The fury among American blacks sparked by Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series was powerful enough to cause serious concern to the U.S. government, urban mayors, and major newspapers, and even prompted CIA Director John Deutch to make an extraordinary appearance at a town meeting in South Central Los Angeles, where Rep. Maxine Waters was accused of fanning the flames of “black paranoia.” We will now briefly outline why this “paranoia” is amply justified and why Webb’s series very reasonably struck a chord in the black community.
In all discussions of “black paranoia” during the Webb affair, white commentators invariably conceded—as indeed they had to—that the one instance where such fears were entirely justified was the infamous Tuskegee experiments. Yet in the press coverage no more than a sentence or two was devoted to any account of what actually happened at Tuskegee.
The facts are terrible. In 1932, 600 poor black men from rural Macon County, Alabama, were recruited for a study by the United States Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute. The researchers found 400 out of the 600 infected with syphilis, and the 200 uninfected men were monitored as the control group. The other 400 men were told they were being treated for “bad blood” and were given a treatment the doctors called “pink medicine,” which was actually nothing more than aspirin and an iron supplement. No effective medical treatment was ever given to the Tuskegee victims because the researchers wanted to study the natural progress of venereal disease. When other physicians diagnosed syphilis in some of the men, the Public Health Service researchers intervened to prevent any treatment. When penicillin was developed as a cure for syphilis in 1943, it was not provided to the patients. Indeed, the development of a cure only seemed to spur on the Tuskegee researchers, who, in the words of historian James Jones, author of Bad Blood, saw Tuskegee as a “never-again-to-be-repeated opportunity.”
As an inducement to continue in the program over several decades the men were given hot meals, a certificate signed by the surgeon general, the promise of free medical care, and a $50 burial stipend. This stipend was far from altruistic because it allowed the Health Service researchers to perform their own autopsies on the men after they died. The experiments continued until 1972, and were canceled only after information about them had leaked to the press. Over the course of the experiments more than 100 of the men died of causes related to syphilis, but even after exposure, the lead researchers remained unapologetic. “For the most part, doctors and civil servants simply did their job,” said Dr. John Heller, who had headed the U.S. Public Health Services Division of Venereal Diseases. “Some merely followed orders, others worked for the glory of science.”
In 1996, President Clinton issued a public apology to the Tuskegee victims. Nor was this an entirely disinterested act of governmental contrition. Earlier in the year, Clinton had been approached by Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala regarding the scarcity of blacks willing to volunteer as research subjects. Shalala attributed this reluctance to “unnatural fears” arising from the Tuskegee experiments. George Annas, who runs the Law, Ethics and Medicine program at Boston University, notes that the apology was skewed and that Clinton and Shalala should have been finding ways of recruiting more blacks as medical students rather than research subjects. “If you were to look at the historical record, you will see that blacks’ distrust predated Tuskegee,” according to Dr. Vanessa Gamble, an associate professor of the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “There were experiments dating back to more than a hundred years that were more often done by whites on slaves and free blacks than on poor whites.”
Another oft-cited explanation for the readiness of blacks to believe the worst about the white man’s intentions is briskly referred to as “the FBI’s snooping on Martin Luther King Jr.,” as Tim Golden put it amid his reflections on black paranoia in the New York Times. The government’s interest in Dr. King went considerably beyond “snooping,” however, to constitute one of the most prolonged surveillances of any family in American history. In the early years of the 20th century, Ralph Van Deman created an Army Intelligence network targeting four prime foes: the Industrial Workers of the World, opponents of the draft, Socialists, and “Negro unrest.” Fear that the Germans would take advantage of black grievances was great, and Van Deman was much preoccupied with the role of black churches as possible centers of sedition.
By the end of 1917, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division had opened a file on Martin Luther King Jr.’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. A. D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and first president of the Atlanta NAACP. King’s father, Martin Sr., Williams’ successor at Ebenezer Baptist, also entered the army files. Martin Jr. first shows up in these files (kept by the 111th Military Intelligence Group at Fort McPherson in Atlanta) in 1947, when he attended Dorothy Lilley’s Intercollegiate School; the army suspected Lilley of having ties to the Communist Party.
Army Intelligence officers became convinced of Martin Luther King Jr.’s own Communist ties when he spoke in 1950 at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the integrated Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Ten years earlier, an Army Intelligence officer had reported to his superiors that the Highlander school was teaching a course of instruction to develop Negro organizers in the southern cotton states.
