America: 1980s & Crack

September 2015


Once upon a time before crack, inner city communities were blighted by poverty and unemployment - but not by the drug wars that tore families apart, destroying lives with needless violence and mindless addiction. Once upon a time before crack, pride and style were as inseparable as a beatbox and mixtape, or as a pair of shoes and matching purse. Once upon a time before crack, Jamel Shabazz was on the scene, working the streets of New York City, capturing the faces and places of an era that has long since disappeared. 

Review excerpt from A Time Before Crack by Jamel Shabazz, published by powerHouse Books


Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

Photographs by Jamel Shabazz

Photographs by Jamel Shabazz


"It was like I saw crack and violence coming ahead. So I wanted to use my camera to show them."

Excerpt from Mosaic Magazine: Seeing Eye to Eye Jamel Shabazz Interview


            Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

 

 

 

It was the early to mid '80s and Jamel had just arrived back in New York City after serving a brief three-year stint in the military. He would soon take on a position in corrections that would evolve into an almost 20-year career.

I would take to the streets, photograph them, but also encourage them to stay in school. Inspiring people really gave me my determination and motivated me throughout the years working with so many incarcerated young people.

Excerpt from Mosaic Magazine: Seeing Eye to Eye Jamel Shabazz Interview


Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

 

Crack made its first appearance in Miami around 1981 and over the ensuing 10-15 years spread to Los Angeles, New York and countless other US cities. Shabazz identifies with the sense of being lost in your own life as he witnessed the catastrophic rise of crack in New York decimated the city. 

Excerpt from FOTO8: A Time Before Crack


A Time Before Crack documents Shabazz's memories of the people he's lost to a hopeless addiction.

Excerpt from FOTO8: A Time Before Crack


Photography by Jamel Shabazz


For The Love of Money


While New Jack City is most often discussed as the product of it's young director's (Mario Van Peebles) vision, the film was actually the result of a collaboration of individuals from both within and outside the industry. It was produced by George Jackson and Doug McHenry, who began working together in the mid-1980s when they produced Krush Groove.

The pair hired Thomas Lee Wright and then Barry Michael Cooper to write the screenplay. 

Excerpt from Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film by Paula J. Massood


Film Still from New Jack City (1991)


Cooper was a journalist for the Village Voice, who had received acclaim for a 1987 story about the crack epidemic in Detroit titled "Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young," the article was one of the first exposes of the effects of the crack epidemic on inner-city communities. McHenry claims that the film's main character, Nino Brown, was based on a "composite of three people, including a notorious Harlem organized crime figure found guilty in 1977 for drug trafficking... a guy in Oakland who was reported to have applied MBA techniques to dope dealing... [and] a young dealer in Washington D.C. who was busted with two million dollars on him."

Excerpt from Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film by Paula J. Massood


Mark Power

Mark Power

Photography by Peter Turnley, Detroit (1982)


South-Central Los Angeles


Over the years that Beverly Carr has lived in South-Central Los Angeles, she has seen crack cocaine rage through her neighborhood like a violent storm, littering the streets with young bodies, battering schools and homes, tearing families from their hinges.

But it was only after a series of articles in The San Jose Mercury News that Mrs. Carr found what she took to be proof of an unseen force behind the devastation. That the force was said to be the United States Government surprised her not at all. That the plot supposedly involved associates of the Central Intelligence Agency selling drugs in black neighborhoods to finance an anti-Communist crusade in Central America made perfect sense.

''Everybody my age or older has always known that something like this was going on,'' the 48-year-old caterer said.

Excerpt from NY Times: Though Evidence is Thin, Tale of C.I.A. and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own


                                           Compton, Daniel Laine (1984)

                                           Compton, Daniel Laine (1984)


"Who down here in Watts or Compton has planes or boats to get these drugs up here? They're targeting the young black men. It's just ruining a whole generation."

