Workers Vanguard No. 949
1 January 2010
New York Tinkers with Rockefeller Laws
Down With the Racist War on Drugs!
For the Decriminalization of Drugs!
January 26 marks 31 years since the death of Nelson Rockefeller, longtime New York governor. Many recall that this famous scion of the family whose name is synonymous with capitalist greed died of a heart attack while having sex with his 27-year-old mistress. Rockefeller, who ordered the killing of prisoners during the 1971 Attica prison revolt, is more widely remembered as the architect of New York’s draconian drug laws. Enacted in 1973, these laws mandated that possession of small amounts of cocaine or heroin be punished with minimum sentences of 15 years to life in prison—even for those with no prior record.
As a result of these laws, some 200,000 men, women and children were condemned to decades of prison hell. Today, nearly 90 percent of those incarcerated in New York on drug charges are black or Latino. The Rockefeller laws became a model for drug laws across the country that imprisoned hundreds of thousands more in the racist “war on drugs.” The number of incarcerated in the U.S. has grown eightfold since 1970, with 2.3 million behind bars today—70 percent of them black or Latino.
In April 2009, New York governor David Paterson signed into law modifications to New York’s drug laws (which had earlier been “reformed” in 2005), doing away with some mandatory sentences and allowing judges to order treatment as an alternative to prison in some cases. These new laws reflect a trend in a wing of the bourgeoisie that sees the constant expansion and maintenance of the vast complex of prisons as too costly. Among them is former New York State Senator John Dunne, who was a sponsor of the Rockefeller laws. Dunne declared that these laws were a failure that “handcuffed our judges” and “filled our prisons to dangerously overcrowded conditions.” Also among them is General Barry McCaffrey, a war criminal who in 1991 ordered the slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops during the first Persian Gulf War. In 1999, when he was President Clinton’s drug czar, he stated: “We can’t incarcerate our way out of [the drug] problem.” Last May, President Obama’s drug czar, R. Gil Kerlikowske, told the Wall Street Journal that it was time to shelve the phrase “war on drugs.” “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’...people see a war as a war on them.”
As a 2009 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union put it, the Rockefeller laws are “New York’s Jim Crow Laws.” In the 1950s, when Jim Crow segregation was still legal in the South, black people made up 30 percent of the national prison population. Today, as a result of the “war on drugs,” blacks, though only 13 percent of the U.S. population, make up over 50 percent of prison inmates, eight times the rate of imprisonment for whites. According to a 2007 Justice Policy Institute report, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at ten times the rate of white men, even though their drug use is approximately the same.
Between 1994 and 2003 the average time served by blacks for drug crimes grew by 62 percent, compared to 17 percent for whites. On average, black men and women spend nearly as much time in prison on drug charges as whites convicted of violent crimes. The federal drug laws for crack and cocaine possession are blatantly racist—punishments for possession of crack are far more severe than those for powder cocaine. Crack is the cheaper version of the same substance cocaine is derived from, and is therefore used as a substitute for cocaine in the ghettos.
We are in favor of any alleviation of Rockefeller and other drug laws. We recognize that such reforms certainly mean a lot to those few already behind bars who will gain earlier release and to others who will be spared a lengthy prison term for something that should not be considered a crime in the first place. But no amount of tinkering will change the reactionary nature of these laws or their racist enforcement by the cops, prosecutors and courts of the capitalist state. The Spartacist League calls for the decriminalization of drugs. Drug use is a private, individual matter. For those who wish, any associated psychological or medical problem that may arise from their use should be treated by qualified medical personnel; in other words, it should be a medical issue, not a criminal one involving the police, prisons and courts. By taking the profit out of the drug trade, decriminalization would also reduce the crime and other social pathology associated with it. We oppose all laws against “crimes without victims”—such as drug use, prostitution, gambling and pornography—which are at bottom designed to maintain social control. All laws such as the Rockefeller drug laws should be completely abolished!
