MASS INCARCERATION – A MEANS TO OPPRESS BLACK PEOPLE

by Al Simpsonbars image

The Domestic War on Black Workers

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan officially announced the start of the War on Drugs. This was rather interesting timing because drug use in the United States was declining at that time.[i] Within a few years after the War on Drugs was announced, the scourge of crack-cocaine was spreading rapidly across the country. We will show that the transport and sale of vast quantities of cocaine was, in fact, carried out simultaneously by the very same government that was supposedly responsible for the War on Drugs. While dollars from the sale of crack were used to finance reactionary foreign policies, the repression justified by drug usage was used to imprison and impoverish poor black workers. Today, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate of 773 per 100,000 people. Compared to 118 in China, 655 in Russia, and 193 in Brazil.[ii] In 1980 the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses in the in the U.S. was about 41,000, and by 2010 it had zoomed up to about half a million people. People of color were especially targeted for incarceration by a variety of methods.

First, Some History. Meet Klaus Barbie, Criminal of World War II – and Beyond

Klaus Barbie, a Nazi war criminal, committed many horrible crimes. He persecuted resistance fighters in Holland, massacred Slavs and Jews on the Eastern Front and headed the Gestapo in Lyons for two years, where he tortured to death resistance fighters and Jews. Barbie participated in the Nazi killing frenzy before the Allies moved in,[iii] which included sending children from a Jewish orphanage to concentration camps to meet their certain death. The list of horrible crimes goes on and on, for which he was known as the Butcher of Lyons –for good reason.

Barbie was recruited and protected by the US Army Counterintelligence Corps after the war, even though he was one of the most wanted criminals in the world. The reason for his hire was to provide information on interrogation methods, to obtain the names of SS men who might be recruited, and to learn about methods of torture. In 1951 he and his family were given a crash course in Spanish, $8000 and a new identity, Klaus Altmann-mechanic. Barbie and his family were then sent to Bolivia, where It turned out that the CIA had a lot of work for him.

Klaus Barbie sold coca paste, weapons, and participated in at least three coup d’états. He also assisted in the murder of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in October 1967. During a coup in 1970, he helped place rightist Hugo Banzer Suarez in power. In true Nazi fashion, thousands of leftists and union leaders were interrogated and “disappeared.” Banzer was so pleased with Barbie’s work that he made him an honorary colonel and a paid consultant to the Bolivian Interior Ministry, where he assisted in counterinsurgency work. Barbie also provided the CIA with the names of suspected Soviet and Cuban agents in South America. He assisted in the construction of concentration camps for political prisoners, taught methods of torture and made a fortune selling weapons to the Bolivian military, paid for mostly by the US government.

The Rise of the Drug Cartels

By the mid-1970s the Bolivian economy was in a shambles. Banzer ordered that cotton plantations be devoted to the raising of coca, and from 1974 – 1980 production of coca tripled. This tremendous supply of cocaine was exported from Bolivia and was instrumental in the rise of the Columbian drug cartels. In 1975 the street price of cocaine was $1500 per gram, which fell to $100 to $125 by 1986.[iv][v]

There was an election of a liberal government in Bolivia in 1979, despite massive voter fraud and intimidation by rightwing parties. This was a setup for yet another overthrow, the Cocaine Coup on July 17, 1980, in which Klaus Barbie once again assisted. Leftist newspapers were bombed, and many opposition leaders were arrested, tortured and murdered. The amount of cocaine produced in Bolivia increased from 35,00 metric tons (1 metric ton = 2,205 lbs) in 1980 to more than 60,000 metric tons by the late 1980s, almost all of it intended for sale in the United States.[vi]

The CIA’s Effort to Support the Nicaraguan Contras with Money Made by Selling Cocaine in America’s Ghettos

In Nicaragua in 1979 the Sandinistas (Sandinista National Liberation Front), overthrew the U.S. supported dictator Anastasio Somoza. Presidents Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan created the Contras, an organization which operated out of Honduras and whose purpose was to overthrow the Sandinistas. However, this plan was deeply unpopular in Congress, and the Defense Appropriations Bill for 1983, prohibited the CIA from spending any money for “overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.” That year the CIA budget was reduced to about a quarter of what the Reagan administration claimed would be enough for a properly equipped fighting force. So the administration arranged to receive $1 million a month from Saudi Arabia, funds from South Africa, and to acquire major funding through the sale of drugs.