Excerpt from NY Times: Though Evidence is Thin, Tale of C.I.A. and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own


Jim Goldberg

Jim Goldberg

Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez


Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez

 

 

 

Mrs. Carr came upon the story in a conventional way: a local newspaper reprinted the series that The Mercury News published two months ago. But, propelled by newer technology, the San Jose paper's tantalizing assertion of a possible C.I.A. role in the spread of crack through America's inner cities has now traveled much farther, reaching millions of people over the Internet, talk radio and cable television, setting off a flurry of Federal investigation and confirming the suspicions of many, African-Americans in particular, about a Government role in the drug trade.

''What makes it so believable to me is that there is just abounding circumstantial evidence,'' said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of many black political leaders who have publicly lent credence to the account in The Mercury News. ''There is the weight of a lot of experiences with our Government operating in adverse or conspiratorial ways against black people. The context is what's driving the story.''

Excerpt from NY Times: Though Evidence is Thin, Tale of C.I.A. and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own


 

Addiction & the Life of Dooney Waters


JET Magazine: October 30th 1989


Six-year-old Dooney Waters lives in what Prince George's County police and social service workers call a crack house. The door that leads to the apartment is riddled with bullet holes and gaps that are usually stuffed with wads of paper or balled-up socks where there once were locks. 

Dooney's tale came in the first of two articles in Sunday's editions of The Washington Post. The Post said a reporter and photographer spent more than two months this spring chronicling Dooney's life in a Washington Heights apartment complex that Prince George's County police have identified as one of the most active drug markets in Landover. 

Dooney is the child's nickname. Waters is his legal surname. 

Excerpt from Associated Press Archive: Six-Year-Old Survives in Home Described as Drug Den (1989)


Dooney Waters

Dooney Waters and his mother, Addie. 


''Drugs have wrecked my mother,'' says Dooney. ''Drugs have wrecked a lot of mothers and fathers and children and babies. If I don't be careful, drugs are going to wreck me too.''

Excerpt from Associated Press Archive: Six-Year-Old Survives in Home Described as Drug Den (1989)


Ferdinando Scianna

Ferdinando Scianna

Ferdinando Scianna

Ferdinando Scianna

Ferdinando Scianna

Ferdinando Scianna


NPR’s Michele Norris wrote that story. At the time she was a reporter for The Washington Post. She tells us how she came upon Dooney, what his experiences were as the child of a crack addict, and how he dealt with the challenges.

Michele Norris: My original goal was to write a story about Isabelle Field, who was Dooney Waters’ teacher. And I was spending time with her in her classroom. And there was one child in particular, that you just noticed him. He was just a really cute kid with a big personality. And one day we rode the bus home with him. And when we saw his community, we realized that the teachers were part of the story, but the real story is really to focus on the kids. They are the story and that was not a story that was not being well told when Washington was in the ravages of the crack cocaine epidemic.

Excerpt from WAMU.org Full Interview: NPR's Michele Norris Talks About Dooney Waters


Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards

Ferdiando Scianna

Ferdiando Scianna

Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson


He had a total middle-class life. But three years earlier he was three years old. So, it was harder for his older brother, who understood the slide into addiction. Who remembered a parent who was much more attentive, who remembered a household that was filled with nice things. In some ways, Dooney was protected from that, because he was so young. And the parents had interesting ways of dealing with it also. They weren’t necessarily proud of where they found themselves. They were struggling with this also. They had a monkey on their back. Addy very much wanted to get on the other side of her addiction. 

Addy, I should say, is Dooney’s mother. And you saw that—I mean one of the more touching moments is when she pulled out her photo album, and shared that with us. But there was something that was so deep in that, where she was pointing to these pictures where she was wearing nice clothes, and celebrating milestones, and basically saying, “That used to be me.”

Excerpt from WAMU.org Full Interview: NPR's Michele Norris Talks About Dooney Waters


Chicago History Museum

Afro Newspaper

Chicago History Museum

Afro Newspaper

Chicago History Museum

Chicago History Museum

Chicago History Museum

Afro Newspaper


Stephen Shames

Stephen Shames


Dooney Waters and his father sat giggling in front of a Saturday morning cartoon when a commercial cut in, warning against the evils of drugs.

"Look, Daddy, that's what drugs do to your brain," Dooney said, pointing to a televised image of an egg sizzling in a frying pan. "You better not be doing drugs -- or that will happen to you."

