Friday, February 26, 2016

Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, by Bryan Burrough

Penguin, 2015
585 pp


In Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough sets out to uncover the "untold story of the underground era" in America, a time frame that lasted from 1970 through 1985.  It is a very detailed, chronological look at the rise and fall of several underground radical revolutionary groups that existed during this time period, exploring  motivations behind their actions, as well as attempts by law enforcement (primarily the FBI, but also police departments across the country) to put an end to the violence. Combining personal interviews, written accounts and other material on both sides of the fence, he has put together what he calls a  "straightforward narrative history of the period." More on that later.

Burrough starts at the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969 with Sam Melville, who, along with his friends, "began planning some kind of bombing campaign." Melville was angry -- Nixon had just been elected, promising reprisals against student protestors, and not much time had gone by since August and the horrific events at the Democratic National Convention. Some people, like Sam, had decided that they weren't going to take it any more -- that it was time to fight back -- and started "talking about a genuine revolution, about guns, about bombs, about guerrilla warfare."  Telling his wife that "the revolution ain't tomorrow. It's now. You dig?" Melville began planning a bombing campaign, along with several like-minded friends. The first target, an office of United Fruit,  turned out to be no longer occupied, but the next bomb hit its mark -- the Marine Midland Bank on Wall Street. Further campaigns struck at "centers of American corporate power."   As the author notes, Melville was a pioneer of sorts, the
 "first to take antigovernment violence to new level, building large bombs and using them to attack symbols of American power."
His tactics would become "the essential blueprint for almost every radical organization of the next decade," although later others would also add in bank robberies, kidnapping and as Burrough puts it in his own way, outright murder. As Burrough notes in an interview on NPR, the people in these groups all read the same philosophers, and shared the same philosophies -- in the book he cites works by Che, Mao, Marighella's Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, Debray's Revolution in the Revolution? as only a few examples.

The book begins in earnest at this point, and starts with Weatherman (which will ultimately become Weather Underground).  In 1969, the group had tried to organize a protest in Chicago which they named "Days of Rage," but when the expected crowd failed to turn up, Burrough says, they became impatient to get the revolution going and began working on a wider campaign of violence.   In the process of preparing a bomb they'd planned to use at a dance at Ft. Dix, three people in an East Village townhouse were killed; two more, Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin, became fugitives and went underground.  According to what is said here, what the group learned from this experience was that they needed to make safer bombs and that symbols of American power should be their targets rather than people. While I won't go into detail here, Weatherman takes up most of the story in this book, and Burrough follows the group's story as it splintered, went through a number of purges and tried to stay steps ahead of the FBI for years.

Other groups under study in this book are the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers whose members were in touch with Eldridge Cleaver who was now in Algeria; the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) of Patty Hearst kidnap fame; FALN, a Puerto Rican group whose members advocated for Puerto Rican independence through deadly bombings, one of which killed several people at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City; the New World Liberation Front, at work in California's Bay Area; The Family, who targeted armored cars and cops, and the United Freedom Front, the creation of Ray Levasseur, who came out of prison with a dream of becoming the leader of his own "underground army."

He also examines the radicalization of some of the people who came out of America's prisons and found their way to these groups; when revolutionaries were sent to prison, demands for release often supplied motives for bombing campaigns.  Another segment of people involved here are the attorneys behind the scenes and in court who helped out with money, communiques, and allegedly smuggling contraband into the prisons. The book's subtitle also mentions the FBI, and they are here, especially the infamous Squad 47 out of New York, some of whom were later indicted as the truth behind their illegal "black bag jobs" became known.

Aside from laying out what he calls  a "straightforward narrative history of the period," one of the biggest goals of this book, it seems to me, is in Burrough's attempt to break down the "myth, pure and simple," that this violence was aimed more at specific symbols rather than people.  He notes at the beginning of the book that
"It is ultimately a tragic tale, defined by one unavoidable irony: that so many idealistic young Americans, passionately committed to creating a better world for themselves and those less fortunate, believed they had to kill people to do it."
At the same time, he also wants to  "explain to people today why all this didn't seem as insane then as it does now."

