On Jan. 12, 1970, the New York Times printed an obituary of my 12-year-old brother on its front page, identifying him as the youngest person to die of a heroin overdose in New York City. The article’s headline reduced him to a “heroin user.” His name is Walter Van Der Meer.
It has been more than half a century since Walter died tragically on Dec. 14, 1969. His frail body was found slumped over in a dingy Harlem boardinghouse bathroom two weeks after his birthday. Newspapers circulated a photograph of him in this state, turning unspeakable loss into public spectacle.
This image of my brother, vulnerable and abandoned, has haunted me ever since. It crystallizes the abject failure of this society to have ever made Black lives matter, or to take seriously the economic and social deficits that leave people vulnerable to drug addiction and overdose.
Months after Walter’s obituary ran, President Richard M. Nixon appropriated his death (and others’) to provoke the hysteria necessary to declare drug abuse America’s “public enemy number one.” Under the guise of a “war on drugs,” a new form of structural racism emerged, what Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”
Fifty years on, the war’s devastation is clear. Last year alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a grim milestone of 93,000 overdose deaths — 93,000 brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, friends lost. If racism had not been deployed to dehumanize Walter — had his overdose been framed a “death of despair,” the term applied more recently to White people who have succumbed to overdose — perhaps the current crisis could have been averted.
Despite what outsiders saw and wrote about us, my family and neighbors forged a community of love and dignity. Most, like mine, were refugees fleeing the aftermath of centuries of enslavement and racial terror in the South. In the North, our mothers and fathers worked grueling jobs with long hours, but they were present in our lives. Structural racism, however, all but assured the deterioration of many families.
Things began to unravel for mine when my Surinamese father was deported. Our family needed a just and equitable society. Instead, we got segregated, under-resourced schools; dangerous, underpaid jobs; dilapidated housing; and grossly negligent child welfare and mental health systems.
Rather than providing support to keep our family together, the state of New York took Walter and me into custody. Walter struggled, as many children in his situation would. In custody, he was isolated and overmedicated with Thorazine. Once he was introduced to heroin, after years of failed state interventions, it became a form of self-medication.
Community activists have long argued that if the nation had responded to the heroin epidemic of the 1970s — or the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s — as a public health emergency instead of a matter of crime, it might now have an effective treatment system to mobilize. Alas, a profound lesson of Walter’s death is that it reveals how structural racism is wounding us all.
Consider methadone — a highly effective medication for treating opioid addiction — authorized in the 1970s with low-income communities of color in mind. Rather than being deployed as compassionate care, it has been federally regulated for optimal social control, long disparaged as “liquid handcuffs.” People who attend methadone programs must conform to harsh rules and surveillance or face debilitating opioid withdrawal. Such restrictive policies have proved largely counterproductive — and, of course, harm White people, too.
Now, the Biden administration has a historic opportunity to end the “war on drugs.” Its Statement of Drug Policy Priorities embraces a public health framing of the drug crisis, centers racial equity and underscores the importance of harm-reduction programs.
But more must be done. President Biden should create a pathway for opening overdose prevention centers, where people can consume pre-purchased drugs more safely, with sterile equipment, in a medically supervised environment. Such facilities help prevent overdose deaths, decrease risk of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, and benefit communities by decreasing both public injecting and discarded syringes.
States are also beginning to act, but the ongoing paradigm remains. In Philadelphia this year, attempts to open the nation’s first overdose prevention center were thwarted when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that the “crack house” statute of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 would make such centers illegal. (This is the very legislation that instituted 100-to-1 disparities in sentencing for crack as opposed to powder cocaine.)
My brother’s death was society’s loss, the loss of a brilliant child. His story can remain just one tragic instance in a vast archive of suffering. Or this nation — its leaders, policymakers and public officials — can finally listen to his 12-year-old cries for help: for healing, love and decency.