Episode 9: Deborah Small

Sep 24, 2020

Podcast transcript


Susie: Hello, kia ora! And welcome back to Brazen, with me – Susie Ferguson.

It has been such an honour to bring you the stories we have in this first season of Brazen. 

The eight women we’ve heard from so far have covered so much ground – and each brought a really different viewpoint … though they are all, of course, united in their brazen-ness. 

This episode is the last of season one, but don’t fear…. We will be back!  And we are going out with a bang. 

Deborah Small is a New York lawyer and social justice activist. She founded the organisation Break the Chains, aimed at reducing the harms caused by drugs – and also drug policy around drugs – especially on communities of colour. 

Deborah has big goals, she’s out questioning the legitimacy of that drug policy altogether. 

Here she is to explain.

So when I first started doing this work I was mainly focused on the criminal justice aspects of it, and the ways in which people were punished, and my work has and still does focus primarily on communities of colour, and not necessarily around getting people access to more treatment, but actually shifting the conversation around the legitimacy of drug policies, because I think that there has to be a certain buy-in from people about this being legitimate, in order for it to have relevance and saliency and continuity over time. So when you think about alcohol prohibition, which is a very similar set of policies driven from the same place, we were able to get rid of that in 12 years. But we’ve had the war on drugs, drug prohibition, now for over 50 years. So what’s the difference there?

Susie: And what is the difference there?

Deborah: The difference is the success, I think, that the majority society has had in racialising the issue and making it about othering. It was true also about alcohol prohibition, because the main driver of alcohol prohibition was anti-immigrant feeling. And so this was one of the ways to keep immigrant populations suppressed. But over time, it became politically untenable to do that. And the Depression helped usher that along. So it was really the Great Depression and Roosevelt that shifted that policy, not the desire of the prohibitionists to not punish people any more. And I see some of the same dynamics happening now.

Susie: So what is it now, who do we like punishing now, and why?

Deborah: So I think that we’ve always punished people who were a threat to the existing order. And for me, the thing about the war on drugs that makes it particularly illegitimate in the context of Black and Brown people, is that the very people who develop policies are the ones who derive their wealth from promoting addiction for profit. The US economy was based on promoting addiction, to sugar, to tobacco, to alcohol. The reason Black people are in the US is because European people, primarily British people, wanted to exploit our labour so that they could create a market for these products at home, and foster addiction within their own population in order to enrich themselves. And so the fact that we believe it’s legitimate to punish people for addiction, it’s the perversion of racism. And capitalism. Its ability to make people believe things that are utterly false, and to follow policies that are based on these lies and contradictions and to never question their legitimacy. So I find it particularly perverse and hypocritical that we would have a war on drugs, as a country that built its wealth on drugs.

Susie: Why do you think that so few people understand that?

Deborah: Well, because we also have a war on education, so people don’t read and they don’t know the history. This is why you could have coal miners in West Virginia be avidly pro-Trump, when it’s the very same people who have been extracting their wealth and their health, and that the thing that enabled them to have even decent benefits was the union, but they’re now all anti-union. Or the fact that they used to be treated very much the same way that Black people were treated when they tried to assert their rights. But when people forget their history, it makes it a lot easier for them to be exploited and oppressed, and fed illusions about who they are. And again, one of the real perverse aspects of that is that you now have opiate overdose as one of the leading causes of death among poor and middle-class white people. But it took them having their kids drop dead in front of them in massive numbers to get rid of the illusion that drug addiction was somebody else’s problem. It only happened to poor people, it only happened to ghetto people. You don’t have a situation where people’s life expectancy rate has gone down significantly happen in five years. That takes decades to generate. So we’ve had this drug problem going on in White communities for decades, but they’ve been able to be in denial about it because that wasn’t supposed to be happening to them.

Susie: People don’t know their history, people are fed popular culture. How far is popular culture responsible for some aspects of how many people perhaps perceive the situation with drugs? I suppose I’m thinking of TV series like The Wire.

