The US war on Black youth

Because it gives background to the US war on Black youth, I am reposting this article I first wrote in 1992 for a socialist publication at Harvard University edited by two students I collaborated with politically. This version is an updated version for a 2007 publication in Insight News, the Black newspaper serving Minneapolis & St. Paul, MN.

The response to this article was quite hostile, especially from white radicals. They thought I’d popped my cork & believed the Black community was rampant with narco-gangs as media reported. I was absolutely confident in my research which took me six months of combing through newspaper reports from 24 US cities. The weight of evidence was unmistakeable. The violence in the Black community was not coming from young people but was against Black youth by police.

Whites were not the only people who scoffed at my findings. The police chiefs of both Minneapolis & St. Paul challenged them in a radio interview with the editor of Insight News. Shortly thereafter, the article was removed from the internet archives.

I’ll be frank that the sniffing & snorting I got for my claims rankled but this is not an “I told you so” moment. Rather it is a case study in political activists doing their homework, not relying on capitalist media for the truth, vetting every source–especially in news about the Black & Latino communities. Impressionism based in prejudice is a poor guide to political action. Which is why the Black community has stood alone for a few decades now against police SWAT teams & attacks on the Bill of Rights. It also explains why today the Bill of Rights is under attack for all of us. Because “an injury to one is an injury to all” remains the iron law of social justice & transformation.

The US War on Black Youth

Lurid stories about gangs of armed, drug dealing Black youth fill the media. Judging from the accounts, these juvenile narcoterrorists have turned the Black community into a civil war zone and surely deserve a place in the annals of human rapacity along with Al Capone and the hordes of Attila the Hun. But despite the media sensationalism, hard evidence concerning “killer gangs” is hard to come by. There are certainly problems with drugs and violence but the government is using the lurid tales about “killer gangs” to justify not a “war on drugs,” but a war on civil liberties and on Black youth.

Since the declaration of the war on drugs in l982, the availability of drugs in the US has increased. (According to a study of the US. General Accounting Office there is no direct correlation between the money spent to interdict drugs and the availability of drugs in the U.S.) What has also increased is police violence against minority youth and attacks on the Bill of Rights in the minority communities.

The drug problem is truly enormous. Conservative estimates of drug addiction in the U.S. today include 2.4 million cocaine addicts, 940,000 heroin users, and 26 million marijuana users, with annual revenues over $80 billion a year. To explain the spread and magnitude of drug addiction over the past forty years commentators focus on the reasons why poor youth turn to drugs but they ignore the fact that drug addiction is a problem affecting the middle class as well as the poor. And they ignore the fact that while nearly 75% of illegal drug users are white, nearly 75% of all persons imprisoned for drug offenses are Black and Latino.

American Foreign Policy and Drugs
Mass addiction did not exist in the epic proportions of today before the development of global production, processing, and distribution systems in which American foreign policy, in particular its covert apparatus, has been wholly complicit. The involvement of the U.S. Government in drug trafficking is extensively documented, notably by Alfred W. McCoy in The Politics of Heroin, by Clarence Lusane in Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs, and by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair in Whiteout; by a U.S. Congress investigation headed by Senator John Kerry, and by numerous investigative journalists.

Since the formative years of the Cold War fifty years ago, the CIA, as an agency of American foreign policy developed a strategy to find suitable allies in the fight against communism. Those allies included drug lords and crime syndicates. CIA covert operations in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan facilitated the emergence of those regions as major heroin producers for the global market and similarly CIA counterinsurgency efforts in Latin America, particularly their support for the Nicaraguan Contras, expanded the Caribbean cocaine trade. This cocaine-smuggling operation opened the first pipeline between the cocaine cartels and the Black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and is largely responsible for introducing crack cocaine into the U.S.

These operations are only a part of the story of CIA drug involvement that has affected dozens of countries. Using narcotics to cover and support covert actions, the CIA has encouraged production, provided air logistics for transport, and provided protection for the drug lords and their operations. All of this has led to worldwide mass addiction problems with global annual revenues estimated at $500 billion.

Anticommunist policies have not only led to expansion of the drug trade but also to financial catastrophe. In early 1990, a series in The Houston Post exposed how fraudulent loans to finance covert operations contributed to the collapse of twenty-two Savings and Loans. The evidence suggests a link between the CIA and organized crime in this fraud, along with a network of S&Ls laundering the cocaine profits of Manuel Noriega from Panama, then an ally of the U.S. government.

Complicity of the U.S. government in the drug trade reaches from the White House (including George Bush, Sr., former head of the CIA and accomplice in Contragate as Vice-President), the CIA, the National Security Council, down to numerous other federal drug agencies, the state and local police, all notoriously infested with drug-related corruption.

The U.S. government may not be serious about combating mass addiction, but the “war on drugs” is not just a cosmetic effort. The campaign is not directed at the kingpins who import and traffic illegal drugs but at low-level drug offenders, primarily Black youth, using a political device as old as the hills: blame your violence on someone else, namely the victims.