By 1963, as Tennessee journalist Stephen Tompkins reported in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, U-2 planes were photographing disturbances in Birmingham, Alabama, capping a multilayered spy system that by 1968 included 304 intelligence offices across the country, “subversive national security dossiers” on 80,731 Americans, plus 19 million personnel dossiers lodged at the Defense Department’s Central Index of Investigations.
A more sinister thread derives from the anger and fear with which the Army’s high command greeted King’s denunciation of the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in 1967. Army spies recorded Stokely Carmichael telling King, “The Man don’t care you call ghettos concentration camps, but when you tell him his war machine is nothing but hired killers you got trouble.”
After the 1967 Detroit riots, 496 black men under arrest were interviewed by agents of the Army’s Psychological Operations group, dressed as civilians. It turned out King was by far the most popular black leader. That same year Maj. Gen. William Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, observing the great antiwar march on Washington from the roof of the Pentagon, concluded that the Empire was coming apart at the seams. There were, Yarborough reckoned, too few reliable troops to fight in Vietnam and hold the line at home.
In response, the army increased its surveillance of King. Green Berets and other Special Forces veterans from Vietnam began making street maps and identifying landing zones and potential sniper sites in major U.S. cities. The Ku Klux Klan was recruited by the 20th Special Forces Group, headquartered in Alabama as a subsidiary intelligence network. The Army began offering 30-06 sniper rifles to police departments, including that of Memphis.
In his fine investigation, Tompkins detailed the increasing hysteria of Army Intelligence chiefs over the threat they considered King to pose to national stability. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was similarly obsessed with this threat, and King was dogged by spy units through early 1967. A Green Beret special unit was operating in Memphis on the day he was shot. He died from a bullet from a 30-06 rifle purchased in a Memphis store, a murder for which James Earl Ray was given a 99-year sentence in a Tennessee prison. A court-ordered test of James Earl Ray’s rifle raised questions as to whether it in fact had fired the bullet that killed King.
Notable black Americans, from the boxing champion Jack Johnson to Paul Robeson to W. E. B. Du Bois, were all the object of relentless harassment by the FBI. Johnson, the first black superstar, was framed by the FBI’s predecessor under the Mann Act. Johnson ultimately served a year for crossing state lines with his white girlfriend (who later became his wife). Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, was himself under surveillance for nearly seventy years and was arrested and shackled for urging peace talks with North Korea.
Still fresh in the minds of many blacks is the FBI’s COINTEL-PRO program, started in 1956 and conceived as a domestic counterinsurgency program. Though its ambit extended to the New Left, Puerto Rican revolutionaries and Native Americans, the most vigorous persecutions under COINTELPRO were those of black leaders. A memo from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the program as it stood in August 1967: the purpose of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” black organizations the FBI didn’t care for. And if any black leader emerged, Hoover’s order was that the Bureau should “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercised their potential for violence.”
“Neutralize” has long been a euphemism for assassination. At least six or seven Black Panther leaders were killed at the instigation of the FBI, the most infamous episode being the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. These two Panther leaders were shot in their beds, while asleep, by Chicago police who had been given a detailed floor plan of the house by an FBI informant who had also drugged Hampton and Clark.
During the mid-1970s hearings chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, the FBI was found to have undertaken more than 200 so-called “black bag” jobs, in which FBI agents broke into offices, homes and apartments to destroy equipment, steal and copy files, take money, and plant drugs. The FBI was also linked to the arson fire that destroyed the Watts Writers’ Workshop in Los Angeles.
In all the stories about “black paranoia” trolled forth by Webb’s assailants, one topic was conspicuously ignored: the long history of the racist application of U.S. drug laws. The first racist application of drug laws in the United States was against Chinese laborers. After the U.S. Civil War, opium addiction was a major problem: wounded soldiers used it to dull pain and then became habituated. One study estimates that by 1880, one in every 400 adults in the United States had such an addiction to opium. Chinese laborers had been brought into the United States in the wake of the Civil War to build the transcontinental railroad and, in California, to haul rock in the gold mines in the Sierras. Thousands of Chinese were also brought into the South to replace slave labor on the cotton and rice plantations. The Chinese brought opium smoking with them, their addiction having actively fostered in the Opium Wars by the British, who had successfully beaten down efforts by the Chinese government to curb the habit.
