What Charlie Rangel’s rise tells us about Black New York and substance abuse
At the signing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, President Ronald Reagan applauded the “real champions” that successfully shepherded the legislation through the House and Senate in a bipartisan effort, including New York’s Charles Rangel. Among many things, the drug control measure instituted the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between federal penalties for offenses relating to crack and powder cocaine, disproportionately affecting Black drug offenders. Why would a Black Democratic politician representing Harlem — the acclaimed Black cultural capital — stand with a conservative president known for racist dog whistles as he launched a new offensive in the nation’s war on drugs?
The answer is dispiriting, if understandable, and tells us much about the racial origins of the war and its consequences in New York City.
When Rangel decided to challenge the legendary Adam Clayton Powell for his seat in Congress in 1971, the Harlem that he sought to represent was no longer defined by renaissance. According to noted Black psychologist Kenneth Clark, economic decline and persistent racism had interacted by the mid-1960s to cultivate a host of social ills, including heroin use and trafficking. The “social” and “personal” costs of the “drug industry” were “immense” for users and nonusers because “many addicts resort to crime” “to feed” their “expensive habit” while nonaddicts were victims of property crime and rising insurance costs. Both, Clark reasoned, were “powerless to protect themselves from a complex and interrelated pattern of multiple exploitation.”
Drugs became Rangel’s “signature issue.” Once in Congress, he became a policy expert — a drug warrior. Augustus F. Hawkins, a Black representative from Los Angeles, said that “nobody” was “as capable as” Rangel when it came “to talking about the drug problem.” For Rangel, the preoccupation made sense. He believed that “everything” that a representative from Harlem might focus on, including housing, education and health, had been “corrupted either physically or morally by the drug addiction problem.”
Before President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” in the summer of 1971, Rangel had been in his ear urging him to “bring a halt to this condition which is killing off American youth.” The Harlem Congressman proudly collaborated with Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, on “what was the beginning of our international war on drugs.” At the local level, Rangel pressured law enforcement to enact more aggressive policing strategies against heroin trafficking.
Rangel believed that 'everything' that a representative from Harlem might focus on, including housing, education and health, had been 'corrupted either physically or morally by the drug addiction problem.'
In late 1976, Rangel held congressional hearings in Harlem because it was “well known that in our community, narcotics sales have taken over the streets.” He added, “The street-level narcotics pushers and addicts know that the efforts being made to enforce, correct or punish their activities are ineffectual, and so we have the incredible spectacle of openly defiant lawlessness on the streets of our city.” Around this time, Rangel accompanied Mayor Abraham Beame and other city officials on a stakeout in Harlem to observe the open-air drug market. After this furtive exercise, the Police Department assigned a 170-person task force to arrest “pushers” in the neighborhood.
To rescue “fear city” from the doldrums of fiscal distress and social disorder, Mayor Ed Koch’s conservative regime was determined to “retake” the streets from heroin dealers by dramatically increasing low-level drug arrests. In January 1984, Operation Pressure Point “saturated” the Lower East Side (in the words of the NYPD) with “uniformed and undercover police presence, including foot patrols, mounted officers, helicopter surveillance, and drug-sniffing dogs.” In March, a motley crew including Rangel, Harlem City Councilman Fred Samuel, the city’s first Black Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward, Senator Alfonse D’Amato and U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani convened to celebrate the expansion of Operation Pressure Point to Harlem. Samuel declared that there was “no room for compromise for peaceful coexistence” between residents and drug dealers.
Crack, a smokeable form of cocaine, hit New York streets around 1984 and changed everything. Azie Faison, a notorious “Harlem hustler,” bemoaned when cocaine’s “less expensive cousin, crack, took over,” and Harlem “suffered from a flood of drug-related crime and violence.” Another dealer confessed that crack “brought the whole neighborhood down.” He explained: “It’s made a lot of people money, don’t misunderstand me. But look what problems it brought. I mean it brought the police in. It brought the media in. It made kids kill their mothers for a ‘hit.’ It just fucked up everything for everybody.” A Harlem resident noted periods “when every week you heard about somebody getting shot, shootings every week.” She added, “We all knew what was going on, so the police had to know. Why would you let a bunch of drug lords take over a community? If they tried to do it in a white neighborhood, the police would have done something. But this was a bunch of n-----s killing each other.”
While scholars have called attention to the “moral panic” crack instigated in the mainstream media, these accounts obscure the indigenous construction of the problem within Black media and mobilization against it by Black activists. In New York City, a widespread movement against crack emerged in 1986. In early fall, a dense coalition of churches, labor organizations and community groups held marches and vigils to dramatize the impact crack had on their neighborhoods and demand drastic action.
