Part III: Reflections After Frutivale Station

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.”

    To read more

    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

Part II: Reflections After Fruitvale Station

Part II: Were We Profiled…If so Why?

That’s a loaded question that I’m interested in you, the reader answering.

What I can say is with no amount of uncertainty that night developed in me a wariness for the police. I am sure they have a wariness of people that look like me. Hence a line was drawn. But why? Because of my skin color? Or is there something more?

I am a big proponent for therapy, counseling and open dialogue. Yet, twenty years later, my friend and I have never discussed that night. The one where police pulled us over for a U-Turn? Pulled us from the car, searched it and never issued a ticket?

As teenagers and college students during the 80’s and 90’s, we heard the news stories about racial profiling and black on black crime. You couldn’t turn on the news and not hear a story about a homicide in the city. Young men had fat wads of cash in their pockets that they could spend on themselves and their girlfriends. Girls had the big ear rings with their names written inside. Guys wore thick gold chains, Timberland boots, fresh new jeans and sneakers. They were fly and hip. The hip hop culture was born and growing fast. All of this despite Reagananomics and a terrible recession, similar to the one we just got out of.

So were we profiled? We were dressed up! My friend may have had on a gold chain, but nothing flashy. I wasn’t wearing one. His seat wasn’t leaning into the back seat like many young men did at the time. I didn’t like mine back that far.

Now, the music may have been loud. We liked to listen to go-go tapes like many other young people. Some of you might say, we were simply profiled for being young African American men. But how does that fit into profiling, when the police officers were African American in a predominantly African American city? Why would they profile their own?

Two years ago, a conversation in the Howard University Student Association offices with students made me think about that night. It set me on a course to even understand officers thinking and their actions had to do with their lack of training.

At the time, my company, The Madyun Group (TMG) was sponsoring and planning a Party Politics forum with HUSA. The discussion that day deviated and we began discussing eras in African American history. We talked about the 60’s and integration. An African American male student said something I found profound and true, “Atiba, we were making a lot of progress until the crack epidemic.” The room went silent as he illustrated and explained his point.

I left, my thoughts racing. This profound statement helped me reconcile some of the pain from that night twenty years ago. Events from my youth from that era began to make sense and I did my own research. After watching Fruitvale Station this weekend, I did even more.

Fruitvale Station moved me to finally write this essay, I want you to read. The essay has been brewing in my head for a long time. The movie pushed me to write it. When Trayvon Martin was killed and George Zimmerman was acquitted I wrote on my FB wall that the conversation needed to be had, transcends race. After the movie, I believe it even more.

After the Zimmerman trial ended. Civil rights leaders and so called scholars paraded on television to fan the flames of hate and race. They pointed fingers at everyone but themselves.

My posted comments touched some people. They responded with emails, texts and post responses. Some were so kind from friends here and abroad. They shared stories of their friends experiences as African Americans. They didn’t want to post on my page because they aren’t African American. Not because they didn’t feel outrage at the verdict.

And I got responses from African American mothers. I found some of their comments as insensitive because I didn’t agree with civil rights leaders. They said I didn’t understand because I am not a parent of an African American male. They neglected this. I am an African American man and they can never understand, what it is like to be one.

What they and so called leaders neglect to do is, accept their role in why our young men are unfairly targeted. Where is their outcry this year for more than 200 dead in Chicago? Or for young men killed by police officers in Oklahoma and Florida? Where are they, when nineteen young children are killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school? Or when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others are shot in Arizona? When innocent people are killed in a movie theater? Or when gun control legislation is voted down?

So, I write to tell the part of the story we neglect to remember. The one that leads back to policy and transcends race at the same time acknowledging the obvious.

The young man at Howard University helped me remember and acknowledge that I too am to blame. This essay is broken into parts. They are not just thoughts. They are thoughts supported by articles and links. I give them to you, to draw your conclusions. But to make this a whole discussion.

This is a way to address the apathy, complacency and acceptance for mediocrity that we allowed that slowed progress. It is an alternative to pointing the finger at others. An opportunity to right the past, by remembering it. Race and profiling occur far to often, but why? Too often we ignore public policy because we don’t understand it. We ignore politics because it sickens us. And we forget that money is always a part of the problem because we like it so much.

If we want to protect our next generation, we cannot keep focusing on an issue. We have to look back to see where the problem began.

Part III: The 80’s and 90’s The Crack in the Armor!