Pubdate: Fri, 01 Jan 2016
Source: Reason Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2016 The Reason Foundation
Author: Sara Mayeux
Note: Sara Mayeux is a Sharswood fellow at the University of 
Pennsylvania Law School.


Was the Drug War Imposed on Black America, or Did Black America Demand It?

Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of 
Punishment, by Michael Javen Fortner, Harvard University Press, 368 
pages, $29.95

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, by Suzanna Reiss, University 
of California Press, 328 pages, $29.95

In 1973 New York's blue-blood governor, Nelson Rockefeller, declared 
drug treatment programs a failure and called for a newer, tougher 
approach, including mandatory life in prison for selling any amount 
of "hard drugs." Later that year, New York lawmakers enacted 
legislation that, while slightly more lenient than Rockefeller's 
initial bill, prescribed harsh punishments for drug crimes, including 
prison terms of 15 years to life for low-level drug sales and 
possession. In 1973, the state had fewer than 1,500 prisoners doing 
time for drugs; by 1999, that figure had ballooned to over 20,000.

Throughout the 1960s, "Rocky," the paradigmatic East Coast liberal 
Republican, had endorsed a public health approach to drug addiction. 
What changed?

In the conventional explanation, Rockefeller sacrificed New Yorkers, 
and perhaps his own principles, to his presidential ambitions. By the 
1970s, East Coast liberal Republicans were falling out of fashion and 
voters were clamoring for "law and order," so the governor rearranged 
his politics accordingly. In a less cynical variant of this theory, 
the governor didn't shift positions purely for political gain but 
because, like so many of his constituents, he had become genuinely 
disillusioned with rehabilitation.

Either way, historians typically fit the Rockefeller Drug Laws within 
a broader narrative of right-wing backlash.

Whatever the governor's personal motivations, he embarked on his 
state-level war on drugs in partnership with the same "silent 
majority" of suburban white voters historians blame for electing 
Nixon, derailing school desegregation, and cheering the massive 
expansion of America's prisons since the 1970s.

Not so, argues the City University of New York political scientist 
Michael Javen Fortner. As its title suggests, Fortner's new 
book--Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the 
Politics of Punishment--seeks to reverse the conventional wisdom 
about not only the Rockefeller laws themselves, but also the broader 
history of the war on drugs.

In Fortner's account, punitive narcotics laws were dreamed up not by 
paranoid suburban housewives but in the church basements and 
neighborhood newspapers of Harlem and central Brooklyn, where 
working- and middle-class African Americans, who felt besieged by 
violent addicts and predatory "pushers," had long agitated for a crackdown.

Rockefeller had the latitude to get tough, Fortner argues, not in 
spite of opposition from black constituents but precisely because 
black New Yorkers "begged for aggressive policing and punitive policies."

In support of his argument, Fortner has unearthed a deep vein of 
rhetoric in midcentury Harlem that would indeed have fit right into a 
Nixon '68 campaign speech.

In 1959, for instance, the New York Age, a black newspaper, invited 
"more use of the nightstick on the trespassers and criminals in our 
society...and more policemen to protect the majority of citizens in 
Harlem who are, despite all the trials of living here, law-abiding 
and God-fearing human beings." Three years later, a Harlem politician 
vowed "all-out war" on "the narcotics menace." In 1967 the Baptist 
pastor Oberia Dempsey, perhaps Harlem's most famous drug warrior, 
lambasted the American Civil Liberties Union and the National 
Association for the Advancement of Colored People for fixating on the 
Constitution. "Take the junkies off the streets and put 'em in 
camps," he proposed. "Instead of fighting all the time for civil 
rights we should be fighting civil wrongs."

Whatever one makes of Fortner's arguments, he has assembled a rich 
compendium of 1950s, '60s, and '70s views about drugs and crime, 
reflecting a wider range of local leaders' voices than top-down 
histories that tend to privilege the rhetoric of high-level 
politicians. Fortner is not the first scholar to note pockets of 
African-American support for harsh drug laws, but he has delved 
deeper and accords much greater political force to the views of black 
crime victims, business owners, and anti-drug crusaders.

After Black Silent Majority, historians can no longer reduce the '60s 
and '70s politics of crime to delusional fantasies of racists or 
statistical artifacts of modern police recordkeeping (although those 
factors surely played a role as well). Fortner marshals an array of 
poll data showing that black city dwellers were--and not without 
reason--far more fearful of violence in the late 1960s than white 
suburbanites were. Rev. Dempsey not only inveighed against lenient 
courts but also carried a pistol while preaching and organized 
volunteer patrols to escort elderly women to church.

