Episode 1: War
Intro (Narrated by Prasanna)
War is as quintessential to America as pie. We were born through war, we were divided through war, we became a world power through war.
War became so much a part of who we are that, by the second half of the 20th century, we were using the term to explain things that had seemingly little to do with war at all. In the 60s, President Lyndon Johnson launched a “War on Poverty” and later, a “War on Crime”. In the 70s, Richard Nixon initiated the “War on Drugs.” Of course, “war” in this context was intended only as a metaphor. The enemy to be defeated wasn’t a fascist government or a group of insurgents - it was a social ill. There was never supposed to be violence or occupation, especially not in the community we claimed to be fighting for.
But somewhere along the way, starting with the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Crime,” and coming to the decades long “War on Drugs,” we transcended metaphor. War, in more ways than one, became reality. How and why that happened, and what it all means, is what we’re going to explore today.
Chapter 1 (Narrated by Joe)
A key element of war is the creation of two sides. The Allied Forces vs. The Nazis. The Freedom-loving Capitalists vs. the Dictatorial Communists. Us vs. Them.
Point to any major American war, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who our enemies were. In Iraq, it was Saddam Hussein and his government. In Vietnam, it was the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Communists. In the Civil War, it was the Confederacy. And so on.
The War on Poverty and the War on Crime - the two major pillars of President Johnson’s domestic policy in the 1960s - targeted a specific enemy as well. Not “poverty” or “crime” - but a more tangible, definable enemy.
The ideology of Johnson’s domestic wars, especially in regards to race, was best captured by the now infamous Moynihan report. It published in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former Assistant Secretary of Labor who was involved in politics from the 50s to the 90s Before this podcast was even really an idea, I went on a trip to Selma, Alabama through school. On the drive from the Montgomery airport to Selma, I remember one of our university chaperones telling me about his experiences with campus activism when he was a student - he told me the Moynihan and his ideas made things so toxic between people at his school that he didn’t even want to be there anymore.
To put this in perspective, let’s think about the 2015 DOJ report that exposed extreme racism and corruption in Ferguson’s law enforcement system. Within a week or so, it seemed like most of the coverage of that report blew over. The Moynihan report was published fifty years ago, but it’s still infamous - why?
Moynihan claimed that culture and behavior led to racial inequality. More specifically, Moynihan faulted the centuries-long discrimination and uprooting of Black families for creating a culture of mother-led, single-parent households. This familial structure, Moynihan argued, produced unending cycles of poverty. To better understand Moynihan’s way of thinking, we spoke Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, a Professor of History and African American Studies at Harvard.
Elizabeth Hinton: The Moynihan report is really key. Unfortunately, it ends up reinforcing a view that had been building among policymakers and other social scientists, which is that the root cause of poverty was behavior. In the specific case of Moynihan, the specific problem that he identified, problem in quotes, single parent households that were reproducing this cycle of poverty and this kind of generation of so called delinquent youth, it removes politicians and the national government from any responsibility other than supporting programs that would teach these troublesome populations how to be productive citizens and how to conform to mainstream values.
Unfortunately, the press and many politicians ignored one of the key assertions of the report: that the source of modern day Black poverty was white oppression. Moynihan called for large scale government programs that provided jobs, healthcare, and housing specifically for poor African Americans. Instead, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the report was “portrayed as an argument for leaving the Black family to fend for itself.”
So let’s return to the earlier question: who, or what, was the targeted enemy of Johnson’s domestic social wars? In theory, it was the culture of low-income Black Americans, a culture that supposedly caused poverty and crime. But in effect, these wars were waged against Black America itself.
The first of Johnson’s wars was the War on Poverty. The War on Poverty did enormous amounts of good; it was, outside of the New Deal, the most comprehensive set of social welfare policies in American history. It gave us medicare, medicaid, low-income housing, and much more. But it was premised on a somewhat dangerous idea. Here’s Dr. Hinton again:
Elizabeth Hinton: The idea was even in the Kennedy Administration, these social welfare programs, essentially bringing in an army of social workers into targeted low-income, primarily African American urban areas, this would kind of impose a kind of feel of surveillance. There’s still a kind of surveillance that’s being supported and implemented by the federal government, but it appears in the form of these social welfare programs. These are job training programs, these are remedial education programs, they’re after school programs. The federal government was very clear about this, the war on poverty was not, despite its lofty rhetoric, about major structural change in the United States, it was not a job creation program. It was about, because officials viewed behavior and cultural pathology as the root cause of poverty, it was an attempt to impose a set of norms on a community and in turn, policymakers and politicians saw it as deviant to productive citizens.