Then came the recession of the 1870s. The Chinese were now viewed as competitors for the dwindling number of jobs available. In 1875, San Francisco became the first city to outlaw opium smoking with legislation clearly aimed at the Chinese, who smoked the narcotic, as opposed to the main group of users, white men and women, who took opium in liquid form. This was the era when the use of opium-based patent medicines was pervasive. Women used them in “tonics” to alleviate pain in childbirth, and also to “soothe” their nerves. Unlike the “yellow dope fiends,” however, the white users were politely termed “habitués.” In 1887, the U.S. Congress weighed in with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which among other things) allowed Chinese opium addicts to be arrested and deported.
Similarly, racist attitudes accompanied the rise of cocaine use. Cocaine had been mass marketed in the United States in the late 1880s by the Parke-Davis Company (which many decades later had contracts to provide the CIA with drugs in the MK-ULTRA program). The company also sold a precursor to crack, marketing cocaine-laden cigarettes in the 1890s. In that same decade the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, which was distributed to millions of homes, offered a syringe and a small amount of cocaine for $1.50. But by the turn of the century the attitude of the medical and legal establishment to cocaine was beginning to change. In 1900 the Journal of the American Medical Association printed an editorial alerting its readers to a new peril: “Negroes in the South are reported as being addicted to a new form of vice—that of ‘cocaine sniffing’ or the ‘coke habit.’ ”
President Theodore Roosevelt responded to the new scare by creating the nation’s first drug czar, Dr. Hamilton Wright. Wright was a fanatic racist, announcing that “[i]t is been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other regions.” One of Wright’s favored authorities was Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania. Koch testified before Congress in 1914 in support of the Harrison Bill, shortly to pass into law as the first criminalization of drug use. Said Koch: “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.”
At the same hearing, Wright alleged that drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers, and prompted them to rebel against white authority. These hysterical charges were trumpeted by the press, in particular the New York Times, which on February 8, 1914, ran an article by Edward Hunting Williams reporting how Southern sheriffs had upped the caliber of their weapons from.32 to.38 in order to bring down black men under the influence of cocaine. The Times’ headline for the article read: “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ are New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks.” Amid these salvoes, the Harrison Act passed into law.
In 1930, a new department of the federal government, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, was formed under the leadership of Harry Anslinger to carry on the war against drug users. Anslinger, another racist, was an adroit publicist and became the prime shaper of American attitudes to drug addiction, hammering home his view that this was not a treatable dependency but one that could only be suppressed by harsh criminal sanctions. Anslinger’s first major campaign was to criminalize the drug commonly known at the time as hemp. But Anslinger renamed it “marijuana” to associate it with Mexican laborers who, like the Chinese before them, were unwelcome competitors for scarce jobs in the Depression. Anslinger claimed that marijuana “can arouse in blacks and Hispanics a state of menacing fury or homicidal attack. During this period, addicts have perpetrated some of the most bizarre and fantastic offenses and sex crimes known to police annals.”
Anslinger linked marijuana with jazz and persecuted many black musicians, including Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong was also arrested on drug charges, and Anslinger made sure his name was smeared in the press. In Congress he testified that “[c]oloreds with big lips lure white women with jazz and marijuana.”
By the 1950s, amid the full blast of the Cold War, Anslinger was working with the CIA to charge that the newborn People’s Republic of China was attempting to undermine America by selling opium to U.S. crime syndicates. (This took a good deal of chutzpa on the part of the CIA, whose planes were then flying opium from Chiang Kai-shek’s bases in Burma to Thailand and the Philippines for processing and export to the U.S.A.) Anslinger convinced the U.S. Senate to approve a resolution stating that “subversion through drug addiction is an established aim of Communist China.”
In 1951, Anslinger worked with Democrat Hale Boggs to marshal through Congress the first minimum mandatory sentences for drug possession: two years for the first conviction of possession of a Schedule 1 drug (marijuana, cocaine), five to ten years for a second offense, and ten to twenty years for a third conviction. In 1956, Anslinger once again enlisted the help of Boggs to pass a law allowing the death penalty to be imposed on anyone selling heroin to a minor, the first linking of drugs with Death Row.
