Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Crack in AmericaDemon Drugs and Social Justice
By Craig Reinarman
University of California PressCopyright © 1997 Craig Reinarman
All right reserved.
In Search of Horatio Alger
Culture and Ideology in the Crack Economy
The heavyset, white undercover cop pushed me across the ice cream counter, spreading my legs and poking me around the groin. As he came dangerously close to the bulge in my fight pocket, I hissed in his ear"it's a tape recorder." He snapped backwards, releasing his left hand's grip on my neck, and whispered a barely audible "sorry." Apparently he thought he had clumsily intercepted an undercover from another unit instead of an anthropologist, because before I could get a look at his face, he had left the bodega1 grocery store-cum- numbers-joint. Meanwhile the marijuana sellers stationed in front of the bodega that Gato and I had just entered to buy beer saw that the undercover had been rough with me and suddenly felt safe and relieved. They were finally confident that I was a white addict rather than an undercover.2
I told Gato to grab the change on my $10 bill from the cashier as I hurried to leave this embarrassing scene. At the doorway, however, I was blocked by Bennie, a thin teenager barging through the door to mug us. Bennie pushed me to the side and lunged at the loose dollarbills in Gato's hand, the change from the beers. "That's my money now Gatogive it to me," he shouted. I started in with a loud "Hey! yo, what are you talking about, that's my money! Get away from it." But one look at the teenager's contorted face and narrowed eyes stopped me halfway through the sentence. Gato's underbreath mutter of "be carefulmy man is dusted" was redundant. I was ready to give up the eight billsand more if necessary to avoid any out-of-control violence from a mugger high on angel dust.
Cautiously, Gato went through some of the motions of struggling with the angry dust head to whomI found out laterhe really did owe money to cover his share of the supply of marijuana confiscated in a drug bust last week in front of the same bodega. Gato tried two different tacks. One was gentle: staring deeply into his mugger's facewhich was two inches fromhis ownpulling at the fistful of bills, "Yo Bennie, chill out. I know how much I owe you. I'll take care of you tomorrow. This ain't my money. Please don't take this money." A second time, a little tougher and louder: "I told you this ain't my money; get off of it! It ain't my money!" Bennie just got tougher; he knew Gato was "pussy" and wrenched at the bills, hissing about the $60 still owed him from last week. They had been selling marijuana together for several weeks on the corner next to the bodega, and he knew that Gato would not fight back. As the bills were about to rip, Gato finally let go, looking back at me helplessly.
As we stepped out the bodega's door, Bennie kept yelling at Gato about the $60 he still owed him, warning him that he better pay up tomorrow. At this point Bennie let out a whistle and a dented Vega came roaring down the block, careening to the curb, cutting us off in the direction we were walking. A young man in the passenger seat tried to open his door and jump skillfully onto the sidewalk before the car stopped, but instead he fell on his face in the gutter. He jumped back to his feet unsteadily, his nose bleeding, and a baseball bat waving in his right hand. The driver, who was steadier, apparently not high on angel dust like his companions, also rushed out of the car and was running at us. Bennie called out that all was "cool," that he already had the money, and they slowed down, walking toward us with puffed backs, one with the baseball bat resting on shoulder.
I ran back to the bodega door, but Gato had to stand firmly because this was the corner he worked, and those were his former partners. They surrounded him, shouting about the money he still owed, and began kicking and hitting him with the baseball bat. Gato still did not turn and run; instead he jumped up and down, prancing sideways along the sidewalk toward the corner on the main avenue in the hopes that the new colleagues he was steering crack customers to at the bogus "botanica"3 around the corner might be able to catch sight of what was happening to him. He was knocked down two times before reaching the corner; they could have done Gato much more damage but backed away, walking back to the car with deliberate slowness, pretending not to notice me. The two who had driven up in the Vega had not seen the policeman frisk me, and they evidently did not think it wise to pick a fight with an unknown "white boy" who was just the right age to be an undercover. They pulled at Bennie's elbow and hopped into the Vega to drive off. Their attempt at burning rubber merely resulted in whining the car's gears.
By the time I caught up with Gato half a block down the avenue, he had already finished telling the story to a cousin of his who was on her way to the botanica crack house. His cousin was a woman in her late twenties, dressed "butch" in a long-sleeved jean jacket despite the midsummer midnight heat. Her emaciated face and long sleeves left no doubts as to her being a coke mainliner. When I arrived, she was waiving her skinny armsand stamping on the ground, whining hoarsely at Gato, telling him he couldn't just run off like that, that he had to "go down swinging like a man," that he couldn't just let people chase him around like that, that he had to show them who's who, and did he know who he was and where he was? Now what did he expect to do? Where was he going to work? And finally, she needed back right away the money (which he had spent on crack instead) she had lent him yesterday to buy a new supply of marijuana, and she was disgusted with him.
