Report from DC: A New Birth of Freedom?

New Birth of Freedom

Some of the LA Area Reentry Partnership leaders who attended DPA’s conference. Photo by Eunisses Hernadez.

Every two years the Drug Policy Alliance brings together activists and thought leaders from the broader movement against repression and racism and ignorance regarding drug policy and incarceration. It’s an international gathering, but much attention is naturally given to the biggest problem country when it comes to prohibition and repression: the United States.

new-birth-of-freedom-350I was privileged to attend the last big DPA gathering, held in Denver, which was stimulating and informative. But this year’s gathering, held just outside Washington DC, was clearly different, and in a good way. It was was alive with inspiration and passion. It was animated in a different way. It was struggling toward some kind of realization of Beloved Community. (See the 2015 DPA Conference Program here.)

The difference two years makes: the #BlackLives movement was very much in the house, and people of color were taking leadership and shaping the discussion in almost every part of the three-day program: in plenaries and in breakout sessions alike.

Naturally, I was drawn to explicit discussions of the role of faith communities. Those sessions went directly into the difficult space of respectability politics within the churches, the “business” of church vs. the prophetic imperative, the way faith communities are good at hiding trauma and avoiding painful truths, the inclination of the faithful to be much too comfortable with punishment, and (naturally, for American Christians) the perennial sin of actually forgetting who Jesus was: forgetting his message that there are no unclean people, while there are definitely unclean systems and structures.

The Rev. Troy Vaughan, the new director of our LA Regional Reentry Partnership, spoke movingly about how, for him, creating space for real talk with youth about drugs and sexuality is the only real way for the church to still be the church.

One activist pastor, Rev. Teresa Smallwood, identified the central theological issue for people who want to see faith communities fully engaged in anti-racism work as the issue of courage. Dr. Iva Carruthers of the Proctor Conference reminded us that the perpetual “othering” that elites engaged in is devilish in its capacity to mutate and find new “others”—and that as long as we permit our faith institutions to be complicit in the “othering” we are (a) not true faith communities and (b) we are individually diminished and deprived of the capacity to know who God is and to know what love is. The Rev. Troy Vaughan, the new director of our LA Regional Reentry Partnership, spoke movingly about how, for him, creating space for real talk with youth about drugs and sexuality is the only real way for the church to still be the church.

And these were just the conversations that centered on faith community accountability. Frankly, every session I and my colleague Timothy Murphy attended was filled with spiritual power.

Just a few fragments that will stay with me:

  • Marijuana legalization, by itself, won’t fix the mass criminalization of Black people—and people who don’t fall into the “regulated” category will still be persecuted and punished.
  • ​We need to get realistic about what it means to say that what are sometimes called“mass incarceration areas” are actually war zones in every sense of the word—and that means also demanding that the media report faithfully on the horrific daily casualties from these war fronts​.
  • Too much of what passes for drug policy reform is about making White people co​m​fortable: it is about the marketing of “conscience” to people who are spared having to face the actual carnage that has been wrought by the war on drugs, a.k.a. the war on people of color
  • We shouldn’t be talking about legalizing a plant; we should be talking about legalizing a people who have borne the full burden of stigma and punishment.
  • Drug policy reform must be seen as a very significant and necessary campaign within a broader movement that is about ending state violence and re-enfranchising Black people, both politically and economically.
  • Even within the reform movement, the language and the narrative about recovery and sobriety is so dominant that it threatens to diminish the voice and devalue the accomplishments of all those who don’t conform—who still use—but who remain human beings worthy of respect and love.
  • There is no escaping gender and sexuality in this arena; of all those who are penalized and punished by the mass criminalization regime, women and persons with non-conforming sexuality are always at greatest risk.


peter-laarman-15If the theological issue is courage, I should make one last point about the Drug Policy Alliance—an organization created and still largely financed and led by justice-centered white people. It takes some degree of courage, it takes some guts, to put on a big international meeting where your own power and privilege will be called into question. There’s a godly grace in that. And there was grace all around in Washington this past week. Grace and truth abounding.

Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.


  1. Yes to all you have stated in the article, but somehow getting people of color to move away from taking American media seriously is much more important than appealing to the media to correct its misrepresentation of facts. Propagandists will always adjust to dress up their lies.