effort and was rewarded with tiny moments of solidarity, bright sparks, smiles. Atlanta, like the US as a whole, is full of good, kind people, trapped in a cultural venn diagram of overlapping toxic systems that are slowly killing them and keep them turned against each other instead of against the systems themselves.
White supremacy is real, and it is everywhere. The geographic and economic segregation along racial lines was astounding. I sat eating a Big Mac in a McDonald’s at 11 pm on a Wednesday, the only white person among 30 black people. I then walked six blocks north and was hit by a wall of white bodies in confederate flag shirts—returning from a Garth Brooks concert, I later learned. I was very uncomfortable in the latter situation and felt fine in the former, but the sheer, naked, normalized segregation in both made me deeply uneasy.
I sent my partner a drunk text about how the food here didn’t feel digestible. That Big Mac haunted me. It was like eating ash and plastic, no nutrition at all. You don’t have to believe me, but I mean this honestly when I say that American fast food is worse than the fast food I’ve eaten in any other country. You can taste the difference in agricultural production and food standards. It hurt to think that it’s all that millions of people can afford. It’s barely food. They deserve so much better.
I fended off catcalls as I walked home that night, a deep sense of shame and disgust at my skin colour setting in already, at how I was necessarily perceived to be one more white link in the chains that hold half that country hostage. I couldn’t hide my whiteness, so I shamefully found myself hoping people would at least notice my broken glasses and crappy old boots and think I’m poorer than I am. I’m not wealthy—I just barely identify as middle class—but I am not poor. Not like the homeless man to whom I gave my change instead of all the money in my pocket like I should have. My partner and I don’t make much money, but with free health care and the various other social and academic supports I have access to, I can afford to fly to conferences in other countries where I deal with the embarrassment of being a walking pile of privilege by hoping my taped-up glasses camouflage my relative wealth. I have to remind myself as I walk by that those people don’t have nothing because I have something: those people have nothing because a small handful of people have everything, and will not share until we make them. I channel that knowledge back into my work. Guilt is not productive. Action is.
The next day at the conference, I listened to a formerly incarcerated black woman on a panel tell her story. She was in federal prison for selling drugs, and she was pregnant when she was locked up. The water that came out of the taps in the prison was brown. She told them she couldn’t drink it, and they told her to go thirsty. One day, she began feeling pain in her belly. They took her to the infirmary—they didn’t have the right paperwork to get her to a hospital, and didn’t bother finding it. They shackled her, bleeding, to the bed, as she begged for help. She miscarried and lost her child. They threw her sheets, and the fetus, into the trash. Soon she was forced to return to her “job,” welding bunk beds for the men’s prison. Three beds high, three feet of vertical space per bed. The audience quietly cried as we listened. She sold things to people who wanted them, and the state robbed her of unborn child and gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hers was not the only story like this.
* * *
I was saved by the people at the conference, hundreds of tiny lights in a landscape of confused darkness. Activists, scholars, authors, health care workers, psychonauts, researchers, patients, libertarians, socialists. All of us bound together by the knowledge that drug prohibition is the modern day Jim Crow and the driving force behind death and destruction in the Americas. We clung to each other for sanity, sharing our successes and failures, our experiences, our self-care rituals. Every victory was tainted by the knowledge that while capitalism stands, its vultures will always find a way to profit and oppress. Marijuana is being legalized—great! But anyone with a felony record is barred from working in the legal market, meaning all the people of colour who were selling it before—shit. Companies who make ankle GPS trackers, video call systems for prisons, and opioid medications pour billions of dollars into lobbying to maintain the system the way it is, while Black and Latinx communities have their young men stolen from them and their women and children surveilled by the state through the welfare system.
“Poor activist communities are being destroyed by the prison system,” said one panelist. “If you want to disrupt social justice, put all the men in prison and all the women under welfare surveillance.”
One woman on a psychedelics panel was asked about her experiences. She said she could never fully relax and enjoy a journey, given the space she occupies in the world. “Not even psychedelics can bring me to a place where I can escape from the reality of being black in America.”
Later I sat and watched Falcons fans on the way to a football game, laughing and shouting like everything was fine, and wondered if I was going mad.
Sometimes, among drug policy activists, it feels like we’re the band playing on the Titanic. Sometimes it feels like maybe we can make a difference, like we’ll win. Like there’s no way we can’t win when all the evidence, and all the empathy, is on our side. But it doesn’t matter either way. We have to try. There’s just no other option.
We have to do this work. Or who will?
* * *
Tiny squares of paper, an unlikely team: Leslie, from San Francisco, and Mark, a 21-year-old from New Mexico who’d never been outside his home state. All conferences have a culture of drinking—the culture at this one is a bit more unique.
Fear and loathing in Atlanta, hotel escalators like an Escher drawing. We managed to get to a club, where I danced like I could drown out my thoughts if I just moved hard enough. I listened to the lyrics of all my favourite hip-hop songs as if I’d never heard them before. Pain, power, poetry. They wrapped around my heart and pulled it down into the ground. The energy on the dance floor, the smiles, the movement—they crackled with intensity. I never wanted to leave.
Later, we stayed up til long past sunrise, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced that week. Legs stretched out on the hotel carpet, ears ringing. Talking to Leslie that night had been a moderating influence in the stark differences I kept seeing between our two countries. There were certain things she said didn’t exist in San Francisco either. But still, I began to feel terrible for how many times I pointed out how things like needing to carry mace with you is not normal in Canada, and should not be normal anywhere, let alone a country with this much wealth and resources. Transit officers with guns on the subway should not be normal. Having to ask whether the tap water is potable should not be normal. Fearing shootings in public should not be normal. Spatial segregation by race and class in a multiracial society should not be normal. Having to create GoFundMes to pay for surgery should not be normal. People fighting tooth and nail to keep professional sports team names that are straight-up racial slurs should not be normal.
Canada, like every country, has many serious problems that need immediate attention. I could write endless pages about what’s wrong with the capitalist, colonial state that I live in (and I often do.) Racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia—they all exist in my home too. But it’s not the same. It’s just not.
Sometimes, we just sat in silence, the weak morning sun peeking through the hotel curtains.
“I’ve been very angry and afraid of other people for a very long time,” realized Mark numbly.
* * *
I’m not naïve: I knew all of this existed. I’ve been obsessed with American politics, how similar our two cultures seem until you scratch beneath the surface, for years. It’s not possible to be a hip-hop fan from a young age, or study the War on Drugs for a living, and avoid the global vortex of injustice and power that centres on the US. But knowing about it, and coming face to face with the sheer day-to-day mundanity of it all, are two different things. I’ve been all over the West and Northeast, where the cracks in the cultural pavement are more subtle, but touching and seeing and smelling a Southern American city for the first time, while listening to first-hand stories from around the country, poured gasoline on my deep belief that to accept conditions like this as “just the way things are” is the most dangerous possible reaction. The normalization of structural violence, white supremacy and drug prohibition allows all of it to continue, at a scale that boggles the mind. I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want to accept it.
Judges who own bail companies and have shares in private prisons is not okay. A man facing five years in prison for picking mushrooms in a forest in Washington is an outrageous injustice. Thousands being held without even being charged, imprisoned for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Dozens of people shot every day by police. Women sexually violated by roadside cavity searches. All because human beings like getting high, and a group of wealthy, powerful people figured out how to turn that desire into capital by weaponizing racial oppression.
None of this is okay. Nobody deserves this kind of life.
I love Americans, I really do. They are incredible people, and so many of them have accomplished amazing things in the face of all this oppression. Watching American activists at work, fighting tirelessly under such difficult conditions, inspires me every day to work harder, work better, listen more closely, see more critically. But the country itself, the ideas that prop it up… How can we wake up the white American prohibition-supporting mainstream—which includes most liberals—to what is happening to people in their own country because of their complacency? I want to run around and shake people. Rip out the tentacles of media propaganda poisoning their minds, convincing vast swaths of the US that it’s their neighbours who are the problem, not corruption and inequality.