After we finished telling the story at the crack/botanica house where I had been spending most of my evening hours this summer, Chino, who was on duty selling that night with Julio, jumped up, excitedly calling out "What street was that on? Come on, let's go, we can still catch 'em. How many were they?" I quickly stopped this mobilization for a revenge posse, explaining that it was not worth my time and that we should just forget about it. Chino looked at me disgustedly, sat back down on the milk crate in front of the botanica's door, and turned his face away from me, shrugging his shoulders. Julio, whom I had become quite close to, jumped up in front of me to berate me for being "pussy." He also sat back down shortly afterwards, feigning exasperated incredulity with the comment, "Man, you still think like a blanquito." A half dozen spectatorssome empty pocketed ("thirsty") crack addicts, most sharply dressed, drug-free teenage girls competing for Chino's and Julio's attentionsgiggled and snickered at me.
To recuperate some minimal respect, I turned on Gato, telling him he owed me the $8 Bennie the dust head had stolen, and I ordered him to empty his pockets. Grinning, he pulled out a dollar and promised he would come by tomorrow with seven more. He told me not to worry; he would pay me back first. Of course, I knew he would not because he knew that I was one of the few individuals on the street even more "pussy" than he.
Seeing my feeble attempt, and perhaps hoping to give me a second chance, Julio came up to Gato at this point. Making sure I saw what he was doing, he dropped a vial of crack in Gato's shirt pocket in payment for the half dozen customers he had steered to the crack house that evening. I was supposed to grab the vialworth $5from Gato's pocket as partial compensation for the seven he still owed me. But I could not bring myself to rip Gato's shirt pocket open and grab the vial, knowing that Gato was "thirsty" and might get violent with me. He might have been "pussy" in the confrontation with Bennie, but he certainly was not going to be "pussy" with me.
A few minutes later Chino and Julio told everyone it was time to close shop. It had just turned 12:30 a.m, and they had to turn in the evening's receipts to their boss. They hurriedly pulled down the metal gates over thebotanica entrance, eager to leave work and get on with an evening of par-Wing. As he was walking away, Julio turned around to tell me "good night I guess you're staying around here tonight, verdad [right]?" For the first time he was not going to invite me up to his girlfriend Jackie's apartment in the nearby projects (which she shared with her adopted grandfather and three children) to drink beer while he and Chino and whoever else was around snorted coke and ate dinner. He had to come home before 1 o'clock because Jackie was due at "the Candy Store" down the avenue to sell twenties of "rock." Jackie's husband Papito, who used to own the botanica crack site that Julio and Chino worked at, was now "upstate" serving two to five years for his second conviction for selling cocaine and possessing firearms. Two nights before Papito was scheduled to go to jail, as he was closing down the botanica, Jackie, who was eight months pregnant at the time, shot him in the stomach right in the doorway of the botanica in front of all his workers and everyone else hanging out that evening. She was furious because, instead of leaving money for her before beginning his jail sentence, Papito had been running around spending thousands of dollars on young women and bragging about it at the crack house.
Ten months later Jackie was doing much better, especially following the problem-free birth of her third daughter. Jackie was relieved that the infant had come out "normal" despite the fact that she had been snorting large quantities of cocaine during the final months of her pregnancy. Papito's cousin Big Pete had taken over the crack franchise at the botanica while Papito was serving time. He had witnessed the shoot-out and had been impressed by Jackie's "balls." Consequently, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Big Pete hired Jackie to sell "twenties of rock" at another sales point that he owned in the neighborhood that doubled as a candy store.
Incidentally, not everyone was impressed by Jackie's shooting of her husband Papito. After starting up a relationship with Julio shortly after her husband's hospitalization and jailing, Jackie had told Rose, a fifteen-year-old former girlfriend of Julio's, to stop hanging around the crack house or else. I happened to be present one evening when Rose was discussing this threat with the crowd hanging around the crack house. Someone was warning Rose that Jackie meant business and began retelling the story of Jackie's shooting Papito when Aida, the seller on shift at the crack house that evening, looked up from the pink baby blanket she was knitting to interrupt: "Big deal! Anybody can buy a fucking gun. What's the big deal? You just stay here Rose. You can come visit me any time you want. That woman's just a nasty, loud-mouthed bitch. She can't tell me or you or anyone else what to do here. She don't own the place. I'll tell Big Pete to set her straight."
Rose did indeed keep hanging around until another violent complication arose. Another ex-boyfriend of Rose's who claimed he still loved her out of control threatened to kill Julio and commit suicide if she kept hanging out at the crack house. This still did not keep Rose away. Instead, Julio was obliged to call on some friends and have them hang out with him at the crack house for extra protection. Rose's jilted lover did indeed return a few days later with two big friends, but they just kept walking by when they saw the crowd protecting Julio. Julio was exasperated with the whole issue because he had lost all interest in Rose last summer after he had gotten her pregnant (she had been fourteen at the time). She had had a big argument with him when he refused to pay for her abortion.