This was Anslinger’s last hurrah. Across John Kennedy’s New Frontier charged sociologists attacking Anslinger’s punitive philosophy. The tempo of the times changed, and federal money began to target treatment and prevention as much as enforcement and prison. But the interim did not last long. With the waning of the war in Southeast Asia, millions of addicted GIs came home to meet the fury of Nixon’s War on Drugs program. Nixon picked up Anslinger’s techniques of threat inflation, declaring in Los Angeles: “As I look over the problems of this country I see that one stands out particularly: the problem of narcotics.”
Nixon pledged to launch a war on drugs, to return to the punitive approach, and not let any quaint notions of civil liberties and constitutional rights stand in the way. After a Nixon briefing in 1969, his top aide, H. R. Haldeman, noted in his diary: “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.”
But for all his bluster, Nixon was a mere prelude to the full fury of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years, when the War on Drugs became explicitly a war on blacks. The first move of the Reagan administration was to expand the forfeiture laws passed during the Carter administration. In 1981, Reagan’s drug policy advisers outlined a plan they thought would be little more than good PR, a public display of the required toughness. They proposed allowing the Justice Department to seize real
property and so-called “substitute property” (that is, legally acquired assets equal in value to illegal monetary gains). They also proposed that the federal government seize attorneys’ fees that they suspected might have been funded by drug proceeds. They even proposed to allow attorneys to be summoned by federal prosecutors before grand juries to testify about the source of their clients’ money. The Reagan plan was to permit forfeitures on the basis of a “probable cause showing” before a federal judge. This meant that seizures could be made against people neither charged nor convicted, but only suspected, of drug crimes.
Contrary to the administration’s expectations, this plan sailed through Congress, eagerly supported by two Democratic Party liberals, Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Joe Biden, the latter being the artificer, in the Carter era, of a revision to the RICO act, a huge extension of the federal conspiracy laws. Over the next few years, the press would occasionally report on some exceptionally bizarre applications of the new forfeiture laws, such as the confiscation of a $2.5 million yacht in a drug bust that netted only a handful of marijuana stems and seeds. But typically the press ignored the essential pattern of humdrum seizures, which more often focused on such ordinary assets as houses and cars. In Orange County, California, fifty-seven cars were seized in drug-related cases in 1989: “Even if only a small amount of drugs is found inside,” an Orange County narcotics detective explained, “the law permits seized vehicles to be sold by law enforcement agencies to finance anti-drug law enforcement programs.”
In fact, the forfeiture program became a tremendous revenue stream for the police. From 1982 to 1991, the U.S. Department of Justice seized more than $2.5 billion in assets. The Justice Department confiscated $500 million in property in 1991 alone, and 80 per cent of these seizures were from people who were never charged with a crime.
On June 17, 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died, reportedly from an overdose of cocaine. As Dan Baum put it in his excellent Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, “In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he became the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs.” It was falsely reported that Bias had smoked crack cocaine the night before his death. (He had in fact used powder cocaine and, according to the coroner, there was no clear link between this use and the failure of his heart.)
Bias had just signed with the Boston Celtics and amid Boston’s rage and grief, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a representative from Massachusetts, rushed into action. In early July he convened a meeting of the Democratic Party leadership. “Write me some goddam legislation,” he ordered. “All anybody in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. They want blood. If we move fast enough we can get out in front of the White House.” The White House was itself moving fast. Among other things, the DEA had been instructed to allow ABC News to accompany it on raids against crack houses. “Crack is the hottest combat-reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War,” the head of the New York office of the DEA exulted.
All this fed into congressional frenzy to write tougher laws. House Majority Leader Jim Wright called drug abuse “a menace draining away our economy of some $230 billion this year, slowly rotting away the fabric of our society and seducing and killing our young.” Not to be outdone, South Carolina Republican Thomas Arnett proclaimed that “drugs are a threat worse than nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare waged on any battlefield.” The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act was duly passed. It contained twenty-nine new minimum mandatory sentences. Up until that time in the history of the Republic there had been only 56 mandatory minimum sentences in the whole penal code.