Then an important chain of events happen in the mid-1960s: a cluster of big urban uprisings. Alexander Lynn is someone who’s been a community organizer in Boston since the early 70s. We asked him to describe the scope of the uprisings.
Alexander Lynn: Los Angeles was 63. Watts, same place as South Central when they went off on Rodney King. Cleveland, New York - New York was 1964, Harlem. And my father was deeply involved in that, and that was like a mass armed uprising. A lot people were killed and blah blah.
67 was the Detroit rebellion. And it was such a mass uprising that the place was closed down for three weeks - all banks, all the auto industry. Ford, Chrysler, and GM were closed. All the banks were closed. They closed down the whole city. They had to bring in federal troops to put down this rebellion.
Following the intense uprisings, the idea of dictating and eventually changing the cultural pathology of Black people begins to focus more on law enforcement and crime prevention.
Elizabeth Hinton: Johnson then calls the war on crime as a way to get riot prevention to police departments and to prevent future crime. By the Watts uprising in August 1965, which occurs about 5 months after Johnson calls the War on Crime, there’s this real sense that Black youth were seen as responsible for the riots, responsible for the unrest, were public enemy number one, were a real threat to the internal security of the United States and that something needed to be done to prevent future disorder. These rebellions were quite serious. They cost billions of dollars of property damage and they really sold the need of the war on crime and the ways in which the media covered them in very sensational ways. They sold that crime was at an all time high and there needed to be a war on crime because the nation was on the brink of chaos. This is again the rhetoric that was used at the time.
In response, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965. It, really for the first time in U.S. history, established a role for federal government in local law enforcement operations. To control urban rioting, Johnson felt local police departments needed better gear. More specifically, military-grade gear. The federal government, through the ‘65 act, would provide huge grants for local police to buy things like bullet proof vests, tanks, rifles, and gas masks. Dr. Hinton argues that this act, more than anything, catalyzed the high-levels of police militarization we see today.
During the mid-60s, we also see a shift in Johnson’s priorities from social welfare to law enforcement. Indeed, by the end of the year, Johnson says that he hopes 1965 will be remembered “as the year when this country began a thorough, intelligent, and effective war against crime.” Johnson’s War on Crime culminates in the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control Bill of 1968, which provides millions of dollars to local law enforcement departments, much of which was specifically earmarked for riot control.
But Johnson didn’t completely abandon his War on Poverty. Instead, as law enforcement began to grow, it became an arm of social service - both were considered essential to address the supposedly dangerous pathologies of Black urban youth. Under this system, local police officers were given more responsibility. Community policing, a system where officers constantly patrolled African-American neighborhoods that were supposedly crime prone, allowed the government to keep a watchful eye on Black communities. But it was deeper than just that.
Elizabeth Hinton: The other kind of push of this was to involve police officers more in community life. So you begin to get POs running after school programs or recreation programs for youth with federal funds and things like that. So police are expected to be more a part of the community to prevent future crime and riots and uprisings, which were really one of the foremost concerns of national policymakers in the mid-1960s and 70s.
The problem with these community organizations was that police used them to infiltrate and essentially spy on urban communities. Whereas Black youth may have trusted some of these officers, the police’s goal was to identify and eventually apprehend future criminals. It’s important to remember that even while police officers were running community rec leagues and youth baseball teams, the federal government, through the crime bills of 1965 and 1968, was providing local law enforcement with machine guns, helicopters, bulletproof vests, and armored vehicles. The main focus for police wasn’t social advancement; it was to prevent crime, to prevent riots.
With that in mind, I wanna introduce you to Armani White. He’s a young activist, born and raised in Boston - working to abolish the prison industrial complex and gain land control for poor Americans of color. We initially reached out to Armani to learn more about his activism work, but he shared how he noticed this type of policing growing up.
