by Al Simpson
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.
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