In 1984 the CIA mined the Harbors of Nicaragua. The political uproar that ensued caused Congress to pass an amendment to limit monies for the Contras even further, so that “no funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency of entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group organization, movement or individual.” As a result, the year 1985 was the peak year of drug sales to support the Contras, as the Reagan Administration decided that no matter what Congress did the Contras had to be kept together “body and soul”. Operatives running or selling drugs for the support of the Contras lived a charmed life. Every time they would be caught, they would magically be released without charge. After the expiration of the amendment mentioned above in 1986, the CIA budget allocated to the Contras rose to $100 million.

The Contras Got Lots of Money

Drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon testified that the CIA-supported ring sold almost a ton of cocaine in the United States in 1981, $54 million worth. It was not clear how much of the money found its way back to the CIA’s army, but Blandon testified that “whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going for the Contra revolution.”[vii] The police knew about Blandon for a long time: “Danilo Blandon is in charge of a sophisticated cocaine smuggling and distribution organization operating in Southern California,” L.A. County sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Gordon said in 1986. “The monies gained from the sales of cocaine are transported to Florida and laundered through Orlando Murillo, who is a high-ranking officer of a chain of banks in Florida named Government Securities Corporation. From this bank the monies are filtered to the Contra rebels to buy arms in the war in Nicaragua.”[viii] Blandon was never arrested, nor was another dealer, Norwin Meneses, until he had been shipping cocaine out of Honduras for 15 years under the eyes of and for the profit of the CIA.

Much of the cocaine was sold in Los Angeles at very low prices, after being transported by the cartels through Columbia, Mexico, and Honduras, all abetted by the Contras and the CIA. The streets of Los Angeles were flooded with crack-cocaine.

Exposé of the Origin of the Crack-Cocaine

In August, 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published three articles entitled “Dark Alliance,” subtitled “The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” written by Gary Webb, a reporter for the Mercury’s Sacramento bureau. The series strong lead paragraph went as follows: “For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the CIA.”[ix] The series got the attention of many black Americans who were angered and outraged by the victimization of black communities by the government. It forced the CIA to publish furious denials and then, later, to start a campaign of non-stop vilification against Gary Webb. Webb was effectively driven from the newspaper industry and died on December 10, 2004, of, get this, “multiple gunshot suicide.”

Justifying the War on Drugs

In 1985, the Reagan administration began a huge campaign to publicize the emergence of crack. There were multiple stories about crack whores, crack babies born to addicted mothers, crack dealers and crack houses. The New York Times even had a picture of a crack house on its front page. The Washington Post ran 1,565 such articles between October 1988 and October 1989.[x] True to form, the worst, most retrograde, stereotypes of urban life were repeatedly portrayed in a racist fashion. The success of the media campaign permitted a big expansion of the War on Drugs, as there was now a rationale for it.

But what happened to the people in the poor black areas of America into whose neighborhoods the drugs were being transported? Mass addiction to powerful, addictive, drugs like crack-cocaine or heroin brings social decay, disease and death. That’s bad enough, but there were also changes in law enforcement procedures and sentencing that ensured that black people, especially black men, would be incarcerated by the millions. The stigma of having a having been a felon and having served time would affect them for the rest of their lives, making it difficult or impossible to obtain a job or even a place to live. This awful situation would not allow them to rehabilitate themselves with work and would deprive them of a meaningful support system. It’s no wonder that it would often lead them back to prison.

The Growth of the American Prison System

Much of the United States was de-industrialized during the late 1970s and 80s. Between 1973 and 1980, over four million jobs disappeared in the United States when American companies moved their operations outside the country. New York City alone lost 40,000 to 50,000 jobs in the apparel and textile industries. Corporations increasingly divested their profits from US-based subsidiaries and reinvested in operations abroad. In the 1970s, over thirty million total jobs were eliminated through factory closings, relocations, and then phased elimination of operations.

The shrinking of U.S.-based industries had a deep impact on labor unions, as the percentage of union members within the American labor force decreased by half in only two decades. Hardest hit were African American blue-collar workers, because in 1983, over 40 percent of all black men in the U.S. labor force were union members, while only 14.4 percent are today.xx Many workers were forced to accept “service jobs” that paid a lot less than the unionized industrial jobs they formerly had. Some of the new manufacturing jobs that opened between 1970 and 1987 were in the suburbs. This forced persons who lived in the inner cities areas to travel by car to the new jobs, because of the unavailability of public transportation. A study on black fathers found that only 28 percent had cars and the rate fell to just 18 percent for those who lived in ghetto areas[xi]. Black women did somewhat better. They were able to get work in social service jobs that were opening as the industrial jobs were vanishing.[xii] As a result of the relentless shrinkage of jobs, there was an increase in crime.

