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Historians in Harlem: Missives from the 2012 UHA Conference

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Despite the specter of Hurricane Sandy, the Urban History Association successfully held its conference in Harlem, NY, on the campus of Columbia University this past weekend.  While drug and alcohol-related histories were not at center stage, an encouraging and notable increase in mass incarceration histories must be acknowledged.  More frequently, urban historians are being forced to deal with the exigencies of mass incarceration in the postwar period.  As such, we must also deal with the ways in which the War on Drugs provides a vehicle for the punitive turn.  While discussion of “carceral studies” may be premature, we are well on our way.  In order to understand the postwar period, one must grapple with the broader ramifications of the carceral state.  Drug historians know this.  Increasingly, urban historians do too.

Participating in a panel dealing explicitly with the rise of mass incarceration, Donna Murch presented her work, entitled: “A Time Before Crack: The Destruction of the SCBPP and the Transformation of Black Youth Culture in Los Angeles.” In tribute to the photoessay “A Time Before Crack” by Jamel Shabazz, Murch’s title provides a window into her argument—that is, that both crack and the destruction of the Black Panther Party significantly effected the shape and tenor of youth culture in the Crack Era.  Murch looks at the long durée of the Los Angeles crack economy, as well as the youth culture which emerges out of said historical context.  Driving her research are two fundamental questions: First, how did the crack economy and the broader War on Drugs effect communities of color in Los Angeles?  Second, how did youth culture shift with broader national and political shifts? 


In attempting to answer these complex, far-reaching queries, Murch examines how the political and economic abandonment of poor urban districts throughout much of the Crack Era effected youth culture and the broader LA community.  Manifested by policies of benign neglect, and later followed by policies endorsing increased law and order efforts to police and punish poor nonwhites, federal intervention of the Crack Era further crippled an already ailing community.  Moreover, covert CIA wars yielded increased quantities of cocaine and crack-cocaine on city streets; much as conflict in Vietnam brought more heroin home, and the Civil War saw a spike in laudanum.On the heels of her new book, Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, Murch has leveraged her contacts to tell a new tale: one of destruction and decay.  According to Murch, witnessing the systematic destruction of the Black Panther Party at the hands of law enforcement served as a powerful moment for Los Angeles youth.  The effective destruction of hope by the state became in part responsible for a new cynical youth culture emerging in the Crack Era.  In addition to the destruction of the Panthers, we might add the effects of deindustrialization—or what William Julius Wilson calls “spatial mismatch”—economic and educational inequality, and frequent police brutality among other developments with significant explanatory power.  Nonetheless, as Murch contends we must not underestimate the effects of paramilitary SWAT attacks in full view of the community.  These attacks invariably helped shape opinions, perspectives, and youth culture informing a new social politics in the Crack Era. 


Murch’s work highlights the paranoid, hyper-muscular policing style of LAPD Chief William H. Parker, the mentor to now infamous Daryl Gates.  A fervent anti-communist and avowed John Bircher, Parker worked closely and cooperatively with COINTELPRO to dismantle the Black Panther Party.  For their part, the Panthers had exposed poor youths to broader national and international struggles, offering hope in a rapidly changing, highly unstable urban landscape.  Their demise—effected by the state—left a bitter legacy moving forward.  This legacy helped color the contours of crack culture in significant ways, and must be dealt with by those hoping to understand the unique nature of the period.

Throughout the conference, many discussions regarding the overlooked role of liberalism in the modern War on Drugs were had.  Noted were the realities of stop-and-frisk policy formation under LBJ, and perhaps more importantly, the undertreated role of black working and middle-class activism for more policing and harsher sentencing in the post-Civil Rights era.  Presenting his work, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?”:  Reverend Oberia Dempsey and His Citizen’s War on Drugs,” Michael Fortner spoke to this significant, often ignored dynamic.  Fortner rightly argues that current mass incarceration and postwar African American history have ignored the role of the black working and middle class—or what Fortner calls “black penal populism”—in shaping the punitive turn towards increased policing and mandatory minimums.  In locating the roots of this dynamic, Fortner points to fissures between the alleged black “underclass” and working and middle class African Americans.

With a keen eye, Fortner documents the language of victimization developed among the Black working and middle classes in Harlem throughout the 1960s and 1970s in response to rising drug addiction, trafficking, and street crime.  Much like the white Silent Majority, the self-identified “decent” folks of Harlem too decided they must assert local control and “take back” their streets.  Rightly emphasizing the role of class over race in the post-Civil Rights era, Fortner identifies a largely untold story of black politics which have had a profound effect upon broader national political development—namely the embrace of law and order politics.

Throughout his work, Fortner raises a fair question: Why didn’t African Americans stop the construction of the new Jim Crow with the tools used to dismantle the old Jim Crow?  The frightening answer may be that working and middle class African Americans in urban districts like Harlem actually used organizing strategies and rhetoric perfected throughout the Civil Rights Movement to justify the policing, control, and imprisonment of the black “underclass”.  Most significant here is Fortner’s intervention which my own work echoes.  The rise of the New Jim Crow and the carceral state is traditionally told as a loss of agency on the part of urban black populations.  Evidence of “black penal populism” or what Fortner aptly calls the “Black Silent Majority” challenge and complicate existing narratives of top-down, conservative, law and order reform.  Moreover, Fortner’s work suggests continuity in terms of class divides, rhetoric, and activism which persist in the Crack Era.  Much like the legendary “pistol-packin’ preacher” Oberia Dempsey mobilized the people of Harlem against drugs and street crime, religious groups such as the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and the United Black Church Appeal would also mobilize the people of the Bronx against crack, its users, and sellers.  Whether we call it “black penal populism” or “black-lash” is a moot point.  In both decades class tensions, concerns over drugs and crime, demands for more policing and harsher sentencing, and victim rhetoric remain strikingly similar.  The politics of respectability imbued by the moral middle class in this instance must be dealt with in any examination of the Rockefeller Laws or the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988.  Not without significant irony, this group of black working and middle class citizens used strategies learned and perfected to gain rights under the Civil Rights Movement to mobilize against the urban poor—thereby stripping the marginalized of many basic rights and imposing new forms of social control. 


At the close of the panel, respected drug historian Eric Schneider put such sentiments into proper historical perspective, quoting a footnote from W.E.B. Dubois’ 1899 work The Philadelphia Negro.  In his analysis of the “vicious classes” Dubois lamented: “It is not well to clean a cess-pool until one knows where the refuse can be disposed of without general harm.”  As early as 1899 these class fissures were evident.  Unfortunately Rockefeller Laws and the later Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 would settle on a destination for the refuse—prisons.


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