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out In Downtown Usa

United States

new internationalist
issue 224 - October 1991

Shoot-out in downtown USA
Inner cities in America are being hit by the big stick –
with no carrot on offer. Andrew Cohen explores
the epicentre of the drugs business.

The subways slow and the street lights dim. Any hope that Mayor Dinkins’ administration could set a new, progressive agenda to fight New York City’s deterioration has fallen victim to the cops-and-prisons demands of the war on drugs.

To close a $3.5 billion gap in its $28.7 billion budget, New York City will close walk-in clinics, drug-rehabilitation centres, homeless shelters, libraries and public pharmacies, lay off 10,000 workers and cut back services like lead-paint inspections, child immunization, AIDS pilot programmes and garbage recycling. But while the city may not be able to afford to keep its street lights on, it is budgeting $1.2 billion to hire 5,000 new police officers and to increase prison occupancy by 5,500. Governor Cuomo has built 27 new state prisons in the last eight years. ‘If you’re going to slash social services with one hand, you’d better carry a bigger stick in the other,’ remarked one commentator.

The converse is also true. By transforming social problems into purely criminal issues the war on drugs has enabled the ‘restructuring’ of American cities to proceed apace. Crime crackdowns and service rollbacks go hand-in-hand in New York, Washington and Los Angeles.

New York’s special narcotics prosecutor, Sterling Johnson, seized headlines on the eve of his retirement by telling the press: ‘If this is a war on drugs, then the people of this city are the Kurds’. He wanted to protect his own budget – but his words had a resonance beyond his intention. The special prosecutor handles 7,200 felony cases a year and runs four grand juries, which hear about 30 cases a day; just between January and May of this year, 2,406 convictions were processed.

And yet, after all the martial rhetoric and the ‘Safe Streets’ promises, the main result of New York’s war on drugs has been the imprisonment of a record number of African American men. They make up half the state’s inmates, but less than 10 per cent of its population. While whites make up 30 per cent of arrests for sale and possession of drugs, they experience less than 10 per cent of all commitments to state prison for drug-related crimes – 90 per cent of those in state prisons for drug-related crimes are Black.

Liberal alternatives to the law-and-order approach to drugs and youth violence are few and far between. They always seem to involve playgrounds. Anything more substantial, like drug treatment centres or youth employment programs, require more resources and imagination than New York can command.

New York’s fiscal crisis is a crisis of priorities, mirrored all over the country as states square off with their budgets. But it figures in the media as a natural disaster, as inevitable as George Bush’s re-election. The city can’t resort to deficit financing for political reasons. It would then incur the wrath of New York’s Financial Control Board (the business watchdog) and more perilously, the possibility of its direct intervention. Democracy, such as it is, would be suspended, the Mayor effectively usurped and the austerity pill only made more bitter.

The city’s commitment to ‘economic restructuring’ is a political move which has jeopardized its social priorities. The property-tax system remains grossly skewed in favor of wealthy homeowners. A proposal for a tax on financial services was floated, but sunk by banking chiefs. They assured the city that Morgan Stanley, a finance house, would uproot its analysts and pack them off to a hotel in El Paso, Texas, if the Mayor so much as mentioned the idea a second time.

In the meantime, New York City developers enjoy a welfare program all their own – a billion dollars in commercial tax abatements. Typical awards go in 100-million-dollar chunks to hotels, office buildings and convention centres downtown, which fail to attract much occupancy.

Prisons, on the other hand, are full; the prison population has doubled since 1980 – though the crime rate has increased by only seven per cent. It continues to grow at a rate of 800 prisoners a week.

New York’s deficit crisis is in part the result of larger political shifts, specifically the evaporation of federal funding. CBS correspondent William Geist suggested to the New York Times that the only way to save the city was to take the money to be spent ‘subduing the next “Middle East madman” and give it to our 50,000 homeless people. Each would receive a ranch home ($250,000), store credit at Barney’s ($10,000), college education ($80,000), two cars ($60,000), deluxe motor home ($45,000), country club membership ($25,000) plus golf lessons and a decent set of clubs ($5,000), speedboat($25,000) and $500,000 in cash.’

Geist could also have mentioned the six billion dollars a year going to Israel, or the cost of the Stealth bomber program, but the Federal Government seems to be taking its cues from the drug-war-torn cities. Two ‘comprehensive anti-crime bills’ are now before the Senate, one the Bush Adminis-tration’s, the other sponsored by Senator Joseph Biden. It’s difficult to say which of these is more dreadful.

Both are extraordinarily martial. Both authorize the death penalty for drug ‘kingpins’ and drug-related crimes, allow juveniles to be sentenced as adults and require drug tests from all federal prisoners on parole, probation and supervised release. The Biden bill, like Bush anti-crime bills before it, casts drugs as a criminal problem and devotes most of its allocations to law enforcement.

The streets of Los Angeles are now the epicentre of the war on drugs. In the mid-1980s, with the appearance of Crack cocaine and the militarization of federal narcotics enforcement in Miami and southern Florida, LA became the focal point for the overland trade route via Mexico. Rival gangs branched out into more than 100 groups. Martin Luther King Jr Hospital near Watts began to set annual records for the number of gunshot wounds it treated. Cash surpluses at the Federal Reserve Bank branches in LA – one index of money-laundering activity – shot up from $165 million in 1985 to $3,800 million in 1988.

