A former captain of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party spoke to students at the University of New Mexico Tuesday about what lead to the crack cocaine epidemic.
Aaron Dixon gave a lecture on where his book, “My People Are Rising,” left off as part of Africana Studies’ annual speaker series — this year’s focus was on the African-American experience in the Southwest.
Dixon said the crack cocaine epidemic had international origins and was deeply connected to the geopolitics of the Cold War.
In order to fund counterrevolutionary action in Nicaragua, the CIA encouraged different individuals in southeast Asia, Nicaragua and Los Angeles to begin selling heroin and cocaine to provide the agency revenue, he said.
Originally, in the Bay Area, crack cocaine was sold by older, organized individuals who held to old-fashioned ideas of criminal honor, Dixon said. However, he said as time went on, these individuals became addicted to cocaine and lost their money and lives over the addiction.
“The crack cocaine epidemic was also a gang epidemic,” he said.
As more sellers were needed, Los Angeles’ fledgling gang scene found economic growth in the growing demand for cocaine. “It was like a gold rush,” Dixon said.
The epidemic was an indicator of the downfall of the considerable social and economic gains the African-American community made during the civil rights era, he said.
“We finally had hope that America would give us what we had worked so hard for,” he said.
Dixon said the epidemic was the “worst thing to happen to (African-Americans) since slavery.”
The proliferation of cocaine at the time was staggering, and while other groups also used cocaine, marginalized communities, particularly the black community, found themselves decimated by the epidemic, he said.
Cocaine had gained the reputation of America’s favorite drug, and nobody was paying attention to any harmful effects at the time, until “Richard Pryor set himself on fire,” Dixon said.
The shocking actions Pryor made were caused by a new form of cocaine that was smoked, not snorted, Dixon said. He said it was far more addictive and gave a far more intense high.
As the CIA’s proxy war came to an end, their associates still sought to make money off of the drug trade, and crack cocaine was now spreading to other communities, such as Oakland and Seattle, he said.
“We used to call Oakland ‘Chocolate City,’ because it was such a nice place to go to and hang around,” Dixon said.
A gold-rush mentality had begun to form around crack cocaine, and many people engaged in the trade as buyers or sellers, he said. This led to an intense period of business closure and unemployment, which compounded the rising crime rate that was related to the gangs who sold crack.
Another cultural phenomenon was the rejection of the communal, collective elements of African-American culture, he said.
“Culture is the most important thing we have to keep our communities together,” Dixon said. “Our culture was based on communalism and collectivism. When we asked people why they didn’t value these things, they’d just say, ‘I’m just doing my thing.’”
Dixon said he regards the erosion of the African-American community as a side effect of the crack cocaine epidemic, similar to how it gave gangs economic viability.
Dixon said the harsh sentences given to crack dealers and users made the problem worse, as many gang members would leave the centers of the epidemic in California and migrated to parts of the country where they faced less police scrutiny. He said even the supposed solution to the cocaine epidemic made it worse.
While the epidemic began in the hands of the CIA, referring to the epidemic as a deliberate action of theirs would be incorrect, Dixon said.
“It wasn’t like a genocide…while the black community was the most obviously affected, it was not deliberate genocide,” he said. “The crack cocaine epidemic must also be chalked up to government greed and indifference towards its own citizens.”
Dixon said he views the crack cocaine epidemic as a complete breakdown of the black community, a breakdown so great that “we may never recover from it.” He said people should see the epidemic as a cultural apocalypse.
Grace Leishman, a UNM student, attended Dixon’s lecture.
“The lecture wonderfully conceptualized the black experience during the Reagan era,” she said.
Donald Amble is a freelance news reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Deambler.