It then became fashionable for politicians to be “tough on crime.” The racist depiction of the effects of crack-cocaine was a bonanza for law and order politicians, who don’t care about the daily crimes against working people: poor health care, bad schools, broken down infrastructure, desolate neighborhoods and so on. Some people complained that the frenzy over crack distracted attention from the real ills in society, but this view was seldom heard. The war on drugs was very popular with racist whites as they could make anti-drug and anti-crime remarks regarding blacks that masked their racist intent. It also provided a cover for the militarization of police forces.

 

The Cancer Grows

Because drugs suddenly were said to be a threat to national security, the military was permitted to ignore the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 that forbids the use of military for civilian policing. There were transfers of military equipment, intelligence and training to local police forces. Along with this, there were strong financial incentives in the form of federal aid to local police forces that gave a premium to every drug arrest but made no such incentive for arrests involving other types of crimes, causing local police forces to become very aggressive in enforcing drug laws. As if this wasn’t enough, state and local police departments were authorized to keep, for their own use, most of the money and other assets they seized when making drug arrests. Suispicion of drug possession or trafficking was sufficient to allow the seizure of cash, cars, homes, jewelry and other valuables. The rules were so heavily weighted in the favor of law enforcement that more than 80 percent of the forfeitures went uncontested. This gave local and state police departments a tremendous boost in funding, so that the local and state police departments became advocates for the so-called war on drugs – not on winning it – but for its permanent perpetuation. The cops became addicted to the war on drugs.

Laws were enacted to place heavy penalties on the sale and distribution of drugs. To ensure long sentences for possession or distribution of drugs, many of the penalties were mandatory – that is, not modifiable by a judge or jury. As mentioned earlier, it is enough for a person to have committed a felony to be stigmatized for life with very limited employment or housing opportunities. In 1972 there were fewer than 350,000 persons in prison, today there are 2.3 million. Here is a graph that depicts the enormous growth in incarceration, especially after 1980.

Untitled
Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate#/media/File:US_incarceration_timeline-clean.svg

After the economic collapse during 2007 and 2008, the number of persons incarcerated decreased. This happened not because the politicians realized that they had gone crazy, but instead, because states and localities could not afford to incarcerate the number of prisoners they had, so they released some of them early to save money.

Let me provide a dramatization of a typical police encounter. This will be set in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, NY, a large poor black neighborhood. It starts with a couple young black men on a street corner having a conversation. Suddenly a cop car pulls up. The cops order the men to stop and be frisked on some of the nearby cars. The guys do not resist, in fear for their lives and health. To resist, could bring on violence from the police, possibly even death. The men were clean, and the incident ended without any arrests or violence. You do not complain against the police who frisked you for no reason because the last thing you would ever want is draw attention to yourself and because of the possibility of retribution.

Real encounters, just like the dramatization described above, occur many times a day, across the United States, justified by policies like “broken windows” or “stop and frisk” policing. As you can see, there is no concept of a person’s “rights” here at all. You do what the cops tell you to do – or else! This sort of thing does NOT happen in any white neighborhoods. Almost always, the cops don’t find any drugs at all. But when they do score a “hit”, then that person is charged with possession of narcotics, possibly with intent to sell, depending on the quantity in possession. Despite the policy of no arrests for the public smoking of marijuana in New York City, thousands of arrests continue to be made, almost all targeting people of color.

Myths of the War on Drugs

Some think that the war is aimed at drug kingpins or major drug dealers. This is false. The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with any serious crimes. In 2005, for example, 4 out of 5 arrests were for possession of drugs and 1 out of 5 was for the sale of drugs. Most people in state prisons for drug offenses have no history of violence or selling activity.[xiii] The second myth is that the war on drugs was mostly concerned with dangerous, addictive, drugs. Marijuana possession accounted for 80 percent of all drug arrests in the 1990s. The war on drugs was a vicious policy of victimization and punitiveness. This led to the enormous increase in the number of people incarcerated, mentioned earlier. But the cumulative effect is truly amazing; by 2007 more than 7 million Americans (1 in 31 adults) were incarcerated, on probation or on parole.[xiv]

The targeting of blacks in the war on drugs is scandalous. Even though whites sell and consume more drugs than blacks and people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates,[xv] Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that in 7 states blacks constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least 15 states blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from 20 to 57 times greater than white men[xvi]. Although the majority of drug users and dealers are white, three-fourths of all person admitted to prison on drug charges were black or Latino.

The disparities between the way white drug offenders are treated and the way drug offenders who are people of color are treated are explained briefly as follows.

