Black Youth and the Criminalization of a Generation

Part 3: The War On Drugs Is a War on the People

Revolutionary Worker #973, September 13, 1998

The first article in this series described how an entire generation has been criminalized by this system, especially the Black and Latino youth who live in the inner city. It showed how the tripling of the prison population over the past 17 years has almost all been the result of drug possession charges.

The second one showed how the economic trends of the '60s and '70s led to a situation where--after a brief period of hope--things grew desperate in the ghettos and barrios.

This article will show the role played by the drug traffic and the war on drugs in this campaign to lock down a generation--and expose who is ultimately, and in some cases directly, responsible.


In 1969, President Nixon's top assistant wrote in his diary that:

"[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

Thus was born the War on Drugs. Under the cover of "fighting drugs" and "crime in the streets," the federal government channeled massive amounts of arms and money to city governments who feared urban rebellion and even insurrection. Nixon himself used "war on drugs" as a code-word for the politics of both racism and repression. And all the while, he watched quietly as heroin was pumped into the ghettos on a huge scale in an attempt to create chaos and derail political organization among Black youth.

How Ronald Reagan Solved Two Problems with Cocaine

When times changed, so did the drug wars. Under Ronald Reagan, during the 1980s, drug policy became an important part of the way the U.S. ruling class dealt with two important political problems.

First, Reagan needed a way to finance the counter-revolutionary war that the U.S. was waging against Nicaragua. While everyone knew that the U.S. was running this war, the government couldn't admit it for political, legal and diplomatic reasons. So it had to be officially secret and officially unfunded.

Second, Reagan needed a way to justify his program for dealing with the crisis in the ghettos. In those Reagan years, the economy passed through a hard period of recession and an expansion of "rustbelt" shutdowns. Cuts in government spending and other cutbacks, on top of the huge job loss, created levels of misery that hadn't been seen in 50 years. Such misery created instability and the danger of resistance.

Reagan's people, particularly the forces around Vice President George Bush and the CIA, solved the first problem by taking the counter-revolutionary forces in Nicaragua (the contras) and directing them toward the illegal drug business. The CIA essentially hired the private airlines of drug traffickers in the Caribbean basin to secretly transport guns and supplies for the contras. In exchange, the drug operations of these traffickers and their contra allies were allowed to fly into the U.S. unopposed--including onto major U.S. airports and military bases. Funds from major drug rings in L.A. and Miami flowed to the contras.

Contras and allied drug-traffickers who ran afoul of drug agents were repeatedly helped by their contacts in the U.S. government. Agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency circulated complaints inside the government that whenever they had developed a legal case against some major drug-trafficker, the CIA would come in and use this legal threat to blackmail the trafficker into the network supplying their secret war. And the DEA was then "called off"--because the trafficker was now valuable as an "asset."

Beginning around 1983, and in significant part pushed on by the CIA-sponsored contras themselves, cheap cocaine flooded into ghettos of New York and L.A.--into the economic life of inner cities that were becoming a wasteland of closing factories. Much of it was turned into crack--a smokeable form of cocaine that gives the same intense high at a much cheaper price. Soon, crack was widely available in the ghettos and barrios of New York and L.A. Within several years, nearly every major city was faced with a tidal wave of crack.

The CIA has (predictably) denied any role in the cocaine trade. And the system's mainstream media act like it is "paranoia" to believe that the government might specifically target Black communities with cheap cocaine.

However several questions about this have never been answered. In the early 1980s, a drug distribution ring was set up in California by supporters of the Nicaraguan contras. The investigative journalist Gary Webb has documented that this ring specifically sent its "marketing expert" to Los Angeles to seek out Black drug dealers for the distribution network. Why did these Spanish-speaking Nicaraguan reactionaries not set up distribution through the various Latino drug operations of Los Angeles? Did someone in their operation (or someone controlling their operation higher in the CIA-contra network) specifically decide to unleash this cheap cocaine into the Black community of South Central L.A.?

The System and Crack

The "crack explosion" had a major impact on that second problem faced by the U.S. government.

For the masses, crack was and is a horrible thing. It means young people getting shot over competition for markets. It means all kinds of folks being strung out and ruined by the drug. It's like the days when the main item sold on the trading posts near the Indian reservations was whiskey. But for the ruling class of capitalists and for their police enforcers at various levels, the crack trade had a useful side.