Like many revisionist histories, though, Black Silent Majority 
sometimes presents its arguments with a stridency that outruns the 
evidence. For one thing, as Fortner acknowledges, only one of New 
York's African-American legislators actually voted for the 
Rockefeller Drug Laws. To address this seeming inconsistency, Fortner 
clarifies that his argument is not that black New Yorkers remade the 
politics of punishment at the level of vote counts, but that they 
introduced to New York politics a policy framework that "denigrated 
junkies and dismissed structural remedies" for crime.

But it's not always clear what to make of the rhetoric that Fortner 
highlights. On one hand, it's hard to know how many black New Yorkers 
shared Rev. Dempsey's extremely punitive sentiments. The views that 
Fortner presents in the most detail are those of religious leaders, 
local politicians, and newspaper columnists-not their congregants, 
constituents, and readers.

Ordinary people's views typically appear as an aggregate number of 
poll respondents, audience members at a rally, or signers of a petition.

These types of evidence are certainly suggestive, and sometimes they 
are all the historical record provides, but they don't yield much 
insight into the complexities of people's thinking.

They often suggest (as Fortner readily acknowledges) that the masses 
were conflicted about drugs more than uniformly hostile toward drug users.

In one 1970 survey of black households, 80 percent of respondents 
endorsed getting "offenders off the street and in jail," but an even 
larger 90 percent of respondents supported expanding educational and 
job opportunities. In a 1971 survey of Harlem business leaders, only 
2 percent favored rehabilitation-and just 6 percent favored "severe 

On the other hand, to the extent that black New Yorkers did 
conceptualize drug users and criminals as a single category meriting 
total exclusion from society, such a perspective was hardly unique 
during the postwar era. Fortner emphasizes the differences between 
the Harlemite and suburbanite worldviews. He concludes, based on his 
reading of contemporary newspapers and political rhetoric from Long 
Island and Westchester, that suburban New Yorkers worried about 
youthful drug addiction in their own communities but tended to blame 
licentious parenting more than inner-city "pushers"; Fortner reports 
that they advocated a mix of rehabilitative and punitive policy 
responses. But the two groups may have shared more ideological common 
ground than he acknowledges.

In a 2010 article on the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the Cornell historian 
Julilly Kohler-Hausmann quotes several apoplectic letters to Gov. 
Rockefeller from constituents around New York State. One "law abiding 
citizen" complained about being "discriminated against in favor of 
dope addicts and welfare cheats." Another blamed "guilt ridden 
liberals" for imposing ruinous "social experiments" while they 
remained protected in "their socio-economic sanctuary." These 
constituents would probably have gotten along fine with Rev. Dempsey. 
Perhaps the punitive turn was cheered not by a "silent 
majority"--whether suburban or black--but by a broad-based majority 
that spoke very loudly indeed, a wall of tough-on-crime sound that 
surrounded politicians almost everywhere they went by the late 1960s.

In a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fortner 
described his book as a "fundamentally tragic" "Cain and Abel story" 
in which black New Yorkers advocate for repressive laws that will 
come to ensnare their own "sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers." 
Viewed from a zoomed-out, global perspective, Fortner's narrative 
appears more profoundly tragic still, for the Rockefeller Drug Laws 
were part of a transnational drug control regime whose targets 
included not just Harlem and Bed-Stuy junkies but indigenous coca 
farmers in the Andes, opium sellers in China, and anyone in between 
on the wrong side of the ever-shifting border between licit and illicit trade.

As Suzanna Reiss, a historian at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, 
argues in her recent book We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, 
"The United States government has never waged a war on drugs" so much 
as it has waged war with the weapon of drug control, exploiting "the 
ability to supply, withhold, stockpile, and police drugs, and to 
influence the public conversation about drugs" to build and maintain 
power both at home and abroad.

Reiss traces how, in the wake of World War II, the United States 
leveraged its newfound superpower status to construct an 
international drug control regime that privileged American military, 
diplomatic, and corporate interests.

For decades, that regime's architect and cheerleader was D.C.'s top 
drug warrior, Harry Anslinger, the longtime chief of the Federal 
Bureau of Narcotics and a powerful voice on the United Nations' 
narcotics commission.

Intriguingly, Fortner notes that New York's relatively liberal drug 
laws had always infuriated Anslinger. The Rockefeller Drug Laws might 
be interpreted, then, not as a new paradigm for New York but as New 
York lawmakers' belated acquiescence to the punitive framework that 
Anslinger had long urged.

