What is the Drug War?

Recent US history, from the 1960s until today, shows the drug war is a crusade of repression against the African American people, incarcerating millions to prevent a renewal of the struggle for freedom. Recent American history makes clear the origins and purposes of the drug war.

We need to look at the whole picture, not just a fragment or a piece. Most writers on this subject either get lost in the details or can’t see past the lie that the US is a “democracy.” In either case they cannot see the realities of this history, even though the facts are clear.

Presenting well-known events in chronological order clarifies the inner connection among these events and brings out their larger significance. Placing the history in sequence makes it plain.

The Great Migration brought a Great Rebellion. A vindictive Great Repression was orchestrated to crush the Great Rebellion and prevent its continuation. Masked as the so-called “War on Drugs,” which has swept millions into prisons and jails across the US, the Great Repression has, in effect, punished generations for the “sins” of their ancestors who dared to rebel.

This repression is still underway, an example of the poisonous decay of US politics. Effects of the repression are clearly racial. But, camouflaged as a “War on Drugs,” it has allowed the rulers to appear “colorblind” or race neutral – as if they are merely enforcing the law.

The Great Migration

Fleeing the decaying Jim Crow system of agricultural labor in the fields and farms of the South, millions of African Americans (AA’s) moved North, seeking jobs in the military-industrial centers of the North, the mid West and the West. From World War I to the 60’s, millions of AA’s migrated. They went from virtual chattel slavery in the South to wage slavery in the North. They found little improvement.

Herded into old ghettoes, or into quickly-created new ones, AA’s found discrimination, barely habitable housing with a constant threat of dislocation by projects of urban renewal, or “Negro removal.” Giant housing projects, little more than stacks of shacks were built to house the many migrants. Overcrowded and neglected schools provided poor or nonexistent education for their children. The misery was compounded by relentless police abuse. When Malcolm X spoke of “the so-called Negro out here catching hell,” he was talking about, and to, this group. Malcolm lived this experience and became the spokesman of urban ghetto dwellers.

The desperation and outrage experienced by AA migrants made explosion inevitable.

The Great Rebellion 

Violent repression of civil rights demonstrators seeking basic respect combined with the migrants’ sufferings to ignite a series of mass urban uprisings. These insurrections are generally seen as individual explosions, city by city. But to grasp their cumulative significance we need to see them as a single process: AA’s striving for freedom in racist America. The rebellion was at the heart of the ‘60’s, and drives American politics to this day, even under the US’s first black president. 

These rebellions are generally dismissed as “riots” and their significance erased.

Kenneth Stahl titled his website and book on the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 The Great Rebellion, but I expand the use of this term to include all the uprisings. Virtually all were precipitated by violent police attacks or rumors of such attacks. Since officials often lie, it’s impossible to know what exactly happened in every case.

A large number of uprisings took place across the country. Over 300 cities rose up in the ‘60’s, according to the best estimates. I’ll review just a few highlights, by year.



July 18 – 23 NYC (Harlem)

July 18 – 21 – Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant)

The first insurrection, in NYC, was touched off by a police murder. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) called a demonstration on July 18 to protest the disappearance of 3 civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi. In the early morning of July 16, off-duty police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan killed 15 year-old African American student James Powell. News of this murder led CORE to change the focus of their protest to police brutality in Harlem.

The protest was peaceful, but rage at the murder grew into a mass confrontation with police. Bands of looters operated in Harlem’s streets at night. Upheaval soon spread to Bedford Stuyvesant.

After the NYC insurrection abated, like a series of aftershocks, smaller uprisings took place throughout the area, in upstate NY, NJ and Pennsylvania.


Aug. 11 – 17 Watts in LA, Among the first targets of looters was gun stores and they made full use of their weapons. For almost a week, people fought the police and army to a standstill. Black and white looters working together led King to say, “This was not a race riot. It was a class riot.”

The Situationist International treated the rebellion as a “revolutionary event,” with looting seen as a rejection of the commodity system, “the first step of a vast, all-embracing struggle.”


In 1966, there were 43 civil disturbances of varying intensity across the nation, including a notable uprising in Chicago. Chicago’s Puerto Rican community exploded into rebellion after a police shooting, from June 12 to June 19, 1966.


On 4 April 1967 King delivered what is probably his most important speech, generally downplayed, called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. If mentioned at all, it’s portrayed as King’s speech opposing the US war in Vietnam, but it was much more.