Armani White: When I was younger, police were nice to kids in my neighborhood. As like really small kids, 4 or 5. They used to take us in police vans and do the stuff that you see them doing now on all the national nights out. Giving us ice cream, like we don’t have lactose intolerance enough. But doing all that stuff, and they were nice, and there’s a point where you hit that 10, 11, 12 age, where they no longer look at you as the little nice kid they can do photo ops with, and you become a potential villain. So seeing that growing up, in my neighborhood, it went from my grandmother would take us young kids, like with the police van to a place to have fun. To running in my neighborhood, you get stopped by the detective because you’re running, and he’s like why you’re running. It’s like, I'm fucking running to the basketball court, or we’re playing tag. That used to be a game we would play, where we would start running and see who would get stopped by the cops first.
I think that really exemplifies the idea that police in poor communities of color are often agents of enforcement, and not of service or advancement. Of course, Armani grew up in the 90s, not the 60s. Though there were riots in the 90s, the urban uprisings of the 60s dominated a lot of the national conversation. Dr. Hinton describes the way the country viewed Black youth during that era as “social dynamite ready to explode at anytime.” Johnson’s domestic wars acted together as a way to monitor low-income, Black communities, as a way to prevent that “explosion.”
Elizabeth Hinton: This is a process that unfolds from 65 to 68. But both the war on poverty and the war on crime as I see them, based on my review of documents, memos, etc., are rooted in federal policymakers desire to control and contain low income African Americans who they saw as prone to rebellion, prone to violence, prone to crime.
When I first learned about this, I was pretty shocked. I always thought the Johnson Administration was this beacon of racial progress. I mean, I knew Johnson was problematic in many ways, but he was the one who helped pass most of the major Civil Rights Legislation of the 60s. The Civil Rights Act of 64, the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, the Housing and Urban Development Act. Much of that was him. Dr. Hinton helped explain what, in my opinion, is probably the best way to understand Johnson’s legacy.
Elizabeth Hinton: I do believe that Kennedy and Johnson launched these urban interventions with the best of intentions. The problem is that they were limited by their own racial assumptions about African Americans poverty and crime.
Those racial assumptions were the ones spelled out in the Moynihan Report. Remember, Moynihan, like Kennedy and Johnson, was liberal - he believed that the challenges of the Black family could be rectified by social welfare programs: employment programs, vocational training, education, health care. But his report was flawed because it portrayed cultural pathology as a causal mechanism. The decimated Black family - the high divorce rates, the mother-led households - this was the greatest threat to the future prosperity of Black America. Unemployment, poverty, and the long history of racial discrimination were contributors to this problem, but they were not the problem.
The Moynihan Report was monumentally influential. In its own time, its controversiality propelled Moynihan to national fame. Well into the future, it would set a paradigm for American discourse on race and urban inequality, a paradigm centered around culture. For conservatives, this was a blessing. By giving agency to culture, conservatives could argue that individual deficiencies explained racial inequality. They could also argue that Johnson’s social welfare programs - the greatest accomplishments of his War on Poverty - only exacerbated laziness and dependency, contributing further to Black inequality.
And with the urban unrest and the increase in crime in the mid to late-60s, conservatives would successfully employ this argument. Johnson, with his turn towards the “War on Crime,” would indeed bolster the idea that social welfare only made certain cultural tendencies worse, that punishing individuals for their immoral behavior was the best solution.
That would set the stage, in 1968, for Richard M. Nixon.
Chapter 2 (Narrated by Prasanna)
When George W. Bush started the Iraq War, I was 8 years old. I have some sort of hazy memory of him being on CNN saying we’re going to free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein - but I also might have created that memory retroactively. Anyways, the thing I remember most about those early days in Iraq is how much the government would talk about freedom, how the war, the bombing, the killing was all about Iraqi freedom, and in some unexplained way, American freedom.
As I got older, I eventually learned about weapons of mass destruction and oil and Middle Eastern hegemony - the real reasons we were fighting that war. And maybe, at least as a selling point, freedom had something to do with it - but that’s not why we were actually there. Like, we can’t go around the world “freeing” people from dictators at will. And we don’t.
But the reason I bring this up is because the Iraq War was an early lesson in something that’s applicable to what we’re talking about today. And that lesson is this: There is a part of us that wants to think we’re fighting for something bigger. We want our wars to be about some grand ideal, we want them to stand for something.
That idea is really important to understanding the rest of this segment, so just keep it in mind.