For the past few weeks we had baby-sat Jackie's children along with her sixty-five-year-old alcoholic grandfather-in-law while Jackie worked selling the twenties of crack. Baby-sitting involved first eating everything in the refrigerator, sending one of the children out for beer, keeping the grandfather from drinking any hard liquor, shouting at the young children if they quarreled, playing tenderly with the nine-month-old, and accompanying Chino and Julio into the bedroom to keep "conversating" with them as they ground up and sniffed cocaine. By daybreak Jackie had usually returned from work with fresh coke for Julio and Chino to sniff and "break night." They would sleep from midmorning until late afternoon, careful to arrive on time for their evening shift (4:00 P.M. to 12:30 A.M. ) at the botanica crack house.
Culture and Material Reality
The foregoing summary of my fieldwork is merely a personalized glimpse of the day-to-day struggle for survival, and for meaning, by the people who comprise the extraordinary statistics on inner-city crack and crime.4 These are the very same Puerto Rican residents of Spanish Harlem whom Oscar Lewis in La Vida declared to be victims of a "culture of poverty," mired in a "self-perpetuating cycle of poverty" (Lewis, 1966:5). The culture-of-poverty concept has been severely critiqued for its internal inconsistencies, its inadequate understanding of culture and ethnicity, its ethnocentric/middle-class bias, and especially its blindness to structural forces and blame-the-victim implications (cf. Eames and Goode, 1980; Leacock, 1971; Stack, 1974; Valentine, 1968; Waxman, 1977). Despite the negative scholarly consensus on Lewis's theory, the alternative discussions either tend toward economic reductionism (Ryan, 1986; Steinberg, 1981; Wilson, 1978) or else ultimately minimize the reality of profound marginalization and destructionsome of it internalizedthat envelop a disproportionate share of the inner-city poor (cf. Stack, 1974; Valentine, 1978; see critiques by Harrison, 1988; Maxwell, 1988; Wilson, 1987). More important, the mediaand a large proportion of the inner-city residents themselves continue to subscribe to a popularized blame-the-victim/culture-of-poverty theory that has not been adequately rebutted by scholars.
The media now refer to the inner-city residents described in my ethnographic vignette as "the underclass," the "hard-core unemployed," and the "unemployables." These pariahs of urban industrial society seek their income, and subsequently their identity and the meaning in their lives, through what they perceive to be high-powered careers "on the street." They partake of ideologies and values and share symbols that, it could be argued, add up to an "inner-city street culture" that is completely excluded from the mainstream economy and society but ultimately derived from it. Most of them have few direct contacts with non-inner-city residents; and when they do, it is usually in a position of domination: teachers in school, bosses, police officers, and later parole or probation officers.
How can the complicated ideological dynamic accompanying inner-city poverty be understood without falling into an idealistic culture-of-poverty and blame-the-victim interpretation? Scholars who offer structural, political-economic reinterpretations of the inner-city dynamic emphasize historical processes of labor migration in the context of institutionalized racism. They dissect the structural transformations in the international economy, which they see as destroying the manufacturing sector in the U.S. while leading to a burgeoning low-wage, low-prestige service sector (cf. Davis, 1987; Sassen-Koob, 1986; Steinberg, 1981; Tabb and Sawers, 1984; Wilson, 1987). These sorts of theories have the virtue of addressing the structural confines of the inner-city dynamic but also a vice: they tend to see the actual actors involved as passive. In my view, such interpretations fail to grasp fully the complex relationship between ideological processes and material reality, and between culture and class.
To explain fully the dynamic I saw day in and day out on New York's mean streets, we have to understand its relationship to the larger structural processes of international labor migration in the world economy. But the inner-city residents I hung out with in Spanish Harlem are more than mere victims of historical transformations or of the institutionalized racism of a perverse political-economic system. They do not passively accept their fourth-class citizen fate. They are struggling determinedlyjust as ruthlessly as the corporate robber barons of the nineteenth century and the yuppie investment bankers of todayto earn money, demand dignity, and lead meaningful lives. And in this lies the tragic irony that is at the heart of their existence: their very struggle againstyet withinthe system exacerbates the trauma of their community and helps destroy thousands of individual lives (Bourgois, 1992, 1995).
In the day-to-day experience of the street-bound inner-city resident, unemployment and personal anxiety over the impossibility of providing aminimal standard of living for one's family translate into intracommunity crime, intracommunity drug abuse, intracommunity violence. The objective, structural desperation of a population without a viable economy and facing the barriers of systematic discrimination and marginalization gets channeled into self-destructive cultural practices.
Most important, the "personal failure" of those who survive on the street is articulated in the idiom of race. The racism of the larger society becomes internalized on a personal level. Once again, although the individuals in the ethnographic fragment at the beginning of this chapter are the victims of long-term historical and structural transformations, they do not interpret their myriad difficulties in political-economic terms. In their struggle to survive and even to succeed, they daily enforce the details of the trauma and cruelty of their lives on the others who inhabit the excluded margins of urban America.