  • As noted above, black communities are scoured by the police for possible drug arrests. There is often no probable cause or any reason for the police stop and frisk tactics, other than the role of the police to control and intimidate poor black workers.
  • The notes and other documents of prosecutors are shielded from outside review, so that there are no statistics on how prosecutors handle similar drug related cases involving persons of different races. Thus, racist targeting of people of color is hidden.
  • Penalties for many crimes are so severe that innocent people accept plea deals to avoid long mandatory sentences.[xvii]
  • Because jurors in many states are drawn from voter rolls, the number of blacks on juries is limited. In addition, most states exclude former felons from serving on juries, so that about 30 percent of all black men are automatically excluded from juries. Given the few people of color that can be on a jury in the first place, peremptorily striking a few of them will make for the all-white jury that many prosecutors desire.

The result of the mass, targeted, incarceration of blacks is that whole cities like Baltimore or Washington have black communities with the black men missing – they have been incarcerated. The War on Drugs has resulted in the creation of a permanent underclass of people who have few educational or job opportunities, often as a result of being punished for drug offenses which in turn have resulted from attempts to earn a living because of having very limited education or job opportunities.[xviii] Since prisoners are denied the right to vote for life in most states, conservative political candidates are advantaged.

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Moreover, prisons have become a great source of profits. Since 1979 the federal Bureau of Prisons has operated a program known as Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles, road signs and body armor for other government agencies, earning $500 million in sales in fiscal 2016.xxi California is currently saving about $100 million by paying prisoners $1/hour to fight wildfires, a practice likened to slave labor. Privately built prisons using prison labor and widespread privatization of such services as prisoner monitoring, phone calls and cafeterias have also reaped billions in profits.

 

A Fine Blindness

On the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) website it said in 2008: “despite the civil rights victories of our past, racial prejudice still pervades the criminal justice system.” Not one word about mass incarceration of blacks and the enormous harm it has caused. In 2008 there were more people in prison than there are today. Why were they blind to the problem? More to the point, the targeting of blacks for minor felonies was a topic of discussion in the black communities, not in 2008, but already in 1980! Why the complete blindness of what was obvious to so many people?

In the article “The Real Lesson of the Civil Rights Movement: Armed Resistance to Racist Violence Works”, in this blog, it says: “There is also a significant difference in the demands put forward by demonstrations run by the Deacons for Defense and those run by the nonviolent groups. While the middle-class blacks who supported nonviolent organizing strove for surface changes such as voting rights and desegregation of public accommodations – things that would benefit them, the demands put forward and won in communities where the Deacons operated tended to reflect the needs of the working class: better schools, paved roads, better public facilities, public sewer and water, and so forth. Integration turned out not to be so important.” The class difference makes for an enormous difference in emphasis! This is why so many supposed black “leaders” were blind to mass incarceration. Precisely because it did not affect them or anyone they knew, but it sure affected working class blacks.

Where Did the Dope Come From?

The war on drugs was announced in 1982, a time when drug use was waning. Then, suddenly a few years later, there were plenty of drugs and drug users. In fact, by the late 1980s, the illicit drug trade was one of the largest industries in the United States, exceeding the size of the auto industry. The war on drugs was not very effective in stopping the drug trade, but it was very adept at destroying the lives of people of color. This is still the case to this day. Mass incarceration is a major aspect of the American capitalist system, one in relative decline in the world, that relies on racism to maximize profits and divide the working class. The imprisonment of one third of all black men at some time during their lives builds racism, justifies poverty, and reaps enormous profits. Most important, it increases divisions within the working class that weaken all of us.

[i] The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. By Michelle Alexander. Page 6.

[ii] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm

[iii] Whiteout by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. Page 167.

[iv] Ibid pages 180-181

[v] http://legacy.sandiegouniontribune.com/uniontrib/20080511/news_1m11coke.html

[vi] Whiteout page 184.

[vii] http://www.spokesman.com/stories/1996/aug/21/us-policy-helped-start-crack-plague-drugs-sold-to/

[viii] http://www.spokesman.com/stories/1996/aug/21/us-policy-helped-start-crack-plague-drugs-sold-to/

[ix] Whiteout page 2.

[x] Ibid page 53.

[xi] The New Jim Crow page 51.

[xii] Ibid page 51.

[xiii] The New Jim Crow page 60.

[xiv] Ibid page 60.

[xv] Ibid page 99.

[xvi] Ibid page 98.

[xvii] Ibid page 59.

[xviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_drugs#Creation_of_a_permanent_underclass

xx http://cepr.net/publications/reports/black-workers-unions-and-inequality

xxi https://www.economist.com/united-states/2017/03/16/prison-labour-is-a-billion-dollar-industry-with-uncertain-returns-for-inmates

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