American Domestic Drug Policy
From its origins until today U.S. domestic drug policy has been one of prohibition and repression and has a historical connection to the exploitation of foreign laborers. When the western states first passed anti-opium laws in the 1870s, the legislation was aimed less at the drug than at those considered its primary users–Chinese immigrants, The event that precipitated the campaign against the Chinese and against opium was the economic depression at that time and high unemployment levels. Because of their willingness to accept low pay, railroad and mining companies used them as strikebreakers and as a threat against white workers. Economic hardship was blamed on the Chinese rather than the powers that controlled the economy. The anti-opium laws had minimal effect on opium use but did provide a framework for unrestrained harassment and attacks on the Chinese.

Cocaine use began as an upper and middle class practice among whites. But around the turn of the century–simultaneous with a large Black migration to northern cities, the institutionalization of Jim Crow in the south, and a peak of lynchings and violence against Blacks in the South–an orchestrated campaign began to associate cocaine use with Blacks and to show that Blacks were especially dangerous under the influence. In 1910 a U.S. Congressional committee heard testimony that “the colored people … would just as leave rape a woman as anything else and a great many of the southern rape cases have been traced to cocaine”. The connection between cocaine and rape is significant because allegations of Black sexual assaults on white women were frequent and precipitated lynchings of Blacks all over the South as well as major race riots. The New York Times published an article on February 8, 1914 entitled “Negro Cocaine Fiends are a New Southern Menace” detailing the “race menace”, “cocaine orgies”, “‘wholesale murders”, and “hitherto inoffensive” Blacks “running amuck in a cocaine frenzy”. Several scientific studies of cocaine use among Blacks demolished these claims and found, in fact, a low rate of addiction. Nevertheless, this agitation led to cocaine (which is not a narcotic) being included in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, the first federal drug legislation.

During the late 1920s and 1930s cheap Mexican labor in the west and southwest began to threaten the jobs of white workers. As concern about this labor competition increased so did alarm over a new drug peril–marijuana. Since marijuana use was considered a Mexican custom, criminalization of marijuana was a lawful means to harass Mexican migrant workers as well as Chicanos, forcing them into jail and out of the job market. Despite claims of Mexican lawlessness, reliable documentation shows their crime rate was low. The Bureau of Narcotics supplemented the anti-Mexican agitation with tales about Black men and white women smoking marijuana together, the women falling for sob-stories of racial persecution and ending up pregnant and syphilitic.

Drugs and Crime
Defenders of drug prohibition deny that racism and the social control of minorities are involved. They instead argue that drugs cause crime, as well as psychosis and moral depravity. Most of the crime associated with drug use is in reality caused by drug prohibition, that is, by the emergence of the black market and all its attendant problems including violence and the growth of organized crime. Drugs cause a wide range of physical and psychosocial problems but it is not their biochemical effects on the mind that cause crime. Rather it is the compulsion to obtain money to buy illegal drugs on the black market along with territorial disputes associated with drug selling that generate crime.

It is no accident that crack cocaine, the drug most demonized today, is the one reportedly most used by Black youth chiefly because it is considerably cheaper than powder cocaine or other drugs. It’s use, we are told, leads to unprecedented forms of violence. Despite overwhelming scientific testimony that there is no difference between crack and powder cocaine in its biochemical or social effects, federal law still mandates different punitive treatment. In the early 1990s the Minnesota Supreme Court found a state law unconstitutional that dictated the law treat crack cocaine offenders who are mostly Black more harshly than powder cocaine offenders who are mostly white and middle class. Expert testimony agreed that the only relevant difference between the two drugs is the method of ingesting them; otherwise the effects are almost identical.

It is also no accident that drug law enforcement is largely targeted against crack, resulting in higher rates of incarceration for Black youth, including those with no history of violence or high-level drug activity. Federal legislation adopted in l988 provides for harsher treatment for crack cocaine offenders (5-year mandatory prison sentence for first offense possession) than powder cocaine users (probation or maximum 1 year sentence) and all 50 states maintain this disparity. The fact is that while Blacks represent only 13% of illegal drug users, they are 56% of those imprisoned for drug use.

Along with the demonization of crack cocaine is the hysteria generated by the growing social menace of killer youth gangs. Homicide, especially drive-by shootings, and dealing crack cocaine are their stock-in-trade. These narcoterrorists, we are told, are tightly organized crime units armed with semiautomatic weapons and running sophisticated drug operations.

Despite the media hype, even many U.S. police departments downplay the extent of the gang problem. This is not to suggest that drug addiction is not a problem among Black youth; drug addiction is a mass problem affecting all youth and a considerable section of the adult population. Nor is it to suggest that violence is not a problem among Black youth. Violence is the leading cause of death among all males 15 to 24 years of age. While it is true that Black males do engage in serious violent acts at rates higher than white males it is not dramatically so. (By age 18, 40 percent of Black males have reported at least one instance of offending, compared to 30 percent of white males.)

