Updated: Aug 29
Michael “Cetewayo” Tabor was born in Harlem in 1946. Like many young men of his time and place, Michael developed an
In a courtroom circus that included a District Attorney reading from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and a screening of The Battle of Algiers, eight months came and went. At the end of the longest and most expensive trial in New York State history to date, the jury foreman spoke the words “not guilty” 156 times. Those that stayed, were acquitted. Tabor and his comrade Richard Moore had already fled to Algeria during the trial to join Eldridge Cleaver. In 1972, Tabor moved to Zambia with his wife where he spent the rest of his life as a radio host and writer on politics and culture. Through his dying days in 2010, Tabor refused to again set foot on United States soil.
Tabor’s warning begins with anecdotes about young black boys and young black girls in the “colony” of Harlem “murdered” by heroin overdoses. Tabor calls heroin and drug abuse a “plague” upon his people, and likens the addicted to “slaves of the plague.” Certainly Tabor is not unique in his use of hyperbolic cliché’s involving slavery and disease. As he refers to sellers as “murdering scum of the planet,” Tabor sounds like a congressional official in the midst of a drug panic. Despite his hyperbole, Tabor also wrote with insight and vision in ways few can. Tabor’s commentary on deterrence, rehabilitation, poverty, capitalism, and the politics of respectability suggest that he understood much about the Drug War to follow that few would grasp.
Criminologists understand that deterrence is not effective—particularly when dealing with the drug trade. The powers of addiction and the allure of profits proves too much: “Despite the stiffer jail sentences being meted out to those whom the law defines as ‘drug profiteers’—a euphemism for illegal capitalists—there are more dope dealers now than ever before.” Perhaps Nelson Rockefeller may have benefitted from Tabor’s critique. Perhaps the drug warriors of the Crack Era needed to heed Tabor’s words as well. Neither did.
Tabor understood well the root of the problem—poverty. Rehabilitation alone proved insufficient as it did not “deal with the causes of the problem.” According to Tabor, “these programs deliberately negate or at best deal flippantly with the socio-economic origin of drug addiction.” For Tabor addiction did not represent just a personal weakness or moral failing. Addiction was a “monstrous symptom” of capitalism, class antagonisms, and the discriminatory structures of inequality. In a desperate attempt to escape the misery and suffering of poverty, many engaged in self-destructive behavior: “We are inclined to use anything that enables us to suffer peacefully. We have developed an escapist complex.” Mindy Thompson Fullilove has done excellent work that supports Tabor’s convictions. Certainly, the co-morbidity of drug abuse with trauma and mental illness lend credence to such beliefs.
Too often scholars read the war on drugs through simplistic binaries of race and party affiliation. Tabor saw more nuance, detailing the pernicious, antagonistic effects wrought by the politics of respectability within black communities: “A shameless disregard is displayed toward his clothes…That his unwashed body now emits a most foul odor disturbs him but little. That his non-addicted friends now shun him and look upon him with contempt matters not, for the feelings are mutual.” Tabor is just as critical of “respectable” church folk for their own escapist tendencies, “pathological religionism” that left citizens waiting for salvation instead of taking action.
When church folks eventually did take action, their calls for more police proved more damning than simply waiting for salvation and passing judgment on the addicted. Tabor warned of the fire next time. Commenting on the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, Tabor opined: “As the objective conditions and the balance of forces become more favorable for the oppressed…it becomes necessary for the oppressor to modify his program and adopt more subtle and devious methods to maintain his control.” Michele Alexander and others have argued that this new, subtle program came by way of the carceral state. Tabor understood this potential in 1970, but he also understood what Alexander and others fail to: The construction of the carceral state and the response to heroin and crack were not solely white conservative projects to impose control. Desperate cries from the black community would be used to rubber stamp more police, more jails, and harsher sentencing. Moreover, said voices obscured structural forces and the exigencies of poverty, scapegoating sellers and users for larger problems and policy failings.
Quite soon, there would be “more pigs in the ghetto” to maintain social control and state power. And it would be justified by voices from the community:
“What is the pretext?” It goes like this: Responsible negro community leaders have informed us, and their reports concur with police findings, that the negro community is ravaged by crime, muggings, burglaries, murders and mayhem. The streets are unsafe, business establishments are infested by armed robbers, commerce cannot function. City Hall agrees with negro residents that the main cause for this horrible situation is the dope addicts who prey on innocent people. Yes the dope addicts are to blame for the ever-increasing crime rate. And City Hall will answer the desperate cry of negro residents for greater protection—send in more police!”
In many respects, this is the Drug War script of the 1970s and 1980s. Few heard Tabor’s warnings. Cautioning frightened citizens to remember that the police were “alien hostile troops” before they screamed for more police protection, Tabor understood the dangers of escalating police presence and police rights. Police might not protect the lives of black people, “but rather protect the economic interests and the private property of the capitalists to make certain that Black people don’t get out of place.” An increased police presence might effect all nonwhite citizens of the ghetto, not just those involved in the drug trade. Complaining of “demagogic politicians” that had recently passed a bill approving no-knock warrants, Tabor reminded
Rather than ask for more police—as many residents did—Tabor demanded community control. Without civilian oversight, some police continued to be part of the problem. To their credit, Panthers took positive action towards achieving their goal. As early as August 1969, the Party newspaper began advertising a national petition drive for community control over police. With a circulation of 139,000 by 1970, the Party hoped to initiate a referendum process that established separate police departments in cities with large black populations. In other areas such as Detroit, armed Panthers began the “expropriation” process. That is—“expropriating” the money gained from robbing drug houses and drug sellers—to support daytime, aboveground Panther activities like health clinics, breakfast programs, and education classes. One Panther argued: “We regarded the heroin dealers as committing genocide against our community. Why shouldn’t we have expropriated their
Later, other Black Nationalists like Sonny Carson and his Black Men’s Movement Against Crack took similar measures. Carson and his crew became local heroes for visiting drug spots and offering to help sellers “move” while holding firearms. Meanwhile, more “respectable” citizens marched in the streets for more police and harsher sentencing. All the while, capitalists and state power were “delighted for two reasons” that the “plague” continued: “It is economically profitable, and two, they realize that as long as they can keep Black youths standing on street corners ‘nodding’ from a ‘shot’ of heroin, they won’t have to worry about us waging an effective struggle for liberation.”