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Talking Points: Max Felker-Kantor

Points is delighted to welcome Max Felker-Kantor, Associate Professor of History at Ball State University for an interview about his new book, DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools (University of North Carolina Press, 2024)

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.


I am a historian of race, policing, politics, and cities since World War II. I completed my PhD at the University of Southern California in 2014. I am currently an associate professor of history at Ball State University in Indiana where I teach courses in American history, social and political history, urban history, and African American history. In my research, I am particularly interested in the ways police power has expanded over time in relation to resistance from antipolice movements. I explored this relationship in my book Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), which sought to explain how and why the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) became more powerful, independent, and abusive between the 1965 Watts uprising to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. My academic work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, Modern American History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, Boom California, and Pacific Historical Review, as well as a range of other academic venues. I have also written for a range of popular outlets including The Washington Post, Truthout, Slate, Public Books, Teen Vogue, and others.


What got you interested in the history of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy?


My interest in the history of drugs began through my research into how the police used drugs and the drug war to claim more authority, power, and resources in Los Angeles and cities across the country. Through the research I conducted for my first book, I became intrigued by how the police mobilized moments of crisis and moral panic to advance their interests. As I explored the way the police in waging a war on drugs, it became evident that the police contributed to constructions of the drug crisis that could be used to advance their partisan position in the city. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of the drug war on communities of color, especially the way policies and policing criminalized Black and Latinx youth. The policing of drugs, I concluded, was not really about drugs per se but a means of maintaining various forms of social, racial, gender, and sexual control. This led me to ask new questions about the role of the police in other aspects of the drug war, namely prevention and demand reduction, which evolved into my new book, DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools.


What motivated you to write this book specifically?


This book began in the archives. As I was finishing the final archival research for Policing Los Angeles, I came across references to the DARE program in archives at UCLA. I was struck by the references to the LAPD and the DARE program because I had DARE as a fifth grader while growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the 1990s. I wondered how and why the DARE program began and how it expanded to be present in my elementary school in Salt Lake City. I had a few memories of the DARE program, namely that police officers came into the class and made me afraid of drugs and gangs, but nothing as substantial as many of my friends who went through the program. Building from this spark of a research question, I also began to think about the meaning behind the use of police officers as teachers. The more I explored and researched the history of DARE, the more I began to see the central role the program played in the history of policing, drugs, politics, and culture of the 1980s and 1990s. When I realized that no one had written a history of the DARE program, I decided to take it on as a research project. As I conducted the research, I started to see that DARE offered a way to explore how the history of drugs, education, and the carceral state intersected. Although the book is about DARE and drug education, I was fascinated with the ways that DARE touched on a wide range of issues and themes in the late twentieth century United States ranging from drugs and the police to public-private partnerships and cultural politics.


Explain your book in a way your bartender won't find boring.


DARE to Say No is the first history of the DARE program, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. The program, which placed police officers in schools as teachers and drug education experts, quickly gained popularity after its launch in 1983. Within a decade DARE had become the nation’s preeminent antidrug education program. At its height in the mid-1990s DARE was taught in 75 percent of school districts across the country and in dozens of countries around the world. Yet the DARE program accomplished much more than teaching kids to resist drugs. The program’s administrators intended for the DARE officers to become trusted friends and mentors for kids, which occasionally led to instances where students turned in their own parents for drug use. DARE also enlisted corporations and celebrities to support the program to deglamorize drug use. But DARE did not remain popular. It came under immense scrutiny from social scientists who found that the program, quite simply, did not prevent drug use. Some studies even suggested that it led to increased drug use. DARE also became the brunt of jokes and parody. Numerous people, for instance, recall how they or people they know smoked pot in their DARE T-shirt to, in the words of one such person, “stick it to the man.”


Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?


The most interesting thing I uncovered was how the program started as part of the LAPD’s drug war and how DARE America, the nonprofit corporation that oversaw the program, engaged in a massive public relations campaign to sell DARE to law enforcement officials, educators, parents, and politicians. I was struck by how intentional DARE administrators were in shaping the program’s image and seeking to expand the program through corporate sponsorship, marketing, and cultural politics. This led me to find all sorts of interesting stories about how ubiquitous DARE became in the United States. I was particularly interested and surprised to learn that the program was associated with celebrities, ranging from the Los Angeles Lakers to Michael Jackson, and partnered with all sorts of corporations, including Kentucky Fried Chicken. Uncovering these stories was interesting because they revealed how DARE was much more than just a drug education program but marketing machine that sought to sell the program to the American people.


The most surprising thing I learned from speaking both with former DARE officers and administrators and social scientists who had evaluated the program was the seriousness of the DARE officers. When compared to the irony and parody that so many millennials view the program, these stories were unexpected. DARE officers and administrators were deeply committed to the program and believed the program was one of the most important solutions to youth drug use.


What do you think is the most important takeaway from your book?


The most important takeaway of DARE to Say No is the lesson that police used the program to advance their legitimacy, power, and authority. Police officers and departments intended DARE to normalize the presence of police in schools and other areas of social life where the police had not been before. In the process, they drew together the soft and hard sides of the drug war. After the establishment of DARE and the deployment of the DARE officer as the ultimate solution to youth drug use, there was almost no approach to preventing drug use that did not involve police. Even drug education programs would rely on uniformed law enforcement officers as teachers. Just because DARE was educative rather than overtly punitive did not mean that it was immune from the adverse consequences or implications of the broader drug war, which fueled criminalization and punitive policies in the late twentieth century. If we want to understand how the police worked to position themselves as powerful entities in American social, political, and cultural life, we must reckon with DARE.


Has this research led to your next endeavor—what else are you working on?


While not directly related to DARE, my next research project is on the history of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Scandal. This scandal focused on the Rampart Division CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit, the department’s elite anti-gang units. Officers in that unit were found to be stealing cocaine from evidence rooms, framing suspects for crimes, and even allegedly committing murder. The so-called Rampart Scandal led to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to file a complaint against the LAPD that led to the imposition of a federal consent decree overseeing the department for more than a decade. This new project, tentatively titled The Rampart Way, examines the ways the LAPD’s war on drugs and war on gangs led to a lack of accountability and corrupt police practices.


Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field (of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy history)?


Since I am primarily a history of policing and the carceral state, I foresee the future of the field expanding to examine the differential policing of big pharma and the opioid crisis, in particular. There is certainly a need for a more in-depth historical examination of the roots of the opioid crisis and the intersection between corporate marketing and the medical profession. Although many have pointed out the different political reactions to the opioid crisis when compared to the response to the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s, there has not been a sustained examination of this comparison.


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