When Jorge Martinez first arrived in Boston to start community organizing, he dropped into some of the city’s poorest – and predominantly nonwhite – neighborhoods, which had been plagued by poverty, drug use, and violent crime for years. It was the early 1990s, and he says he was ready “to change the world.”
“I said I was going to deal with open-air drug dealing, open-air alcohol drinking, gang activity,” he recalls.
One of his first acts as an organizer for Project RIGHT, a community group that promotes public safety and economic development, was to organize a community meeting in Roxbury around gang activity. In a neighborhood of 59,000 people, five women came. Within minutes, one of them was crying as her mother berated her about now not being able to go home.
Mr. Martinez asked why. Then he looked out the window and found the answer.
“I saw gang members on the corners, looking at who was coming into the meeting,” he remembers. Simply attending a meeting to discuss gangs and drug dealing, it appeared, “could get you killed.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was the everyday reality in African-American neighborhoods around the country. It was in this context that black political leaders, under pressure from their communities, pleaded for the federal government to address the drug problem. The now infamous response from the federal government was a series of bipartisan “tough on crime” laws that, instead of just cracking down on drugs and violent crime as intended, filled the country’s prisons to a breaking point, disproportionately with young black men.
Now amid bipartisan efforts to undo many of these laws, and the rise of a new generation of civil rights activists, this history has created a strange dissonance. Black Lives Matter activists have criticized Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, for supporting these tough-on-crime policies as first lady in the ’90s. But Mrs. Clinton has ridden overwhelming support from black voters to a commanding lead in the Democratic primaries. Earlier this month, the urban black vote helped her edge out a victory in the Massachusetts primary over challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“If you read some intellectuals on the left, they’d suggest there should be a grudge against the Clintons, but I think the primary results show there isn’t a grudge at all,” says Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York and author of the book “Black Silent Majority.”
Part of the reason, he notes, is that black communities are aware that for decades they were some of the loudest advocates for tough drug laws. Tough-on-crime policies, he adds, “weren’t something that just happened to black people, that were imposed on the black community…. Political leaders, mayors, and pastors played an important role in pushing for these policies.”
Another reason, he says, is that most black voters aren’t just concerned about criminal justice policy, past or present.
“They’re also, like everybody else, concerned about paying their bills, they’re concerned about good schools, concerned about achieving the American dream,” he says.
Tough on crime, or tough on black neighborhoods?
But as these black communities contend with the spectrum of issues brought on by the drug laws of the early ’90s, they are also working to roll back those laws. At the federal level, there is enough bipartisan support for such criminal justice reforms – including reducing mandatory minimums for some low-level drug offenses – that it could be one of the few things Congress passes this election year.
Overhauling America's criminal justice system has also become an election issue. Ending policing that comes down hard on minor infractions and decriminalizing marijuana possession are two of the stated policy goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. In Massachusetts, Project RIGHT is also working on similar reforms at the state level, Martinez says.
“I think the African-American community, like Hillary Clinton, they’ve had to rethink their approach,” says Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “And you have to. In a so-called drug war, you can’t be rigid in your position and hope to be ultimately successful – you have to be as flexible as possible based on the conditions on the ground.”
Evidence that a change of mentality is taking hold can be found in the government response to the heroin crisis, which has many parallels to the crack epidemic that gripped black communities in the 1980s.
“Now there’s a recognition that those policies [in the ’90s] failed," says Professor Whalen. “Now there’s a recognition in law enforcement increasingly that there should be an emphasis on drug treatment, rather than locking them up and throwing away the key.”
For many decades, however, drugs were a priority. As early as June 1970, for example, Ebony magazine published an article titled: “Blacks declare war on dope.” In 1986, 16 of 19 African-American members of the House co-sponsored President Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act. And eight years later, 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that boosted funding to police, expanded the death penalty, and created the “three strikes” sentencing law.
'It was a sickness then, too'
Roxbury was a neighborhood where these policies took a particularly heavy toll. A historically Irish and Italian enclave, redlining – denying services based on the racial makeup of a neighborhood – made it one of the few places where African-Americans in Boston could get a bank loan to buy a house. As black families moved in, white families moved out, sometimes burning properties down for insurance money as they left. By the 1980s, there were around 1,300 vacant lots in the neighborhood, along with illegal trash dumping and a drug epidemic.
Ask long-time residents about that period and they respond with a mixture of anger and resignation. One recent Friday morning, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, Purvis Coleman, 72, took a break from lifting weights to reflect on that period.
“I really think they were just overwhelmed, because [drug-dealing] was happening everywhere,” he says.
“The first thing they thought of was, ‘We’ll take people off the streets and that’ll stop people from doing it,’ ” he adds. “I think they could’ve put more thought into it. But that was one way of dealing with it, and that’s what they did.”
Nearby, an 89-year-old called Billy scoffs, blinking through circular tortoiseshell glasses. After growing up nearby in Boston’s South End in the 1920s, riding streetcars along cobblestoned streets, he watched as drugs and gang violence consumed the city’s black neighborhoods. Not hiding his bitterness, he echoes an argument that many in the black community have made recently: a heroin epidemic is ravaging white Americans in suburbs and small towns, and authorities are taking a much softer approach to it than they did with drug epidemics that struck black communities decades ago.
“Police didn’t give a damn. We survived,” he says. “Now that it’s the white community, they’re trying to do something,” he says.
The new emphasis on treatment, rather than punishment, certainly had not been tried in Roxbury, Mr. Coleman agrees.
After arresting someone for having some weed, “they would act like he had something really, really serious. Now they’re saying, 'He’s not a criminal, he’s sick.' Why wasn’t he sick in the ’60s?” he asks. “The stuff they’re saying now is, 'It’s a sickness.' It was a sickness then, too.”
Martinez, now Project RIGHT’s executive director, is busy dealing with a new generation of issues created by drug-war policies: integrating ex-convicts back into society, helping children from broken families get economic and educational opportunities, encouraging economic development without inciting gentrification.
The tough on crime policies, he says, “have driven this neighborhood into a worse place.”
“Uncles, fathers, brothers, have been in prison for crimes that really shouldn’t have got them the number of years they got,” he adds. “This has become intergenerational now. This has affected families across decades.”
Coleman sits on a bench in the athletic center, leaning on his knees, stroking his thin white beard. He understands why some African-Americans are still angry about the damage the policies of the 1990s did to their communities – part of him is angry as well – but as the response to the current heroin crisis has shown, it seems that some lessons have been learned. He doesn’t want anger to obstruct that.
“If someone hurt you and you get angry about it, and you stay angry, you only hurt yourself,” he says.
“If you find that person and found out why they did it, find a solution to the problem, it gives you a chance to understand why they might’ve did what they did,” he adds. “Hopefully, I think people are looking at things a little different now.”