King embraced the world revolution saying, “if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He sought to end “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and economic exploitation.”

The speech galvanized the antiwar movement. Just eleven days later, on April 15, 1967, over 400,00 people marched to the UN to end the war. The first demonstration I ever attended, I vividly remember the excitement in the gathering place, Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, still packed with marchers, when word came the front of the march, which filled the streets the whole way, had reached the UN over a mile away. The movement’s power continued to grow, as the spirit of revolution spread.

In just a few years, the US military began to disintegrate. 80% of soldiers were taking drugs. Combat refusals, naval mutinies and fragging incidents, soldiers shooting their officers, became widespread.

The uprisings continued.

July 12 – 17, Newark – started with a rumor a black cab driver was killed by police (police routinely beat cab drivers in Newark), but this came after decades of housing discrimination and massive black unemployment. A looting spree was followed by a shooting spree in which police and National Guard fired “indiscriminately” at looters. Despite police allegations, investigations of snipers failed to reveal any.

July 23 – July 28, Detroit, the Motor City – Many thousands of African Americans had migrated there for jobs only to find intense discrimination. The uprising was precipitated by a police raid on a local bar. Over 12,000 soldiers combined with increased police repression, could not contain the rebellion, they only inflamed it. Forty-three people were killed, all but 10 black.

More than 100 other upheavals took place in 1967. LBJ appointed the Kerner Commission and ignored their report.


Nineteen sixty eight was the watershed year. The Rebellion reached its peak and the initiative was seized by the forces of order, who organized the Great Repression.

On 4 April, 1968, Martin Luther King was killed, probably by government assassination. His murder, one-year to the day after his revolutionary speech, strikes some as a signal sent by the government to deter people from taking the revolutionary path. If this is so, it did not work. Following King’s murder the largest insurrection occurred. Over 100 cities exploded.

The Holy Week Uprising was the largest upheaval in the US since the Civil War. The largest took place in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City, and Chicago.

The most significant political events occurred in Baltimore. Liberal Republican Governor of Maryland Spiro T. Agnew gathered AA community leaders and subjected them to a dressing down for not supporting the US government strongly enough. Seeking to divide and conquer, he said, “I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists. This, so far, you have not been willing to do.”

Agnew’s speech got national headlines and led to his role in the presidential election later that year.

Presidential Election: The 1968 election centered on the urban uprisings of the preceding decade and created the miserable legacy of today. The politicians refined a coded language to conceal their racial motives. Republican Richard Nixon ran against liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey. The civil rights movement drove not only the KKK, it also drove overtly racist language underground. It did not end either.

George Wallace ran as a third party candidate. A staunch segregationist, Wallace attracted large numbers of working class whites, threatening both parties.

Nixon chose Agnew as his Vice Presidential running mate to blunt Wallace’s effect by rallying racist whites.

The election centered on Nixon’s call for “law and order,” a slogan that meant a tough response to insurgents (called “rioters”) and the still popular notion that politicians should be “tough on crime.” Crime, disorder and violence became synonyms for blacks.

Nixon eagerly started to work on a war on drugs before his inauguration. Early in his presidency (28 April 1969), Nixon outlined his basic strategy to his chief of staff: “[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.” (Haldeman Diaries, p. 53). Nixon’s diabolical efforts to develop a War on Drugs along these lines involved the highest officials in the US government, including William Rehnquist, later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Reagan. Nixon initiated a war on crime as well as the war on drugs, setting the pattern for future presidents.

Following in Nixon’s footsteps, Reagan outdid Nixon in his get tough on crime policies and oversaw the steepest rise in incarceration rates. Bill Clinton signed into law an omnibus crime bill in 1994, increasing capital offenses and the federal “three strikes” provision mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. He poured over $30 billion into militarizing the nation’s police. His group, the Democratic Leadership Council, brought much of the Democratic Party to embrace coded racial politics in order to win over white voters.

Hip hop

A new generation developed hip hop in the early 70s to promote social change through telling the truth – with a strong beat. As the music went global from neighborhood parties, multinational music companies moved in, commodified and absorbed it. Many trends within hip hop developed and many remained true to this central goal.