The new law had a death penalty provision for drug “kingpins” and prohibited parole for even minor possession offenses. But the chief target of the bill was crack cocaine. Congress established a 100-to-1 sentencing ratio between possession of crack and powder cocaine. Under this provision, possession of 5 grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence. The same mandatory minimum is not reached for any amount of powder cocaine less than 500 grams. This sentencing disproportion was based on faulty testimony that crack was fifty times as addictive as powder cocaine. Congress then doubled this ratio as a so-called “violence penalty.” There is no inherent difference in the drugs, as Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffery conceded. The federal Sentencing Commission, established by Congress to review sentencing guidelines, found that so-called “crack violence” is attributable to the drug trade and has more to do with the setting in which crack is sold: crack is sold on the street, while powder cocaine is vended by house calls. As Nixon and Haldeman would have approvingly noted about the new drug law, it was transparently aimed at blacks, reminiscent of the early targeting of Chinese smoking opium rather than white ladies sipping their laudanum-laced tonics.
In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reviewed eight years of application of this provision and found it to be undeniably racist in practice: 84 per cent of those arrested for crack possession were black, while only 10 per cent were white and 5 per cent Hispanic. The disparity for crack-trafficking prosecutions was even wider: 88 per cent blacks, 7 per cent Hispanics, 4 per cent whites. By comparison, defendants arrested for powder cocaine possession were 58 per cent white, 26 per cent black, and 15 per cent Hispanic.
In Los Angeles, all twenty-four federal defendants in crack cases in 1991 were black. The Sentencing Commission recommended to Congress and the Clinton administration that the ratio should be one-to-one between sentences for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, arguing that federal law allows for other factors to be considered by judges in lengthening sentences (such as whether violence was associated with the offense). But for the first time in its history the Congress rejected the Sentencing Commission’s recommendation and retained the 100-to-1 ratio. Clinton likewise declined the advice of his drug czar and his attorney general, and signed the bill.
One need only look at the racial makeup of federal prisons to appreciate the consequences of the 1986 drug law. In 1983, the total number of prisoners in federal, state and local prisons and jails was 660,800. Of those, 57,975—8.8 per cent—were incarcerated for drug-related offenses. In 1993, the total prison population was 1,408,000, of whom 353,564—25.1 per cent—were inside for drug offenses. The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.–based watchdog group, found that the increase was far from racially balanced. Between 1986 and 1991, the incarceration rate for white males convicted on drug crimes increased by 106 per cent. But the number of black males in prison for kindred offenses soared by a factor of 429 per cent, and the rate for black women went up by an incredible 828 per cent.
The queen of the drug war, Nancy Reagan, said amid one of her innumerable sermons on the issue: “If you’re a casual drug user, you’re an accomplice to murder.” In tune with this line of thinking, Congress moved in 1988 to expand the crimes for which the federal death penalty could be imposed. These included drug-related murders, and murders committed by drug gangs, which would allow any gang member to face the death penalty if one member of the gang was linked to a drug killing. The new penalties were inscribed in an update of the Continuing Criminal Enterprises Act. The figures arising from implementation of the act suggest that “black paranoia” has in fact a sound basis in reality.
Convictions under the act between 1989 and 1996 were 70 per cent white and 24 per cent black—but 90 per cent of the times the federal prosecutors sought the death penalty it was against non-whites: of these, 78 per cent were black and the rest Hispanic. From 1930 to 1972 (when the U.S. Supreme Court found the federal death penalty unconstitutional), 85 per cent of those given death sentences were white. When it was reapplied in 1984, with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the numbers for black death penalty convictions soared. Whether the offense is drug-related or not, a black is far more likely to end up on Death Row. Of those on Death Row, both federal and state, 50 per cent are black. Blacks constitute 16 per cent of the population. Since 1976, 40 per cent of the nation’s homicide victims have been black, but 90 per cent of death sentences handed down for homicide involved white victims.
In the drug war, Los Angeles was Ground Zero. On the streets of Los Angeles, gang-related killings were a constant presence to the residents of the mostly poor areas in which they occurred, as gangs fought out turf battles for distribution rights to the crack supplied by Ricky Ross and his associates in an operation connived at by the CIA. As long as it was confined to black areas of Los Angeles, little official attention was paid to this slaughter—an average of one murder per day from 1988 through 1990. However, in December 1987 a gang mistakenly killed 27-year-old Karen Toshima outside a cinema complex in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, prompting outrage from the city’s government: “The continued protection of gang activity under the guise of upholding our Constitution is causing a deadly blight on our city,” cried Los Angeles City Attorney Kenneth Hahn.