In 1971, President Nixon, like Johnson before him, launches his own domestic social war: the War on Drugs. Drugs were at the forefront of national attention because reports were coming out that Vietnam War veterans were returning to America heavily addicted to heroin. At the same time, America’s inner cities were dealing with an increase in crime - much of which was attributed to the simultaneous increase of drug, specifically heroin abuse. Moreover, the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s adopted marijuana as its drug of choice, scaring middle-class white Americans about the potential of rampant youth drug use.
Yes, drugs were certainly a problem at the start of the 70s. But here’s what you should keep in mind: Nixon had a personal vitriol for drugs that was almost nonsensical. It drove him to push his Drug War, even if it didn’t make all that much sense. In the way we view many of our wars, Nixon viewed the War on Drugs as symbolic for a larger cultural battle he was attempting to wage.
But before we really get into all of that, let’s first take a look at what Nixon’s Drug War actually accomplished.
David Courtwright: Yes, Nixon did declare a drug war, but it was kind of a sophisticated drug war. It was more enforcement, but also more treatment and more research. The way the historians usually sum this is up is they say Nixon fought a two-front drug war. He tried to reduce both demand for treatment and also supply through interdiction. And what happened is that by the 1980s, there’s still a drug war, and in many ways it escalated, but it had become more focused on supply reduction than demand reduction.
That was Dr. David Courtwright, sociologist at University of North Florida. When Dr. Courtwright talks about supply reduction and demand reduction, he’s talking about the two ways you fight a drug war. One way is by treating drug addicts for their addiction, curbing their demand for drugs. The other way is to stop supply by arresting drug dealers and punishing drug possession.
I want to make a small digression here - the line between supply and demand has been somewhat blurred by the War on Drugs. Possession, of course, is a tale of two stories: the buyer and the seller. So while laws punishing drug possession may very well have been intended to quell drug trafficking, they also launched a culture of incriminating addiction. As of 2004, over 450,000 people incarcerated for drug law violations also had histories of regular substance use or were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crimes. It’s not clear from this figure how many people were convicted for simple possession - drug law violations include possession, use, and trafficking. However, we can infer many of those arrested were not traffickers. In the same year, simple possession accounted for fourteen percent of all federal drug arrests, and eighty-two percent of state and local drug arrests. We’ll get into the consequences of imprisoning street-level drug dealers later, but to anyone, criminalizing addiction should seem like an obvious, abject mistake.
Anyway, we were surprised by this, but turns out, Nixon’s War on Drugs was mostly about stopping demand. By 1974, ⅔ of what Nixon was spending on the drug war went to treatment. Just to give you some context - right now, that ratio is at 55% to 45% - in favor of law enforcement and punitive policies, not treatment. In fact, Nixon was the last President who spent more on treatment than on punishment.
But Nixon’s War on Drugs wasn’t without controversy. First of all, Nixon did set the foundation for a punitive, supply-focused drug war. He created the Drug Enforcement Administration, also known as the DEA, and in March of 1973, proposed a plan that would set up mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug possession. Furthermore, during his Presidency, states began to implement harsher drug laws. The infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws that established mandatory minimum sentences for drug use in New York were passed in 1973.
Beyond this, Nixon’s preferred method of treatment for heroin addiction - a program called methadone maintenance - put many people in the Black community on-edge. The complaint here was that methadone was a drug just like heroin was a drug - and by using methadone to get off heroin, addicts were simply switching from one drug to another. This made people within the Black community feel like they were being controlled.
According to a PBS Frontline Interview with Dr. Robert Dupont - one of the first doctors involved with methadone maintenance in the 70s - many people in the Black community thought of methadone as “Enslavement.” He goes on to say, “It was enslaving the black underclass. It was robbing, it was the narcotic, the opiate of the masses, being given out by the government for political purposes, to make docile the revolutionaries who were otherwise going to free themselves and change the society. That's the way people thought, what some people thought. And it was done for political purposes. I was the agent of Richard Nixon and it was anti-black, anti-poor.”
Now, not every Black person on methadone felt this way, and from what we can tell, these concerns were never validated. From most of the data we have, it seems that methadone was at least somewhat effective in treating heroin addiction, and it did not result in addiction itself. But what Dr. Dupont describes is something that Dr. Hinton, from Part 1 of this episode, brought up when it came to Lyndon Johnson’s social policies. Dr. Hinton told us that a lot of Johnson’s policies were in a way designed to control and surveil Black communities. Fear of this sort of control, especially under Nixon, was not unfounded. Nixon, very explicitly, wanted to lock up as many people as possible. In 1968, he said “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty.” Indeed, by 1972, we start to see a rise in incarceration rates nationwide, a rise that would not cease until the end of the century.
