It had been an extremely hot week for Los Angeles in April of 1989 as a heat wave had pushed temperatures in South Central to over 100 degrees. Nancy Reagan sat comfortably in an air conditioned motor home provided by the LAPD, enjoying fruit salad with LAPD Chief Daryl Gates as both watched a SWAT team raid a “rock house” across the street. In the end they arrested 14 people in a raid that netted a measly one gram of crack. LAPD sources later claimed that “business was so good the dealers temporarily ran out of dope.”
Reporters—who had been tipped off to Nancy’s raid hours before and simply were awaiting an address to converge on—arrived just in time to watch the former First Lady enter the “heavily fortified” stucco home. As she observed the poverty that her Husband, as Governor of California and then as President, worked so hard to create in the black community Nancy commented, “I saw people on the floor, rooms that were unfurnished… all very depressing.” Predictably, she did not follow this up with any timely revelations about the need to re-invest in social programs for the poor. Instead she chose to demonize the victims as she addressed the waiting reporters, “These people in here are beyond the point of teaching and rehabilitating. There’s no life, and that’s very discouraging.”
For Reagan and Gates the raid was a pure publicity stunt, or as academic and social critic Mike Davis called it, “the first designer drug raid.” Nancy Reagan had wanted to “find a way to maintain her visibility as an anti-narcotics crusader” now that her husband was out of office. Chief Gates was looking toward a possible gubernatorial run which mercifully never came to pass. For those arrested it was another day in the war that American politicians and police had declared on black and brown communities.
As in all wars, the war on drugs contained its own dehumanizing rhetoric that served to justify the brutalizing of its victims. Just a month prior Nancy Reagan had referred to recreational drug users as “accomplices to murder” while addressing a fevered anti-drug crowd in Washington DC. She accused cocaine users as having “bought those bullets” that fueled political violence in places like Colombia—conveniently forgetting to add that the United States government was the largest supplier of arms and munitions to the country at the time. Chief Gates, with whom she had enjoyed her fruit salad, would build on Mrs. Reagan’s demonizing of recreational drug users telling a Senate committee a year later in 1990 that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.”
That same year Mike Davis would highlight the violence done to black and brown communities in LA in his book City of Quartz. LAPD used tanks to batter down the walls of people’s houses—gruesomely depicted in the opening sequence of last year’s film Straight Outta Compton. People were rounded up in massive sweeps and put into databases for future targeting. Youth, renamed “narco-terrorists” and compared with the “murderous militias of Beirut,” were beaten in the street by police who saw little need to recognize the humanity of their victims. And people were killed. People like the 81-year old construction worker who was filled with buckshot by police after he tried to put his hands up during a home raid the year before Nancy arrived on the scene.
As Davis notes police homicides “caused barely a blip” in a complicit media that was too busy breathlessly reporting about gang violence to consider the actions of police. After all any violence used against black and brown people in the city’s ghettos and barrios could be easily excused since “these people were beyond the point of teaching and rehabilitating.” That was the purpose of this kind of language, to provide cover as social programs were eliminated and replaced with ghettos, prisons, and graves.
Of course the violence Los Angeles was meting out to its own residents exploded in a massive urban uprising three years after Nancy Reagan and Daryl Gates posed over their captured black prizes for the press. The uprising was set off by another case of obvious police brutality covered up and excused by a compliant judicial system. When the smoke cleared Chief Gates, who had once seemed so invincible, had to go.
Nationally there also seemed to be a change in the public mood. Ronald Reagan’s former Vice President and chosen successor George Bush was soundly defeated by Bill Clinton seven months after the uprising in LA. Yet, as the Clinton presidency demonstrated, institutions are hard to change at the ballot box. Clinton slashed social programs, “ending welfare as we know it,” while adding more cops to the street. The drug war was escalated and prisons were built at a record pace to house the millions of unemployable black and brown youth.
Again the same old tropes of the irredeemable minority youth, now termed “superpredators,” were trotted out to justify the inhumanity of the status quo. A new First Lady, Hillary Clinton, addressed the issue in 1996, “They’re not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” What could society do but use police violence and mass incarceration against such an adversary? And the war went on, destroying another generation.
On Sunday Nancy Reagan, thankfully, finally died. Along with some friends I declared good riddance and toasted the death of the arch-racist who helped to ruin the lives of so many people. Unfortunately the veterans of this ongoing war against communities of color, and poor communities generally, continue to hold power in our two party system. The Black Lives Matter Movement insists on holding Hillary Clinton accountable for her role in this war and in this goal they deserve unwavering support. Nancy Reagan should be the last of the drug warriors to pass away completely unaccountable for the damage they have done.