“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
– Maya Angelou
We hear a lot about the 1994 crime bill from critics from all quarters due to the outcomes that placed far too many Black women/men in jail.
Bill Clinton is blamed. Hilary was blamed during her presidential campaign. And now Joe Biden is being blamed for the same crime legislation by the same people and organizations. And print, online, and television journalist play Biden’s 1994 Senate speech – where he forcefully argue in support of the bill – on loop.
It’s not just presidential candidates who are targeted due to the landmark legislation.
Older Black politicians, NAACP and other Black social and justice organizations, Black activists, and of course older Black voters are also the target of those who may not know the context that led to the 1994 legislation.
Like most political outcomes and laws Americans tend to forgot and ignore the “Why’s” and have little awareness of the data that supported previous generation’s decisions.
For those of us who lived through the 1980’s and 1990’s we haven’t forgotten.
Our communities were being torn apart by gun violence, armed robberies, muggings, drug trafficking, and worse. My city – Oakland was pound for pound the most violent city in the world at one point, so much so we were called little Beirut (sorry to Beirut).
Drug kingpins ruled and their reach was in our streets, schools, homes, churches, and our small businesses. And some of the kingpins were seen as “heroes” because of the money they kept in the community. Recall the miles long parade for longtime Oakland drug kingpin Felix Mitchell that played on nightly news here in the States and around the world.
Thousands of Black Oaklanders – mostly our youth – followed his funeral procession in the streets of Oakland despite the death and mayhem his drugs were causing.
Most Black citizens of Oakland where aghast, shocked, and fed up but that is not what was shown on your nightly news.
But it wasn’t only kingpins like Mitchell, it was also small time drug dealers – often teenagers and other young men (mostly, but not exclusively men) who sold the cheap drug in our communities.
Crack cocaine was extremely cheap and therefore it quickly became the drug of choice for those with limited funds.
In Los Angeles it was drive-by shootings and carjackings, D.C. was called the murder capital, and every city – Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Jackson, Richmond, Baltimore and so on, all had the same problems, and with Black people looking for similar solutions in those and hundreds of other cities.
Many of us recall family, friends, and random folk on the street asking us for money – sometimes only asking for as little as a quarter. And family stealing everything in our homes that wasn’t locked up, bolted down, and hidden in bedrooms and closets.
Seeing formally healthy people who were now “Cracked out” / “Crackhead” was at first shocking and sad, and then sadness and shock turned into punchlines to television, movie, as Black and white comedians dealt with our pain as comedians do.
The popular Bernie Mac television show captured the moment as well, as he adopted his drug addicted sister’s kids and raised them as his own. Many Black families have similar tales.
What wasn’t a joke though were those young men selling rocks of crack were armed with handguns that they frequently used on one another, but also on innocent bystanders, including even younger children.
There was significant efforts by Black politicians and activists to “Ban the Handgun.”
Stevie Wonder helped push the “Ban the Handgun” message with his 1995 song “My Love is With You,” whose lyrics capture the horror we were living in:
“I was out playing with my friends
You know, doing silly things that kids do at ten
But the crossfire I was caught in
Should not have been in the first place
A dropped Monte Carlo came to a screech
Someone yelled ‘Nobody gets away with dissin’ me’
Across the street a man pulled his nine
Everybody started to run
A shower of bullets rang out
Mistakenly my life was done, oh”
Black voters screamed loudly for years for government help as we lost sons, daughters, fathers (mine among them) brothers, sisters, and even pastors, to crack, coke, and freebasing.
But the drug dealing and drug using weren’t done without the accompanying violent crime, property crime, petty theft, and intimate crime.
And we didn’t just sit back and do nothing though.
Our churches & activists marched and protested in our streets – not against cops but against our own community drug dealers who were pushing their dope on everyone.
Churches held services outside and in drug areas.
Take back our streets events were common, as were community escorts for seniors to shop and go to church, and other outings.
The economic, political, systemic racism that we all know contributed then and now were also understood as contributing to the degradation of our communities.
Smart folk worked tirelessly to address the outcomes and root causes, but they couldn’t fix the root causes or the effects ravaging our cities without federal money.
We marched on our politicians, we called, wrote, and shamed them to do something. But not just do “something” we presented them very specific ideas on what to do – activities that were created and developed on the ground in cities across America.
We worked all politicians, not only Black politicians, but white ones as well, because we necessarily needed their political capital and their votes.
Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden, Black elected officials – from mayors to representatives from all corners of the country, and even moderate republicans were employed for help.
We didn’t just ask for more police.
The programs that were being tried and tested around the country – whether it was after school programs, drug counseling and treatment, childcare & foster care, pre and post-natal care for “crack babies” and their mothers, community policing, midnight basketball, boys and girls clubs, summer school, and so much more – show the breadth and depth of the efforts we were trying and hoping to expand based on real life data and positive results.
And of course the application of all the programs met with different levels of success and failure and those failures then contributed to other devastating issues in our communities from cops killing us, three-strike laws, longer sentences, broken families, loss of wealth, housing, and jobs and what we now know as mass incarceration.
We paid the price and it’s taken years to recover.
There are many journalists, sociologists, and historians who study and tell those stories better than I ever could.
But as one who lived through it, lost friends & family to death, jail, and fried brains, many of us understand the nuance of the times and the necessity of viewing those times and the attendant crime bill with sober historical maturity.
We proudly voted for Black prosecutors, celebrated Black police chiefs, & Black police graduating classes. And we continued to fight the good fight.
My brother organized protests at Toys ‘R Us to get them to stop selling toy guns to kids. He organized a Turn Your Gun event that pressured Toys R’ Us to exchange toy guns for real toys. His protest was even covered on 60 Minutes.
Black folk worked across the country in large and small cities to fix things for future generations.
We cared for us and for you, then and now.
So when you see or read of newly “woke” folk disparage those Black community activists and organizers in the 1980’s and 1990’s for “Sitting back and doing nothing,” ignore those uninformed opinions that are nothing more than ahistorical pollution.
Biden, Bill, Hilary and so many more politicians did what we asked because they were allies then and now.
And when you see the old news clips of Biden and others using harsh language in those old news clips, just remember those are words we used because we were over being terrorized in our community by skin folk who definitely were and were not kinfolk.
If you’ve never searched for a love one in a crack house, given money to a relative time and again, or saw the transformation of a loved one from happy, motivated and educated, to an emaciated, drug addicted shell of a person, then you cannot possibly know the anguish of those who lived and worked then to fix our communities.
There are times when current morals and ideals can be retroactively applied to historical events – slavery was knowingly wrong at the time and it still is; Native genocide was wrong at the time and still is; the Holocaust was wrong at the time and still is.
But often our current morales and ideals are the result of progress, advancements in science, and the cumulative learning of each part of society and its people.
We now know what we learned from the 1994 crime bill. And we know our efforts produced unintended consequences.
It remains unfair to hold accountable those who answered our call for help and who provided the relief we needed at the time. We suffered then and many of us who survived took with us PTSD while we left behind and buried far too many loved ones.
I remain appreciative of those who were in the trenches then, who worked all day and all night to make our neighborhoods safe, and who recognized they needed help.
Further, I appreciate that our activists, parents, civic, and religious leaders had the energy and guts to get politicians to feel our pain and to do what we asked of them: serve our interests.
And I still appreciate Joe Biden and all the other elected officials who heard our cries and did their best to address our needs.
© 2020 by Myron J. Clifton. All Rights Reserved.