Part III: The 80’s and 90’s Where The Armor Cracked!
1980-1984: The New Decade
In 1981, Ronald Reagan presided over a stagnant economy and growing drug war. Cocaine was the popular drug among celebrities and young sophisticated “yuppies”, while a a cheaper offshoot, crack cocaine was emerging in US cities.
As the drug war escalated, Reagan seized the moment convincing voters in 1984 to re-elect him, because unlike Democrats he was hard on crime.
The Democratic Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip O’Neill was fuming. Reagan had made the Democrats appear soft on crime. And O’Neill’s party lost sixteen seats in the House of Representatives. No one saw it, but a perfect storm was developing.
Overseas, while terrorist were hijacking planes, killing people at airports and on cruise ships, a terror at home was erupting in the streets. Young people were shooting each other in turf wars. I entered my freshman year at the historic Dunbar Senior High School just as the nation’s first for African American students found itself in the middle of a murderous drug trade.
“Len Bias is dead?” No one believed it. Two days before he’d been selected by the Boston Celtics. Arguably the best basketball player at the time, was dead from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose. The perfect storm hit, June 19, 1986.
Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill returned to Washington after the Congressional 4th of July recess, with a plan to shed his party’s soft image.
He met with his crime related committee chairmen. His thunderous voice barked orders, “Write me some goddamn legislation. All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are screaming for blood. We need to get out front on this now…The Republicans beat us to it in 1984 and I don’t want that to happen again. I want dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs.” (from Dan Baum’s “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure” (p.225)
The wind blew in The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It shifted law enforcement’s attention to crack cocaine and reinstituted the mandatory minimum prison sentences taken out of federal law in 1970.
Crack cocaine was fair game. This cheap drug was killing users and sellers on city streets. Lawmakers implemented five year federal mandatory minimums for possession of 5oo grams of cocaine the drug toxicologists blamed for Bias’ death. On the other hand it implemented the same mandatory minimum for 5 grams of crack cocaine, a significantly smaller amount. The disparity in weight led to a wider disparity in arrests, convictions and jail sentences.
Congress held no hearings on mandatory minimums. No testimony from judges, law enforcement, attorneys or corrections officials who would be charged with implementing these measures. Nothing on how these measures would affect families, communities, or significantly increase the prison population. It highlighted five reasons for the disparity. Crack cocaine was:
- More addictive than cocaine;
- Associated with violent crime;
- More likely to draw Youth to it;
- Inexpensive and more likely to be consumed in large quantities; and
- Dangerous for pregnant woman’s unborn children
Eric Sterling, Counsel to the House Committee on the Judiciary when the bill was created said in “Drug Policy: A Challenge of Values” “it appeared that blacks were being disproportionately sentenced for the crack cocaine offense…the U.S Sentencing Commission to study the impact of mandatory minimum sentences….found that the disparity in sentencing harshness between white and black offenders increased….Congress and the Administration did nothing to address this problem.”
Why Is This Important?
I began writing this five part series in response to my FB comments that race was not the crux of the problem when addressing murders like Trayvon Martin’s. I stand by that. The issue may be race related but it’s irresponsible public policy that created the problem.
When the perfect storm hit cities with high concentrations of African Americans, law enforcement’s attention was trained on small dealers instead of the suppliers.
Eleven years after the bill was passed, a study examining the addictive nature of crack and powder cocaine concluded, one was no more addictive than the other.
Why did Democrats looking to shed the soft on crime image, give cocaine a free pass? Why didn’t they focus on getting guns off the street? Wouldn’t that have led to hearings on how to get the guns off the street? Who would have fought that? When mandatory minimums were added to the bill, who benefited? Everyone says prisons are a big money maker. Follow the money trail and you will find the answer. Why do civil rights group point the finger at everyone but themselves? We will come back to this in Part V: The Conclusion and A Better Way.
As everyone pointed to someone else, the obvious was ignored.
Crime, homicides, drug use and abuse were high. Unemployment, the number of high school dropouts and teenage pregnancy were too. Single parent households increased, and young teenage mothers were losing fathers to jail and homicide.
Mothers turned a blind eye to their sons selling drugs and doing poorly in school. High numbers of pregnant teenagers were too. It was so high that Dunbar had a daycare center. Workers were struggling and the minimum wage was too low. Reagan became the only president not to raise the minimum wage.
The Fruitvale Station scene, where Oscar’s sister asks to borrow money made me reflect on the 80’s. As the decade ended, movies like Wall Street glamorized greed and The Untouchables popularized organized crime and homicides increased.
Music glamourized thug life. New Jack City, the movie about an African American drug dealer showed the effects of crack. In the movie, Chris Rock as Pooky the crack addict says “I keep tryin to kick it but that sh– just keeps on calling me man. I just got to go to it.”
Later Nino Brown played by Wesley Snipes, the crack dealer had two lines that sticks out, “You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan era” and “I am my Brother’s Keeper.” This sums up the 80’s crack culture.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created deep racial lines, loss in respect for law enforcement, victims from the top to the bottom blaming everyone but themselves. Instead of decreasing homicides they increased. In 1989, DC recorded four hundred thirty four homicides. The following year, four hundred seventy two and in 1991, there were four hundred eighty-two homicides. Thug life was being portrayed in movies, music and television. People were making money and getting famous.
“God damn bitch set me up!” My friends yelled one night, running toward me. It was the second semester of my freshman year. “Your mayor was arrested!” Unlike Bias’ death, I believed it. Law enforcement had been trying to catch DC Mayor Marion Barry for years. The popular mayor was made of Teflon. They got his friends for cocaine use, but never him.
Until January 18, 1990. A female government informant invited Barry to her hotel room and offered him crack. On camera he holds the crack pipe to his mouth and the FBI run in.
Law enforcement caught Barry red handed. But while their attention was on the inner city, they missed crack as it made its way into suburbia. In 1990, the movie Traffic highlighted what we’d known for years. Crack was everywhere. It was destroying professionals, families and kids everywhere. Elected officials and law enforcement were pressured harder to stop it. Hip hop and rap which had been testing the limits of free speech long before was now targeted.
The perfect storm strengthened. The moral fabric of the traditional family unit was being destroyed in urban and suburban life. Civil rights advances destroyed in just one generation.
Every night there was another homicide. Congress wanted more police officers. DC couldn’t hire them fast enough. To avoid Congressional intervention, the District relaxed some of its vetting procedures and the police academy classes of 1989 and 1990 were tainted. Instead of acknowledging their role, policymakers pointed the finger at everyone but themselves.
Part IV: The Culture of Blame