 In speaking about his work in the above-mentioned interview, the author said  that some of the  "young people who went underground" in the 1970s were declaring a "kind of war against America" believing that "a revolution was imminent and that violence would speed the change as it had in China, in North Vietnam, and in Cuba." He also notes that while people in the underground truly believed at the time that their action "shows the lengths to which committed left-wing people" would go to "oppose power in America -- corrupt power as personified by the Nixon administration in the Vietnam War," there are still others, like the son of a victim of an FALN bombing in a New York City bombing who will never see it that way, who will always think of these people as "Murderers first, revolutionaries second" and "Flat-out terrorists."

As the author notes in his epilogue, people can try to understand the "underground struggle as a well-meaning if misguided attempt to right America's wrongs,"  but there are also
"other observers, however, who argue persuasively that the crimes the underground committed overwhelm any altruistic motivations." 
 There's much, much, much more in this highly-complex book that is just impossible to encapsulate here.

 Reader reaction is mixed -- mainly favorable, but there is some negativity surrounding this book, especially coming from people who were there and active in the protest movements of the late 1960s, early 1970s.  There is a wealth of information here, although I must say that in some ways, that becomes one of the book's drawbacks. In some cases, I found that the author's inclusion of so much detail about the less-political side of these radical organizations  (e.g. sex, drugs, and a repeated litany of violent acts and subsequent hunts by law enforcement) sort of threw the politics to one side, which to me is less history than journalism, so that there are a number of times when it felt like his history verged toward more of a true-crime account. To me, a good historical  narrative is set well within the larger context, and  here, a lot seems to have been left out in terms of what was going on in America politically and socially, and maybe more to the point, what was going on with the nonviolent left at the same time. I'm also sort of taken aback by the lack of references here -- to cover over 500 pages, there is a only a very small amount of footnotes to turn to.  I will also note that despite the fact that he sees his work as a straightforward history of the period,  Burrough does let his own judgments become pretty clear throughout the book, but how this is so I will leave to the reader to discover.

 On the other hand,  much of this story is completely new material for me, and since I wasn't anywhere close to being old enough to be involved at the time, I had no expectations political or otherwise going into this account other than how much I could possibly learn about this relatively unknown (to me) story. There were parts I found absolutely fascinating -- I had no clue that some of these groups even existed, so in terms of revisiting the "forgotten age of revolutionary violence," it was a highly-informative book and the author deserves a large amount of credit for his hard work in putting it together.  It is most definitely a work that anyone interested ought to read, and keeping in mind my issues with this book, it's one I'd recommend.

a few professional reviews:

Jordan Michael Smith, The Boston Globe
Maurice Isserman, The New York Times
Rick Perlstein, The Nation

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug Addicts, by Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen, Luke Walden

Abrams, 2008
207 pp


The Narcotic Farm is a companion book to a PBS documentary of the same name.  The film itself is available online at Vimeo -- I watched it yesterday and just sat here sort of spellbound the entire time.  UPDATE: 2/29/2016: sadly, the documentary at Vimeo seems to have been pulled because of copyright issues.  Well, then, to whoever owns the copyright: why don't you put it on dvd at least so other people can watch it?????

I first heard of this book while reading Sam Quinones' Dreamland - up to then I had absolutely no clue that this place even existed.  The United States Narcotic Farm opened in 1935, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky; it was,  as the book notes,
"an anomaly, an institution where male and female convicts arrested for drugs did time along with volunteers who checked themselves in for treatment."  
In the 1920s, increasingly-strict drug laws and "aggressive enforcement" led to addicts being sent to prison "in droves," where they proved troublesome -- bringing drugs inside and getting non-addict prisoners hooked.  The authors note that by the late 1920s, about "a third of all federal prisoners were doing time on drug charges."   Social progressives of the time also took issue with the arrest of addicts, believing it to be "unjust" - so in 1929 two "government bureaucrats" lobbied for a measure that would create prisons just for convicted addicts, and by 1932, the construction of first of these institutions (the other in Ft. Worth) was underway.   Its administration fell under both the US Public Health Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons - and on the day it opened the first director, Dr. Lawrence Kolb stated that addicts would not be sent to prison for what was basically "a weakness," but they would be able to receive
"the best medical treatment that science can afford in an atmosphere designed to rehabilitate them spiritually, mentally, and physically." 
They would not be "prisoners," but rather "patients." "Narco," as it was called by locals, was built on a thousand acres of farmland, the idea being that sunshine and hard work on the farm (and in other jobs) would help keep patients on the road to recovery and "cure both immoral behavior and also bad health."   It was a great idea -- not only  were people  lining up at the door to be admitted as an alternative to being thrown into the federal prison system, but it was founded on the question of whether addiction was a criminal offense or an illness that might possibly be treated, a question that still resonates today. It also served as an addiction research center, "the only laboratory in the world that had access to a captive population of highly experienced and knowledgeable drug addicts," where scientists tried to understand "the mysteries of addiction."   The book reveals that the legacy of the addiction research center [which moved to Baltimore and continued research under the auspices of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)], is that it
"established an entire scientific field and formulated the current definition of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder. It also trained a cadre of addiction specialist who themselves went on to work as heads of medical schools, government officials, directors of drug treatment centers, and leaders in addiction research."