Cultural Reproduction Theory
Education theorists have developed a literature on the processes by which structures and cultures of privilege and power are made and remade in daily life. They have tried to understand how society is "reproduced" by studying the ideological domination of the poor and the working class in school settings (e.g., Giroux, 1983). Some of these theories of social reproduction tend toward an economic reductionism or a simple, mechanical functionalism (see, e.g., Bowles and Gintis, 1977). More recent variants emphasize the complexity and contradictory nature of the dynamic of ideological domination (Willis, 1983). There are several ethnographies that document how the very process whereby working-class students resist the imposition of middle-class norms in school ends up channeling them into marginal roles in the economy for the rest of their lives (cf. Foley, 1990; Macleod, 1987; Willis, 1977). Other ethnographically based interpretations show that for inner-city African-American students to achieve traditional academic success, they must reject their ethnic identity and cultural dignity; when such students do well in school, they are often seen by their peers as caving in to the demands of white institutions, the educational equivalent of an "Uncle Tom" (Fordham, 1988; Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1991 ).
Beyond school settings, cultural reproduction theory has great potential for shedding light on how structurally induced cultural resistance and self-reinforced marginalization interact at the street level in the inner-city experience. Rather than a culture of poverty, the violence, crime, and substance abuse of the inner city can be understood as manifestations of a "culture of resistance," a culture defined by its stance against mainstream, white, racist, and economically exclusive society. This culture of resistance,however, results in greater oppression and self-destruction. More concretely, resisting the outside society's racism and refusing to accept demeaning, low-wage, entry-level jobs contributes to the sorts of crime, addiction, and intracommunity violence for which crack has become an emblem.
Most of the individuals in my earlier vignette are proud that they are not being "exploited" by "the white man," although they also feel "like fucking assholes" for being poor. Contrary to popular images, all of them have previously held numerous jobs in the legal economy. Most of them hit the street in their early teens, working odd jobs as delivery boys and baggers in supermarkets and bodegas. Most have held the jobs that are objectively recognized as among the least desirable in U.S. society. Virtually all of these street participants have had deeply demeaning personal experiences in the minimum-wage labor market due to abusive, exploitative, and often racist bosses or supervisors. They see the illegal, underground economy as offering not only superior wages, but also a more dignified workplace.
Gato, for example, had worked for the ASPCA, cleaning out the gas chambers where stray dogs and cats are killed. Bennie had been fired six months earlier from a night-shift job as security guard on the violent ward for the criminally insane on Wards Island. Chino had been fired a year ago from a job installing high-altitude storm windows on skyscrapers after an accident temporarily blinded him in the right eye. Upon being disabled, he discovered that his contractor had hired him illegally through an arrangement with a corrupt union official who had paid him half the union wage, pocketing the rest, and who had no health insurance for him. Chino also claimed that his foreman was a "Ku Klux Klanner" and had been especially abusive to him because he was a black Puerto Rican. While recovering from the accident, Chino had become addicted to crack and ended up in the hospital as a gunshot victim before landing a job at Big Pete's crack house.
Julio's last legal job before selling crack was as an off-the-books messenger for a magazine catering to New York yuppies. He had gotten addicted to crack, began selling his household possessions, and finally was thrown out by his wife, who had just given birth to his son (the second generation "Julio Junior" to be raised on public assistance). Julio had quit his messenger job in favor of stealing car radios for a couple of hours at night in the very same neighborhoods where he had been delivering messages for ten-hour days at just above minimum wage. After a close encounter with the police, Julio begged his cousin for a job in his crack house. Ironically, the sense of responsibility, success, and prestige that selling crack provided enabled him to kick his crack habit and substitute for it a considerably less expensive powder cocaine and alcohol habit.
The underground economy is the ultimate "equal opportunity employer" for inner-city youth (cf. Kornblum and Williams, 1985). As Mike Davis has noted for Los Angeles, the structural economic incentive to participate in the drug economy is overwhelming: "With 78,000 unemployed youth in the Watts-Willowbrook area, it is not surprising that the jobless resort to the opportunities of the burgeoning 'crack economy' or that there are now 145 branches of the rival Crips and Bloods gangs in south-central L.A." (Davis, 1987:75). In fact, what is surprising is how few inner-city youths become active in the underground economy; most still enter the legal economy and accept low-wage jobs.
In contrast, individuals who "successfully" pursue careers in the 'crack economy" or any other facet of the underground economy are no longer "exploitable" by legal society. They speak with anger at their former low wages and bad treatment. They make fun of friends and acquaintancesmany of whom come to buy drugs from themwho are still employed in factories, in service jobs, or in what they (and most other people) would call "shitwork." Of course, many others are less self-conscious about the reasons for their rejection of entry-level, mainstream employment. Instead, they internalize societal stereotypes and think of themselves as lazy and irresponsible, quitting their jobs to have a good time on the street. Many still pay lip service to the value of a steady, legal job. Still others cycle in and out of legal employment, supplementing their entry-level jobs with part-time crack sales in a paradoxical subsidy of the low wages of the legal economy by the illegal economy.