Deborah: You know, it’s interesting, because I actually think that popular culture has been our greatest ally in promoting reform. In that it’s exposed some of these myths, it’s humanised some of the conversations, and in many ways, and I make this argument with my colleagues a lot, it’s also followed our narrative. So when I first started doing this work in the late ’90s, it was very difficult to get people to feel sympathy for people who were crack users. They were like, you know, if they made the choice to do that they should do the time, let them rot, blah blah blah. It wasn’t until the numbers of people started increasing dramatically, and folks started getting these outrageously long sentences that people started thinking, Hey, maybe she might have had something there. That maybe this wasn’t the best response. And what you had through The Wire, and shows like Weeds and Breaking Bad, was this understanding about the myriad levels of forces that brought people into the drug trade, that people were more than just a dealer or a user, and that they were complex people with complex lives. And there were many complex forces that contributed to that. And so in many ways, I feel like popular culture has been a lot less punitive, more so than politicians quite frankly, and much more open to a broader narrative. And our challenge now is to move beyond just focusing on sympathy for drug users, to really get people to think about the “traffickers”, and the people who sell drugs, and move away from the convenient demonising of them and the willingness to treat them as if they’re disposable and discardable people.

Susie: And who are the people, in your view, it’s broad brush strokes, but who are the people who become the most marginalised, the most disadvantaged, within the current set-up?

Deborah: People who are poor. I mean, that’s always been the case. I mean, it’s like, the consequences of addiction are directly related to your ability to afford the thing that you’re addicted to. And as I said to people, if we had prohibition against tobacco and we had mandatory minimums attached to how many cigarettes you smoked, you’d see a huge difference, okay, both in the way that market operated and the way that people talked about it, and the kinds of crimes that they committed. You don’t see people committing crimes to get cigarettes, even though they’re harmful and dangerous and create a public health hazard, because they’re legal, so they don’t cost off the chain. But once you make something illegal, then you dramatically increase the cost for people accessing it, so your ability to be able to afford that thing is going to have a much greater impact on your outcome than the actual drug that you’re using.

Susie: And in the current scenario, are the people who are most hurt by this, and I guess I use that in several ways, that term, are the people who are most hurt, the women?

Deborah: Well yeah, any patriarchal society, women are always going to be the most significantly harmed, because they are the thing that everything is created in opposite to. And when you add on to patriarchy White supremacy, and evangelicalism, over-religiosity, you have a toxic brew. And the whole purpose of punishment isn’t really to address people’s behaviour, it’s to serve as an example to other people of what will happen to them if they deviate from what’s considered to be the social norm. And since women are considered the group that we want to be the example for our children, when they deviate they’re punished even more harshly than men are. Not just in terms of sentencing, but social ostracism, etc.

Susie: So does society set women up to fail?

Deborah: I don’t know if I would say that. I would just say that in the casualties of capitalism, on top of White male supremacy, women, particularly women of colour, are going to have the worse experience. That’s kind of what I saw when I visited the prison today. The majority of women there were from marginalised communities. The majority of women there were women who have already been failed by society, who’ve already been victims of abuse, who’ve already started their lives with significant handicaps. And I guess the thing that I hate the most about the drug war is that it targets for punishment those people who are the most vulnerable. That’s true whether it’s based on race, or sexual orientation, or nationality, or legal status. No matter where you go in the world, even though people at every social and economic level use drugs, at almost equal rates, the people who are filling the prisons, the people who we see, the people who we target, are always people who come from marginalised communities. And almost always, among those groups, women are disproportionately impacted, even if their numbers are lower.

Susie: And so how does that end up being the case?

Deborah: Well in part because women are expected to be caretakers, and then often are caretakers, so when you lock up a woman you’re not only just affecting her, you’re affecting her children, you’re affecting her parents, you’re affecting all the people who rely on that woman for some level of care, for some form of resources. And quite frankly, one of the histories of colonisation which we don’t talk about, has been the targeting of women and children as the means for controlling the population that we want to colonise, the population that we want to dominate, the population that we want to extract from. That has been part of the formula from the earliest days of imperialism. And considering that we’re in a system that’s just continuing those traditions, it’s not surprising that we see it showing up in our social and political policies.

Susie: And so how do women change that?

Deborah: Well as I said to the women in the prison today, organised people have more ability than organised money. We forget that. We think that you can’t. But the truth is, and history has shown us, that organised people can overcome organised money every time. It may take them longer, the struggle may be steeper, the cost may be higher, but they can win. And so the fact that you see women educating themselves, organising and becoming independent actors, is one of the things that gives  me hope. In our US politics, it’s women who are actually like proposing the kinds of major economic and social and political changes that we need to get us out of the morass that we’re in. It’s women who are trying to end the wars, including the war on drugs. It’s women who think that our economic viability is not going to come from consuming more products that we don’t need, but by investing and making ourselves better. And making the next generation better.

