It was the early 1990s, and I was a young PhD candidate. At the time I didn't know too much about crack, though I did know that the place next door was a crackhouse. It didn't bother me. I was a drinker, and the "clients" who went tripping in and out of the crackhouse typically gave me and my rowdy drinking buddies a bit of room. We weren't hostile, but I guess some found us scary.
Eventually, the crack matriarch next door relocated and, amid the hustle and bustle, left three cats behind. So my brother and I (roommates at the time) inherited three strays. One day, when I had a lady friend over, she got friendly with one of the cats (the big fat one). She knew I had just taken the cat in, though she didn't know where the cat had been living. Off the cuff, my friend observed that the cat was very friendly, not the least bit apprehensive about strangers, and that hence it could not have been a rescue from abuse and that it had probably been treated well.
Then something hit me. Again, it was the early 1990s, the "war on drugs" was in full swing, and the public had been led to believe that crack users were monsters - violent, paranoid psychotic misfits who cared for nothing but getting high.
So, how had this cat managed to develop such a loving, trusting disposition? After years in a crack den, with crackheads walking and crackheads walking out, the animal seemed not to have wracked up any emotional (or physical) scars. The other two cats were of a similar disposition.
Now, one may ask why this was at all remarkable. Well, I was already embarking upon studies of drug and addiction issues. Though I knew that the WOD was a joke (a cruel joke to be sure), this observation about the cats really brought it home for one cathartic moment: there was something very wrong with this drug war.
OK. There were of course many things wrong with it. But how is it that I, a politically engaged intellectual embarking upon a doctorate in Social & Political Thought of all things, was just a little surprised, or taken aback by the observation that an animal who for years had been exposed to drug using monsters turned out friendly and emotionally healthy?
It would seem that people who use crack, and other drugs for that matter, treat their pets just as well as do regular, "normal" citizens - no better, no worse (that the cats had been abandoned had more to do with the high cost of drugs and the chaos caused by the WOD than with anything inherent to crack use).
The surprise I experienced was humbling. Despite all my political savvy, and despite my contempt for the violent, Neanderthal approach North America had taken to drug issues, I too had been just a little bit brainwashed.
So I knew that I had a lot of work to do, and that it would involve not only educating the public with all the means at my disposal but, on top of that, an internal journey involving the removal of a ton of political baggage - stereotyping, prejudice, unfounded fear - out of my own soul as well.
Over two decades later, I sometimes think back to the "cat incident." I think about how hard it can be to separate oneself from the assumptions that govern one's culture, one's civilization. To this day, when I try to search my own mind for bits and pieces of propaganda and bigotry, I might think about those cats and of the many crackheads who, supposedly against all odds, had managed to treat them just as lovingly as the drug-free church goers across the street treated their own pets.
Those of us struggling against this stupid WAR ON DRUGS must be keenly aware: it can permeate our own minds, our hearts and souls. And though we are obviously engaged in a political struggle, it must also be a psychological and spiritual struggle - a struggle against the bigotry around us and also against the bigotry that, despite our best efforts, will attempt to corrupt us from within.