When Paterson signed the new drug laws, anti-drug-law activists declared that the “Rock has been dropped,” as if the Rockefeller laws had been repealed. Paterson’s law eliminates mandatory sentences for most—but not all—first-time drug offenses and many second-time ones. The most celebrated provision is the “judicial diversion” option given judges to prescribe “treatment” in lieu of prison, provided the accused first pleads guilty and the judge doesn’t consider incarceration necessary to “protect the public.” While these drug treatment programs allow for the release of some prisoners from the dungeons of New York State, these programs are mandatory. A perceived violation of the treatment program’s stipulations will land a person back into prison, which makes this program an extension of the state’s parole system.
At the same time, the law restores mandatory 15-to-life sentences (eliminated in 2005) for anyone who sells drugs worth $75,000 in a six-month period, and adds for the first time a mandatory two-to-nine-year sentence for anyone over 21 who sells any outlawed substance (including marijuana) in any quantity to someone under 17. Paterson also made it clear that only a small number of those imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws will be eligible for early release—1,500 at most.
The oppression of black people is a key prop of American capitalist rule. Blacks in the U.S. are an oppressed race-color caste integrated into the American capitalist economy while overwhelmingly segregated at the bottom of American society—the last hired and first fired. Fueling the mass incarceration of blacks has been the deindustrialization of the U.S. In the mid 1960s, manufacturing, with its large component of black workers, employed 24 percent of the labor force. By the early 2000s, this was reduced to only 11 percent, and the number keeps falling. The loss of unionized industrial jobs has devastated cities across the Midwest and Northeast, while the pro-capitalist union tops have caved in to one attack after another and one austerity measure after another by the bosses. Deeply racist at their core, the rulers’ anti-drug laws have also been used to discipline and fire union militants and intimidate workers more widely.
In the calculations of the American bourgeoisie, the urban ghettos, which used to provide a reservoir of unskilled labor for the auto plants and steel mills, are simply written off as an expendable population. Unable to provide jobs from which they can extract profit, the capitalists see no reason to spend on education, food or shelter for the impoverished ghetto masses—only prisons. And for many black and Latino youth in the ghettos and barrios, the only jobs on the horizon are in the illegal economy of the drug trade.
Accompanying all this was the whipping up of hysteria that demonized the ghettoized poor black population as criminal “superpredators.” The plethora of drug laws was an outgrowth of the web of legal repression under the “war on crime”—launched by Republican president Richard Nixon—which the American capitalist government implemented to target black militants and the ghetto poor following the ghetto upheavals of the mid-to-late 1960s. The American ruling class strategy for reinforcing and stabilizing its political control was recorded by Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who wrote in his diary: President Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to” (quoted in Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis ).
The “war on drugs,” launched by Republican president Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, was a bipartisan attack among whose most vociferous supporters were black Democrats and hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. During the Clinton presidency, 673,000 people were sent to prison, surpassing the total under both Reagan and Bush Sr.
From its inception, we denounced the “war on drugs” as a war on black people. Although it was liberal Republican governor Rockefeller who led the charge in New York State, it was liberal Democratic Party governor Mario Cuomo who added more prison beds in New York than all the previous governors in the state’s history combined. Obscenely, Cuomo got the $7 billion to build these prisons from funds out of the state’s Urban Development Corporation. This policy of draining Urban Development for building prisons gave new meaning to the old adage that urban renewal meant black removal.
In partly eliminating mandatory sentencing, Paterson’s law may help decelerate but won’t stop the disparate imprisonment of blacks, which is systemic in American capitalism. The courts are as much a part of the capitalist state, which exists to protect the class rule and property of the capitalist rulers, as the cops who brutalize ghetto youth on the streets and prosecutors who frame them up. As black comedian Richard Pryor observed about the prisons before the implementation of these mandatory sentencing schemes, “Go in there looking for justice, and that’s all you find—just us.” This will continue to be the grim reality for black people and minorities in America until the racist capitalist system is shattered through proletarian socialist revolution.