LAPD Chief Darryl Gates promptly rolled out his campaign to pacify inner-city Los Angeles, Operation Hammer. Even before this campaign, the LAPD was not known for its sensitivity to black people. In the 1970s, there had been more than 300 killings of non-whites by the LAPD, and Gate’s own racism was notorious. Responding to complaints about a string of choke-hold deaths, Gates blamed them on the physiology of blacks: “We may be finding that in some blacks, when [the choke-hold] is applied, the veins or arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people.”
Operation Hammer was a counterinsurgency program that sometimes resembled the Phoenix program in Vietnam. There were hundreds of commando-style raids on “gang houses.” More than 50,000 suspected gang members were swept up for interrogation based on factors such as style of dress and whether the suspect was a young black male on the street past curfew. Of those caught up in such Hammer sweeps, 90 per cent were later released without charge, but their names were held in a computer database of gang members that was later shown to have included twice as many names as there were black youths in Los Angeles. Gates sealed off large areas of South Central as “narcotics enforcement zones.” There was a strict curfew, constant police presence, and on-the-spot strip searches for those caught outside after curfew.
In this war there were many innocent casualties. In 1989, the LAPD shotgunned to death an 81-year-old man they wrongly believed to be a crack dealer. Witnesses claimed that the old man had his hands up when he was blown away. In 1989, 75 per cent of all cases in the Los Angeles criminal courts were drug-related.
It would be difficult to find any documentary evidence that this War on Drugs had anything other than a deleterious effect. By 1990, black youth unemployment in the greater Los Angeles area was 45 per cent. Nearly half of all black males under the age of twenty-five had been in the criminal justice system. Life expectancy for blacks was falling for the first time in this century, and infant mortality in the city was rising. Some 40 per cent of black children were born into poverty.
Among those white people concerned by the awful conditions of life in the inner cities was government psychiatrist Fred Goodwin. In 1992, he was director of the umbrella agency ADAMHA, the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration. Goodwin was an eager crusader for a national biomedical program to control violence, the core notion being the search for a “violence” gene. In the quest for this supposed biological basis for social crisis in the poverty-stricken and crime-ridden ghettoes, Goodwin was replicating all the Malthusian obsessions of late nineteenth and early twentieth century white American intellectuals and politicians. Many of supposedly enlightened people like Woodrow Wilson believed that sterilization was the best way to maintain the cleanliness in the national gene pool. It was too late to stop the arrival of Africans, but these Malthusians inspired the race exclusion laws of 1923, designed to keep out genetically dubious Slavs, Jews, Italians and other rabble—legislation admired by the Nazis.
On February 11, 1992, Goodwin gave a speech to the National Mental Health Advisory Council on the future of federal mental health policy, calling for an approach that would focus on presumed genetic and biomedical factors. Among Goodwin’s observations in his address:
There are discussions of “biological correlates” and “biological markers.” The individuals have defective brains with detectable prefrontal changes that may well be predictive of later violence. The individuals have impaired intelligence, in this case “cognitive deficit.”… Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner city areas, has removed some of the civilizing evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our evolution.
If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off and, in fact, there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyperaggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more and therefore they reproduce more to offset the fact that half of them are dying.
Goodwin called for early identification of these dangerous monkey-men. “There will be emphasis on the earliest detection of behavioral patterns which have predictor value, and two, what do we know and what can we learn about preventive interventions.”
Goodwin did not address treatment issues further, but a news story in the Washington Post by Boyce Rensberger noted that NIMH psychiatrists who supported Goodwin and his violence initiative were testing new medications to correct the biochemical imbalances supposedly found in both violent monkeys and men.
Goodwin’s remarks were reported in the press and created a commotion. There was a brief spasm of official admonition, and he was “demoted” to the post of director of the National Institute of Mental Health, a position for which he had been already slated.
Would black men or women, already “paranoid” about the idea of the problem of poverty being addressed by government chemists carrying “rebalancing” agents in their syringes, have been hyperbolically paranoid in seeing traces of a longer obsession on the part of the government agencies such as the CIA?
Goodwin was himself only following in the footsteps of Dr. Lewis “Jolly” West. West is a psychiatrist in UCLA who is well known for his suzerainty over the university’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Back in 1969, he leaped to prominence with disclosure of his plan to put electrodes in the brains of suspected violent offenders at a spin-off of the institute called the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence. Public uproar forced West to abandon this scheme. In 1973, West once again sought to set up a center for human experimentation, this time at a former Nike missile base in the Santa Monica Mountains. In this pastoral setting, the work of scientific experimentation would proceed undisturbed. “The site is securely fenced,” West wrote excitedly to the California state legislature. “Comparative studies could be carried out there, in an isolated but convenient location, of experimental model programs, for alteration of undesirable behavior.”
