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 unexpected, 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, 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 information.” 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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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 suburban 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 advises 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 appeared 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 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 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. Continue reading →
Michael “Cetewayo” Tabor was born in Harlem in 1946. Like many young men of his time and place, Michael developed an affection for heroin. A dope addict before the tender age of twenty, Tabor discovered the Black Panthers and turned away from a life of drug use and abuse. At the time of his wrongful arrest, Tabor had risen to Captain in the New York branch of the Panthers. Tabor and 21 others—soon to be known as the “Panther 21”—were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kill several police officers and bomb several government buildings, including four police stations and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
In a courtroom circus that included a District Attorney reading from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and a screening of The Battle of Algiers, eight months came and went. At the end of the longest and most expensive trial in New York State history to date, the jury foreman spoke the words “not guilty” 156 times. Those that stayed, were acquitted. Tabor and his comrade Richard Moore had already fled to Algeria during the trial to join Eldridge Cleaver. In 1972, Tabor moved to Zambia with his wife where he spent the rest of his life as a radio host and writer on politics and culture. Through his dying days in 2010, Tabor refused to again set foot on United States soil.
Before Tabor fled, however, he published a pamphlet entitled: “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide.” The scathing, often prophetic critique of rising drug use in urban ghettos is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the complicated relationship between nonwhite urbanites, drugs, and policing. In sum, Tabor likens the heroin problem to other examples of the black community’s political oppression. To fight this reality, Tabor called for community development, self-determination, and self-help. Most importantly, Tabor demanded local control over policing. With respect to local control, Tabor lamented a sad reality: “It is a tragedy that in New York the greatest gains made in the realm of Black community control have been made by Black racketeers, numbers-game bankers and dope dealers, by the Black illegal capitalists.” Continue reading →
Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Beavercreek, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina highlight the dangers of our current war on drugs and crime for young black men. Despite ample video evidence to the contrary, public and civic discourse still frequently turns to problematic discussions of the young black male. In teaching a course on the Crack Era as well as past courses on Mass Incarceration, I am struck by the consistent, seemingly invisible violence met upon women. Both physical and structural violence are disproportionately met upon poor nonwhite women. In both macro and micro moral panics surrounding drug abuse, civic disorder and crime, discussions typically circle the same terrain. What of the young black male? Somebody save the children! Absent in popular and policy discussions is substantive conversation regarding the plight of poor nonwhite women.
Women are the fastest growing prison population in the United States. As of 2010, more than 1 million women were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women while Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women. Perhaps most damning—trauma, sexual violence, drug dependence and poverty are all strongly correlated with women’s incarceration. Despite more than 40 years of failed policy our nation elects to punish rather than heal. We lock women up instead of providing social services to help them cope with trauma, violence, addiction and poverty.
The preponderance of women in prison—roughly 85 to 90 percent—have a history of victimization prior to their incarceration. This often includes domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. As always color proves central to understanding our wars on drugs and crime: nonwhite women who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders. Women of means are more likely to be treated as victims, often referred to child welfare and mental health systems.
When we do talk about poor nonwhite women, we demonize them. In the burgeoning years of the law and order movement Patrick Moynihan sloppily applied sociological theory to label the black family—particularly black women heading single-parent households—a “tangle of pathology.” Black women were not headstrong, independent, and self-reliant because they had to be. This was simply a character flaw, one responsible for driving away potential suitors and fathers. Realities of poverty, previous childhood and ongoing trauma, as well as the daily specter of violence and coercion were not explanatory tools in this case. Continue reading →
Much as with most things, perspectives of the War on Drugs vary based on one’s personal experience, awareness, and in some cases, empathy. The saga of Bernhard Goetz—coined the “Subway Vigilante”—illustrates this reality all too clearly. His story also highlights the fluid nature of such perspectives and the apparent primacy of personal experiences more often than not. From Death Wish style tough guy to War On Drugs softy, Bernhard Goetz and his wildly erratic perspectives of the War on Drugs (and crime) call to mind the slogan Burger King recently ditched: “Have it your way.” As with the 40-year slogan, nothing lasts forever.
Crime Scene of the Goetz Shooting.