Neither is it to deny that Black youth hang out in gangs and sometimes adopt uniform dress codes. But it has always been the natural tendency of young people to hang out in groups and dress alike. More importantly there can be no possible, valid objection to their doing so. Hanging out in groups is not illegal; it is in fact a right protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Life is not tranquil for Black youth, plagued as they are by poverty, unemployment (double that of white youth), and diminishing social opportunity. (It is noteworthy that these alarming statistics get so little attention in the media.) But in order to address the problems with a commitment to Black youth, accurate information must be obtained.

Accurate data, however, is simply hard to come by, especially when manipulated by police officials. Police are more likely to arrest and charge Black offenders, and less likely to draw a line between boyish mischief and crime. Crimes committed by individuals are often attributed to gangs. Furthermore, even definitions of gang incidents and gang membership are not clear. Los Angeles, where the police department has distinguished itself by its racist violence, reports 100,000 gang members, but uses different criteria for gang membership than New York City, which reports 1000 gang members. Perhaps the L.A.P.D. makes no distinction between kids hanging out with their friends and the so-called “killer gangs”.

In the 1962 case of Robinson v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that drug addiction is a disease, not a crime. Still, instead of being treated as the social and national health problem that it is, drug addiction is approached as a criminal problem requiring punitive action. Federal anti-drug spending is mainly designated for police, courts, and prisons rather than public health treatment and prevention. As it stands now, 400,000 of the nearly 2 million prison inmates are there for drug-related offenses, and a disproportionate number are Black. In other words, the primary treatment for drug addiction is incarceration.

Police Violence Against Black Youth and the Bill of Rights
Under the guise of the ”war on drugs” federal and state civil rights statutes and the Bill of Rights are violated with impunity. It is by no means an accident that the media has adopted combat metaphors, invoking emotion-laden comparisons like “Beirut, U.S.A.”, “civil war zones”, and “regions under siege”.

In 1988 1000 Los Angeles cops conducted week-end dragnets through “gang-ridden neighborhoods” arresting over 800 youth on minor violations including curfew, loitering, littering, and spitting. Most of them were released without charge, only emphasizing the harassment and the complete disregard for the Bill of Rights practiced by the police. In cities across the U.S. the police are turning inner cities into martial law zones with sweeps through housing projects, calls for deploying federal troops and the National Guard. ‘Suspected gang members’ are frequently stopped and frisked, and sometimes face arrest, even where there is no evidence of criminal activity.

The newspapers are replete with incidents of harassment by the police including automobiles stopped and the occupants searched while the car is torn apart in a search for drugs. In one such incident, a young man was forced to lie on the ground in a puddle of urine while being frisked, another required to pull down his pants and underwear, others held in headlocks, and subjected to intrusive body searches, including a pat down of the genitals. This is harassment; this is police brutality, under the guise of the war on drugs. There is also an alarmingly high incidence nationally of young Blacks being murdered during these police actions. In dozens of cases in almost 25 cities, police have assaulted or murdered Black youths, including several unarmed men shot in the back, a detainee shot while removing keys from his pocket, and a five-year-old boy. The policeman who shot the child used as his defense the fact that he had just read an article about “kids who kill” and was acquitted.

There have been several Supreme Court rulings in recent years based on drug-related cases that have made serious inroads against civil liberties. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires that police have at least a “probable cause” of wrongdoing before detaining someone, even briefly. However, as a result of a Supreme Court ruling concerning drug searches police can now make dragnet sweeps on buses, searching luggage and handbags without justifying the searches. In another decision, articles dropped by a fleeing suspect are admissible evidence, regardless of whether the police who chased the suspect had adequate basis for suspicion. This can only encourage displays of force by the police.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” but one recent Supreme Court drug ruling permitted the imposition of mandatory sentences of life without parole for nonviolent first offenders. Another ruling sustained the imposition of the death penalty for a man when a murder had been committed in connection with his marijuana operation. This decision reinforces the provision in the federal anti-drug abuse act passed by Congress in 1988 that established the death penalty aimed ostensibly at drug traffic violence. These new legal judgments increase the possibilities for entrapment and frame-up for political activists.

The “war on drugs” is primarily a war on Black youth. It is the continuation of a policy to preempt at all costs the emergence of Black youth as a political force to be reckoned with. The rebellious Black youth in South Africa, along with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black rebellions of the 1960s in this country stand as an example to today’s youth of the power of organized Black political action. But that potential is an extremely alarming prospect to the people who run this country.

In addition to demanding that the U.S. government get out of the drug trade and that it repeal all drug laws (in particular the mandatory sentencing laws), the Black community must be supported in its efforts to protect its youth including demanding an end to police harassment and violence; job programs; recreational facilities; drug treatment and public health facilities.

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