In 2016, around 64,000 people in the United States died of an overdose—more deaths than from gun homicides or traffic accidents. Overdose is now the leading cause of death for people under 50 in this country.
Addressing this crisis will require focus and collaboration—especially under our current administration. Despite President Trump’s public commitment to “liberate” Americans from the “scourge of drug addiction,” his inaction has been criticized by members of his own opioid-epidemic commission. Only a handful of their proposals have been adopted, the 90-day public-health emergency was squandered, and the crisis is wildly underfunded. The only place where Trump has excelled is in elevating stigmatizing views that drug dependency is a moral failing, and that tough-on-crime policies are the only solution. Most terrifying are his positive remarks about the murderous assault on drug users by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and his suggestion at a White House opioids summit that drug dealers be executed.
And all this in the face of predictions that our overdose crisis is worsening. But there is another way forward. It begins with a reckoning, and a decision to learn from our past.
The history of the left is marred by a pattern of silence, exclusion, and inaction around stigmatized groups. The reasons differ, but the result is always the same—a weakened movement unable to help those who most need it. But there’s also a history of overcoming assumptions and blind spots.
Farmworkers were considered “unorganizable” by the very unions that should have seen them as a new base in the labor movement until Cesar Chavez, a former migrant worker turned union leader, proved otherwise.
When the civil-rights movement fell prey to respectability politics, ignoring the plight of the African Americans most likely to suffer the brutality of the state, legendary activist Ella Baker did not sit silent. She reminded her fellow organizers that “If you’re not reaching out to the town drunk [or the] folk who were getting rounded up and thrown in jail,” then “you’re not really working for the rights of black people.”
When HIV/AIDS ravaged New York City’s gay community during the 1980s, many organizations were unwilling to address the epidemic. I remember my brother saying, “These nonprofits only care about the ‘good’ poor people.” He and his friends—who were struggling to save their own lives—felt abandoned by the left.