Black-lash?

Ruminating over the crack era landscape of Oakland, California, scholar Mike Davis noted with passing interest what appeared to be a new phenomenon in his 1990 work, City of QuartzIn past years, Davis commented, aggressive law-and-order demands were “dismissed as the venom of white backlash.”  In the crack era, however, a new and unprecedented “Black-lash” emerged.  According to Davis this represented a “qualitatively new and disturbing dimension of the war on the underclass” manifested by “the swelling support of Black leadership” for draconian criminal justice responses to the crack problem.  Before moving on to other matters of interest, Davis made one more observation which proved prophetic: “The trend is national.”

In Los Angeles, the influential South Central Organizing Committee (SCOC)—a church supported affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—became a major voice calling for greater police deployment against drugs and street youth.  In New York, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) held countless marches, protests, and vigils to demand police initiatives like Operation Pressure Point and the Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) as well as harsher sentencing.  The Reverend Wendell Foster, a member of the city council, co-founded the United Black Church Appeal (UBCA) with his celebrity friends Dick Gregory and Ossie Davis to aid in the crusade against crack.  A virtual chorus line of traditional liberal, pro-black voices formed to demand more police and harsher sentencing in order to “take back” their streets from pushers and users.  The NWBCCC, in fact, called their campaign against crack in their communities the “take back our streets” campaign for a time.

Mandatory Minimums are not what Tommie Smith and John Carlos had in mind.

What surprised Davis, and what should surprise any critical observer is the absence of dissenting opinion.  In her work The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander laments that groups like the ACLU and NAACP virtually ignored the move towards incarceration under crack era reform in favor of issues more pertinent to black middle class interests, such as affirmative action.  This however, is only part of the problem.  The crack era environs of what Davis dubs “Black-lash” also unleashed the fury of prominent minority leaders who typically opposed law-and-order solutions.  For example, Congresswoman Maxine Waters—now well known for her attacks on law enforcement—endorsed police sweeps and “street terrorism” laws designed to crackdown on drug-related crime.  Black Power advocate Harry Edwards, organizer of the famous 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights told the San Francisco Focus, “I’m for locking ‘em up, getting ‘em off the street, put ‘em behind bars.”  Edwards added further detail on his designs for sentencing: “As long as the law will allow, try to make it as long as possible.”

Black working class and middle class revulsion against drugs and street criminality, or what Davis calls, “the perception that dealers and gangs threaten the very integrity of Black culture” provided the impetus for Black-lash frustrations.  Such animus translated into increasingly extremist rhetoric aimed at pushers and users.  Perhaps more damaging, the zeal of Black-lash hysteria emboldened calls—from all sides—for punishment above all else.  Joan Howarth of the ACLU lamented in 1988 that progressives had “virtually deserted us on this issue.”  Thus, at the height of the crack era, no progressive agenda on drug crime existed.  No challenge of the socio-economic forces that produced the heavy drug traffic and drug use in areas of high concentrated poverty came to be mounted.  Instead, gloating LAPD press liaisons told the civil libertarians “to eat your hearts out.”

The frustrations Davis first observed are best captured by black intellectual, writer, and poet Ishmael Reed.  A resident of Oakland in the 1980s and early 90s, Reed too found himself angered by changes in his own neighborhood:

“You discover that living in an area in which a crack den is in operation, is like living under military rule.  Your neighborhood is invaded at all times of the day and night by armed men and women—death squads—who carry the kinds of weapons that are employed in small wars all over the world.  People are trapped in their homes, intimidated by rival drug armies who on more than one occasion have caused the murder of innocent men, women, and children as they fight over the spoils”

Ishmael Reed

Throughout his diatribe, Reed refers to his Oakland neighborhood as “ground zero,” and to pushers and users as “black terrorists,” “crack fascists,” and “the living dead.”  Most importantly, Reed positioned the black working and middle classes against the pushers and users reportedly destroying their communities.  The black working class, “people who’ve put in time at stupid, dull jobs all their lives and suffered all manner of degradation so that their children might become achievers,” were the victims “bearing the brunt of the brutal crack fascists.”  As Reed saw it, Americans, particularly Black Americans, needed to make a choice.  The choice was clear:

“People are not going to stand by as they destroy working-class America… if it comes to a choice between their survival and the people who form the incubator that produces black excellence, then most people will choose to side with the latter class without a moment’s hesitation.” 

As noted earlier, outlandish Black-lash rhetoric was not limited to the West Coast.  In New York, the Reverend Wendell Foster secured regular appearances on television news, grabbing local, and often, national headlines for his exploits.  In 1986, Foster told the Amsterdam News that pushers “should be caged and put on exhibit as lions, tigers and rattle snakes.”  Foster reasoned that, “since crack dealers are acting like lower forms of life, they should be treated like the animals they are.”   In a 1990 newsletter to constituents Foster decried that, “drug pushers are the scourge of the earth and are doing more to destroy our families than did the Ku Klux Klan, white citizens councils, all forms of racism, all forms of overt racial violence, and even the Korean and Vietnam Wars.”  You would assume here that the Reverend covered all his bases in this robust attack against pushers.  Alas, he was not done: “These godless, immoral, heartless, money-hungry pushers are wearing their gold and driving their new automobiles over the graves of our loved ones.  They must be stopped.  They can be stopped.”

A young Wendell Foster

In terms of driving towards solutions, Foster’s recommendations were no less hyperbolic.  In a 1988 mailer to constituents Foster stated: “We need a solution as draconian as the plague.”  Foster provided more specific suggestions about criminal justice solutions to crack in an Op-Ed which appeared in the September 1986 issue of Newsday entitled “No Mercy for Crack Dealers.”  Here, Foster stated that crack-cocaine laws should be amended so that first offenders received a term of 5 to 10 years in prison.  Repeat offenders would garner 25 years to life with no chance for parole.  After referring to crack pushers and users as the “scum of the earth” Foster offered one final, fitting, summation:  “Treat them, jail them, punish them, rehabilitate them, chain them, cage them—just get rid of them.”

Nearly a month after Foster’s seething Op-Ed graced the pages of Newsday, eerily similar prescriptions were written into law with passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.  By establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crime—a solution as draconian as the plague—the American prison-industrial complex began to blossom in all its glory.  As a nation, we agreed almost unanimously to begin getting rid of “them”.  We have been getting rid of “them” ever since.