Lead Story West Edition

Speakers compare opioid crisis to ‘80s crack epidemic

LOS ANGELES — Comparisons between the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and 90s and the current opioid crisis were made by the keynote speakers at the fourth annual Community Coalition People Power event held June 8 at Los Angeles Trade Tech College.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and CNN Political Commentator Van Jones discussed the nation’s current opioid epidemic and compared it to how victims of the crack cocaine epidemic were treated in South Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Bass said she clearly remembers the chaos and confusion that erupted when crack cocaine emerged in South Los Angeles.

“There was a profound sense of desperation in the ‘80s that people felt,” she said. “People that we knew fell out on crack — and for our community it hit across class.

“People who took advantage of affirmative action and people who should have been on the way to the middle class were downtown on Skid Row. Residents were so desperate, they said, ‘Bring in the police. Bring in the military.’ … Then crack changed from powder to a solid form.

“There was already the infrastructure to distribute crack and those were our gangs,” Bass said. “The community was asking for the crackdown because we were so profoundly desperate.”

Bass, one of the founders of Community Coalition, said the organization was formed to bring about alternatives to crime and addiction in the community and that crack even affected the grandmothers, who were raising their grandchildren after the children’s parents fell prey to the crack epidemic. They appealed to the nonprofit organization for help.

“We started organizing the grandmothers, but social justice at the time wouldn’t touch the issue,” Bass said. “They were focused on the fact that the CIA was involved with the importation of cocaine. There were federal hearings talking about it.”

“Crack cocaine was locking people up,” said Bass, who said the crack epidemic led to mass incarceration.

“We also organized and tried to fight the laws like Three Strikes, lowering the age of youth to be tried as adults and pushing back against Operation Hammer, which concentrated on mass arrests of black youths.

“People still see the opioid problem as a different problem,” Bass said. “People say, ‘I had a reason to use that oxycontin and then I went to heroin. So my addiction is a little bit more legitimate than crack.’

Pausing, she added, “We need to recognize the pain of the opioid and crack addiction. We need to build power together to change the laws.”

Jones, who recently spent time in Appalachia, said that he was appalled and saddened to witness how the opioid epidemic was decimating that area.

“I go into the communities in Appalachia and I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “They have to get freezer trucks and park them outside of the coroner’s office and the morgue every Friday because so many of them drop dead from overdoses that the morgue fills up. They have to have a place to put the bodies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday so they have freezer trucks sitting there just to store the bodies until Monday.”

Pausing, he said, “They don’t know what government programs exist, they don’t know how to write a grant, they have no facilities, they don’t have what we have.”

To combat the problem, Jones organized activists from South Los Angeles and residents from Appalachia to work on securing funding for government programs to help reduce the epidemic.

Pausing, he said, “Being white is not saving them from anything because there are bigger white folk who run these pharmaceutical companies.

“If any black person even thought one time that they could set up a corporation that could kill 50,000 people in one year and still be walking around here free, you would slap them and send them to the funny farm,” Jones said. “Any black or brown organization would be called a terrorist organization. The leadership would be arrested and any funds collected would be used to help the people that the criminal organization hurt.”

Jones said that he is humbled and proud of the activism that rose in South Los Angeles to combat the crack epidemic.

“When I come to South Los Angeles, I feel like I’m walking on sacred ground,” Jones said. “Communities were ruined but people stood up and fought back.”

In South Los Angeles, Bass said “Black people are just dropping dead from opioids, they are not even making it to treatment centers. We need to expand our grassroots community-based programs [to help people] because they’re being eliminated.”

Bass said she will fight in Congress to secure funds to fight addiction in general, not just opioids.

Improving the education of youths in inner-city schools, advocating for civic and political power, seeking justice in the criminal justice system and utilizing art as tools for activism were some of the other topics discussed during the daylong session.

Nearly 600 stakeholders, activists and community residents, primarily African American and Hispanic, participated in several breakout sessions, or “tracks,” to strategize on pressing issues affecting South Los Angeles.

“The man in the White House would like to see us tear each other apart, but no, we will not be divided,” said Alberto Retana, chief executive officer of the Community Coalition, who kicked off the event. “Today is about your story. Remember your story matters more than the statistics.”

Dr. Tyrone Howard from the Black Male Institute at UCLA and his colleagues discussed the myriad conditions that plague students in urban schools — homelessness, policing in schools, the plight of foster youth and community safety.

Topics included how inner-city youth are being affected by undiagnosed trauma, the overrepresentation of black and brown students in foster care, and the fact that 8,000 students of color were arrested in schools last year.

“We need to go into schools and demand answers because we are tax-paying customers,” Howard said.

Speakers on the Criminal Justice Track included Isaac Bryan of UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods, David Turner of Brother, Sons, Selves and Gilbert Johnson of the Community Coalition.

Statistics indicate that black and brown people make up the majority of victims who are incarcerated and that 70 percent of the people incarcerated by L.A. County have mental health and/or substance abuse disorders.

Bryan said that the organization has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department, which they claim is arresting residents in disadvantaged communities living in certain zip codes.

“We saw how many neighborhoods were impacted by incarceration and they include Watts, Compton, Lancaster, Palmdale and South Los Angeles,” Bryan said, adding that the Los Angeles Unified School District has its own police force that costs $60 million a year to operate.

The panel agreed that the money should be spent on affordable housing, drug treatment and workforce development.

The Communication Track discussed how the media depicts black men in the media.

“They keep us in a systemic bind that show us as not being human,” participant Kevin Orange said. “Black and brown men are portrayed as thugs. We look at ourselves as being negative.”

“They see black and brown people with anger issues,” added Eric Black, who said he seldom hears of positive stories of blacks that are widely publicized. “A lot of police officers would put down that they see us as mentally ill or crazy.”

“When people are afraid of things, they panic,” Shadeiyah Edwards said. “We need to address the historical and generational trauma that has gone on for generations since slavery. We must be careful of how we portray ourselves in the media. People are making money off these [exploitative] reality TV shows and I think we need to change the trajectory.”

“They referred to us as refugees during Hurricane Katrina,” said one participant. “And then I saw they made O. J. Simpson darker on the cover of Time magazine to make him look more menacing after accusing him of murder,” another participant said.

“The media is portrayed to control your mind,” said facilitator Donte Maxim, who said he stopped watching television years ago and prefers social media channels instead.

Jason Cruze, a Caucasian, said, “There is a lack of awareness in white people of white privilege. Whites don’t understand how their skin color gives them certain advantages.”

Tolu Bamishigbin of the Advancement Project said the problem lies in the fact that most black and brown people don’t own media.

“We need to put out our own media,” Maxim said.

Other discussions included the Building Civic Power Track which stressed that a slate of important elections are coming in 2020 and how residents can contribute to electoral success. 

The Art Activism Track featured songs, painting, photography and jazz that have historically been used as a vehicle to educate and accelerate social change.

The event ended with a resource fair that offered information on employment for South Los Angeles residents.

“We are going to have the census coming up next year which will be available online,” Bass said. “We have to pay attention to that because all the resources are decided by the census. The Community Coalition will make sure we get across the finish line.”

“Let this be the people’s conference,” Retana said. “We never lose. We will fight this fight together and we’re going to win.”