For a multitude of reasons, the legacy of Nixon’s War on Drugs is very complex. But when we talk about the way we deal with drugs in this country, there are a few things that definitely trace back to Nixon.
First of all, despite the fact that he did spend a lot of money on treatment, Nixon, by initiating the trend of punitive drug law, ties drug addiction to criminality. An added implication of this is that doing drugs is seen as an individual failure - not a societal one.
Second, something Nixon does - and does very successfully - is that he formalizes the nation’s collective fight against drugs. The Controlled Substances Act - passed in 1970 - codified every single drug into different categories, or schedules, based on how harmful they could be to the public. Heroin and marijuana were placed in Schedule 1, the category for the most dangerous drugs. More importantly, Nixon establishes the idea that drugs are, indeed, a threat to American society, and that we need an organized and effective federal solution to combat them.
Now let’s go back to what we brought up at the start of this episode: Nixon’s motivation for the Drug War. Yes, drugs were a problem in the early 70s. But Nixon’s personal feelings about drugs were unusually strong. Doctor Emily Dufton, an expert on drug policy history, explains:
Emily Dufton: In recordings of his tapes that have been subsequently released, he talks a lot about his need, like he has this drive to come down really hard on drugs, particularly marijuana, which he really hated, he just really despised everything that pot stood for.
Nixon held the same vitriol towards heroin. He called heroin dealers “literally the slave traders of our time,” “traffickers in living death. They must be hunted to the end of the earth.”
The reason Nixon hated these drugs so much is that, for him, and for large parts of the country, drugs were symbolic representations of larger ideals, larger cultural battles. Here’s how Dr. Dufton explains the symbolic relevance of marijuana at the time:
Emily Dufton: So in the 1960s and 70s, as part of the counterculture movement, this fight for the legalization of marijuana was kind of an outgrowth of the larger push for civil rights, social rights, sexual rights, women’s rights, latino rights, native american rights, this ground flow of grassroots activism for recognition and respect for alternative ideas. Marijuana rights really figured strongly into that. And it kind of seems like the furthest you could put this, you know, not only do we want equal rights for women and African Americans and for Latinos and for Native Americans and for everybody else, we also really want the rights to control our own psyche, and the rights to access this drug that the counterculture had imbued with so much meaning and purpose. And they said, like marijuana is our drug and it means a lot to us and we want to make sure it is available and we want it to be legalized. So there’s this growing idea that legalization is in many ways the culmination of this larger ground flow of activism as a whole.
By fighting marijuana, Nixon was fighting more than just a drug - he was countering the larger cultural movement of the 1970s, the movement that defied the establishment and called for a level of equality, inclusivity, and freedom that broke from traditional American norms.
Even heroin took on greater symbolism. Here was a drug that was affecting thousands of low-income African Americans, a drug that, according to Nixon, led to crime and poverty. By combating heroin through a comprehensive drug war that funded law enforcement and treatment, Nixon was able to exert some level of control over low-income, crime-prone Black communities.
And just in case you think we’re stretching the truth on this whole symbolism idea - here’s a quote from one of Nixon’s top advisers, John Ehrlichman, talking about exactly this. He says “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Now the quote is pretty controversial. A few of Nixon’s drug policy advisors wrote a letter asserting that this was not at all what motivated the Drug War, and Joe and I are personally not inclined to buy into a full-blown conspiracy theory - even if it is Nixon we’re talking about.
But what we can say with some level of certainty is that Nixon used drugs to represent larger ideological battles. Marijuana was a battle for American youth and the direction of American culture; heroin a battle for control over low-income Black communities. Drugs, Nixon showed, could be a stand-in for almost any important social issue, and they could galvanize the public to action. In the way many American wars are portrayed as being for some higher purpose, like freedom or democracy, the War on Drugs would be conceived, to some extent, as an ideological crusade - much larger than simply a public health concern. This surprisingly powerful idea would set the stage for the 1980s and the crack cocaine scare.
Chapter 3 (Narrated by Joe)
Michael Curry: So I think for us, the image for us at the time was that we felt like we were in an occupied community.