The Culture of Terror in the Underground Economy
The culture of resistance and the underground economy that have emerged in opposition to demeaning, underpaid employment in the mainstream economy often engender violence. Anthropologist Michael Taussig (1984:492) has shown that in the South American context of extreme political repression and racism against Amerindians and Jews, "cultures of terror" emerge to become "a high-powered tool for domination and a principle medium for political practice." But unlike the Putumayo massacres in the early twentieth century and the Argentine torture chambers of the 1970s, which Taussig writes about, domination in the inner city's culture of terror is self-administered, even if the root causes are generated externally. With the exception of the occasional brutal policeman or the bureaucratized repression of the social welfare and criminal justice institutions, the physical violence and terror of the inner city are carried out largely by inner-city residents themselves.
Regular displays of violence are necessary for success in the underground economyespecially the street-level, drug-dealing world of crack. Violence is essential for maintaining credibility and for preventing rip-offsby colleagues, customers, and holdup artists. Indeed, as I learned the hard way in my fieldwork, upward mobility in the crack sector of the underground economy requires a systematic and effective use of violence against one's colleagues, one's neighbors, and to a certain extent, oneself. Behavior that appears irrationally violent and self-destructive to middle-class (or working-class) outside observers can be more accurately interpreted according to the logic of the underground economy as judicious public relations, advertising, rapport building, and long-term investment in one's "human capital."
This can be seen very clearly in the fieldwork summary at the beginning of this chapter. Gato and I were mugged because Gato had a reputation for being "soft" or "pussy" and because I was publicly unmasked as not being an undercover cop and hence safe to attack. Gato had tried to minimize the damage to his future ability to sell on that corner by not turning and running. He had pranced sideways down the street while being beaten with a baseball bat and kicked to the ground twice. Nevertheless, the admonishments of his cousin, the female coke mainliner to whom he told the story, could not have been clearer: where was he going to work after such a public fiasco? Significantly, I found out later that this was the second time this had happened to Gato this year. Gato was not going to be upwardly mobile in the underground economy because of his "pussy" reputation; he was simply not as effectively violent as his "chosen" occupation required. One's "street rep" is as valuable an asset in the world of crack dealers as professional reputations are among stockbrokers, physicians, and business people.
Employers or new entrepreneurs in the underground economy look for people who can demonstrate their capacity for effective violence and thus terror. This is clearly illustrated by Big Pete's hiring of Jackie to sell cocaine at his candy store shortly after he witnessed her shooting Papito, her husband (his cousin). Similarly, Marco, another one of Big Pete's primary street-level sellers, had a "bionic leg." He had been shot through the thigh in a previous crack confrontation ("when I thought I was Superman") by a "dum dum" bullet. His leg had been rebuilt, leaving him with a pronounced limp but quick coordination. He frequently referred to his rebuilt limb in conversation; it was a source of pride and credibility for him. He was considered an effective crack dealer.
For Big Pete, the owner of a string of crack and cocaine franchises, the ability of his employees to hold up under gunpoint was crucial because stickups of dealing dens are not infrequent. In fact, during the first thirteen months of my fieldwork, the botanica was held up twice. Julio happened to be on duty both times. He admitted to me that he had been very nervous when they held the gun to his temple and asked for money and crack. Nevertheless, not only did he withhold some of the money and crackthat was hidden behind bogus botanica merchandise, but he also later exaggerated to Big Pete the amount that had been stolen in order to pocket the difference. The possibility of being held up was constantly on Julio's mind. Several times when more than two people walked into the botanica at once, Julio stiffened as if expecting them to pull out weapons. On another occasion, he confided to me that he was nervous about a cousin of his who all of a sudden had started hanging out at the crack house/botanica, feigning friendship. Julio suspected him of casing the joint for a future stickup.
In several long conversations with active criminals (a dealing den stickup artist, several crack dealers, and a former bank robber), I asked them to explain how they were able to trust their partners in crime sufficiently to ensure the longevity and effectiveness of their enterprise. To my surprise, I was not given righteous raps about blood brotherhood trustworthiness or boyhood loyalty. Instead, in each case, in slightly different language, I was told somewhat aggressively, "What do you mean how do I trust him? You should ask, 'How can he trust me?!'" In each case, their point was unmistakable: their own ruthlessness is their only real security (e.g., "My support network is me, myself, and I"). The vehemence with which they made these assertions suggests that they felt threatened by the idea that their security and success might depend upon the trustworthiness of a partner or employee. They were claimingin one case angrilythat they were not dependent upon trust because they were tough enough to command respect, willing to engage in enough violence to enforce all contracts they entered into.
