A friend and I were having a conversation when he raised the issue of why the US never seems to detain its own big drug lords. I held that control of the US drug market was more diffuse, less centralized than in places like Mexico, where big traffickers come to dominate entire regions and even compete with state power. Occasionally, though, some dealers do get quite big on this side of the border and a few can even have profound impacts on politics and society.
At this juncture in the so-called drug war, it might be worth reviewing the experience of Oakland, California, where an illegal drug business clashed and intersected with the Black liberation movement of the 1960s, the Cold War, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, de-industrialization and shifts in consumer and popular culture. A recently rebroadcast segment of the American Gangster series explores this history through the stories of the late heroin kingpin Felix Mitchell, Jr. and his rivals from the Funktown and Mickey Moore gangs.
Growing up as a poor kid from the streets of West Oakland during a time when the mighty industrial economy of the post World War Two years was already in decline, Mitchell (born 1954) was captivated by the easy money pocketed by drug dealers and small time gangsters.
In the capitalist tradition, he put together a business enterprise that experienced rapid, stunning growth. Mitchell’s organization was a complex organism that encompassed young lookouts, hit men and street dealers specializing in the distribution of a drug originating from the poppy fields of Cold War Asia and Latin America. Flush with millions, Mitchell soon emerged as a local patron, donating money to the poor and funding community projects that transformed him into a popular figure on the streets.
But Mitchell’s locally-based corporation encountered problems. First of all, the ghetto capo had to cope with the latent influence of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Founded in Oakland by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, the Panthers captured the imagination of a generation of young Blacks with their advocacy of armed self-defense against police brutality and a 10-point liberation program.
With its free breakfast for children and medical clinics, the group became an important political force in Oakland and other US cities, and Bobby Seale was nearly elected mayor of the California city in 1972. By the time Mitchell was rising, the Panthers were in decline from years of internal disputes, police raids and pressure generated by the COINTELPRO counter-insurgency program spearheaded the FBI, whose legendary head J. Edgar Hoover, declared the BPP the greatest threat to the internal security of the US. Hoover’s FBI unleashed a dirty war against the BPP, the full extent of which has never been revealed to this day.
It was in this context that BPP Oakland head Huey Newton, who by many earlier accounts had grown paranoid, isolated and prone to substance abuse, made a pact with Mitchell, according to Flores Forbes, a former BPP member interviewed in the American Gangster episode. Newton, Flores maintained, permitted the up-and-coming heroin kingpin to operate in return for a street tax, even though the Panthers were opposed to drug dealing. Nowadays in Mexico, such an arrangement is known as “derecho de piso,” or a protection fee.
If Forbe’s account is accurate, it gives another dimension to COINTELPRO. As is well known, the BPP was infiltrated and its leadership highly surveilled. If Newton and Mitchell had a pact, the deal and the violence that flowed from it could only have proceeded with the tolerance of the US government. In short order, Mitchell was immersed in violent competition with other drug-trafficking gangs and bodies began popping up on the streets and in the surrounding hills. Maybe grown too big for his britches, Mitchell was taken down by state and federal law enforcement in the early 1980s and subsequently sentenced to life without parole. In 1986, he was stabbed to death in the top-security Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
Attended by thousands and replete with a gold-splashed hearse and a parade of Rolls Royces and other fancy cars, Mitchell’s Oakland funeral was both a mass spectacle and a mocking celebration of capitalism run amok. In many ways, Mitchell’s downfall portended the joint US-Mexico kingpin strategy which has claimed the lives of Mexican drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva and others during the past few years. The theory behind this strategy is that if you cut off the head of the snake, the rest of the body flops around and dies.
But in Oakland of the 1980s (and in Mexico of the 21st century), the outcome was quite different. Without a controlling figure at the top, drug-dealing in Oakland soon entered a highly competitive, violent phase with small groups literally battling over street corners. A similar phenomenon is evident in Mexico today as the remnants and mutations of the Beltran Leyva organization battle over domestic drug markets and other rackets. Mitchell’s empire fell right before a new commodity, crack cocaine, the product of the CIA’s Central American allies in the Cold War, hit the streets with devastating effects in Oakland and other urban centers, especially in low-income African-American communities.
Drug-fanned violence spread like wildfire and the streets of Oakland became the burial grounds of a social tragedy that many in the US conveniently forget as they pontificate about Mexican violence. Ironically, an addicted Huey Newton himself became a victim of the crack wars, slain by an upstart dealer in 1989.
In the last few decades, thousands of young African-American males have been murdered in Oakland or shuffled into the prison-industrial complex that emerged as California’s once-vaunted educational system began a slow but steady decline, gutted by the no new taxes dogma of politicians. Like rural Mexico, inner-city Oakland became a disposable place of disposable people during an era when “free trade” in all its manifestations reigned supreme.
In some ways, Oakland has changed since the days of Felix Mitchell. The city is more ethnically diverse, with an infusion of Asian and Latin American immigrants. But the grinding poverty, joblessness and violence of Mitchell’s days remain.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Oakland is once again at the vanguard of a new revolt. Like 1966, the cry of rebellion is rising from the streets of the West Coast city. This month’s partial general strike and shut down of the Port of Oakland by thousands of people organized by the Occupy Movement was the first such action in the US since 1947. Recalling federal-local cooperation in COINTELPRO, University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole wrote this week that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are strategizing with municipal governments to dismantle the various Occupy camps across the country.
Further, the repression is sweeping up journalists attempting to cover the movement and prompting critical statements from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Committee to Protect Journalists, organizations which usually speak out on the conditions faced by Mexican and other Latin American reporters. According to the Associated Press, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the media that journalists were prevented from covering the police raid on the New York encampment for their own good. Bloomberg’s words and the actions of his cops parrot official attacks and restrictions on journalists covering protests in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana earlier this month.
Beefed up by billions of dollars since 9-11, an internal security apparatus that was ostensibly directed at Al Qaeda terrorists, the occasional Mexican drug lord and an always elusive border security imperative is now turning inward, just as it did in the 1960s and 1970s under the ideological cloak of the Cold War.
Meantime, the drugs just keep flowing in the streets of Oakland and other decaying US cities.