from the Atlanta Georgian, 1935

The book and the documentary together detail the story of Narco from its beginning in 1935 through its final days forty years later.  Some interesting highlights of its history include a few notables who passed through its doors -- both William S. Burroughs senior and junior,  as well as a host of jazz musicians including Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and Sonny Rollins. Both Burroughs, father and son, wrote books about their time at Lexington: Senior in his Junkie, where there's an entire section about him signing himself in," and Junior with his Kentucky Ham (which I'm planning to read soon)  detailing his time as a patient there.   However, as time went on, it became quite obvious that the "cure" wasn't working, but I'll leave it to readers to discover why this was the case.  The institution's addiction research center also became the subject of congressional hearings in the 1970s regarding human experimentation soon after the story broke on the Tuskeegee syphillis experiments (the subject of James H. Jones' most excellent book Bad Blood),leading in part to the center's demise.  Interesting as well is the fact that the director, Harris Isbell, had accepted funds from the CIA over a nine-year period  as part of the CIA's research for MK-ULTRA and had given prisoners the drug, although to be fair, he notes that it was actually done as part of legitimate science.  It wasn't just LSD, though -- all manner of narcotics and other drugs were tested on the prisoners, who, by the way, were rewarded with the choice of drugs (go figure) or less time for their services.

The Narcotic Farm, in combination with the documentary, is absolutely fascinating. It is mainly a book of photos from the time with accompanying text, but it is certainly well worth the read.  It opens a brief window not only into attitudes about addiction at the time, but medical ethics, notions of treatment, and quite frankly it's both disturbing and enlightening at the same time.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town, by Nick Reding

Bloomsbury, 2009
255 pp


"... none of this is about a drug. It's about a system of government and an economy." 

"...If ever there was a chance to see the place of small American town in the era of the global economy, the meth epidemic is it." 

I enjoyed reading this book so much that I got a bit carried away with using small sticky-tab arrows on the side of its pages to mark things I really wanted to remember. I see now that it's pretty much impossible to make time and space for every marked page, so I'll do what I can. Just to be clear here, this book is not an exposé or a voyeuristic look into the lives of all of the meth addicts in this town, nor is there anything along the lines of say "Breaking Bad" here, so readers who are into that sort of thing should probably move along. This book is serious business and deserves to be read as such.

Methland  is a book very much worth reading. Even if there are people out there who pooh-pooh the idea that there's a meth "epidemic" sweeping small-town rural America, what really struck me was the bigger implications of, as the dustjacket blurb notes, "the connections between the real-life people touched by the drug epidemic and the global forces behind it."  As Mr. Reding states in an interview,
"...people are trying to destroy small town American life. And they're doing it economically...That's what big agriculture is doing and that's what the pharmaceutical industry is doing. Going back to the Clinton years, there's this notion that globalization is somehow beyond criticism, that it's a pure form of self-sustaining economic perfection.  It's not true, and if you'd like to see where it's least true, go to Oelwein." 
Oelwein, Iowa is the launching point of this book; it's a town which has been "left in the dust by the consolidation of the agricultural industry, a depressed local economy, and an out-migration of people."  It's also a place where "the economy and culture" are
 "more securely tied to a drug than to either of the two industries that have forever sustained the town: farming and small businesses."
However, it's not just Oelwein that is facing some pretty serious issues in this story.  While he makes people in Oelwein the central focus of his book, and examines the town's changes and its problems through their eyes, it is also very clear that what has happened there is happening throughout the midwest.  Oelwein, which was "on the brink of disaster" by May 2005,  is just one focal point for examining how the lobbyists and government supporters of both Big Agriculture and Big Pharma, as well as the effects of free trade (vis-a-vis NAFTA) have all contributed to catastrophic changes in rural, small-town America, which in turn contribute to the rising meth epidemic in these areas.