LA in the Reagan era suffered an industrial exodus which took with it thousands of union jobs. What Mike Davis calls the ‘crypto-Keynesian employment program of the cocaine czars’ filled the gap left by a ‘conscious policy of social disinvestment’ for LA’s 78,000 unemployed youth.1 It also saw the rebirth of the sweatshop, fuelled by sub-minimum wage non-citizen labour – which employers distinctly preferred. Displaced Black and Latino workers found they couldn’t get service-sector jobs in LA’s white suburban growth poles either. Three inner-city youth employment programs were dismantled while the city council channelled federal dollars into glitzy downtown projects. Faced with these bleak changes, and the dramatic rejuvenation of poverty they engendered, drug dealers or ‘lookouts’ could earn as much as $750 a week in a ‘rock house’ and provide for their families.

Early in 1988, in response to neighborhood chaos, gang hype in the media and the black community’s demands for equal police protection, LA Police Department (LAPD) Chief Gates launched the Gang Related Active Trafficker Suppression (GRATS) project. In February and March it conducted nine 300-police ‘sweeps’ which yielded 1,500 arrests and 500 impounded cars.

This war, like another that comes to mind, proved so popular that GRATS became ‘The Hammer’, a high-profile series of ‘1,000-cop blitzkriegs’ denounced by the local American Civil Liberties Union attorney as publicity stunts. By 1990 the LAPD and the Sheriffs had picked up some 50,000 Black and Latino youth suspects. In some of the sweeps more than 90 per cent of these same suspects were released without charges.

‘The Hammer’ was an open invitation to a series of police riots. Police shot an unarmed teenager on the street and a retired 81-year-old construction worker in his home, which they’d mistaken for a ‘Crack house’. The LAPD finally had to bring disciplinary and criminal action against 38 officers who participated in the infamous Dalton Street ‘search’ which destroyed an apartment complex and took 32 captive, discovering no drugs in the process.

In the same spirit, the state legislature has passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP), which made juvenile gang members’ parents liable to prosecution. The class and race bias of the war on drugs is nowhere more evident than in these new penalties that STEP and subsequent federal legislation have imposed. Mike Davis records how ‘Don Jackson, an off-duty Black policeman from Hawthorne, precisely in order to make a point about de facto apartheid, led some ghetto kids into [Westwood] Village. They carefully observed the law, yet, predictably, they were stopped, forced to kiss concrete and searched. Jackson, despite police identification, was arrested for “disturbing the peace”.’

If this is ‘peace’, what kind of ‘war’ can we possibly be fighting? Instead of change it promises chestbeating, instead of aid it offers austerity. Perhaps Americans prefer to think that drugs are not a trade, only a transgression. Then crime, not social injustice, would be the problem.

Andrew Cohen works on The Nation, New York.

1 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Verso 1990.


Poppyfields and penury
Tomatoes are no substitute for opium in northern Thailand.
Rob Stewart talks to farmers about their fate.

Women tend tomato fields; men take the cash.

Thum has been an opium addict for 32 years. Today he is a young-looking 50. He has a slight slur when he speaks and he rarely works in the fields. His wife Arphar worries about him, about their finances and what will become of their children. Thum weaves baskets to bring in extra money.

He lives in north Thailand but is of Chinese origin. He married into the village as a young man, at a time when money was scarce. He proved to be very useful to the community. His Chinese connections made it easier to sell the opium harvested every year.

The local dealer, Thum’s cousin, would come to the village and negotiate targets and prices in early August, at planting time. The same man would return at harvest time in December and January to organize collection and transportation to Mae Sae on the Burmese border. From here it would be taken to refining laboratories which were under the protection of the government in Laos.

It was a profitable business for growers. Poppy fields bedecked the high slopes of the hills, which are often incredibly steep. Only a small acreage was required and opium could usually be rotated with a food crop like maize. No chemicals were needed to promote growth.

Then in 1984 the Thai army sent in troops to destroy the crops. Other villages had better contacts and were able to bribe them off. But after repeated destruction over the next two years the local farmers decided to plant alternative crops.

Tomatoes were chosen. Very quickly the hillsides were covered with them. Early in the season they fetched a good price. But as the season progressed the market became saturated, prices fell and growers were hard pressed to pay for the fertilizers and pesticides needed to ensure a reasonable harvest.

And so economic peonage has become a reality. Once-proud people are destitute, walking to the fields in dishevelled rags to work land they have been forced to sell to entrepreneurs. Social structures are being profoundly altered. Both men and women would negotiate opium prices, plant, harvest and be paid in the village. Now it is the men who drive the tomato crop to town, bargain and take the profits. Vital income is often drunk away – or spent on drugs.

Villages in the area have always had some opium addicts. But the numbers were relatively few. Heroin addiction was limited to one or two cases. Khun Sa, the largest of the drug warlords, enforces a mandatory death penalty for drug abuse.Thum started smoking opium because of a stomach complaint. He only takes heroin if he is in pain. Thum’s son is in his early 20s and much to his mother’s consternation, has started playing with heroin too. Like many other young people he has to look after the tomato crop, guarding it (and the precious water supply) from theft. Sitting in the sun all day is boring and some turn to drugs to pass the time.

Increasingly, patches of opium poppies are being grown among the maize crops, so they cannot be seen by aerial reconnaissance. The families with opium addicts grow enough for their own consumption. Ironically, the refined product comes back to the village from Mae Sae at a much-inflated price.

The villagers are unwilling to speak about poppy cultivation. Suspicions about police informers are rife and any rumour could cause their village to be raided. Already this year there have been three raids and several arrests for possession. They have to pay ever-larger amounts in bribes to officials – reverting to poppies as a cash crop is one of the few means they have of finding the money.

Thum does not like to think about the future of his adopted people. Mixing the treacle-like raw opium with anadin, he rolls 10 round, black pellets. Heating them gently over a flame he lies down and drawing deeply on his pipe, sinks slowly into oblivion.

Rob Stewart is a freelance writer who covers South East Asia from Hong Kong.

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New Internationalist issue 224 magazine cover This article is from the October 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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