Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Heroin and Angela Davis: Two Reflections on The Black Power Mixtape

     I've just finished watching The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975, a compilation documentary available on both Netflix and Youtube, that we mentioned in class just yesterday. The film uses archival footage from Swedish TV to retell the story of the black freedom movements. Director  Olsson takes us through each year of the non-year timeline, focusing on leading figures like Carmichael and Davis, and significant events, including the Attica Prison riot. I was especially struck by two parts of the movie: the interview with a detained Angela Davis, and the segment on drug addiction among returning soldiers.

     The film's cover features a shot of Angela Davis, her face bent forward, eyes obscured by her hair. The photo is taken from arguably the best interview in the movie. conducted during Davis' incarceration. When questioned about the Panthers and the justification of violent means to enact revolution, her reaction is incredulous.
     Davis describes the violent reality of her childhood experience in Birmingham, Alabama. She goes on to stress that violence from an oppressive apparatus has shaped the African-American experience for centuries. Davis had clearly been shaken at the time of the interview, but rather than weakening her response, it only feeds her passion and fervor. You can check out the  interview here, where it starts at around 11:13. The conclusion of the interview is here.

II. The film also devoted a portion of screen time to a discussion of the impact of drugs on the black community. We have read several sources describing the experience of black soldiers returning to a country they had fought for, only to be refused basic rights, chances for employment, and often crippled by drug addiction. 
     The film mentions the large portion of Vietnam soldiers who came home with a serious heroin addiction. I decided to do some more research into the issue and found this fascinating article on the history of American drug use in the Vietnam War:
     Marijuana use became extremely prevalent among US soldiers during the early years of the war. As Brush describes:

"A comparison has been made between Vietnamese use of marijuana and the manner in which the French treat wine and sex: there are cultural regulations for use, sale, and protocol but no inherent sense of "illicitness" as in the United States." 

     That "sense of illicitness" led the US military to crack down on marijuana use among Marines. As Brush argues, it was a cultural stigma that caused the military to enforce such strict regulations on the drug:

"Use of marijuana did not constitute an operational problem. Smoking in rear areas did not impact operations. Use among combat personnel came when units stood down rather when in the field. The Commanding General of the 3d Marine Division noted "there is no drug problem out in the hinterlands, because there was a self-policing by the troops themselves." Life for combat soldiers depended on their being clear-headed."

The consequence of this misdirected regulation soon became apparent, once heroin use became a major factor among soldiers. The opium trade was a significant force in Orientalist trade efforts between the East and West, tracing back centuries. Now, the drug was only becoming more potent: 

"In late 1969 and early 1970, Golden Triangle laboratories instituted a more sophisticated opium refinement process, allowing them to produce high-grade (80 to 99 percent pure) no. 4 heroin."

The purity of heroin in Vietnam meant that it could be smoked casually, not necessarily injected. It soon became a common ritual for all new troops to at least try the drug: an estimate 90% had smoked heroin within their first four months in Vietnam. The statistics only continued to worsen: " in 1973, 34 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam had commonly used heroin."

The Army attempted to enact a detoxification process for all returning soldiers, but the program couldn't handle the massive volume of addicts. At one point, "the market for heroin among U.S. military personnel was worth $88 million dollars to South Vietnamese drug traffickers," in addition to the market for Vietnamese addicts. And to bring us back to its influence on the black community, "the United States was unable to end its heroin problem in Vietnam even by ending its participation in the war: heroin came home with us."

I'm still trying to digest the implications of this - the fact that a large section of our domestic narcotics problem originated in a foreign war. What do you guys think?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.