Wendell Foster, a Black City Council member and pastor of Christ Church in the Bronx, declared, “For Blacks, as a community, drugs like crack and heroin are the worst problem we’ve seen since slavery.” Black actor Ossie Davis pledged, “Unless the federal, state and city governments are willing to put crack, other drugs and their attendant problems at the very top of their agendas, we are going to stay in the streets.”
While scholars have called attention to the 'moral panic' crack instigated in the mainstream media, these accounts obscure the indigenous construction of the problem within Black media and mobilization against it by Black activists.
Despite Nixon’s declaration of war in 1971, the passage of New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws in 1973, which instituted long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and the acceleration of low-level drug arrests by the Koch administration, the proportion of individuals committed to state prisons in New York for drug offenses remained relatively stable from 1973, when it hit 11.1%, until 1983, when it stood at 10.3%. After that, it began its precipitous rise to 34.6% in 1994. Crack focused the attention of the entire criminal justice system in New York and exacerbated its punitive impulses. As historian Mason B. Williams writes, “After 1985, city efforts to make crack arrests stand up in court; investment by the city, state and federal governments in prosecutorial, court and carceral capacities; and, likely, a hardening of attitudes toward drug offenses on the part of judges further swelled the incarcerated population.
Furthermore, Gov. Mario Cuomo and the state legislature financed new prison construction and enacted a tough anti-crack law. By this point, Rangel was chair of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. In July 1986, he opened a hearing, “Trafficking and Abuse of Crack in New York City,” by saying that “Crack has now appeared to be taking more casualties than the straight use of cocaine and heroin and marijuana.” He drew upon his experience and testimony by the likes of Cuomo and Koch to help draft the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which supplied funding for state and local anti-drug efforts.
The heightened attention on drug use and dealing in communities of color and expanded resources devoted to the war against crack fundamentally altered the demographics of the state’s prison population. In 1987, New York counties with the highest adult felony drug arrest rate were Bronx County (1,213 per 100,000) followed by New York County (1,062 per 100,000). In contrast, the rate for Westchester County was 188 per 100,000. That year, white people represented only 10% of individuals arrested for felony drug offenses, while Latinos represented 47% and Black people 42%. Over time, arrest and imprisonment rates cemented racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In 1980, white people represented 32% of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses, Black people 38% and Latinos 29%. By 1992, white people represented just 5%, while the proportion of Black people climbed to 50% and the proportion of Latinos rose to 44%.
The heightened attention on drug use and dealing in communities of color and expanded resources devoted to the war against crack fundamentally altered the demographics of the state’s prison population.
When he announced his candidacy for mayor in 1989, Rudolph Giuliani found a city “overwhelmed by crime, crack and corruption” and promised “fundamental change.” The former United States attorney lost that election but made good on his promise after becoming mayor four years later. By the mid-1990s, the crack cocaine epidemic was on the decline but the policing apparatus it spawned expanded, becoming its own social problem. In 1996, the Giuliani administration pledged to flood Harlem with law enforcement resources to combat drug dealing, gambling and street crime. Rangel criticized the plan, calling it a “quasi-military show of force rather than community-based law enforcement” and predicted that the community would find it “intimidating and alienating.” A Harlem resident who had once been frisked by police while buying cereal for his son admitted, “We do need more officers,” and that when “there are no police around, I’m more likely to get robbed.” At the same time, he complained that “the cops get a little out of hand.” By 1999, 63% of Black residents of the city and 55% of Latino residents believed that police brutality against racial minorities was widespread. That’s compared to only 24% of white people.
By the turn of the century, the devastating intended and unintended consequences of the war on drugs had become clear. Indeed, many white and Black activists and elected officials, alerted to aggressive policing strategies and the concomitant racialized caste system they spawned, have called for its end. Although supportive of reform, Rangel has been less contrite about his role in this ignominious war. He remembers that residents “were absolutely in panic that the drug dealers had taken over the street” and that “break-ins and burglaries were prevalent and there was an all-time high in fear of how far this would go.” For Rangel, stanching the “drug-related bleeding” was critical to Black advancement.
Though certainly accurate, his recollections miss the forest for the trees. As Clark observed, the user and nonuser and the dealer and nondealer were all caught in a sinister nexus of racial and economic domination, and, as such, were unable to rectify the conditions of their powerlessness on their own terms. Thus, those with political influence — Black electoral power and access — allied with their ideological foes to reassert social order in their communities.
This is the tragic racial story of the war on drugs in New York City. It was not simply a war of white people against Black people — a quieter white majority against a boisterous civil rights minority. It was also a contest among segments of the Black community yearning for a measure of safety and a semblance of dignity in neighborhoods bereft of both. Acute desperation fueled the drug trade and acute desperation invited a response from the criminal justice system that deepened the alienation and powerlessness of some while offering others an iota of safety without a smidgen of dignity.
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