Fortner does recognize a connection between Anslinger and his story, 
writing that soon after Anslinger retired in 1962, Harlem's Rev. 
Dempsey took up the baton as one of the loudest voices for stiffer 
drug laws in New York State. But in Fortner's telling, the connection 
was mainly fortuitous; if Rev. Dempsey found "like minds" in D.C., he 
had already come to his views independently. On matters of policy, 
Fortner believes, the pastor was "unaffected by the machinations of 
Anslinger and other federal officials," his proposals home-brewed 
from the "indigenous class-based values" and "unique experiences of 

I am not so sure that the local and the national can so easily be 
separated. It's possible to acknowledge that Harlem drug warriors 
were responding to real problems and day-to-day experiences in their 
community while also recognizing that, in framing their responses and 
making sense of their experiences, they adopted (or perhaps 
strategically appealed to) conceptual frameworks that were widespread 
in Cold War political culture and that emanated, in part, from 
Washington. In contrasting "addicts" with "citizens," Rockefeller's 
suburban correspondents and Harlem supporters alike echoed a 
repertoire of tropes that had circulated widely in Cold War America 
since at least the 1950s. Politicians and law enforcement officials 
equated drugs with all manner of crime, dysfunction, and rebellion, 
and they deployed allegations of narcotics trafficking to discredit 
Communist regimes.

During some 1954 hearings on the global opium trade, for instance, a 
Montana senator depicted drug users as a virtually uncontrollable 
menace: "As I understand it, the drug addicts, once they get into the 
habit, will do anything to get the drug...they will steal, they will 
rob, and they will do anything." It was amid this kind of discourse 
that Congress enacted the 1956 Narcotic Control Act, which authorized 
juries to impose the death penalty for selling heroin to juveniles.

Drug addiction--like Communism itself--represented a contagion to be 
contained at any cost.

Even the basic idea that drugs were the source of Harlem's woes and 
that, conversely, drug control held the key to making Harlem safer 
reproduced, in microcosm, the widespread midcentury faith in the 
power of drugs to make and remake entire societies, whether for 
better or worse.

As Reiss emphasizes, the international drug control regime coincided 
with a "therapeutic revolution" in which pharmaceutical companies 
developed and marketed an array of "wonder drugs" that promised to 
eliminate pain and illness, depression and laziness-but precisely 
because of their power had to be carefully controlled. Similarly, the 
United States and the United Nations urged South American governments 
to criminalize the indigenous practice of coca leaf chewing; 
eradicating coca "addiction" promised to civilize purportedly 
backward Indians into productive workers and modern citizens. Around 
the globe and in a variety of local contexts, policy makers viewed 
controlling the circulation of drugs as a tool for social progress.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws were effectively dismantled in 2009. In 
that year's State of the State speech, Gov. David Paterson repudiated 
his predecessor's namesake legislation, declaring, "I can't think of 
a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful." A few 
months later, the New York legislature eliminated mandatory minimums 
for minor drug crimes and expanded treatment alternatives to prison.

But the limited spectrum of American debate over drug policy remains 
essentially the same as in 1973. In the era that Fortner chronicles, 
New York legislators, doctors, social workers, ministers, and 
everyday people debated whether to treat drug users like sick people 
or punish them like criminals.

Earlier this year the Vera Institute, an influential criminal justice 
think tank, praised New York's recent drug policy changes and 
expressed hope that continued reforms will yield "better outcomes" 
for "people in the justice system who need treatment for a substance 
use disorder." Just as during the Cold War, all sides of the 
mainstream discussion agree that drugs are inherently pathological 
and frame the elimination of drugs from the body politic as the key 
to a more stable social order.

While few would quibble with the need for better and more accessible 
treatment for genuine addiction, missing from the public health vs. 
criminal justice binary is any recognition that drug laws are also 
extremely restrictive economic regulations intervening in extremely 
complex and longstanding global commodity flows, with all the 
predictable consequences: black markets, adulterated products, 
cartels, brutal violence, industry capture, corruption. The 
fundamental premise of Anslinger's drug control regime still broadly 
governs domestic and international drug policy: the idea that every 
step in the global supply chain in coca and opium derivatives must be 
policed through an elaborate array of domestic criminal laws and 
trade regulations, international treaties, and public-private partnerships.

By situating the war on drugs in its Cold War context, Reiss mounts a 
powerful challenge to the narrow parameters of U.S. drug policy 
debates. Instead of asking "whether drug use should be treated as a 
crime or an illness (in the midst of the aggressive cultural and 
medical promotion of legal drugs)," she writes, "or whether some 
drugs, like marijuana or coca leaves, should be removed from 
regulatory oversight (as if the drug properties themselves have been 
the primary determinant of legal status)," the first step toward a 
healthier drug policy would require grappling with "the political 
economy of drug control and its origins in the logic and structural 
hierarchies sustaining US global power."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom