Martin Luther King, Coca-Cola, and Selective Compassion: A Black Brazilian Voyage to Atlanta


August 14 marked 43 years since Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the civil rights movement. This movement swept the United States in the 50s and 60s, calling for improvements in the lives of black Americans at a time and in a place where signs still restricted the entry of black people into bathrooms, buses, bars, restaurants, schools, and health centers. A time and a place where black Americans’ ability to vote was dependent on a complex structure of white discourses and white institutions.

And there we were, in the sixth blackest city in the United States, Atlanta, debating drug policy reform with 1,500 people from 50 countries at the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference. The city is home to a black elite; it is common to see black people driving expensive cars through the city center, or catching planes from the world’s busiest international airport, or owning the establishments that we frequented at night. Atlanta was the city to elect the first black man to mayor (Maynard Jackson, in 1973) and to elect the first black female mayor of any major Southern city (Shirley Franklin, in 2001). The current mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, is black.

Atlanta was also the city where Coca-Cola sold its first cup in history, in 1886, created by Atlanta pharmacist John Stith Pemberton who was searching for a drink that could alleviate the pains of his Civil War-inflicted wounds and supplant his addictive use of morphine. 

Even before Pemberton relied on the coca leaf to create Coca-Cola, Pope Leo XIII had already awarded a Vatican gold medal to a drink created by chemist Angelo Mariani in 1863 that combined the properties from the alkaloids in the coca leaf with wine. For the first half of the 19th Century, alkaloids from the coca leaf were routinely administered as anesthetics and stimulants, surprising medical professionals with their positive effects. At the time, it was inconceivable that the Andean plant would be disapproved of, let alone made illegal. Sigmund Freud recommended its therapeutic use to his patients, and produced one of his best-known works on the subject, Ãœber Coca. The emergence of psychiatry as a profession is closely related to the dissemination of Andean alkaloids amongst the white populations in Europe and the United States. In Brazil, its consumption was part of cocktail of substances consumed by the Rio “high society” in a period known as the Belle Epoque.

The other key ingredient used in Pemberton’s formula, the kola nut, is of African origin, a fruit from the trees in the sterculiaceae family. The kola nut similarly contains alkaloids and powerful stimulating properties. These nuts were brought to Latin America by enslaved black Africans who chewed them in order to endure their painful labor. Together with cloths from the coast, black soap, and palm oil, the kola nut was one of the most common African goods in the transatlantic trade with Brazil.

Over its 125-year history, Coca-Cola – the most popular drink in the world, which boasts more consumer countries than countries in the United Nations – has left a trail of blood, fraud, embezzlement, and corruption. It affects the lives of coca and kola producers through exploitative and slave labor, is responsible for water scarcity in many black and indigenous communities, and lobbies for water management policies that cater to its own interests. In some indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas declared Coca-Cola-free zones for many years. Recently in Brazil, the Ministry of Labor found Coca-Cola guilty of slave labor in the state of Minas Gerais.

In Memphis, on the eve of his assassination in 1968, Dr. King and other leaders called for a boycott of Coca-Cola. They noted that – from Atlanta to Memphis, and across the entire country – despite not being its biggest consumers, black people undertook the hard labor in the production and commercialization of Coca-Cola, yet never reached prominent positions in the company. As a result of the boycott, Coca-Cola was pressured to publically state that it did not practice any form of discrimination. Nevertheless, it was ordered to pay $2 million after a lawsuit filed by the company’s workers.

When we arrived in Atlanta to discuss drug policy, we thought about how the racism spoken of by Martin Luther King Jr. and the effects of industrial capitalism on the control of black bodies by is also reflected in the war on drugs. The new role played by prisons – partially to fulfill the demands produced by and for the advance of industrial capitalism in the world – not only changed the perception of the intention of incarceration but also the perception of those who commit offenses. Prison for labor aligned with the emergence of discourses and practices that sought to consolidate the idea of the black man as “the other”, a biologically and culturally inferior race, prone to addiction and a potential agent of race degeneration.

Michelle Alexander’s speech, at the start of the Reform conference, highlighted that she was not optimistic about the recent drug policy reforms in the United States and called on us to reflect on important global and local questions surrounding the processes of reform across diverse communities. President Trump has said that he will beat the “new epidemic”, also referred to as the “opioid crisis,” of rising heroin and other opiate consumption. There have been over 120,000 deaths from overdoses in the past 24 months, double the amount of lives lost in the 19 years of the Vietnam War.

In the same election that handed Donald Trump a victory, voters in the United States approved the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives in several states. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts joined Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska in legalizing recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana is now legal in 29 states plus Washington DC.

It may appear paradoxical that the United States is advancing on drug policy reform at the same time as it elected conservative Donald Trump. But it is not. In fact, Michelle Alexander reminds us that what connects the victory of conservatives in the U.S. elections to the advance of marijuana regulation and the debate on use and abuse of drugs in the country is: whiteness.

Currently, the popular reaction to the opioid crisis as characterized by media campaigns has been one of compassion for the victims and appeals for care so that deaths are avoided. Public figures, including conservative members of congress, are engaged in a dispute over who can offer most to these people and their families. The conservative Republican Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, declared a state of emergency in May and allocated $54 million to prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.

In Brazil, the launch of the documentary Ilegal had wide repercussions in the main Brazilian media outlets and elicited feelings of concern and compassion for the condition of five-year old Anny, a patient from a white Brazilian family with a serious and incurable form of epilepsy, who suffered 80 epileptic attacks a week since she was born. The only remedy that worked for her was CBD, a cannabis extract. After the documentary gained attention, even the most conservative members of the Brazilian Congress supported legislative changes that allowed for the import of CBD for Anny and other families other families who could afford to pay for the medication. Unfortunately, it is mainly white Brazilian families that can afford to import these medications. Steps are now being taken to regulate medical marijuana more widely in Brazil. 

All this to say, when problems associated with drugs reach the white population, when the effects of drug abuse or the conditions of illegal sale are of concern to white people, policies change, people change, campaigns change. When the victims are white, change is initiated, money is invested, and the population is moved. However, the same treatment is not given to the population most affected by the consumption and prohibition of crack: mostly black and poor people. Brazil and the United States share this same reality.

If the majority of people involved in the sale, production and use of opioids in the United States were black, we would not be having the same conversation we are now having, as Michelle Alexander reminded us. The life of a black child does not move the country. Because compassion, financial support, and policy change is selective.

That is why the reforms that we advocate for in this country and around the world must always center on the question of race. The reconfiguration of markets and means of control, instrumentalized by legal, economic and media discourses inherited from slavery, consolidate knowledge and practices about crime and deviance, but also about care and compassion, that are deeply racialized. Just as the public health view of drug use versus the criminalization of drug use reflect opposing notions that are deeply racialized, the changes ahead will present these same conditions. Whenever the subjection of life to the power of death continues, as explained by Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics, and decisions made over who we want to care for, protect, and promote will always bring back our history of colonization.

In 1963, Pastor King said about the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation that “this momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” Therefore, we must always be aware of any process of change that does not centralize our voices, offer reparations for our history, or help overcome the traumas that exist in all societies. And that our compassion is a reflection of our own humanity – broad, inclusive and true – and not only a mirror of white faces telling us for whom we should cry.

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