The end goal of most wars - at least for a time - is occupation. To occupy the area of an enemy - to control and coerce their actions on a regular basis.
What Johnson created and Nixon continued was a system by which to do that. For Johnson, the Wars on Poverty and Crime allowed the federal government to empower local law enforcement, especially in urban communities. He wanted to ensure that the urban unrest of the mid-1960s would be effectively curbed, so he started to give local police departments military grade riot gear, and he established programs where police could more easily surveil urban neighborhoods.
Nixon, through the War on Drugs, continued the federal government’s probing into low-income African American neighborhoods. He started to criminalize drug use more heavily, and even his treatment programs often felt unnecessarily intrusive.
The result of these policies - intended or not - was to make police presence seem regular and necessary. Wailing sirens, cops on street corners, patrol cars rolling through neighborhoods - these became calling cards of low-income Black neighborhoods. To control the crime prevalent in these communities, to suppress the urban unrest, we decided to occupy.
The thing is - that occupation didn’t end.
As part of our podcast, we’ve wanted to understand and highlight the perspective of people of color in the city of Boston. We chose Boston because we live and go to school here - but Boston could really represent any city in America. This isn’t to say that all American cities experience exactly the same thing. But we do believe there is a national trend when it comes to the way urban communities in America have been affected by policies surrounding drugs and law enforcement over the last 50 years.
Something that came up again and again in our discussions with people of color in Boston was that in their neighborhoods, police were - and are - everywhere, all the time.
One of the first people we talked to was a woman named Andrea James. We first saw Andrea at a townhall meeting about the issue of mass incarceration in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She went up to the mic at the end of the panel discussion and gave the panel a little hell for, one, not having any formerly incarcerated people on the panel, and two, not talking about the effect mass incarceration has on women. She’s someone who’s been involved with this fight in a very personal way for a very long time.
Andrea James: Yeah, I mean I was a professional working in the criminal justice system for more than twenty years before I became incarcerated. I was sentenced to federal prison for two years for a wire fraud offense, and I did - I went to federal prison and I was stunned. After I started out as a college student, working in my community with gang involved kids in Roxbury. And I moved my way up, all the way through law school, went to Northeastern, that was my law school alma mater, and I became a trial lawyer.
And I worked at the public defender agency. I helped start the youth advocacy project at Roxbury Defenders, which is a model that teaches other lawyers how to advocate on behalf of court-involved children. I went into private practice and I worked as a criminal defense lawyer and a real estate conveyance lawyer.
Andrea is also proudly Boston, and even more proudly, Roxbury. If you couldn’t hear it in her accent, you will in the way she talks about her community.
Andrea James: I grew up in Roxbury and I’m 51 so I saw every bit of when crack cocaine hit the community, and the effect that it had on the community, and watched the community literally change within my generation and my children's’ generation to the struggles that we’re having now.
I, my kids are the fourth generation to live in my home in Roxbury, so we’ve been here for a really long time...I lived in Roxbury, was raised in Roxbury, I attended the most elite school, one of the most elite schools in the country, which is Milton Academy. I come from a family of educator activists, I didn’t come from a poor family, my family lived in Roxbury because this is who we are and we’re from this community, and we continue to live here. But we weren’t here because we had to be, we’re here because like so many of the families, we choose to be.
Andrea described very vividly what it likes to live in Roxbury now, in 2016, and to deal with a constant and permeating police presence.
Andrea James: If you sit long enough in any of our parks in our community, you see a constant parade of drug detectives that all day long, in their unmarked cars, circle our communities. Like they’re on a hunt. And eventually, always, they are constantly all day long, pulling people over. Giving people citations or arresting people, locking them up, now people have cases, now they have to go court, they gotta lose work, if they’re working. I mean, this constant heavy presences of law enforcement in our communities, and it hasn’t done one thing to reduce the amount of drugs that you find in our community or anywhere else in the commonwealth if you look for it.
Although less than its peak in the 1970s, federal spending on local law enforcement still makes up one of the largest segments of the Department of Justice’s budget. Overall, spending on police has increased 445% since the early 1980s. The trends started by Johnson and Nixon have not subsided.
We were also fortunate enough to talk to Michael Curry - President of Boston’s branch of the NAACP. He’s an extremely accomplished person; outside of being President, Michael is on the board of the national chapter of the NAACP. He’s also the legislative affairs director and senior counsel for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.
