Deborah Small: “It’s the slow genocide of poverty”

Deborah Small, in addition to being a lawyer, researcher, antiprobition and black rights activist, is the founder and Executive Director of the non-profit, Break the Chains (BTC). The mission of BTC, “is to engage communities impacted by punitive drug policies to become advocates for an end to the failed ‘war on drugs’.”

After visits and debates in the cities Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Deborah ended her trip in São Paulo on the 29th of July. Her second to last event of the day was a discussion about drug policy, race and gender. Below are some of the important and enlightening points that she made:


MYTH 1: Only illegal drugs are addictive.

Coffee, tobacco and sugar are examples of addictive substances. The difference is that they aren’t prohibited, which means that they remain affordable and accessible, without the same stigma of us, but not without negative health consequences.

MYTH 2: Poor communities use illegal drugs in greater numbers than the general population.

“Addiction in poor communities is a myth that gets perpetuated and repeated in the media…the consequences of their addiction are more substantive because they can’t afford the use on their own.”

MYTH 3: Poor communities and people have more chaotic lives BECAUSE they use drugs.

There is evidence that shows the opposite. Dr. Bruce Alexander conducted a study with rats (Rat Park) that indicates that it isn’t the drugs that provoke addiction but rather the environment. “The relationship people have with drugs is not solely determined by the drug, but also by the context in which they live.”


In the same way that people can get addicted to drugs, people can also get addicted to domination and subjugation. I assert that both Brazil and the United States have a perverse addiction to both the reality and rituals of racial domination and subjugation.

Addictions are accompanied by rituals. There are ways that people use things that themselves become a ritual, like when I make coffee I’m addicted to grinding it, to the smell of it as its being made, as well as drinking it, that’s all part of the ritual of coffee for me. So similarly there are rituals associated with racial domination and subjugation. In the case of our two countries, I’ll describe what they are: the rituals of chasing people, catching people, putting handcuffs and shackles on them, throwing them in cells, keeping them isolated and controlling their movements and freedom. So even after the legal forms of enslavement are done, we live in countries that are still addicted to the rituals that accompany enslaving people and dominating and subjugating them.

You keep finding ways to replicate these rituals, to recreate those opportunities, and right now, in this period of time, it’s the drug war that is the fuel that allows for the continuation of those racial rituals of domination. Which is why, even though drug use exists in ever segment of society, the only place your law enforcement is focused is on poor black people, because the real purpose is not to get rid of drugs—it’s to maintain social and political control over the people that the country feels the need to maintain social and political control over.”


Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, the intent of black presence in your country (Brazil) and mine (the U.S.) has always been a genocidal intent. It’s not the quick genocide of bullets and gas but the slow genocide of poverty: of poor health, of being worked to death, of feeling that you’re worthless, and unwanted and unneeded. One of the definitions of racism is a set of policies and practices that are adopted by one group of people to be imposed on another group of people, where the result of those policies or practices is premature death. Everything about the policies and practices applied to black people in the U.S. and Brazil result in premature death.”

For more information:

A conversation with Black media in Brazil (starting at 39:14)

Interviews (in português) with Deborah Small

Chasing the Scream, the book recommended by Deborah Small

Video about possible causes of drug addiction