West had long worked with CIA chemists and kindred boffins on the use of LSD in altering human behavior—and not just that of humans, either. In 1962 West killed Tusko, a renowned elephant at the Oklahoma City zoo. He shot the mighty pachyderm full of LSD, and Tusko swiftly succumbed. West claimed that the zookeeper had brought him the elephant for treatment.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, neurologists and psychiatrists were much taken with the problems of urban violence. One of West’s mentors was Dr. Ernst Rodin, a Dr. Strangelove–type, heading up the Neurology Department at the Lafayette Clinic, who recommended psychosurgery and castration as appropriate medical technologies to apply to the dangerous classes.
Rodin equated “dumb young males who riot” to oxen and declared that “the castrated ox will pull his plow” and that “human eunuchs, although at times quite scheming entrepreneurs are not given to physical violence. Our scientific age tends to disregard this wisdom of the past.”
West made similar statements after the Watts rebellion, but for the castrator’s sickle he recommended the substitution of cyproterone acetate, a sterilizing chemical developed by the East Germans. By 1972, West was suggesting the use of prisoners as “subjects” in such treatment. There was a big stink about this, and in 1974 statewide protests led to cuts of state funding to West’s project. In his book, Operation Mind Control, Walter Bowart wrote that West is “perhaps the chief advocate of mind control in America today.”
West put his finger unerringly on the usefulness of drug laws as a way of imposing selective social control. “The role of drugs in the exercise of political control is also coming under increasing discussion,” he wrote in Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience and Theory, a book he edited in 1975. “Control can be imposed either through prohibition or supply. The total or even partial prohibition of drugs gives government considerable leverage for other types of control. An example would be the selective application of drug laws… against selected components of the population such as members of certain minority groups or political organizations.” As we have seen, sentencing patterns vindicate West’s analysis.
It is not in the least paranoid for any black person to conclude that since the late nineteenth century prominent white intellectuals and politicians have devoted much effort to reducing the number of black people by the expedient of sterilization, or selective medical assault, often chastely described as the “science” of eugenics.
Back in 1910, blunt as always, Home Secretary Winston Churchill used his position to secretly propose the sterilization of 100,000 “mental degenerates” in the U.K., using as intellectual buttress research by Dr. H. C. Sharp of the Indiana Reformatory in the U.S.A. In the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, American elites also were much concerned about the national gene pool (the founders of Cal Tech, for example, were rabid eugenicists). Between 1907 and 1913, starting with Indiana, twelve states put sterilization statutes on their books. Indiana’s Governor J. Frank Hanley signed a law authorizing the compulsory sterilization of any confirmed criminal, idiot, rapist or imbecile in a state institution whose condition was determined to be “unimprovable” by a panel of physicians.
Allan Chase in The Legacy of Malthus reports that 63,678 people were compulsorily sterilized between 1907 and 1964 in thirty states and one colony with such laws. But he also points out that these victims represent “the smallest part of the actual number of Americans who have this century been subjected to forced eugenic sterilization operations by state and federal agencies.” Chase quotes Federal Judge Gerhard Gessell as saying in 1974 in a suit brought on behalf of poor victims of involuntary sterilization: “Over the last few years an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income persons have been sterilized annually in federally funded programs.” This rate, as Chase points out, equals that achieved in Nazi Germany. Across the twelve years of the Third Reich, after the German Sterilization Act of 1933 (inspired by U.S. laws) went into effect, 2 million Germans were sterilized as social inadequates.
Gesell said that though Congress had been insistent that all family planning programs function on a purely voluntary basis, “an indefinite number of poor people have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under the threat that various federally supported welfare benefits would be withdrawn unless they submitted to irreversible sterilization. Patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth are evidently the most frequent targets of this pressure.” Among the plaintiffs in this action was Katie Relf of Alabama, who fought off the advancing sterilizers by locking herself in her room. Writing toward the end of the 1970s, Chase reckoned that probably at least 200,000 Americans per year were the victims of involuntary and irreversible sterilization.
