Failed Frontlash: How Liberals Furthered the Case for Mass Incarceration

The response to the Civil Rights Movement initiated one of the most punitive interventions in United States history. Beginning with the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and onward, the state took on a new role in crime and drug control. State and federal governments revised their criminal codes, imposing mandatory minimums and effectively abolishing parole. Moreover, juveniles were now incarcerated in adult prisons, chain gangs returned—as did a malicious policy of felon disenfranchisement—all while prison rates soared, increasing six-fold between 1973 and the turn of the century.

ImageCompared to its advanced industrial counterparts, the United States imprisons at least five times more of its citizens per capita. Are we inherently more criminal than other nations? Or, do we manufacture criminality? For the most part, the United States and most other human societies across time and space have always had problems with drugs and crime. This is not unique. How the United States has chosen to combat said problem, as well as its unfortunate results, are unique. Legal scholar Jonathan Simon argues that in the United States, crime has become “a, if not the, defining problem of government.” How did we get here?

Vesla Mae Weaver’s work—particularly her use of “frontlash”—offers some important clues to understanding the punitive impulse. 

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Irrational Intolerance

On October 27, 1986 Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 99-570 with the overwhelming bipartisan support of the 99th Congress.  Spurred by the June death of basketball star Len Bias, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 hurried its way into federal law nearly as fast as crack emerged onto the national scene.  In prepared remarks that afternoon, the President gushed over his “great pleasure” in signing legislation intended to combat the “evil of drugs” before a group of Cabinet members, Administration officials, members of Congress, and private citizens in the East Room of the White House.  “The magnitude of today’s drug problem,” Reagan suggested, “can be traced to past unwillingness to recognize and confront this problem.”  In short, Reagan and other drug crusaders believed the nation to be all too tolerant of drugs, their users, and purveyors.

The Only Person in the United States Speaking out Against Crack.

Thankfully, Reagan reminded his audience, he and Congress held “the vaccine that’s going to end the epidemic.”  That is, “tough laws” and a “dramatic change in public attitude.”  Draconian mandatory minimums effectively satisfied the first element to this equation.  To fully succeed though, government would need the help of the American people.  “We must be intolerant of drugs,” implored Reagan, “I ask each American to be strong in your intolerance of illegal drug use.”  Positioning his wife Nancy as a crusading pioneer, Reagan took a moment to note the popular success of her “Just Say No” campaign, crediting her sole work for turning “the fight against drug abuse into a national crusade.”  Evidently, the President and his wife remained unaware to the tireless work of grassroots community organizations whom had agitated for reform since early 1985 such as the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.  Perhaps this is because both the President and the First Lady denied NWBCCC requests to visit with its members, to see the crack problem at its epicenter a year prior.

Cloaked in New Right rhetoric of family values and firm law and order, Reagan announced the legislation as a “victory for safer neighborhoods, a victory for the protection of the American family.”  United together, Americans would now see to it that, “there’s no sanctuary for the drug criminals,” those “pilfering human dignity and pandering despair.”  Despite loading the bill with excessive fines and mandatory minimums for drug offenders, Reagan quipped: “This legislation is not intended as a means of filling our jails with drug users.”

A quick evaluation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 makes the previous statement extremely difficult to reconcile.  500 grams of cocaine, 5 grams of crack, or 100 kg of pot triggered a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.  Moreover, 5,000 grams of cocaine, 50 grams of crack, or 1,000 kg of pot triggered a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.  To make matters worse sentences doubled in cases where offenders had a prior felony conviction, a third strike earning a life sentence.  Sentences also doubled for those selling to, or using minors to sell illicit drugs.  Perhaps most devastating, no offenders would be eligible for parole. 

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Disposable Citizens

In May of 2008 recent Florida State graduate Rachel Hoffman reluctantly got in her car with 13,000 dollars in cash set to buy 2 and ½ ounces of cocaine, 1500 pills of Ecstasy, and a semi-automatic handgun in a Tallahassee P.D. approved sting operation.  A few weeks earlier, two disparate events promised to change the trajectory of Rachel’s life.  First, she earned admission to a master’s program in mental-health counseling.  Second, more dubiously, Rachel found herself pinched by police who discovered 5 ounces of pot, along with assorted pills of Ecstasy and Valium surreptitiously tucked under her couch cushions. Threatened with possible felony charges of possession with intent to sell and “maintaining a drug house,” Rachel decided to cooperate.  Information leading to a mere pot bust though—authorities informed Rachel—would not be enough to make the charges disappear.  Instead, they would need Rachel to bring Tallahassee P.D. arrests netting large quantities of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, or guns.  With little choice, Rachel unwittingly made herself disposable.  As such, Rachel took on a new, less human persona in the eyes of law enforcement.  Rachel became Confidential Informant No. 1129; one of many replaceable, interchangeable parts in the modern War on Drugs.