In a prelude to the backlash against crime and drugs of the Crack Era, Bernhard Goetz boarded the 2 train in Manhattan on December 22, 1984. Goetz knew the subway to be a dangerous place as he alleged he had been mugged three years earlier. Unsatisfied with the punishment of criminal mischief handed down by police, Goetz vowed to measure out justice himself in the future. The police simply were not doing enough. As such, Goetz boarded the 2 train that day with an unlicensed revolver. He then fired the revolver five times at four young, black teenage boys from the Bronx. This time Goetz alleged he believed the boys had been preparing to mug him. Goetz seriously injured all four boys, permanently paralyzing one of his victims. The subsequent trial and appeals would last well through 1986 remaining a constant source of debate amongst New York City residents and the broader national public.
Goetz quickly became a symbol for those fearful of urban disorder and the poor, nonwhite “underclass” they sought to scapegoat. Despite the reality that all four boys were unarmed, their fearsome criminality came to be a dominant subject of conversation in the case after one of the boys—James Ramseur—was later arrested for raping and robbing a young woman. The other three boys were somehow guilty by association in the minds of many. Whether this is because they were with Ramseur that day or simply because they were young, poor, black Bronxites is another question. Continue reading →
At a press conference on June 17, 1971 then President Richard Nixon informed his constituents of a troubling menace. “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.” Nixon also labeled those associated with drug abuse primary enemies of the state. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy,” Nixon charged, “it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Sadly, this all-out offensive has been in full bloom under the modern War on Drugs while drug abuse—keeping in step—has also flourished.
Earlier that afternoon Nixon gave a special message to Congress, providing more details regarding the scope of the problem. Declaring the “tide of drug abuse” a “national emergency,” Nixon reminded Congress that, “narcotic addiction is a major contributor to crime.” Nixon continued, establishing what is now an oversimplified, rarely analyzed cultural truth: “Narcotic addicts do not ordinarily hold jobs. Instead, they often turn to shoplifting, mugging, burglary, armed robbery, and so on. They also support themselves by starting other people-young people-on drugs.” The addict, and the peddler—often doubling as the same shadowy figure—became cemented as cultural boogeymen. Addicts were either hooking our youth on dangerous drugs or committing other crimes to cop. Addicts, not society, caused the problem and bore the threat to public safety. Despite his well-documented fiscal commitment to rehabilitation efforts, Nixon’s public rhetoric designed to sway silent majority voters advanced the march towards an ethos of punishment and condemnation. For example, in his same message to Congress, Nixon asked for additional funds to support enforcement efforts “to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers.” To borrow from our Managing Editor Emily Dufton, Nixon, “transformed the public image of the drug user into one of a dangerous and anarchic threat to American civilization.”
“They bought it.”
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This past weekend alcohol and drug scholars across the globe descended upon London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to learn from each other about what they know best, alcohol and drugs. The interdisciplinary conference does much to encourage scholarship across lines of disciplinary specializations, but also, the nation-state. Below please find assorted notes from my time abroad:
Perhaps most noted for his work Andean Cocaine, Paul Gootenberg gave a keynote speech addressing the concept of blowback. Entitled “Controlling Cocaine? 1900-2000,” Gootenberg began with what might be considered an obvious truth for drug historians—that is, that if read from an historical perspective, the term “drug control” is an oxymoron. Throughout the 20th century, drug control often perpetuates the antithesis of control. Drug control efforts by the United States have bred more chaos, more illicit trade, more use, and worst of all, more violence. In supporting his claim, Gootenberg examined the ways in which United States efforts to control the global supply of cocaine produced various unintended consequences.
Originally an economic historian by trade, Gootenberg makes good use of global commodity chains to explain the story of cocaine and attempts at its control. In framing the long history of cocaine commodity chains and blowback, Gootenberg broke down the century into several distinct phases, each with specific unintended consequences. In the first forty years of the 20th century, particularly after 1914, the United States attempted to push anti-cocaine measures onto the international agenda. During this period, Andean trafficking in cocaine remained relatively benign, marginal, and nonviolent. Between 1948 and 1973, cocaine came to be increasingly criminalized as illicit networks began to shift outward from the Andean region in response to FBN attempts to crush production in the region. A pivotal moment in cocaine commodity chain development passed in 1960 when traffickers were exiled under the Cuban Revolution. These exiled traffickers quickly became a Pan-American Network of traffickers, thereby expanding the commodity network for cocaine traffic. Still though, Gootenberg carefully noted, the trade remained small and fairly peaceful through 1970. Continue reading →