The Death of Hakeem Kuta: Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless

The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.


A tragedy happened in New York City this weekend. A young man, Hakeem Kuta, died after sustaining injuries from a fall from a six story building last Thursday.  According to media accounts, Mr. Kuta and friends were chased by police following reports that they had been smoking marijuana in a Bronx building.

This tragic incident highlights the incredible amount of fear between community members and police officers and underscores, among other things, the need for this country to fix its broken marijuana policies.

In a meeting Wednesday morning in our New York office, we tried to make some sense of this tragedy. My colleague Alex Razo, a policy fellow at DPA and a graduate student at Columbia School of Social Work, discussed the climate of fear between youth of color and the police. Alex said, “The loss of Hakeem Kuta in the Bronx is extremely unfortunate. Many Black and Latino males fear the NYPD as a result of aggressive policing practices in New York City. Was this young man so afraid of the consequences of smoking marijuana that he ran away, fell off a six story building, and tragically lost his life? If a police officer can strangle you to death for a few cigarettes like Eric Garner and walk away from any charges, what makes us think that the consequence for marijuana wouldn’t be feared even more?”

We discussed how government studies plainly show that young white men are more likely to be using marijuana than young men of color; and yet, young people of color, especially young Black and Latino men, are targeted for marijuana law enforcement in NYC and comprise nearly 85 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in New York City.

DPA’s youth policy manager, Jerry Otero, raised issues about teen drug use and the public sphere within which such use may occur. In an email after our meeting, Jerry wrote: “This tragic incident highlights for me issues about private and public space and just who gets to use which. There is an important aspect of social control when it comes to who gets to use what space, and we know that class and race are part of that. We know that poor youth, often youth of color, are subjected to more public scrutiny and policing and are often left to engage in activities in the public sphere that other groups are able to conduct in the privacy of their own homes.”

Sadly, the loss of life, like Mr. Kuta’s, in the course of the enforcement of marijuana laws is not unusual. The growing number of tragedies and injustices associated with the war on drugs has led to bipartisan calls for change. In many parts of the country, there is growing consensus that our marijuana laws are broken: they are costly, they don’t benefit public safety, and they erode the trust between community members and law enforcement.

Indeed, the mission of police forces is to protect and serve, yet achieving this mission is almost impossible under a system of prohibition, where police are directed by policymakers to chase down people for possessing and using marijuana. It should not take another senseless death of a teenage boy to crystalize the need for immediate and comprehensive reform.

We offer our condolences to the family and friends of young Hakeem Kuta. This tragedy sharpens our commitment to end the war on drugs – in New York, in the U.S., and around the world.

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