For example, at the end of the summer, Chino was forced to flee out of state to a cousin's because his own cocaine use had gotten sufficiently out of hand that he snorted merchandise he was supposed to sell. When he was unable to turn in the night's receipts to Big Pete, he left town, certain that a violent reprisal was coming. In the same way, my own failure to display a propensity for violence in several instances cost me the respect of the members of the crack scene that I frequented. This was very evident when I turned down Julio and Chino's offer to chase down the three men who mugged Gato and me. Julio despaired that I "still [thought] like a blanquito" and was genuinely disappointed in my lack of common sense and self-respect.
These concrete examples of the need to cultivate a public reputation for violence are extreme but common among the individuals who rely on the underground economy for their income. Their survival and success are dependent upon their capacity for terror. Individuals involved in street crack sales and other sectors of the underground economy cannot turn to lawful means for conflict resolution and so cultivate the culture of terror in order to intimidate competitors, maintain credibility, develop newcontacts, cement partnerships, and ultimately have a good time. For the most part, they are not conscious of this process; the culture of terror has become a myth replete with a set of roles, rules, and satisfactions all its own.5
Significantly, the pervasiveness of the inner-city culture of terror does not apply solely to crack sellers or to street criminals; to a certain extent, all individuals living in the neighborhood who want to maintain a sense of autonomy (i.e., who do not want to have to rush out of their houses during daylight hours only or quadruple lock their doors at sunset) find it useful to participate to some limited extent in some corner of the culture of terror. In this manner, the culture of terror seeps into the fabric of the inner city, impinging upon its residentsincluding the majority of the population who work 9 to 5 plus overtime in mainstream jobs just above poverty-level wages.
A powerful ideological dynamic, therefore, poisons interpersonal relations throughout much of the community by legitimizing violence and mandating distrust. On a more obvious level, the culture of terror is experienced physically by anyone who spends time on the street. All who frequent the streets will be exposed to the violence of the underground economy even if they do not participate in it. For example, during just the first thirteen months of my residence in Spanish Harlem, I witnessed a series of violent events: (1) a deadly shooting of the mother of a three-year-old child outside my window by an assailant wielding a sawed-off shotgun (the day before the victim had slashed her future murderer with a razor blade when he complained about the quality of the $5 vials of crack that she sold); (2) a bombing and a machine gunning of a numbers joint by a rival faction of the local "mafia," once again within view of my apartment window; (3) a shoot-out and police car chase scene in front of a pizza parlor where I happened to be eating a snack; (4) the firebombing of a heroin house by an unpaid supplier around the block from where I lived; (5) a dozen screaming, clothes-ripping, punching fights; (6) at least bi-weekly sightings of an intravenous drug-using mother with visible needle "tracks" on her arms walking down the street with a toddler by her side, or a pregnant woman entering and leaving a crack house; (7) almost daily exposure to broken-clown human beings, some of them in fits of crack-induced paranoia, some suffering from delirium tremens, and others in unidentifiable pathological fits, screaming and shouting insults to all around them.
Of course, as a street fieldworker, I was looking for these events. They are not, strictly speaking, random samples of inner-city experience. Had I been a typical Spanish Harlem resident intent upon making it on time to my 9 to 5 job every morning, I would not have noticed at least half of these events, and I would not have had the time or the interest to find out the details on most of the other half. I surely would not have paid any attentionto the broken-down human beings walking the streets, begging change, and mumbling or shouting to themselves. Nevertheless, these examples do not include the dozens of additional stories of accounts of killings and beatings told to me by eyewitnesses and sometimes even by family members and children of the victims or the perpetrators.
Perhaps the most poignant expression of the pervasiveness of the culture of terror was the comment made to me by a thirteen-year-old boy in the course of an otherwise innocuous, random conversation about how he was doing in school and how his mother's pregnancy was going. He told me he hoped his mother would give birth to a boy "because girls are too easy to rape." He was both sad and bragging when he said this, matter-of-factly asserting his adulthood and "realistic" knowledge of the mythical level of terror on the street where he was growing up.
In order to interact with people on the street, one has to participate at least passively in this culture of destruction and terror. Small children already talk about it in grade school. I overheard the story of a boy whose mother told him never to fight. Not long into the school year a classmate mugged him of his mid-afternoon snack and pocket money. By not fighting back, according to his mother's dictates, the child quickly developed a "pussy" reputation. During the ensuing weeks, he lost his snack and money every single day until finally, when he complained to his mother, she berated him, "What's the matter with you? Can't you fight back?"