Joe: So could you give us a background on yourself, growing up in Boston, and how you got to be where you are at a pretty young age for all the things you’ve accomplished?
Michael Curry: It’s funny, when I ran for president of the NAACP in 1910 - haha, 1910 like I’m that old. It’s funny I just got to act in a movie as William Monroe Trotter, so I had to act like I was in 1910, 1915 so now it’s in my head. I was born and raised in Roxbury, I’m the first to be born here in Boston. My mother migrated here from Alabama as did many people of color as the book points out, Warmth of Other Suns, Black people wanted to leave the Jim Crow south and find better opportunities here in New England. I was born here in poverty, lived in the housing developments in Boston, Lennox Street housing developments, and at that time, there was a transition communities of color were going through, and white communities too, especially poor white communities, but a different version of it with what the Black communities went through with poverty, with drugs, with gangs, and of course, my mother moving here in housing developments I got to see a lot of the negatives that were happening in the city of Boston and it impacted our household. My sister at an early age was skipping school, in the street. Eventually, involved in prostitution, eventually got addicted to crack and was eventually having children who were then born impacted by the crack epidemic, as they called it at that time. In terms of what led me to this position, I think it’s a collection of experiences. It’s the poverty, it’s the discrimination I saw, it’s the injustices, it’s the lack of opportunity, it’s the unemployment rate. So aside from the law degree, aside from the bachelors in communication, aside from the work and professional experiences, having worked in government relations, public relations, government relations, media relations, I think my personal experiences make me most qualified and most excited to do this work. That to me is the hard knocks that prepared me to do it.
Michael, too, had vivid images of police in his community while he was growing up.
Michael Curry: I would have college friends come visit me, high school friends of course, but college friends come visit me. They would drive down my street and there would be 20 kids lined up on the street on their knees being checked for drugs. That was an image that was very much almost a daily occurrence in Roxbury, Blue Hill Ave, Quincy Street, Humboldt, Castlegate, Maywood, all those neighborhoods that if you’re in Boston, you know those streets. Those weren’t infrequent things to see. So I think for us, the image for us at the time was that we felt like we were in an occupied community.
And finally, here’s T. Michael Thomas, founder of the People’s Academy. T. Michael is a coppersmith, and he uses the Academy to teach young people from his community a trade.
T. Michael Thomas: We would be coming back from playing ball, BNBL, and three four of us in a car would get pulled over. The reason being that they’re looking for drugs, they’re looking for guns. So it’s been a thing since I was a kid in the 80s. And that was, oh, we got a call of some suspicious people. We grew up with the impression more than one black person standing together on a corner is considered a gang. That’s the way they perceived us. That’s the way they approached us. Another thing they used to do, you’re driving, minding your own business, they would pull you over, especially in the winter, one of the most ignorant things and racist things they would do - knowing there’s snow on the ground, they would make you lie on the ground. You’re dressed going to an under 21 nightclub as a kid, you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, 21 years old. Whether going and coming, they would see you, and they would purposely pull you over to embarrass you, to belittle you. Knowing you’re not a criminal. You’re dressed, going somewhere, and they would do things like that.
I have some of my students that would say to me, we’re constantly targeted. They just see us driving, they see us in our work clothes, they’ll still take us out of the car, and they’ll search us, and they’ll say what did i do? “Well we just got some car and some suspicious-” Come on, what is the definition of suspicious? Black? That’s what it’s about.
In an academic way, we can point to statistics and policies that highlight this trend of increased law enforcement in Black neighborhoods; but this is something that is a part of people’s lived experience.
Now, there’s something huge we haven’t addressed, something you’ve probably started to think about at this point. Did all of this - the increase in police and law enforcement, this essential occupation - achieve anything?
Remember, at the start of this episode, we talked about the Moynihan Report and how it popularized this notion of cultural deficiency. The ethos of the Report, or at least how it was received, was that Black culture - which according to the report featured single-parent, matriarchal families - was the greatest threat to the future prosperity of Black America. The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, this turn to law enforcement to address the issues of Black communities was in many ways a response to the cultural explanation for racial inequality. The logic was that welfare programs only encouraged dependency and laziness. The only way to truly curb the supposedly aberrant behavior of low-income Black people was to punish them for their actions; to throw the criminals in jail.
So, did it work?