Rachel Hoffman

Whether Rachel’s attackers discovered the wire in her purse, or simply found the nature of her first-time purchase suspicious is relatively inconsequential.  What does matter, very much so, is that Rachel’s body—riddled with bullets from the gun she planned to buy for police—turned up 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee.  As you might imagine, the murder of a white middle-class, female, suburban college graduate garnered considerable media attention.  Hoffman’s case received prolonged coverage from Jenifer Portman of the Tallahassee Democrat, Vince Beiser of the Huffington Post, and ABC NewsThe saga of Rachel Hoffman and the overarching issue of confidential informants has now resurfaced, with the publication of Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker piece entitled, “The Throwaways.”

Far too often, confidential informants adversely effected by the modern war on drugs do not fit the description of Rachel Hoffman.  Lacking the trappings of a college education, middle-class status, and perhaps whiteness, many cautionary tales of informants go untold.  More frequently, the disposable citizens shuffled through the dangerous informant system are young people from low-income communities, often nonwhite, and sometimes underage.  The risk, and potential loss of these human lives receives less media scrutiny and legislative concern then they ought to be afforded.

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Ruminating over the crack era landscape of Oakland, California, scholar Mike Davis noted with passing interest what appeared to be a new phenomenon in his 1990 work, City of QuartzIn past years, Davis commented, aggressive law-and-order demands were “dismissed as the venom of white backlash.”  In the crack era, however, a new and unprecedented “Black-lash” emerged.  According to Davis this represented a “qualitatively new and disturbing dimension of the war on the underclass” manifested by “the swelling support of Black leadership” for draconian criminal justice responses to the crack problem.  Before moving on to other matters of interest, Davis made one more observation which proved prophetic: “The trend is national.”

In Los Angeles, the influential South Central Organizing Committee (SCOC)—a church supported affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—became a major voice calling for greater police deployment against drugs and street youth.  In New York, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) held countless marches, protests, and vigils to demand police initiatives like Operation Pressure Point and the Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) as well as harsher sentencing.  The Reverend Wendell Foster, a member of the city council, co-founded the United Black Church Appeal (UBCA) with his celebrity friends Dick Gregory and Ossie Davis to aid in the crusade against crack.  A virtual chorus line of traditional liberal, pro-black voices formed to demand more police and harsher sentencing in order to “take back” their streets from pushers and users.  The NWBCCC, in fact, called their campaign against crack in their communities the “take back our streets” campaign for a time.

Mandatory Minimums are not what Tommie Smith and John Carlos had in mind.

What surprised Davis, and what should surprise any critical observer is the absence of dissenting opinion.  In her work The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander laments that groups like the ACLU and NAACP virtually ignored the move towards incarceration under crack era reform in favor of issues more pertinent to black middle class interests, such as affirmative action.  This however, is only part of the problem.  The crack era environs of what Davis dubs “Black-lash” also unleashed the fury of prominent minority leaders who typically opposed law-and-order solutions.  For example, Congresswoman Maxine Waters—now well known for her attacks on law enforcement—endorsed police sweeps and “street terrorism” laws designed to crackdown on drug-related crime.  Black Power advocate Harry Edwards, organizer of the famous 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights told the San Francisco Focus, “I’m for locking ‘em up, getting ‘em off the street, put ‘em behind bars.”  Edwards added further detail on his designs for sentencing: “As long as the law will allow, try to make it as long as possible.”

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Legislation With Bias

Len Bias realizing his childhood Dream

26 years ago this week Len Bias became the 2ndoverall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.  A consensus All-American at the University of Maryland, Bias was headed for super-stardom, having met with Reebok officials regarding a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal the very night he was drafted.  After meeting with Reebok brass and representatives from the Boston Celtics—his new NBA team—Len and his father flew home to Washington D.C.  Eager to celebrate with his college teammates, Len returned to campus for the last time.

26 years ago this week Len Bias was pronounced dead at Leland Memorial Hospital from cocaine-related cardiac arrest.

A Dream Deferred

As Eric Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation has previously commented, something happened the day Len Bias overdosed.  The moment Len Bias, the basketball star overdosed on cocaine; Len Bias, the symbol, was born.  However, what Len Bias has come to represent simply depends on whom you talk to.  For many, Len became a reminder that life is short, nothing guaranteed.  For drug warriors, Bias became a walking anti-drug ad, warning children that drugs—particularly crack—can be both dangerous and deadly.  For reformers of amateur athletics, Bias came to symbolize the corruption of major college sports.  For Sterling, and for drug historians like myself, the Bias affair demonstrates the “danger that arises when a powerful symbol overwhelms careful judgment about what ought to be the law.”

Stories regularly appear about Bias on the anniversary of his death, particularly last year, the silver anniversary of his tragic overdose.  Most if not all cover typical narratives of lost promise, what might have been, and those influenced by his legacy.  Frequently, articles also include a feel-good excerpt about Lonise Bias, Len’s mother who now lectures school-aged youths about the dangers of drug abuse.  Lonise, Len’s college coach Lefty Driesell, and others still steadfastly regale the press with anecdotes of young people claiming that Len inspired them to kick their drug habit. Lonise has often said that she is pleased her son was able to do “more in death than he did in life,” by serving as a deterrent and cautionary tale for other potential users.  While there is no doubt that Len’s untimely demise has helped select persons particularly moved by the circumstances of his death, the story does not end there.  Lonise is surely right that Len has been able to do more in death—as a symbol—than he was able to accomplish in life.