I guess it’s easier to be in denial, to feel like surely all those black people are wrong, overreacting with their protests and kneeling, than to confront the fact that your whole worldview is based on a mammoth lie. They’re like cult members—they just double down on their beliefs when they’re confronted with reality, because changing those fundamental beliefs, admitting the lie, would be too painful to bear. Maybe that’s how we need to start treating Trump supporters: like cult members who need deprogramming. They’ve bought into a certain narrative, that the US is fundamentally good, and to shatter that illusion would destroy a part of their very identity, their sense of self. Maybe we need to give them an out that allows them to shift that narrative towards something that provides the same positive identity, but acknowledges the truth: if you love your country, the most patriotic thing you can do is help to make it better for everyone in it.
* * *
It was Sunday morning. I’d slept for two disoriented hours. As I walked towards the subway train that would take me to the airport and the sweet sanctuary of home, I was torn between desperately wanting out, and feeling an urgent need to stay—there’s not enough time, I need to talk to more people. As if there could be an amount of time, or enough conversations, that would quiet the existential dread in my belly.
I passed a Muslim family outside the subway station. I wanted to run up to them, to every person of colour I saw and tell them I’m sorry for how hard it is to be them on this continent. I want them to know that I see them, I see what the world is doing to them, and it’s not okay, and I’m doing what I can to change things. That their experiences are real and valid. I don’t want to be one more person feeding into the twilight zone society that pretends this isn’t happening.
I’ve been texting with Mark regularly since I got back. We supported each other through our re-entry. “I was in a weird fugue state for a week when I got home,” he told me. “It felt like everything was going in slow motion.”
The airport alone was a surreal experience. I kept seeing innocuous but slightly bizarre things. I saw ads about “shopping for health care” and thought, those words don’t make sense together. I watched a man in the seat ahead and across from me sit and read all of the Wall Street Journal. He spent a particularly long amount of time on an article called “NFL weighs new anthem rules.” At one point, he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted them, and then put them back in his pocket.
I watched the guy next to me do a crossword puzzle, and it felt… I don’t know. Amazing. Ridiculous. Something. How can you do something so benign and simple and quaint and pleasant when the world around you is falling apart? How can you be so calm when 96 of your fellow citizens will die today from being shot with a gun? How are you not screaming with pitchforks at the front gates of every billionaire’s house?
I wanted to turn to the people across from me and ask, “Did you know that we’re living in the darkest timeline and everything we’re told about the way things work is a racist lie?”
But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to word that, so instead I asked them about football.
I did talk with another Canadian headed to the same flight as me, and told her how I was feeling. “Atlanta is nothing,” she said. She’d gone to school in North Carolina, and left when she was done her degree because, she said, “it was too racist.”
* * *
When I started crying on the train after the blind man’s story, I couldn’t stop. I made my way to a fast food area with tables in the airport, sat down and sobbed. A woman—this woman—was playing the cello nearby, and I lost myself in the music, slow and sad. My body heaved as I wept. I was ignored by the other people at the tables. No one said a word to me.
By the time the music finished, I had too. I locked eyes with the cellist, whose name turned out to be Jenn, and she walked straight over to me as I stood up. She embraced me tightly, and I felt everything all at once.
We broke apart and I thanked her for her music. “I needed that,” I said.
“I could tell,” she answered. “Is there anything you want to share?”
We talked for a while, with another woman, and every second was both confusing and nourishing. Nothing I managed to verbalize about my feelings seemed to surprise them, and they were sympathetic. “It’s important to accept that not everyone is capable of feeling as deeply as you do,” one of them told me. It makes sense as a short term strategy, but it’s a pill I still refuse to swallow for the long-term. Everyone is capable. We’re just torn away from each other. We can rebuild empathy.
I had to go. They both hugged me goodbye as I wiped away tears, trying not to be embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I sniffed. “I’m okay.”
Jenn held my shoulders as she looked into my eyes. “It’s alright if you’re not okay, too.”
I felt the warmth in her words, and smiled. “I will be.”
* * *
On the plane, I listened to Kendrick and let every word cut into me like wounds I never want to heal, wounds my soft, safe body will never actually have.
I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things
If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mothafucka up
And then I’d take two puffs
I’ve been hungry all my life
I’m high now
I’m high now
Hilary is on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro