Tiered Justice

This just in: Lady Justice can see race and class quite clearly from under that blindfold.  In 2012, HSBC a criminal banking conglomerate settled in court for $1.9 billion in fines rather than face criminal prosecution.  Restorative justice has its virtues, but less so when said justice is routinely offered to some and not others.  The 2012 settlement detailed how Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel and Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel laundered $881m through HSBC and a Mexican unit. In some cases, Mexican branches had brazenly widened tellers’ windows to allow big boxes of cash to be pushed across the counters.  HSBC also violated US sanctions by working with customers in Iran, Libya, Sudan, Burma and Cuba.

More recently, a litany of articles have rightfully criticized our tiered system of punishment that goes well beyond disparate sentencing across lines of race, space, and Pay to Stay jailsclass.  As of late, private run facilities for “select” offenders offer upgraded amenities for the upwardly mobile incarcerated.  For $100 dollars a night, rapists and petty drug offenders, and those found guilty of a range of crimes can sidestep traditional prisons for an extra modicum of safety and comfort.  For that very fee, one sex offender circumvented the indignities and dangers of county jail in order to stay at a boutique jail in Seal Beach, replete with flat screen TV’s, a computer room, and brand new beds.  After serving his six months of pseudo-incarceration, Alan Wurtzel left with an $18,250 dollar tab.  Perhaps more importantly, his experience was most certainly more palatable than that of those serving time in county jail for the very same crime, or in other instances, lesser crimes.  “Pay-to-stay” private jails have been on the rise in California since 2011, adding yet another Pay to Stay jailschapter to our history of unequal punishment.

As an historian of the Crack Era, I’m well-versed in our unfettered enthusiasm for punishment, particularly when it applies to poor nonwhite urbanites.  A closer look at the years leading up to the national panic over crack in 1986 suggest that our patterns of tiered justice have much deeper roots.  As David Courtwright has reminded us again and again, what we think of particular drugs (or crimes) and how to respond to them as a society is often dictated by how we view its particular set of users, or in Wurzel’s case, predators.  The scandal that shook Choate Rosemary Hall in 1984 elucidates this reality.  Perhaps the preeminent preppie connect. choateboarding school in the nation, Choate sprawls across 500 pristine acres in Wallingford, Connecticut, with a century-old tradition of wealth and excellence.  Well-preppie connect. JFKheeled graduates are too numerous to name, but one young man we might remember was John F. Kennedy.  Certainly, young Jack might have been up to similar mischief as his contemporaries were in the early 1980s, mischief that lands citizens from the wrong sides of the track long stretches in county jail, state or federal prison–not Seal Beach.

So what happened at Choate and why should we care?  In April 1984, scholarship student Derek Oatis arrived at Kennedy Airport from what can only be called a two-day business trip to Caracas, Venezuela with former Choate student and his  girlfriend Catherine Cowan.  Per customs agents, a random inspection of the young entrepreneur’s luggage and pockets netted five plastic bags and a talcum powder container filled with one pound of high-Preppie Connect. NYP Headlinepurity cocaine.  Later reports tabbed the take at 350 grams with an estimated street value of $300,000, a substantial amount of cocaine to be smuggling internationally.  Worse still, Oatis had on his person a list of Choate students who were financing his drug run and expecting their drug of choice upon his return.  All told, 16 former Choate students plead guilty to participating in the buying scheme, while countless others managed to elude authorities.  Further investigation by prosecutors revealed that smuggling from Venezuela directly to the school had occurred on at least seven occasions dating back to 1982.

Several curious events ensued.  First, within 24 hours the DEA turned the case over to local law enforcement–an odd decision given the quantity and international scope of the purported crime.  Second, within the same 24 hours, local officials granted Oatis release on $10,000 bail.  Third, New York prosecutors received an unusual call from the then Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, on behalf of Little Rock native and defendant Cathy cathy cowan.Cowan.  Despite feasting upon the political utility of Law and Order politics as Governor, routinely approving hundreds of extradition orders for Arkansas residents prosecuted in other states, Clinton balked in this particular instance.  Clinton delayed the process for months, stating that it would be “unconscionable” to expose Cowan to New York’s harsh drug laws.  After receiving a fair bit of political criticism for the move in a conservative climate of punishment, Clinton personally negotiated reduced charges for Cowan–three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.  It is worth noting that Cowan’s lawyer, William R. Wilson had close ties with the Clinton’s.  In addition to his role as a longtime campaign contributor, Wilson had tried cases and shared legal fees with Hillary Clinton.  More germane to the moment, Wilson was at the time representing Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, on federal cocaine charges.  Read More »

The Bad Guys: Drugs, Race, Sports, and “Character Concerns”

When we think about drug abuse and sports—removing PED’s from the equation—two sports invariably get the preponderance of the coverage and blame.  Regardless of evidence that substance abuse abounds across sports, just as it does across lines of race, space, class and gender, the general public thinks almost intuitively about NBA and NFL athletes with respect to substance abuse in sports.  Compounding this misleading assumption, often hyperbolized “character concerns” dog the same athletes while other deserving athletes manage to escape such labels.  Perhaps most interestingly with respect to “character concerns,” potential substance abuse often weighs much more heavily than what might otherwise be more alarming concerns such as mental illness, domestic abuse, and potential sex crimes.  Take for example the 2015 and 2016 NFL Drafts as a case study.

mets. winstonIn 2015, despite spending a year embroiled in sexual assault allegations, avoiding petty shoplifting charges, and yelling questionable sexual suggestions on a table in the Florida State student union, Jameis Winston became the first overall pick in the NFL draft.  Despite a damning analysis of the purported assault in the acclaimed documentary The Hunting Ground, Winston managed to demonstrate that character concerns often do not include how one treats women, or if one abides by the law–assuming their not drug laws.

Just one year later a potential first overall pick dropped precipitously in the 2016 NFL Draft, marked as irredeemable on many franchise draft boards because a troll in Laremy Tunsil’s life released video of him smoking marijuana–purportedly in high school–on the night of the draft.  Tunsil sat stunned, embarrassed, and hemorrhaging future contract dollars as he waited to be selected.  All told, “character concerns” cost Tunsil at least $10 million mets. tunsildollars by most estimates.  If most citizens future earnings were contingent upon youthful misadventures, this would make more sense.  If we’ve learned anything here at Points, it is to expect the irrational when it comes to drugs and alcohol.  To recap: sexual assault, theft, and inappropriate public speech can be forgiven.  A youthful indiscretion with marijuana, despite a history of clean drug tests as a college athlete brands you irredeemable.

Tunsil’s draft night debacle highlights another important reality with respect to the purported transgressions and “character concerns” of today’s NBA and NFL athletes; nearly all of the athletes in question are most frequently involved in the use and abuse of alcohol and marijuana, not amphetamines, or cocaine, or crack–problems that plagued various professional sports leagues before and perhaps most prominently, during the Crack Era.  In truth, the modern mets. baseball v. drugs preventionWar on Drugs story with sport begins with baseball.  In 1973, Senator Birch Bayh began a Congressional inquiry into the drugs in sports pertaining to the influence of athletes on juvenile delinquency.  The hearing uncovered rampant abuse of amphetamines throughout MLB.   Perhaps because of the racial politics of baseball and many of the players involved, we’ve forgotten this part of the narrative.  Instead, the story of baseball and drugs skips a generation in the popular imagination to one team whose popular perception embodied the Crack Era.  The 1986 New York Mets were at the mets. straw and docepicenter of the crack boom, and powered by two young, formerly poor, newly minted drug enthusiasts in Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden.  That older, more experienced, and well-noted drug users like Keith Hernandez might have influenced these young adults and habituated them to drug culture is less frequently a point of conversation.  Read More »

#KEITHJACKSONMATTERS: The Kid That Sold Crack To The President

crack address. kennebunkport.On September 1, 1989 two disparate worlds within the same nation briefly overlapped. Then President George H.W. Bush and his speechwriters mulled over what would be the new leaders first address to the nation while vacationing at the Bush compound in affluent Kennebunkport, MA.  Far removed from the shores of Kennebunkport, in the shadows of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 18 year-old Keith Timothy Jackson toiled in the District crack trade, chasing his iteration of the american dream.  As Bush and his operatives searched for a tool to dramatize a forthcoming speech on the nation’s drug control strategy, they stumbled on just the right “prop,” local Spingarn High School senior, Keith Jackson.  crack address. spingarn

In his own admission of events, Bush concedes the “first Oval Office address for a President is a big deal.”  Bush wanted to set the tone for his administration, one avowedly rooted in promises of law and order, stability, and the security of a CIA past. According to Bush, the 2.4 ounce bag of crack cocaine that he would hold before the nation–one purchased in a drug sting involving Jackson–was the “perfect prop.”  A closer look suggests that the crack in question was not the only politically useful prop at the drug war’s disposal.  While Bush only managed to hold up that plastic bag by the nape, he may well have been holding up Jackson, and countless underclass youth like him before the nation.  In addition to Jackson and those that fit the drug courier profile, the neighborhoods in which they resided also became bush crack address.useful background noise in the broader chorus of the crack scourge.

The message of the address was clear.  Crack had already eaten up the rotten core of cities nationwide and threatened to do the same to more prized and affluent neighborhoods absent swift, aggressive government action.  Jackson, the drugs he purveyed, and the communities that harbored youth like him were the threat to be punished and controlled.  To drive this point home, Bush and his handlers wanted to send the message that crack was being bought and sold anywhere.  Given that this was far from the case in reality, the DOJ and DEA were asked to manufacture a reality in which crack cocaine was sold “near the White House.”  Enter unwitting local youth and disposable citizen Keith Jackson.  In the words of one White House aide, Bush “liked the prop” because it “drove the point home.”  The dramatic prop would show how the crack trade had spread to even the President’s own neighborhood, even if it really hadn’t.  Read More »

The Great White Hope: Can Hopelessness and Drug Abuse in White Communities Change the Drug War?

“Cocaine is an epidemic now.  White people are doing it.” – Richard Pryor

Heroin has a new face.  The new face of heroin elicits more sympathy, compassion, and OD. BY RACE.understanding.  The new face of heroin is, were told, less threatening.  Ninety percent of new heroin users are white.  From punishment to public health, local and national responses to heroin have been remarkably fluid over time.  In each case, our approach is animated by the esteem—or lack thereof—with which we hold using demographics.  As new heroin and opioid users are disproportionately white and often middle class, how we view the problem and options to address said problem have changed dramatically.  An ahistorical optimist might view our new vibrant discussion and consideration of public health approaches and harm reduction at the local and state level as clear markers of progress.  A drug historian might ask: how will approaches change when users change or new drugs with new using demographics emerge?  Those that prescribe to David Musto’s dictum of periods of tolerance and intolerance in United States drug control might rightly hold their breath for our next period of intolerance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the reason nonwhite populations have been less adversely effected by heroin’s rise is also steeped in racial prejudice.  The history of medicine has long revealed the ways in which various nonwhite ailments have been ignored or OD. Heroin. 2minimized by the medical profession.  In our present context, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a drug abuse expert argues that doctors are much more reluctant to prescribe painkillers to minority patients, worrying that they might sell them or become addicted.  Had practitioners viewed all of their patients with similar suspicion and caution the iatrogenic addiction of opioids leading to heroin may have been avoided.  In 2012, twelve states processed a volume of opioid prescriptions that outstripped their population.  In Alabama, the staggering ratio rested at 142.9 opioid prescriptions for every 100 citizens.

I first wrote about this trend in 2014, after the Governor of Vermont dedicated his State of the State Address to the heroin problem.  As I argued then: Sound policy steeped in punishment—it turns out—makes much more sense when applied to 1970s Harlem rather than the land of maple syrup, autumn foliage, and good neighbors.  od. vermontWhen addressing the same drug with different users in decades past, punishment reigned.  The addict and the peddler–often doubling as the same shadowy figure–became cemented as cultural boogeymen.  Addicts, not society or disease, caused the problem and bore the threat to public safety.  In Vermont however, Governor Peter Shumlin transformed addicts as victims.  De-centering traditional narratives of crime and deviance, Shumlin painted a picture of heroin users as everyday people, victims caught in a downward spiral.  Schulman cited the conclusions of a local Pediatrician Dr. Fred Holmes: “These kids don’t look different, walk different, talk different.  It’s just the nature of the disease that’s different.  A relentless relapsing illness that is potentially fatal.”  A far cry from the “super-predators” of the Crack Era.  Read More »

Whitney Houston And The Enduring Stigma Of Crack

Popular perceptions of drugs and alcohol are fluid and in many cases highly volatile.  What we think about drugs and addiction, “very much depends on who is addicted.”  This whitney houston just say no.assertion leveled by David Courtwright is amongst drug scholars, a matter of consensus. The public and government response to crack, as well as the drug’s enduring stigma, have much to do with society’s fears and fantasies of poor nonwhites and urban districts.  It is telling that in her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, singer Whitney Houston vociferously disavowed previous crack use.  When Sawyer read from a press clipping implying said use, Houston grew indignant reminding viewers that “crack is cheap”.  Continuing, Houston cited her wealth and status.  She “made too much money to smoke crack.”  In the same interview, Houston admitted to the abuse of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs, and implied past struggles with eating disorders.  However, Houstonwhitney. crack is wack. haring mural
would not allow her public image to be stained by the triumvirate of blackness, poverty, and crack.  Borrowing from Keith Haring’s mural and a long-standing cultural meme, Houston concluded dismissively, “crack is wack.”

Houston’s denial was motivated by the class and racial politics of cocaine use. To put it another way, crack is wack because it’s perceived to be a drug dominated by poor, black users. News accounts portrayed it as an almost exclusively black drug, as opposed to its upscale chemical cousin, cocaine.  From the perspective of drug warriors like William Bennett, one might argue that Hoston’s interview represents the fruits of nearly two decades of anti-crack media assaults.  In this respect, the invisible hand of culture may appear to have done the good work of categorizing crack as a vice of disrepute.  The War on Drugs had succeeded in driving down demand for crack as the drug became increasingly stigmatized in popular culture and on the street corner.  But what of other drugs?  Might addicts and corner boys have turned to other less stigmatized drugs as a crutch?  If so, all Houston’s denial and the broader demise of crack represents is a another chapter in the grand saga of wack-a-mole drug enforcement. Read More »

Night Of The Living Baseheads

In the Crack Era, hyperbolic news segments like 48 Hours on Crack Street ruled the scene.  Few dissenting voices were able to marshal necessary counternarratives in the face of panic and political opportunism.  One pe. night of the living baseheadsunexpected, but historically rooted set of voices smashed through the hushed tones of fear and alarm: the voice of politically conscious rap.  Namely, Public Enemy, the self-dubbed “prophets of rage.”  PE’s 1988 offering, Night of the Living Baseheads is both a critique of the crack trade, and media coverage of crack’s ascendance. In short, Night of the Living Baseheads is a clear counternarrative to histrionic anti-crack news specials like 48 Hours on Crack Street which blitzed nightly news throughout 1986 and 1988—both conveniently during election cycles.

The track begins with a grainy recording of Malcolm X: “Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, pe. 48 hours on crack street.robbed of our language.  We lost our religion, our culture, our god… and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.”  At first glance, this might be PE joining the chorus line of African American voices comparing the scourge of crack to the crushing, systematic exploitation of bondage.  However, a closer look at their accompanying music video makes it more clear who exactly lost their minds in the Crack Era, television news.

Welcome to PETV, the “Black CNN” according to Chuck D.  Less a politician, Chuck D was by his own admission a “dispatcher of PE TVinformation.”  In the words of scholar Tricia Rose, Public Enemy’s work “keeps poor folks alert” from being misled or placated by “media stories and official ‘truths.’”  At a broader level rap music by the late 1980s had become “Black American TV,” a public and highly accessible place where black meanings and perspectives could be shared by people with lived experience rather than fetishized by commentators on nightly news. If rap had truly become “Black American TV,” Public Enemy positioned itself as its most incendiary channel.
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Either You’re Slinging Crack Rock Or You Got A Wicked Jump Shot

At the intersection of race, space, class and hoops Jalen Anthony Rose entered the national imagination in the twilight of the Crack Era.  Depending on where you stood in the culture wars, Rose and his teammates—dubbed the Fab Five—were cultural icons or yet another sign of a culture in decline.  Broadcasting personality Dick Vitale bemoaned the team’s aesthetic, blaming their “ugly black socks,” baggy shorts and shaved heads.  From Vitale’s perspective people didn’t look at the young black rose. fab 5boys as “that clean cut, that All-American sort of guys.”  Basketball legend Bill Walton once known for his anti-establishment politics and counterculture leanings rankled that the team “epitomized what is wrong with a lot of basketball players.”  Something was clearly different about this young team. Beat writer Brian Burwell assessed the situation best: “It was all generational and cultural.  If you were young and black, you were like, ‘those are my boys.’  If you were old and white, you were going, ‘oh my god the criminals are taking over our sports and influencing our children.  Get away from the TV.’”

Ice Cube, a cultural icon in his own right, referenced the teams “style, swagger and attitude.”  In a “cultural sense” Ice Cube argued, “they represented the homeboys and the homegirls.”  Of the five, no member of the team represented the brash defiance of the streets more than Jalen Rose.  A proud graduate of Detroit’s Southwestern High School, Rose grew up poor, raised by a single mother.  Rose and his father—NBA star Jimmy Walker—would never meet.  Despite growing up around dope houses and shooting galleries, Rose stuck to the basketball courts at the recreation center of St. Cecilia’s.  Regardless of his personal merit, Rose was still a kid from the hood.  As such he nearly became prey in the broader War on Drugs.
rose. crackhouse 2October 4, 1992 was just another day in Southwest Detroit.  Jalen and three friends, Lamont Wheeler, Garland Royall and Daman Holmes gathered on a Sunday morning at the house of their high school friend, Frederick Hogan.  A conspiracy to play video games.  With John Madden in the Sega Genesis, the boys were ready to relax.  Unfortunately, October 4, 1992 was indeed just another day in Southwest Detroit.  Police piled through the unlocked door yelling, “Police! Search Warrant!”  This was a drug raid but this was not a crackhouse.  Nonetheless, the house and their persons were searched.  Rose, per usual, had no drugs or paraphernalia on him.  Ditto for three of the other boys, including Frederick Hogan, the owner of the house he inherited from his recently deceased mother.  The police were about to come up empty.Read More »

Public Disservice

Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.

If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white cameronsuburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron willisadvises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis seagramsappeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”

In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of peewee.cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s eastwood.crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack.  This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine.Read More »

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As an historian of the Crack Era, I am more often than not engaging the work of sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists that have treated the drug trade and the hyper-policed urban communities I study. While young graduate students and early career PhD’s are poised to properly historicize the period in years to come, those looking to teach the period right now need to be both creative and interdisciplinary. In the main, my own work and teaching often draws a great deal from ethnographies of the drug trade. This got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of said work, and a bit frustrated at the paucity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work on the subject. In many respects, the work of ethnographers and historians are inherently complimentary. Students and scholars benefit from cross-pollination in this vein as it provides a more nuanced, holistic, and humanized treatment of a long-standing, highly complicated, vexing social problem.

The first drug ethnography ever handed to me was In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. in search of respectThe work re-affirmed my commitment to my field of study and convinced me of what I already suspected. Most poor young men and women involved in the drug trade—directly or indirectly—are rational economic actors that very much aspire to basic tenets of the “American Dream.” Many of the boys, girls, men and women populating the pages of In Search of Respect idealize and work towards establishing a traditional nuclear family, steady jobs, and security. Moreover, those in reckless pursuit of fast money and subsequently engaged in conspicuous consumption can hardly be castigated as outliers of the 1980s.

Ethnography provides qualitative insights that are often hard to replicate in strictly historical work beyond the exception of oral histories. Productive discussions followed in my own class on the Crack Era after a student asked why police repeatedly assumed Bourgois was an out-of-towner looking to cop. His apparent white skin and learned affect provided a window into the shortcuts police take when perusing districts disproportionately effected by the drug trade. Moreover, the disparate treatment of Bourgois and other subjects by police highlighted the ways in which race, class, and place all effect policing tactics and the likelihood of arrest and prosecution.Read More »

A Case For Local Control?

local control.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.

perils of fed.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.Read More »