As a symbol, Bias served as a primary vehicle in building the modern War on Drugs and its ugly stepsister, the Prison-Industrial Complex.  In this respect, Len’s legacy and the circumstances of his death became central for their reverberations amongst policy circles on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1986.  Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill—then Speaker of the House—returned from July 4threcess a man on fire.  “Write me some goddamn legislation,” he demanded.  In the 1984 election, Republicans had successfully accused Democrats of being soft on crime.  Not in 1986 thought O’Neill.  We have to beat Republicans to the punch here, if we move fast enough, we can take the issue away from the White House.  Having spent his recess at home in Boston (where Bias had been drafted), O’Neill understood the high-profile nature of the Bias tragedy offered a rare political opportunity.  He also understood that the people wanted blood.

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Bridging the Gap: An Interview With Dr. Robert Whitney

This week we bring to Points an interview with Dr. Robert B. Whitney as part of an ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue inspired by last month’s “Courtwright Symposium.” Whitney served as Clinical Director of the Division of Chemical Dependency at Erie County Medical Center from 1976 to 2011.  In addition, Dr. Whitney worked for the Research Institute on Addictions in Buffalo, NY in the early ‘90s.

Can you tell us a bit about your unique professional experience, and perspective regarding addiction and the War on Drugs?

I have a slightly different perspective than people whose primary focus is research, including historical research.  My experience has been in trying to synthesize relevant information from any source and to apply that information in helping people cope with their drinking and drug problems.  Over the years, I’ve also been on different committees at the county and state level looking at addiction policy questions.  So most of my experience as a clinician, was a little different.  But I have some sense of what the policy issues are and how ill-informed most of it is.  So I have a slightly different take on the whole thing.

In your 35 years of experience, did the patient demographics change significantly?  If so, how?

Yes.  In many ways the demographics changed some.  People got younger.  I still don’t really know if that’s a product of changes in prevalence of drug use or whether we just got better at catching people earlier in the course of their problems.  I think it’s probably some of both.  We found other ways to engage people before they are having trouble with the law for example, or having trouble on the job.  So the age has changed and certainly the patterns of drug use have changed.  Ten years ago in Buffalo if we saw one or two people a month who were primarily in trouble with prescription drugs that was a lot out of say 100 admissions.  When I left in September [2011], and I don’t think it’s changed very much since, it was around 40% of admissions. That’s a huge, huge, change.

My research focuses on drug policy reform in the mid-to-late 1980s, reform largely associated with the emergence of crack.  Can you point to any significant changes in your own facility at ECMC during this period?

We certainly began to see people with shorter drug histories.  Clinical populations tend to be people who are more troubled than your average user or abuser.  If you’re having trouble spending too much money on cocaine every once in awhile you don’t necessarily end up in treatment.  If you spent the family fortune on it and everyone has given up on you we might expect to see you in treatment.  So often, it would be a number of years before they ended up in treatment.  I think when crack came to Buffalo, we did see a lot of people with crack as the main reason that got them to treatment earlier.  It seemed like they would get deep into trouble in months, rather than several years. People were getting into trouble with it, I think, because you could get started on it with smaller amounts of money.  You didn’t have to have a great deal of money in your pocket to get going. This seemed to be a difference in typical patterns.  Moreover, because of the rapid onset of inhaled cocaine, the drug is particularly reinforcing, contributing to more rapid progression of problems.

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Absolut Tampax

According to Stephen Colbert, being a parent is a “sublime and beautiful adventure, filled with unexpected joys and unimaginable terror.”  Undoubtedly, much of this is due to the behavior of children. If that weren’t enough, most local news hours provide wall-to-wall coverage of the “unimaginable terror” which Colbert speaks of.  Look no further than Phoenix KPHO, who stood steadfast to their self-appointed motto, “telling it like it is.”  Taking a catnap from more pressing immigration concerns, KPHO delivered a hard-hitting piece on the newest problem in Arizona high schools, alcohol soaked tampons.

Absolut Tampax: Absolute Stupidity.

In order to provide their audience with an objective, measured assessment of the situation, KPHO led with the “experts.”  As Valley High School security officer Chris Thomas explains in the broadcast, “This is not isolated to any school, any city, any financial area.  This is everywhere.”  Similar to made-for-TV ads capable of shaking housewives out of ambien-induced comas by shouting, “Wait! That’s not all,” KPHO kept the shock coming—its not just teenage girls getting in on the fun.  Again, American crime-stopper Chris Thomas breaks the news, “this is definitely not just girls.  Guys will also use it and insert them into their rectums.” But Wait! That’s not all….

KPHO finishes strong, exposing the real danger on the horizon, the growing trend of “butt-chugging” amongst misguided youth.  You heard that correct, “butt-chugging.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly as it sounds.  Enthusiasts use a funnel/beer-bong and apply the tube directly to their anal cavity.  After watching 10 minutes of actual “butt-chugging” clips, I find myself asking the same question you all are, WHY?  What’s wrong with using your mouth?

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