In the great program of sterilization, the note of commonsensical do-goodism was relentlessly sounded. Take the California sterilizer and racist Paul Popenoe, a man close to the Chandler family, who owned the Los Angeles Times. In a 1930 pamphlet, “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” Popenoe and his co-author E. S. Gosney cautioned thus:
One of the greatest dangers in the use of sterilization is that overzealous persons who have not thought through the subject will look on it as a cure-all, and apply it to all sorts of ends for which it is not adapted. It is only one of many measures that the state can and must use to protect itself from racial deterioration. Ordinarily it is merely adjunct to supervision of the defective or diseased.
The objection is sometimes made that sterilization will at least deprive the world of many useful, law-abiding, self-supporting citizens. They may not be brilliant, it is admitted; but isn’t there a need for a large portion of dull people in modern civilization, to do the rough and routine work that the intellectuals are unwilling to do? If the breeding of all the morons is stopped, who will dig the sewers and collect the garbage?
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no possibility of stopping production of morons altogether. Many of them are born in families of normal intelligence, simply through unfavorable combination of genes which carry the heredity. There will always be enough of them produced to dig sewers and collect the garbage, without encouraging the reproduction of people who are likely to produce only morons.
Though race-specific terms were usually avoided by eugenicists, who preferred words like “weak-minded,” or “imbeciles” (a favorite of that enthusiast for sterilizing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a jurist much admired by liberals), the target was, by and large, blacks. What direct sterilization could not prevent, incarceration or medically justified confinement has also sought to achieve.
So far as medical confinement is concerned, the magazine Southern Exposure has documented the excessively large number of blacks locked up in state-run mental hospitals in the southern U.S.A. In 1987, nearly 37 per cent of those involuntarily committed were black. The blacks were consistently diagnosed with more serious illnesses, more frequently subjected to sedative medicine, and held in greater numbers for indefinite confinement without judicial review. The pattern, so the article suggested, may extend beyond the South.
The history of bio-chemical warfare is also suggestive. The U.S. use of bio-weapons goes back to the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to American Indian tribes in the 1860s. In 1900, U.S. Army doctors in the Philippines infected five prisoners with a variety of plague and 29 prisoners with beriberi. At least four of the subjects died. In 1915, a doctor working with government grants exposed 12 prisoners in Mississippi to pellagra, an incapacitating condition that attacks the nervous system.
In 1942, U.S. Army and Navy doctors infected 400 prisoners in Chicago with malaria in experiments designed to get “a profile of the disease and develop a treatment for it.” Most of the inmates were black and none was informed of the risks of the experiment. Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremberg cited the Chicago malaria experiments as part of their defense.
In 1951, the U.S. Army secretly contaminated the Norfolk Naval Supply Center in Virginia with infectious bacteria. One type of bacterium was chosen because blacks were believed to be more susceptible to it than whites. Savannah, Georgia, and Avon Park, Florida, were the targets of repeated army bio weapons experiments in 1956 and 1957. Army CBW researchers released millions of mosquitoes on the two towns in order to test the ability of insects to carry and deliver yellow fever and dengue fever. Hundreds of residents fell ill, suffering from fevers, respiratory distress, stillbirths, and encephalitis. Several deaths were reported.
The harmonious collaboration between the CIA and racist regimes of an overall Nazi outlook began with the importing of Nazi scientists. Among the CIA’s friends in later years was South Africa’s apartheid regime. It was, for example, a CIA tip that led the arrest of Nelson Mandela and his imprisonment for more than twenty years. Close CIA cooperation with South Africa’s intelligence agencies continued unabated and indeed mounted during the Reagan years, with close collaboration in attacks on Mozambique and other neighbors of South Africa deemed to be threats to South African and U.S. interests.
In a 1970 article in Military Review, a journal published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, a Swedish geneticist at the University of Lund named Carl Larson discussed genetically selective weapons. Larson stated that though the study of drug-metabolizing enzymes was in its infancy, “observed variations in drug responses have pointed to the possibility of great innate differences in vulnerability to chemical agents between different populations.” Larson went on to speculate that in a process similar to mapping the world’s blood groups, “we may soon have a grid where new observations of this kind can be pinpointed.” In the same vein, a January 1975 U.S. Army report noted in its conclusion that “[i]t is theoretically possible to develop so-called ‘ethnic weapons’ which would be designed to exploit naturally occurring differences in vulnerability among specific population groups.”
This essay is adapted from a chapter in Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press (Verso.)
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.