Kathryn Johnston's Real Killer


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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Johnston 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?

Howard’s 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.

February 16, 2007