Dooney's father, who asked not to be identified, stared at the television for a few moments before turning to his son with tears in his eyes. "Don't worry, kid," he said, "I'm afraid of what you would do to me if I did."

Dooney -- the 7-year-old whose experiences growing up in what police described as a crack house were chronicled in The Washington Post last summer -- has become a watchdog of sorts for his parents. He questions his mother and father about their success in drug treatment, writes them encouraging notes or draws pictures when they complain of rough times. The adults in Dooney's life describe him as a study in strength, a child who is determined to make sure he and his family win their battle to steer clear of drugs.

Excerpt from The Washington Post: Two Lives (1990)


Ferdinando Scianna

Ferdinando Scianna


"Sometimes I think the roles have changed," said Dooney's mother, Addie Lorraine Waters, who once described herself as a "slave to cocaine.""He acts like he's the parent sometimes. He's always asking if I'm staying clean. He knows he don't want to go back to our old life."

Excerpt from The Washington Post: Two Lives (1990)


Stephen Shames

Stephen Shames

 Stephen Shames

 Stephen Shames

Stephen Shames

Stephen Shames


Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue


Renowned documentary photographer Eugene Richards bore witness to the ravages of the crack epidemic that gripped the Northeast in the 1980s. His book Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue documents the brutal realities facing communities affected by the drug. “The purpose of Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue,” Dr. Stephen W. Nicholas writes in the book’s epilogue, “is not to define a national agenda, but, rather, to force a national dialogue.”

I first became aware of how vicious the drug world is in the late 1980s on a small assignment in Detroit. There we’d find these little boys dead in the morgue with no one to identify them. I learned these kids were raised in drug gangs and when they became too public — people would wonder why they weren’t in school — the kids would be killed. That’s when I realized that drugs were the issue of our time.

Excerpt from AlJazeera America: Documenting the Ravages of the 1980s Crack Epidemic (2014)


Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards


It is fair to say that upon it’s release, Eugene Richards’ ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ had a mixed reception from both the public and critics. Richards’ depiction of a predominantly black, poor, deprived community was seen by some to ignore the bigger issue of drug use in 90’s America, which was not exclusive to any class, or race.

Those who argued that Richards’ portrayal was biased, and that he was using sensationalism to sell photojournalism cited Richards’ use of cocaine as well as the fact that he had reportedly provided one subject with clean syringes as reason to doubt the validity of the images.

Excerpt in reply to NY Times Coke Wars via the PhotoBook Club: Controversy "Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True" (2011)


Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards


Stigmatization & Media


This week’s Retro Report video on infants born to addicted mothers lays out how limited scientific studies in the 1980s led to predictions that a generation of children would be damaged for life. Those predictions turned out to be wrong. This supposed epidemic — one television reporter talks of a 500 percent increase in damaged babies — was kicked off by a study of just 23 infants that the lead researcher now says was blown out of proportion. And the shocking symptoms — like tremors and low birth weight — are not particular to cocaine-exposed babies, pediatric researchers say; they can be seen in many premature newborns.

The worrisome extrapolations made by researchers — including the one who first published disturbing findings about prenatal cocaine use — were only part of the problem. Major newspapers and magazines, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The Washington Post and The New York Times, ran articles and columns that went beyond the research. Network TV stars of that era, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, also bear responsibility for broadcasting uncritical reports.

Excerpt from NY Times: Revisiting the 'Crack Babies' Epidemic That Was Not (2013)


 

By the late 1980s, research findings were being used to justify cases charging pregnant cocaine users as child abusers, drug dealers, and killers. The idea that one would prosecute a pregnant woman and use this kind of not very accurate research to do so is very disturbing.


Screen Capture from NY Times: A Tale from Drug Wars (video featured above)

Screen Capture from NY Times: A Tale from Drug Wars (video featured above)

 

It is hard to ignore the effects of racism here. There is a time-honored American tradition of turning minorities into the vessel for all the country's vices -- as if adultery, murder, idleness and all other manner of sin would disappear with us. This is especially true in the realm of drugs. 

The Atlantic: The Myth of the Crack Baby, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2013)