Telling the truth about brutal conditions in the ghetto produced harrowing and violent tales often laced with hyperbolic humor. This became gangsta rap. The media seized on its violent features to portray all Black youth as criminals. Focusing only on the violent aspects of hip hop also allowed the media to ignore the truths about horrible conditions of life portrayed by rappers.

Gangsta rap’s advent provided a pretext for the media to criminalize AA youth. The idea that Black youth are inherently criminal was given non-stop coverage, while incarceration rates climbed with no media attention at all.

The Media

Throughout the Great Repression, media criminalization has facilitated mass incarceration.

The media has relentlessly promoted the growth of mass incarceration by promoting widespread fear of crime and by criminalizing AA youth.

In the late 70s, I personally witnessed in NYC, Durham, NC and Houston, Texas how local news coverage abruptly shifted to overwrought coverage of violent crime, featuring “perp walks” of suspects, almost invariably black and usually in handcuffs. A similar change has been documented in Philadelphia and Baltimore, with crime coverage doubling on local TV between 1991 and 1993, during the steepest rise in incarceration rates. A more recent study found TV coverage still shows AA “perpetrators” at higher than their actual arrest rates.

An American Gulag?

The scope of the Great Repression is virtually without parallel – larger than any repression ever attempted, with the exception of the Soviet Gulag. No mere rhetorical flourish, this comparison is apt and historically revealing.

Both the Gulag and the Great Repression were intended to prevent opposition to the system, hence they resulted in the imprisonment of millions of innocent people. This helps explain the apparent increase in today’s use of solitary confinement and other barbarity in US prisons: To confine millions of innocents, their spirits must be broken. Increasingly vicious punishments must be used, just as was done in the Gulag.

Politics Today

As a movement to stop violent police repression grows, some of the rulers seem to understand they have a tiger by the tail.

The Clinton Team has begun to suggest that mass incarceration might end. Hillary Clinton, as part of her presidential campaign, “called for a re-evaluation of prison sentences and trust between police and communities.” (Time, 4/29/15)

Bill, no doubt to support of Hillary’s effort to win the White House, echoed her statement and “apologized” for his role in promoting mass incarceration. His sincerity might be questioned in light of two things: he issued his apology at a meeting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his crime bill and, as head of the Democratic Leadership Conference, he made toughness on crime a bipartisan issue, drawing the Democratic Party into the coded racist agitation. To disclaim mass incarceration would require Bill to repudiate his entire legacy.

The Black Lives Matter movement recognizes that discontent fueled by mass incarceration contributes to the movement to stop police murders. Less well-recognized is that granting the police immunity is itself part of the generalized repression of AA’s. The system of mass incarceration rests on a high degree of police discretion in choosing whom to suspect, interrogate and arrest, and in how to do these things. Restricting the police can hardly be allowed if the police are to continue the overall repression.


Conclusion – for a new beginning

Part of developing a new revolutionary movement is reclaiming our history. The masters keep us enslaved by blinding us to our collective strength. The story of the ‘60’s uprisings is one rich in power and agency, the reason the rulers want to erase the ‘60’s altogether.

But we must also recognize that the uprisings failed. Despite the vast strength revealed in the Great Rebellion, our enemies were able to use the images of violence and looting to further the divisions in US society and institute their vengeful repression with at least the passive consent of the “white” majority.

It must be acknowledged that widespread looting and violence frightened the “white” majority making it easier for the rulers to split the people and institute the Great Repression. King’s revolutionary non-violence had a much different effect on the American people. This must be pondered by serious revolutionaries.

Conditions for a new revolutionary movement are maturing. There are growing rebellions seeking a new way of life throughout the world. In the US, an ever-spreading movement affirms the value of black lives as increasing numbers of European-American youth take up the struggle of African Americans as their own. Such a movement may, in time, bring an end to whiteness, eliminating a key pillar of the US rulers’ domination.

In the 1600’s in the Virginia colony, the masters were horrified to see African and European laborers combine to seek to destroy the system of enslavement. Their response was to create a sharp division in condition between their African and their Europeans slaves. They “invented” the white race to split the laborers and preserve their power, a remarkably effective and durable approach.

Race is a social construct devised and manipulated by the masters to maintain their rule. Only by eliminating class society, which requires racism, can racism be swept away.

(Presented 14 July 2015 (Bastille Day) at a meeting of the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN), Kingston, NY)

Paul C. Bermanzohn is working on his book, called “Decoding the Matrix: A Preliminary History of the US Propaganda system.