When a topic like local control comes up, most historians rightly think of modern conservatism. As a convenient device to couch exclusionary policies, a deference to local control often meant preserving the race and class-based homogeneity of white communities. However, local control has not been universally supported in all cases. A deeper look at the politics of local control suggest that supporters of local control only support such measures in specific instances—situations in which local control is vested to the “right” people. When LBJ empowered poor urbanites via the Office of Economic Opportunity, traditional supporters of local control lambasted his administration for bureaucratic waste in the name of “handouts.” Perhaps LBJ had a point. Perhaps local control can be used as an inclusive policy initiative for populations traditionally excluded from the political processes shaping their own communities. This is most obvious with respect to policies addressing local crime and drugs.
In thinking more about this issue, I re-visited Lisa Miller’s work, The Perils of Federalism. Miller powerfully argues that the structure of contemporary federalism in the United States squeezes out the local. Privileging voices less familiar with problems on the ground—policy bureaucrats and moral entrepreneurs eventually make substantial decisions shaping the lives of those previously silenced. Thus, those that feel the daily brunt of criminal violence and aggressive crime control policies have no recourse. Perhaps more troubling, such citizens have little reason for hope, a sense of agency, or a sound rationale for believing they hold a meaningful stake in the life of their community. As issues loom larger and more important on the national stage, more and more opportunities for voices apart from the grassroots emerge. This leaves local voices stage left when issues reach the state or national level. For grassroots activists who toiled tirelessly to get their issues to state or national congress, this is particularly painful.
While Miller focuses on gun control, I argue the same holds for the War on Drugs and relations between police and residents. In the Crack Era grassroots activists that understood the problem best were eventually squeezed out of the process, particularly at the national level. As national media, congressional politicians, and moral entrepreneurs wrestled control of the crack panic, the narrative and policy solutions initially offered by local Bronxites changed. Proposed solutions were flattened and stripped of nuance. Preventative policies proved less enticing, offering less immediate political utility than calls to punish. Through the haze of federalism, only calls for more police and harsher sentencing were heard.
To be sure, grassroots activists opposed to crack and crime did call for more and more militarized police, as well as harsher sentencing. They did scapegoat drug users and drug sellers with their public rhetoric. Their intent, however, seems to have been lost in the meat grinder of moral panic, media hyperbole, and federalism. Activists intended to assert local control of their communities. They intended to redeem their communities; in their own eyes and in the eyes of the nation. They intended to suggest that users and sellers alone were not representative of their community as a whole. They intended to cooperate with law enforcement and other government agencies to mitigate problems they confronted on a daily basis. They intended to win more rehabilitation centers and economic opportunities for community residents.
Unfortunately the voices of activists were squeezed out of national specials on crack as well as the parade of subcommittee hearings on crack and crime held by Charles Rangel’s Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. Instead we are left with a portrait of an entire community complicit in or apathetic to the crack trade. Local communities were dictated to rather than cooperated with. In this respect, we were not and are not sensitive to how local communities experience crime and violence. We are also ignoring an important resource towards restoring sanity, clarity, purpose and trust to policing measures in urban communities.
No symbol represented the trend towards nationalization with respect to drug policy more than the Drug Czar. Thankfully, the Office of National Drug Control Policy seems to be distancing itself from the moniker, as well as the bellicose language of the War on Drugs. Recent decisions to let state initiatives work through fluid marijuana policy suggest the possibilities of state or local control are increasingly possible. As the War on Drugs is nothing more than a punch line in terms of efficacy, policymakers may be willing to listen to alternatives. One such alternative is listening to and empowering local voices on the ground.
Local control is undoubtedly a counterintuitive argument for those on the Left. After all, national legislation has often been needed to facilitate warranted progress for racial minorities, women, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups. But, might deference to federalism in the War on Drugs be just another way to disenfranchise poor citizens? With respect to drug policy, state and national bodies stifle or change meaningful progressive local solutions proposed by those with legitimate, sustained local experience in poor urban neighborhoods. Local citizens often propose solutions geared towards prevention and economic development in addition to punishment. Congress is interested in crime and drug control at their convenience. Such interest spikes markedly during election cycles or moral panics, but is inconsistent at best. Local residents, not Congress, are the experts. When it comes to drug policy or improving relations between residents and police, there is no substitute for local community participation. To that end, there is also no substitute for acknowledging local participation and honestly considering locally proposed initiatives and solutions.