The Horatio Alger Myth Revisited
It is important to understand that the underground economy and the violence emerging out of it are not propelled by an irrational cultural logic distinct from that of mainstream America. On the contrary, street participants are frantically pursuing the American Dream. The assertions of the culture-of-poverty theorists that the poor have been badly socialized and do not share mainstream values is simply wrong. In fact, ambitious, energetic inner-city youths are attracted to the underground economy precisely because they believe in Horatio Alger's version of the American Dream. They are, in true American fashion, frantically trying to get their piece of the pie as fast as possible. In fact, they often follow the traditional U.S. model for upward mobility to the letter: aggressively setting themselves up as private entrepreneurs. They are the ultimate "rugged individualists," braving an unpredictable free-market frontier where fortune, fame, and destruction are all just around the corner.
Hence Indio, a particularly enterprising and ambitious young crack dealer who was aggressively carving out a new sales point, shot his brother in the spine and paralyzed him for life while he was high on angel dust in a battle over sales rights. His brother now works for him, selling on crutches.
Meanwhile, the shooting has cemented Indio's street reputation, and his workers are awesomely disciplined: "If he shot his brother, he'll shoot anyone."
For many of the people I met, the underground economy and the culture of terror are seen as the most realistic routes to upward mobility. Contrary to the pious preachments of politicians and the privileged, who claim that with hard work anyone can make it in America, they know from their own lived experience that "straight" entry-level jobs are not viable channels to upward mobility, especially for high school dropouts. Drug selling or other illegal activity appears as the most effective and rational option for getting rich within one's lifetime.
Many of the street dealers are strictly utilitarian in their involvement with crack, and they snub their clients despite the fact that they usually ingest considerable amounts of alcohol and powder cocaine themselves. They refer to their merchandise as "this garbage" and often openly make fun of crack heads as they arrive "on a mission" to "see Scotty"6 with fistfuls of money. Sometimes they even ask their "respectable looking" clients with incredulity, "You don't do this shit do you?" Chino used to chant at his regular customers "Come on, keep on killing yourself; bring me that money; smoke yourself to death; make me rich." On another occasion, I witnessed an argument between a crack seller and two young men who were drug-free and virulently opposed to the underground economy. The crack seller essentially won the argument by deriding the drug-free young men for missing out on a smart, easy opportunity to make good money.
The Search For Dignity
Even though the average street seller is employed by the owner of a sales point for whom he has to maintain regular hours, meet sales quotas, and be subject to being fired, the street seller has a great deal of autonomy and power in his daily (or nightly) schedule. His boss comes only once or twice a shift to drop off drugs and pick up money. Frequently, a young messenger is sent instead. Sellers are often surrounded by a bevy of "thirsty" friends and hangers-onoften young teenage women in the case of male sellers willing to run errands, pay attention to conversations, give support in arguments and fights, and provide sexual favors because of the relatively large amounts of money and drugs passing through their hands. In fact, even youths who do not use drugs will hang out and attempt respectfully to befriend the dealer just to be privy to the excitement of people coming and going, copping and hanging; money flowing, arguments, detectives, and stick-up artistsall around danger and excitement. Other nonusers will hang out to be treated to an occasional round of beer, Bacardi, or onan off night, Thunderbird. Crack dealers attain "status" on the street that they would be hard-pressed to find in any "legit" job open to them.
The channel into the underground economy is by no means strictly economic. Besides wanting to earn "crazy money," people choose "hoodlum" status in order to assert their dignity by refusing to "sling a mop for the white man" for "chump change" (cf. Anderson, 1976:68). Employmentor better yet, self-employmentin the underground economy accords a sense of autonomy, self-worth, and an opportunity for extraordinarily rapid, short-term upward mobility that is only too obviously unavailable in entry-level jobs in the licit economy. To be able to live opulently without "visible means of support"like, say, the "idle rich" in the Hamptonsis considered the ultimate expression of success for many Americans. For residents of Spanish Harlem, however, this is a viable option only in the underground economy. The proof of this is visible to everyone on the street as they watch teenage crack dealers drive by in convertible Suzuki Samurai jeeps with the stereo blaring, "beam" by in impeccable BMWs, orin the case of the middle-aged dealersglide along in well-waxed Lincoln Continentals. Nor are these material achievements unimaginable, for anyone can aspire to be promoted to the level of seller, perched on a twenty-speed mountain bike with a beeper on one's belt. In fact, many youths not particularly active in the drug trade run around with beepers on their belts just pretending to be "big time." It is no coincidence that Julio was able to quit crack only after getting a job selling it.
The feelings of self-actualization and self-respect that the dealer's lifestyle offers cannot be underestimated. A former manager of a coke-shooting gallery who had employed a network of a half-dozen sellers, lookouts, and security guards and who had grossed $7000-$13,000 per week for over a year before being jailed explained to me that the best memories of his drug-dealing days were of the respect he received from people on the street. He described how, when he drove up in one of his cars to pick up the day's receipts, a bevy of attentive men and women would run to open the door for him and engage him in polite small talk, not unlike what happens in many licit businesses when the boss arrives. Others would offer to clean his car. He said that even the children hanging out in the street who were too young to understand what his dealings involved looked up to him in awe. He would invite a half-dozen friends and acquaintances out to dinner in expensive restaurants almost every night.
