Kathryn Johnston's Real Killer

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In the
inflammatory ruckus about the Atlanta police killing of an elderly
woman, Kathryn Johnston, what’s overlooked is the backdrop to
the tragedy. Cops fired the fatal bullets on Nov. 21 in Johnston’s
west Atlanta home, but the real culprit is the 36-year-old "war
on drugs."

That war
is just as much a disaster, just as ill-conceived, just as deadly
to innocents and just as big a waste of tons of cash as George
Bush’s "war on terrorism."

Both "wars"
fail because they target an enemy that isn’t there. Terror is
a tactic, not a nation or ideology that can be warred against.
In modern terms, terrorism is rooted in disaffected, oppressed
people. It won’t go away until conditions or perceptions change.

The drug
war is even worse – it targets our own people as the enemy.
About 1.7 million people are arrested annually for narcotics,
43 percent of them for marijuana, a drug far more benevolent
than legal alcohol. In America’s booming prison industry, 25
percent of the 2 million-plus inmates are there for drugs, and
most of their crimes are nonviolent. In federal lockups, 60
percent of the prisoners are drug offenders.

But the
terror and drug wars make people rich. Bush’s obscene demand
this month for a $700 billion defense budget won’t make us safer,
but it will allow the military-industrial complex to wallow
in wealth.

after almost four decades of the war on drugs, federal and state
authorities spend about $50 billion a year – a sum that’s roughly
equal to the profits pocketed by drug dealers. Narco lords’
profits rely on a "war" that keeps prices high. Meanwhile,
massive amounts of scarce public resources are diverted into
fighting a "war" – one that occasionally nails street
dealers but hardly ever attacks the kingpins or the root problems.
This is lethal and loathsome symbiosis.

died because cops were being pushed by the brass to pile up
statistics on arrests and warrants. That doesn’t excuse the
officers involved. They lied to get a no-knock warrant to bust
into Johnston’s home, and the innocent woman died defending
herself. The officers’ careers are finished, and at least some
of them deserve jail time.

Still a
bigger crime is the propaganda by officials proclaiming that
statistics show they’re combating the scourge of drugs. Reality
check: The numbers show only how we have failed – abysmally
failed. The boss cops know this, and in many communities police
officials have come forward and urged an end to the nonsense.
They understand what every study shows – treatment is an infinitely
more effective cure for drugs than incarceration, and much cheaper.

The final
insult to Johnston is that her death has become a gold mine
for political opportunists. Last week, District Attorney Paul
Howard, always adept at playing the race card, threw an entire
deck onto the table. He announced plans to indict three white
officers for murder, burglary and other crimes. Those aren’t
the appropriate charges. Manslaughter – where the crime is
an unintended death – would be more appropriate. But it makes
good headlines for Howard in a black community that sees itself
under attack by police. Howard’s political gambit has possibly
undermined a careful investigation by the FBI by ending plea
negotiations with the three cops. But that’s irrelevant to the
vote-hungry prosecutor.

Even worse,
the three officers have told the feds that many, many more drug
cases were based on evidence obtained by shortcuts such as lying
to judges. Howard’s theatrics are an attempt to obfuscate his
role in prosecuting those cases. Did his office have knowledge
of cops’ tainted investigations?

craven behavior rivals that of police Chief Richard Pennington,
who doesn’t care how much pressure he puts on his officers if
it gets him a raise. Indeed, that was exactly the scheme before
Johnston’s slaying interrupted Pennington’s plans to expand
his already-bloated personal pension fund by another $10,000
of taxpayer cash. City Council nixed that scheme after the Johnston
slaying. Citing statistics on the number of warrants served
was a way to grease Pennington’s money machine – until some
officers caved from the stress and broke the law.

The rank
and file has received only crumbs under the regime of Mayor
Shirley Franklin and Pennington. The police force is angry from
too much work and paltry pay raises. And while the brass touts
reports of lower crime rates, those easily manipulated numbers
don’t do much for citizens’ perception that Atlanta just isn’t
a very safe city. Ask police officers – I have – and if they
know their name won’t get back to Pennington, they’ll tell you
that things look bleak on the front lines.

One sign
of insanity is repeating the same mistakes, hoping a miracle
will change the outcome. That defines the crazed war on drugs.
We wage it because it gives police chiefs a chance to boast
about statistics, and because it’s an incredibly lucrative industry
on both sides of the law.

If you
need an exclamation mark to the statement, "The drug war
is insane," here’s a dilly. Marijuana is America’s top
cash crop, according to a study released in December. About
10,000 tons of grass are grown each year, worth almost $36 billion.
That dwarfs the $23 billion corn crop or $18 billion in the
annual harvest of soybeans.

In Georgia,
peanuts are, well, peanuts compared to the evil weed. The only
crop that exceeds marijuana’s yearly $440 million harvest is
cotton at $500 million. Pot is the top crop in North and South
Carolina. A lot of stoners live just across the border.

How about
a second exclamation mark? Just last week, Bush asked for a
31 percent increase in an annual $100 million advertising campaign
to combat drug use among youths. Naturally, the agency that
produces the ads has close political ties to Bush. With such
memorable spots as a stoned driver running over a child, the
campaign has so far wasted $1.4 billion.

Why wasted?
Because a study by the federal General Accounting Office found
that the more kids viewed the advertising, the more likely they
were to use drugs. The GAO stated: "[G]reater exposure
to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and
increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana."

Like in
Iraq, the ad campaign is a failure, so Bush wants a "surge"
in the drug war. And it’s that sort of thinking, along with
the ambitions of Pennington and Howard, that set the stage for
the death of Kathryn Johnston.

16, 2007

Sugg [send him mail]
is senior editor of Atlanta
Creative Loafing
. Visit his

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