Susie: But is it going to be that much harder for women to make their voices heard, because part of the society that they’re trying to speak to doesn’t want to listen to them, doesn’t trust them, doesn’t hear them, and doesn’t give as much weight to their words?

Deborah: Well you know, this is the thing, I think that women have realised that they don’t need to talk to men to win. They need to talk to each other. I firmly believe that. The first key to being free is recognising that you are, and that your freedom isn’t going to come from the hands of your oppressor. So you actually have to talk to the other people who, like you, are trying to get free, so that you can get free. So the fact that women don’t believe that power and their liberation resides solely in the hands of men is the reason why they’ll be able to achieve it.

Susie: But I guess if you’re a woman who raises her hands or her voice or protests or makes herself felt, isn’t there a danger that you could get a back-lash coming at you?

Deborah: Absolutely. But the truth is that no individual person is actually responsible for that, for that kind of freedom. So my goal in life is not to be the person who ends the drug war, or who changes major laws. It’s to be the strongest link in the chain that I can be. And to trust that if I do that, and if other people do that, that we will get to the goal that we seek. But not because I as an individual have the answer, or the magic formula, or the magic words that are going to get us there. That’s not how movements work.

Susie: How do movements work? I guess looking at something like feminism, how does that work when lots of people observe that White feminism can be little more than White privilege, or White supremacy, presented in a different way.

Deborah: Well you know, this is the thing. Two things. One, I think the history of human beings in general is that we continue to liberate ourselves into new straightjackets. That’s just part of who we are. The other part of it is that you cannot divorce the economic system that you’re in from the political goals that you’re looking to achieve. So I find it ironic that countries that consider themselves democracies limit that view to just political democracy, and not economic democracy, because you cannot preserve a political democracy if you don’t have a very liberal amount of economic democracy. And I think that’s one of the things that people are recognising. As a woman, I’m sitting here, we’re literally 100 years from the time that women got the right to vote in the US, and I think if the women who were Suffragettes were here today they would be disappointed at how little progress women have made in that 100 years. In terms of really seizing the level of power that we should have as half of the population. And so I think that the shift in feminism is for people to begin to understand that it’s not just about attacking patriarchy, it’s about attacking the capitalist economic structure that patriarchy is serving.

Susie: So what do you want to see? What do you think the Suffragettes would want people now to be doing?

Deborah: I think that they would want women to be more politically engaged as they are today, have more control over how resources are directed, the conversation that we are constantly in of lack only lives if you think it’s legitimate to spend the majority of your money on weapons you’ll never use. It’s like the conversation that says that people can’t have decent housing, it’s only legitimate if you think that everybody has the right to have an individual ownership of some part of the Earth, and to protect it from everybody else. Even though the Earth is not ours. And so the fact that we’re seeing people to challenge what’s seen to be conventional thinking, I call it the tyranny of dead ideas, things that people have believed in for years that run our lives, that serve no real purpose. The fact that folks are actually willing to take on those ideas, the idea that we shouldn’t pay taxes, the idea that we should expect corporations to operate on their own, that they’re not creatures of the state that we control. The fact that there’s some magical thing called The Market that lives on its own and generates good. Like, really? There are so many things that people believe in, that they barely question, that are now coming into question. Consumerism. The basis for Western society is based on consumerism. Well that worked when people were actually making the things that they consume. But now almost everything we consume can be made cheaper by technology. So how’s that going to work out, as an economic system? It’s not sustainable. We have to choose something different.

Susie: And what do you think people should be looking at, and choosing, and what questions should we be asking at this juncture?

Deborah: Look around at the places where people are happy. There are places in the world where people are happy. Why? Because they’ve chosen to invest in themselves. Making better people instead of making better products. To invest in their health, in their physical well-being, in their ability to raise families, in their ability to live in a safe community. There are countries around us that are doing that, even with a mixed economy. But they’ve made a conscious choice to invest in the environment, to invest in their people. But we keep pretending, in the US in particular, that we are the arbiter of all things good and have the best ideas, even when they don’t work. And I really do believe that for the future, the better ideas, the better ways and practices, are going to come from the global south. Which is one of the reasons why I’m happy to be here in New Zealand, because you’re showing us what people can do if they’re committed to reducing gun violence, if they’re committed to promoting diversity, if they’re committed to empowering women. You all are doing all of that. I came here to learn. Not because I think we have a better way, but because I actually think in some ways you’re showing us a direction that I’m hoping our country will follow.

Susie: So what is the best way for women to take control of their lives, of their destinies, of their children’s and their parents’ circumstances, and be able to move into a situation where that is possible?

Deborah: Well you know, one of the things that was really interesting to me about our conversation with the women in prison today is that so many of them talked about not being able to get any access to any services until they were locked up. And of the fear of trying to get services that, if they did that it would be used as an excuse to take their children away. Now, everything is not super super simple, but if we just said that we were going to provide people treatment on demand the way that we never have a problem finding a jail cell for people, there’s never a shortage of a place to lock people up, but there’s always a shortage of ways to help people. That’s like a misappropriation of resources that needs to be changed. And for women in particular, it’s more harmful for them to lose their children, or to face the threat of losing their children, than even having their own freedom taken away. So when you make getting access to help part of that scenario, then you’re driving women away from the very thing that they need, and then punishing them for not getting it. And so to me, the fact that women are beginning to understand that, and are articulating and demanding better treatment from their government as people who are equal members of society and deserve it, I think is one of the reasons that I feel very confident. In the US, the movement that’s pushing for justice reform is led by formerly incarcerated men and women. And even though women represent a smaller percentage of the prison population, they’re not a smaller percentage of the movement to change that system. And so I know that it’s going to be successful, and that the role that they play is going to be an integral part of that success.

Susie: Do you see women, in that context, as the greatest hope?

Deborah: I think along with their male partners and allies. I mean, one of the things about patriarchy is that it creates this false narrative of separation based on gender. The truth is that poor people are treated the same whether they’re male or female. Marginalised people are treated the same regardless of their colour, regardless of their orientation. So when we can begin to organise around those things, as opposed to the things that may make us different, that increases our possibilities for success.

Susie: What would you say to young girls, to teenage girls, to young women, in terms of what lies ahead for them and what they should be focused on, and what they should be aiming for?

Deborah: I mean, you know, I’m one of these people who believes in the healing power of love. And the fact that people organise around what they’re for, not what they’re against, I really do believe that very strongly. And I also believe that men and women, you know, I raised a son, and now I’m raising my grandson. I believe that it’s women who teach men what it is to be a man, and how to be a man, and to raise a child that you would want to be with. So yes, men are extremely important in that dynamic, but so are mothers. And so I believe that the intentionality that we bring to creating a generation of men that are the kinds of people that we would want to claim, is going to give us a different generation of both men and women.

Susie: Ah patriarchy my old friend, what a wild ride.

That’s US lawyer and social activist Deborah Small, bringing us to the end of Brazen’s first season!

We want to thank every single person who has come in to speak with us, and you! For listening, for subscribing and for reviewing. 

We’ll be back for season two before long, and we’ll be updating the website – www dot brazen dot world – so keep an eye out there. 

Brazen is hosted by me, Susie Ferguson, and was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic MacLennan, and David Cormack.

Brazen is edited by Melody Thomas, it’s engineered by William Saunders, with earlier episodes engineered by John Pilley. 

the theme is “Be Who You Are” by Edie

Artwork by Pepper Raccoon

And transcriptions done by Emma Hart.

Episode 9: Deborah Small

Episode 9 is the last of Brazen’s first season. It’s with Deborah Small.

Deborah Small is a New York lawyer and social justice activist. She founded the organisation Break the Chains, aimed at reducing the harms caused by drugs – and also drug policy around drugs – especially on communities of colour.

Latest Articles

Why Brazen? Who gets heard? Who gets a voice?

Why Brazen? Who gets heard? Who gets a voice?

For months we discussed the lack of diversity, the overwhelming share of voice held by white men and we wondered how we could improve the quality of stories told, fix the blatant inequality and help women take the stage.

A brazen spotlight: Nicola Swan

A brazen spotlight: Nicola Swan

Every week Brazen will shine a spotlight on someone by asking them a set of questions. Those questions are 1) What are 3 things people don’t know about you? 2) How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated? 3) If you had to start your adult life over again, what...

A brazen spotlight: Megan Howell Love

A brazen spotlight: Megan Howell Love

Every week Brazen will shine a spotlight on someone by asking them a set of questions. Those questions are 1) What are 3 things people don’t know about you? 2) How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated? 3) If you had to start your adult life over again, what...

Fair, Fat, Female, Fertile, Forties

Fair, Fat, Female, Fertile, Forties

It took Greg, the very relaxed doctor in Wellington ED, about 15 minutes to diagnose my chronic pain as Gallbladder-related using this crude mnemonic. I wasn’t doped up on the morphine yet and must have shot him a look as he sat casually beside my partner explaining...