He also noted that his shooting gallery had enabled his wife and two children to get off welfare. Accepting welfare as an adult head of household had been particularly humiliating for him. Significantly, after coming out of jail, he had been unable to reunite with his wife and children, who were living at his wife's mother's apartment. His mother-in-law would notlet him in the house, and his new legit job as a messenger for a Wall Street brokerage firm paid far too little for him to afford an apartment of his own for his family. Consequently, he roomed illegally in the apartment of a woman with two children supported by public assistance who took in boarders to supplement her income off the record. He was determined not to reenter the underground economy for fear of being detected by his parole officer and sent back to jail.
The dynamism of the multibillion-dollar underground economy, the rejection of demeaning exploitation in the mainstream economy, and the dignity offered by illegal entrepreneurial activity explain only a portion of the violence and substance abuse in the inner city. They do not account for the explosive appeal of a drug like crack. It is necessary to examine the structural dynamic of the inner-city experience on a deeper level to explain why so many people would be so attracted to crack today (or heroin only a half-dozen years ago). This involves the conflation of ethnic discrimination with a rigidly segmented labor market, and all the hidden injuries to human dignity that this entails, especially in a place like New York City. It involves, in other words, the experience of many forms of oppression at once, or what I call "conjugated oppression" (cf. Bourgois, 1988, 1989).
A casual, random stroll through Spanish Harlem will expose one to cohorts of emaciated coke and crack addicts. Many will be begging for their next vial; others will be "petro"crashing from the high and intensely paranoid of everyone around themshivering, mumbling to themselves in agitated angst with their eyes wide and jaws tense. If the stroller should happen upon a "copping corner," it will look like a street fair, especially late at nightcars driving by, people coming and going, building doors opening and closing, people hanging out all over. Most likely, a hail of whistles and shouts will accompany the stroller's arrival as the lookouts warn the "pitchers" who carry the drugs that a potential undercover has entered the scene.
Conjugated oppression consists of an ideological dynamic of ethnic discrimination that interacts explosively with an economic dynamic of class exploitation to produce an overwhelming experience of oppression that is more than the sum of the parts. It offers insight into why hordes of "petro" crack heads, teenagers and grandparents alike, will continue to fry their brains and burn up their bodies in a hysteria of ecstatic substance abuse. It helps explain why the former heroin mainliners turned coke shooters continue poking their veins into abscesses while sharing HIV-infected needles.
In the Puerto Rican community, there is the added problem of confused and frustrated national identity due to the ambiguous "colonial/commonwealth" status of their homeland (even if they are third generation born on the mainland). When they venture out of El Barrio through the streets of Manhattan, they are confronted everywhere by a rigidly segmented ethnic/occupational hierarchy. In fact, it could be argued that Manhattan sports a de facto apartheid labor market, because a close look at the minute differences in job categories and prestige shows that they generally correlate with ethnicity.
Furthermore, in New York City, the insult of working for entry-level wages amidst extraordinary opulence is especially painful for Spanish Harlem youths who have been raised in abject poverty only a few blocks from all-white neighborhoods commanding some of the highest real estate values in the world. As messengers, security guards, or Xerox machine operators in the corporate headquarters of the Fortune 500 companies, they are brusquely ordered about by young white executives who often make as much in a month as they do in a year and who do not even have the time to notice that they are being rude.
Confronting Manhattan's ethnic/occupational hierarchy drives the inner-city youths depicted in this chapter deeper into the confines of their segregated neighborhood and the underground economy. They prefer to seek out meaning and upward mobility in a context that not only values their skills, but does not constantly oblige them to come into contact with people of a different, hostile ethnicity wielding arbitrary power over them. In the underground economy, especially in the world of substance abuse, they never have to experience the silent, subtle humiliations to which they are routinely subjected in the entry-level labor market or even during a mere subway ride downtown.
In this context, the fleeting relief offered by the crack high and the meaning provided by the rituals and struggles around purchasing and using the drug resemble millenarian religions. Such religious cults have swept colonized peoples attempting to resist oppression in the context of accelerated social traumawhether it be the Ghost Dance of the Great Plains Amerindians, the "cargo cults" of Melanesia, the Mamachi movement of the Guaymi Amerindians in Panama, or even religions such as Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and the Jehovah's Witnesses in the heart of the inner city (cf. Bourgois, 1986, 1989). Substance abuse in general and crack in particular offer an inverted equivalent to the purification of a millenarian metamorphosis. Users are instantaneously transformed from unemployed, depressed high school dropouts, despised by the worldand secretly convinced that their failure is due to their own inherent stupidity, "racial laziness," and disorganizationinto masses of heart-palpitatingpleasure, followed only minutes later by a jaw-gnashing crash and wide awake alertness that fills their life with concrete and compelling purpose: get more crackfast!
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