As he says,
"Meth's basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade." 
and, in another interview, speaking about America's drug policies, the author sort of ties together all of these interconnected "components":
"Drugs here are about economy and politics. For instance, that legislation designed to give Big Ag enormous breaks in fact makes drug distribution easier in two ways: one, it sucks revenues out of towns that become major trans-shipment points; two, it draws more illegal immigrants, who traffickers use as mules. That's just one small example of the interrelation of things, and of how treating drugs as though they exist in a vacuum free from the influence of politics, economics, and sociology is essentially useless." 
While it's important to understand exactly how all of these components are interrelated and how this combination has become absolutely devastating to the towns, the people, and the overall well being of small-town, rural America,  the most fascinating parts of this book to me is the author's examination of the role and the power of Big Agriculture, huge conglomerates with their own powerful lobbyists and their own government supporters -- and I have to admit that for the most part, I had no clue that any of this was happening.

For a brief peek, one huge part of this book revolves around the changes in the food industry, most specifically, the area's meatpacking industries which for decades had supported a large proportion of wage earners.  When the area's Iowa Ham Plant was sold to Gillette in 1992,  the new owners made changes right away. For one thing, they "dismantled" the union, and worker wages plummeted. Aside from lowering the wages (the example given here was a drop from $18 to $6.20 per hour), while employed by Iowa Ham, the employees had benefits as well as stock ownership, which all went away.  A number of employees took on double shifts, using meth as a way to keep themselves awake and productive through both.   Medical coverage disappeared, and there was no guarantee of workers' comp in the event of an injury.  Within a year, a number of employees came to see the company doctor, who had noticed a rise in depression and an accompanying rise in drug use, noting that they were "turning to meth."

Employees fared less better when Gillette sold to Iowa Beef who sold to Tyson; not only did wages decrease with each turnover but by the time Tyson shut the plant completely in 2006, there were 99 workers left, a huge cut from 800.  This same sort of scenario repeated itself in Ottumwa, Iowa, where Hormel plant workers met pretty much the same fate when the company was bought by Excel Meat Solutions, a subsidiary of food-giant Cargill.   The paring down of the competition meant that bigger corporations,
"...the surviving companies, like Cargill, begin to effect political decisions through their enormous lobbying capabilities. The government no longer governs unimpeded: it does so in tandem with the major companies..."
Reding also points out that as Cargill "consolidated more and more of the meatpacking industry -- and the food industry in general,"  there was a growth in its lobbying power, its political leverage, and its profits.  To keep costs even lower, the author says, some of the meatpacking companies began "courting" undocumented workers from Mexico, hiring them at "abysmally low wages."   When adding in unemployment related to the decline of other industries, people leave, tax revenue shrinks, less services can be offered or paid for, local education suffers, infrastructure suffers, and all of that (and more) takes its physical, mental and emotional toll on the entire town. And then there's meth use and production within this small town: while  Reding states explicitly that it would be "hard to argue convincingly" that "the surge in meth use in Oelwein was a direct result" of the wage cuts,  he does say that that it's pretty much impossible to not notice the "400 percent increase in local meth production at the same time," if one goes by the number of meth labs that were "busted.

While, as I said earlier, how these all come together to create this sad and most untenable situation is the main thrust of this book,  it is also a story about real people in a real town with real lives, some of whom have shared their experiences with the author to offer firsthand accounts.  Many of them have through no fault of their own been caught up in circumstances largely beyond their control; some of them do what they can in what seems like a hopeless situation.   Personally, this book not only opened my eyes, but the author's research and his own observations made for great reading on a human level as well. This is also a book that seriously pissed me off -- as it should for anyone who reads it.

Lots of readers have made several complaints about errors running throughout this book;  I didn't take the time to stop and look at that sort of thing because I was way more concerned about what the author was actually saying, which is backed up with actual research.  Once again, whether or not readers agree or disagree with the author's conclusions, this is a book that needs to be read. Highly recommended.