Fred Logan: The crisis of Black Power, morality, illegal drugs and narcoviolence, Part II

by Fred Logan 

The crisis of drugs and violence is a moral crisis. But Black people have never had the collective power to implement their moral indignation as public policy in the Black community. At the very least, they would have dispersed the rampant outdoor drug markets in their neighborhoods. These open markets with their turf wars, drive-by shootings, street drug robberies, and other outdoor crimes account for much of the disparity between drug related violence in Black and White communities. Thus far, the Pittsburgh police have, despite ever increasing supply-demand pressure, been able to contain much of the city’s white retail drug trade indoors.

Fifty-odd years ago, the city pushed, without wanton police brutality, the drug market off Walnut Street in the predominately White, middle income Shadyside neighborhood. It flourished during the 1960s Hippie Movement. Walnut is, without question, Pittsburgh’s largest outdoor open drug market in living memory. Years later, the November 21-27, 1984 edition of In Pittsburgh described Walnut. “Hundreds of people” crowded the street where “Syringes and junkies laid side by side.” “The addicts need for drug money led to an increase in purse snatchings and muggings along Walnut Street.” One resident said “You never walked home between two and three (a.m.) there was too much violence then,” A city policeman added, “If you wanted narcotics, Shadyside was where you got them.”

During this same period, the block clubs of the Homewood Brushton Community Improvement Association (HBCIA) documented on file cards the dates, times, locations, auto plate numbers and other information, and gave it to the city’s top public safety officials during a public meeting at the old Homewood YMCA. The city took the information and promised to disperse Homewood’s then infant outdoor drug trade which was not one-tenth as large as the Walnut Street market. The drug traffic in the predominately African American Homewood neighborhood has grown worse; the city has never permitted the outdoor Walnut market to reappear. Racism is a dominant factor in the location of America’s illegal outdoor drug markets.

In May 1985 the former HBCIA director Wilbur Nelson testified at a Pittsburgh City Council public hearing on the organization’s pioneering community campaign against illegal drugs in Homewood.

In 1985, a transient group in Homewood called Vote & Struggle! kicked-off a, now long forgotten, issue-oriented struggle during the municipal primaries. It was called the “Dope in the Middle of the Street Campaign.” The campaign included, among other things, a “No Dope Sunday,” a Pittsburgh City Council public hearing, a Black church petition drive, and at least two unplanned face-to-face confrontations with then mayor Richard Caligiuri, one confrontation made the 11:00 pm news.

Caligiuri never admitted it, but in obvious response to the campaign, he had the police disperse—without wanton violence—the outdoor drug business in Black neighborhoods all across the city for several months. This coordinated effort was unprecedented, and has not been repeated at this scale since. The police said publicly that crime stats had dropped significantly. But the city said the effort was too expense and stopped. Vote & Struggle! did not have the organizational capacity, or influence to mobilize the Black community to keep pressure on the city. That was a crisis of Black political power.

Some years ago, the Pittsburgh NAACP produced a very promising proposal titled “Strategy ‘95” to address some of the issues that affect at-risk youth who are vulnerable to the appeal of the illegal drug trade. However, the proposal could not find funds in the foundation community. And most unfortunate, the Pittsburgh African America community has yet to organize the funds for many of the programs and services it desperately needs. That was a crisis of Black economic power. These three incidents exemplify the crisis of Black Power in Pittsburgh.

On the first ten Tuesdays of 1960, then New York congressmen Adam Clayton Powell took one-hour (ten hours total). And he stood on the floor of the United States House of Representatives and he read into the official congressional record the names, dates, locations, and dollar amount of pay-offs related to criminal activities in Harlem. This included illegal drugs. The New York City police had confiscated this information from a former police officer who was working as a bag man for “the mob.”

The news media, and the federal, state, and city governments all ignored Powell. (See, Pillars of Fire, by Taylor Branch).

The crisis of Black Power is as old as America.

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