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[51.0] Washington State’s legislature did a terrible thing!
connecting carcerality to white Christian nationalist gender panics
Two weeks ago, under the guise of bipartisanship and compromise, the Washington State government passed a new drug possession law that categorizes the act as a gross misdemeanor with up to, in some cases, a year in jail, and also criminalizes public drug use. It further leaves the fate of harm reduction programs in the hands of local governments, many of which hope to see those programs done away with altogether in their communities.
It’s frustrating and lethal news for so many reasons, not least of which being the resurrection—if they ever died—of war-on-drugs policies and mentalities that demonstrably do not work. This means putting people in jail, targeting people of color and poor people in particular for punishment, breaking up communities, and responding to addiction through incarceration.
It’s also a slap in the face to decades of harm reduction work in Washington State, which was the site of the nation’s first publicly sanctioned needle exchange program, established in Tacoma in 1988.
Leaders working in the space warn that disinvesting and locally criminalizing these programs can undo a long and slow effort to establish trust between program administrators and participants.
“We have developed this relationship with people because we offer things that help them in the moment,” a program administrator working in Eastern Washington told The Seattle Times. “And in offering those things to them, we’re telling them, ‘We care about you.’”
“And when the time comes, where they say, ‘I am ready,’ then we are there with them,” another administrator said. “And we’ve already walked down a road with them … but without the ability to interact with the person when they are still in active use, the likelihood of having a relationship where we can take those proactive steps toward treatment is much less likely.”
It’s certainly worth identifying and condemning the results of these political decisions and practices: rising incarceration rates, greater material investment in punitive systems and technologies, and, most likely, more overdoses and infections and deaths.
It’s also, in my opinion, been underappreciated how this local legal development falls in lockstep with other political turns in the US, especially the rhetoric and laws deployed against trans youth and access to abortion.
Take the funding of “health engagement hubs” in Washington, which are designed to provide medical care for underserved communities, including addiction treatment and harm reduction programs. Republican state lawmakers rushed to criticize the program. The hubs were initially meant to be open to children and adults alike, which the GOP pols thought was despicable. Leveraging “think of the youth” straw man rhetoric, the kind we’ve seen since the Satanic Panic and in the language used to express “concern” about kids’ right to be trans, worked.
In an invertebrate compromise, ruling Democrats agreed to limit access to health engagement hubs to adults only—effectively excluding kids from a vector for all kinds of care, including their own addiction issues if they have any.
In cases of trans rights and drug treatment alike, evocation of children’s innocence is used to limit access to lifesaving technologies and medicine, relegating subjects (kids, adult drug users, etc.) of these initiatives to more reactionary and white-Christian-nationalist-sanctioned programs. Ministers, not methadone. Pews, not puberty blockers.
Texas politicians are front and center in advancing these concomitant efforts in the form of explicitly anti-trans and explicitly pro-Christian bills. Most recently, Senate Bill 763, which the State House passed on Wednesday, would allow unlicensed chaplains to operate in schools alongside guidance counselors and other support staff. Public schools would be able to employ or accept volunteer workers in this position. As The Texas Tribune explains:
As with other legislation, supporters of the chaplains bill claim it would return morality to Texas schools to better address mass shootings, drug use and other societal ills. School chaplains, Malloy and others argue, would also provide much-needed relief for teachers burdened by low pay, limited resources, ballooning class sizes and ever-looming funding cuts.
(In a weird twist that is in no way unique to the fascist carnival of Texas politics, one of the main proponents for the bill is a former pirate?? who used to teach far-right Nicaraguan Contras and advocates for proselytizing in schools?? ehhhhhh)
Rather than, say, funding schools better or providing more trained counselors who don’t want to “influence those in education until the saving grace of Jesus becomes well-known” (real quote by pirate guy), Texas is using the defunding of public institutions as an opportunity to fill that gap with a church-state service and directly fund those efforts. Another surveilling eye to potential “gender deviance” and other ostensibly “unchristian” identities and ways of being in the world.
All of it further buttressing an Evangelical emphasis on abstinence and “purity” that has seen several waves in the US, perhaps most notably its doubling down in the 1990s when public fear of HIV/AIDS was arguably at its most palpable. Assigning—and rigorously enforcing—that binarism to numerous axes of difference: “cis”/”deviant,” “addict”/”pure,” “Christian”/”heathen,” and so forth.
The takeaway from these developments isn’t to gun for a “don’t boo, vote!” moment exactly, yikes, but I think we’ll see more candidates locally—at least in Washington—bucking against “culture war” pablum in an effort to advance genuine “sanctity of life” policies that humanize.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.