Planting Honesty 

Opinion: How a pot plant on a public official's balcony reveals Richmond's real drug problem.

click to enlarge Police confiscate a marijuana plant found growing on the balcony of Richmond Public Schools board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed’s house on July 23. Muhammed’s husband was arrested on suspicion of manufacturing marijuana. - MO KARN
  • Mo Karn
  • Police confiscate a marijuana plant found growing on the balcony of Richmond Public Schools board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed’s house on July 23. Muhammed’s husband was arrested on suspicion of manufacturing marijuana.

When police raided the house of 6th District School Board member, Shonda Harris-Muhammed and confiscated a marijuana plant growing on the back balcony, I showed up in time to photograph the plant and the cops in the area.

I live at the Wingnut Anarchist Collective, about a block from Harris-Muhammed, though much further apart in values. During the past four years we've clashed at neighborhood association and School Board meetings alike. I want to see a world free of police and prisons and capitalism. She usually comes down on the law-and-order, more police, more supervision, the status-quo-isn't-that-bad side of things. Yet here she is: Her husband is arrested, taken from their home, taken from their son — over a plant.

I'm against the drug war and the criminalization of all drugs. We shouldn't be locking people up for growing, selling or using drugs. If we ended the war on drugs we could take the money we spend on policing and incarceration and invest it in more positive community programs. The drug war helps no one but the police and corporations profiting off of prisons.

Harris-Muhammed spoke at the July 14 vigil for Trayvon Martin. She called our neighborhood the ghetto. She said things were never boring on North Avenue, where she lives, and she cautioned youth against foolishness, meaning reacting with violence to the not guilty verdict in George Zimmerman trial. Harris-Muhammed was one of many speakers who urged prayer and education as solutions to the institutional racism exhibited by the jury finding Zimmerman not guilty of killing Martin.

The same kind of institutional racism is reflected in the unequal enforcement of drug laws. No offense to religious readers, but prayer isn't going to be enough to change this. The system in this country is rigged. According to the NAACP, African-Americans represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59 percent of those in state prisons for a drug offense.

It's with a divided heart that I think about Harris-Muhammed's husband, Demetrius Muhammed, charged with on a felony count of manufacturing marijuana. I don't want to see another family torn apart by an arrest. It happens way too often in our city, particularly to men of color. I don't want to see anyone in jail. It offers no benefit to society. But the hypocrisy of a law-and-order public official caught with a weed plant on her balcony gets to me. It gives me a certain glee, a feeling that, ultimately, I'm not comfortable with. I'm happy to see hypocrisy revealed in this way, and glad it wasn't pushed under the rug. But the revelation only has value if something changes.

Harris-Muhammed represents our public officials who spout rhetoric even they can't live up to. Our collective ethics are not reflected in the laws under which we live. We need realistic standards that reflect our actual values, not the ones we feel pressured to say we believe. And I think elected officials need to have the ovaries to take honest, progressive stances about these issues. I want Harris-Muhammed and her family to come out against the war on drugs and take a stand for something in which they really believe. As much as I don't want political officials, at all, as long as they exist they need to be open to seeing the world and this city with new eyes. They need to challenge the status quo.

What can change? Everything can change. It's our city. Richmond can be what we want it to be. But we have to be honest with each other. Trying to enforce laws that rip families apart — especially families of color — while your own family is being torn apart by the same laws makes no sense. These arrests don't improve our communities. And I wish it didn't take the arrest of someone close to an elected official for this to be so blatantly obvious.

The way the police function in Richmond is detrimental to the majority of the population. The money spent on police and jails is money that doesn't go into our infrastructure or our children. If what Harris-Muhammed says is true — that we need to focus on education — then let's do that. Let's provide options for our kids that are fulfilling alternatives to foolishness. And let's re-examine what is or isn't foolishness. Our kids have a right to be angry. Some of the laws and social norms that they have been born into should be seriously questioned.

To Harris-Muhammed and her family: I'm sorry for what you're going through. But I'm hopeful that out of this will come honest conversations and challenges to the way the system operates in this city. Something meaningful can come of this. Barton Heights will be no better off because one weed plant is gone and Demetrius Muhammed faces potentially serious prison time. Harris-Muhammed and her son will be worse off. We will be worse off. Who benefits? Who gains here? And why do we keep letting them?

To everyone else in Richmond: Let's learn from the hypocrisy of others. Not learn to be perfect. Not learn to hide our weed plants better. No. We need to learn not to settle for the-status-quo-isn't-that-bad. Because we deserve better. S

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Mo Karn is a member of the Wingnut Anarchist Collective.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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