First, it inserted impoverished Black and Latino youth into the economy. It gave them something to do. From the standpoint of a ruling class, you cannot have energetic and high-spirited youth hanging around with nothing to do and hungry bellies--they might turn to politics, especially revolutionary politics. With crack, there was something for these youth to do that would actually benefit capital. Crack came in at a time of sky-high unemployment, of hunger and impoverishment. It is little wonder that desperate youth got caught up in selling it.

In fact, crack was the capitalist "job program for the ghetto" of the 1980s and 1990s.

And when some of these youth became mini-capitalists based on the crack trade, it built up capitalist-style "money is everything" and "me first" thinking among the youth. This is true even despite the fact that only a small minority could "live large" off the drug trade. When you do the math, most of the youth slinging crack don't get all that much more than minimum wage. But in a devastated economy and in a society that makes money everything, the hope to "live large" if only for a moment proved very powerful, and this too served the larger interests of the capitalists.

At the same time, the system had problems with some aspects of the drug trade. In particular, as street organizations became larger, wealthier and better armed, the ruling class (and their police) started complaining that parts of the inner city were becoming harder and more dangerous to control. The only well-armed forces they wanted to see in the ghettos and barrios were their cops-in-blue.

Top politicians also found the drug economy to be a useful way to target Black people as scapegoats. They hoped to channel the anger and anxiety of whites (most of whom were also facing tougher times and great uncertainty) against Black people, in a more modern version of the lynch mob. So in 1988, George Bush used the image of convicted Black criminal Willie Horton to get elected. Then in 1992, Clinton showed he was just as "tough" as Bush by rushing home to Arkansas to execute a young brain-damaged Black man in the middle of his campaign. Whether in the TV news or political campaigns, one image was repeated over and over--that of the criminal Black or Latino male. The media and politicians sent the message that things are changing for the worse because crime is rampant, and that Black people are the perpetrators of this crime--when exactly the reverse is the case.

The hypocrisy was intense. As Ronald Reagan's national security team winked at the CIA-sponsored arms for drugs networks, Nancy Reagan told the youth to "Just Say No." And meanwhile, in the streets, the police started the mass imprisonment of African-American and Latino youth.

Similarly, Bill Clinton lectured the youth on personal responsibility and has presided over the doubling of the U.S. prison population--while he eliminated welfare.

The U.S. ruling class--who order bombing raids on defenseless people at the slightest provocation or none at all--condemn Black and Latino youth as "criminal" and even "unredeemable." And they cold-heartedly send hundreds of thousands each year off to concentration-camp prisons.

This is poli-tricks--of a deadly, devastating kind.

Using the Crack Trade to Strengthen Police Control

The drug trade goes on under the direct and indirect control of the police. Evidence of this has surfaced in city after city, as scandals have exposed police drug-dealing and close police ties to major drug operations. And so anyone drawn into the illegal economy also gets caught up in a whole network of relations with the police.

The ties between the illegal economy and the police became another form of control--a chain on people who are desperate and potentially revolutionary. Using this chain, the government has built a massive snitch network in the oppressed communities. Between 1985 and 1993 the federal government spent half a billion dollars on informers. And that figure doesn't even count all the money spent by city and state cops, and all the bargain-basement snitches created by the now-routine practice of bargaining prison time down in exchange for testimony and information on former associates.

One key function of such a growing police-state apparatus is to pre-empt and prevent revolutionary organization from gaining ground among the people.

The crack trade--which again only went on with the connivance, and in some cases the active initiation and participation, of the big capitalists, politicians and police--became the excuse for the most massive program of repression and imprisonment in U.S. history.

We talked about the scope and effects of this in the first part of this article. We want to re-emphasize: while Black and minority people have always made up a disproportionate share of the nation's prisoners, the last 20 years have seen this go to a new level. From half a million in 1980 to over two million today.

What are the conclusions?

One, the crack trade was set up with the knowledge and participation of the same power structure that publicly claims to oppose it. Far from opposing drugs, the U.S. rulers were using drugs to finance their counter-revolutionary wars and to transform the economic life of the ghettos.

Two, this same crack trade served as justification for the phony war on drugs. And this war on drugs has been a war on the people, especially Black and Latino youth, and has accounted for the horrific tripling of the U.S. prison population in a few short years.

The first and second articles in this series are posted on RW Online at

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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