1 January 2009. Oakland, California. Underground. The all-illumined Bay Area Rapid Transit Fruitvale train station platform.
A melee of indistinct origin and uncertain conclusion occurs on an arriving train. The transit system’s private police are called in to restore order. A big, husky officer walks along the outside of the train beating his baton furiously against the train windows. He produces his taser, flashes it about like an abstract warning. His male and female fellow officers decide to roust the offenders. Young men in baggy pants, their dreadlocks and beanies and hoodies bobbing back and forth, are hustled off the train. Confusion ensues. Insults and expletives are exchanged between the officers and young men. A crowd gathers. A mass of jeering New Year’s youth form a circle around what is quickly degenerating into a spectacle.
Photograph by Nick Fisher
The crowd is chanting, deriding the gang of overzealous, armed security guards. The boys argue with their captors. They make a big deal about being handcuffed, continue to volubly object and claim innocence even as, one by one, they adopt the physical positions of compliance. Hands behind their backs. On their knees. On their stomachs. On the ground.
Cell phone cameras are held aloft, their black, inscrutable lenses trained on the rolling debacle. These are the first images of Oakland in 2009: A stupid fight. Some stupid kids. Some stupid cops.
Two officers, including the one with the baton, force a medium-sized, nondescript brother to the ground. They want him to concede completely. He has conceded, gone limp and immobile. The one with the baton is still on top of the kid, the difference in weight and strength obvious by the way the kid collapses stomach first, prostrate. More arguing, more jeering, more complaints. Then the officer produces his gun. He points it directly at the kid’s back. He shoots him once, then presses his knee deeper into his back.
Photograph by Michael Mees
It was on the enclave island of Alameda, connected to Oakland and the rest of Northern California’s East Bay by three mechanical bridges, that the “Oscar Grant Trial,” as it’s come to be known throughout California, really started to make sense to me. At an Alameda diner, I overheard a man say that Alameda’s business plan, in case disgraced Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Johannes Mehserle was found innocent, was to raise the bridges before the riot spread to the island.
I remember wondering how the man would like it if the bridges stayed raised and the good people of Alameda had to swim to work for a while. He could lead the way.
Slip the yoke and change the joke, as black folks used to say.
I never actually wanted anyone to swim to work, but this overheard remark crystallizes the conflict of visions that slashes across this case. The verdict is in. The jury has decided, but the decision no more than a formality. Involuntary manslaughter; in other words, an accident.
The scales of justice do not tilt this strangely in a single instant. In this case, they started tilting in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when BART police officers tried to confiscate the camera phones from the onlookers who had just witnessed and recorded the shooting. They were tilting when the proposal went in for the trial site to be moved from Oakland to conservative bedrock Orange County, and when downtown Los Angeles was eventually decided upon as a compromise location. They were tilting when the defense and prosecution took an hour to agree on a jury without even one black juror, and they were tilting when the judge summarily dismissed the first-degree murder charge before closing arguments were read. All of this could have been predicted.
Photograph by Michael Mees
Viewed from the perspective of an ideology and a lived experience that encourages trust in law enforcement and a court system that from time immemorial has protected and served, Officer Mehserle appears as a tragic figure guilty merely of a rash misreach for his taser, poor police education, and an understandable panic at his proximity to several (variously handcuffed, prostrate, unarmed, and restrained) young black men. But viewed from the perspective of those young black men, or this young black man, that vision is absurd. The notion that we black men—prostrate on train platforms, loitering aimlessly on corners, bullshitting in bars, raising children, being loving spouses—may one day surrender our lives to some weird welter of color-struck paranoia, half-assed job training and taser confusion is idiotic. Statistics, by the way, tell us that violent crimes committed by black people overwhelmingly are committed against other black people, that in fact (as opposed to fear), white people have never been at the mercy of an irrepressible black crime wave. From our perspective, this verdict lends any police action formed against us, including shooting a prostrate man in his back while he lies on a clean, well-lit train platform in full view of dozens of witnesses, plausible deniability. Black men, in the governing ideology, are not understood as victims of crime. Emmett Till’s coffin has closed. Our murder, whether from police action or drug war crossfire or whatever, becomes the sacrifice by which the nation ritually defines its distance from randomness and premature death.
Justice and time
The arc of the moral universe is long but it does not necessarily bend toward justice.
Between 1865 and 1870, Reconstruction saw sweeping legislation for full civil rights for black men, including the Fifteenth Amendment’s effectively enacted rights to vote and hold political office. The beginnings of black power were, tragically, located within a South characterized by anti-black vigilante and police terrorism, and within a Republican Party that effectively bound the freedom struggle to Northern capitalist interests much as our current-day Democratic Party binds a medley of underserved constituencies to an overserved business elite. The grassroots resistance of low country South Carolina rice workers by means of rolling labor strikes during Reconstruction’s final days testifies not only to the injustice of payment in scrip (the issuance of promissory notes that were only valid at local stores as opposed to actual monies exchanged for labor), and opposition to segregationist terror, but to the increasing unwillingness of most white Americans to represent black labor, let alone protect black lives. The trajectory of Reconstruction, from sudden admission of a previously enslaved racial minority into the body politic to an almost equally rapid foreclosure of freedoms—a foreclosure essentially supported by the unabashed antipathy of one political party and the apathy of the other—suggests not so much the impossibility of revolution in America as the certainty of counter-revolutionary opposition.
Absent representation and protection, a whirlwind of repression spread nationwide. All-white hamlets where blacks could travel through and conduct business only during daylight hours became commonplace in rural northern and western communities, as detailed in James Loewen’s 2005 book Sundown Towns. And the under-taught and consequently little-known, yet nation-defining anti-black riots, from San Juan Hill in New York City, to the Massacre in East St. Louis, to the Burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, forced blacks into more and more rigidly cordoned ghettos, from Harlem to Oakland. Not only did the riots take black lives, they wiped out businesses and destroyed much black financial capital. The riots signaled a virulent resistance to our migration into America’s centers of industry, wealth, and power. Systematic backlashes against minorities have neither been inevitable nor in inevitable decline, but rather tend to intensify during periods of social progress and inclusion.
Photograph courtesy of Keenan Norris
In Oakland and far beyond this city’s limits, our era is revealing itself not as some magical post-race realm, but rather a brook of fire familiar to a nation that has always known racial change as a violent crossing over. In the crossing there is no assurance, no affirmation. I still see shirts here and there around Oakland celebrating Barack Obama’s presidential victory of 2008. I still see from time to time, as well, those unearthly aurora red, blue, and beige graphics of President Obama’s face that make him look like something superhuman suddenly arrived. They read to me now as advertisements on the sharp brevity of euphoria. The shirts that I no longer see are the ones that memorialize Oscar Grant, not so much because he has been forgotten here, but rather because most know that his tragedy will be replaced many times over.
California’s San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of its Great Central Valley, is the world’s leading producer of agricultural products, grossing over $20 billion of the state’s $34.8 billion agricultural earnings in 2009.1 It’s also home to a less recognized but significant economic force in the Valley: the manufacture and use of methamphetamine—also known as glass, crank, speed, crystal, zip, and ice—a brain-altering, central nervous system stimulant. Eighty percent of the nation’s meth labs and 97 percent of its “superlabs” are located there.2
Stylized in the golden-era iconography of California agriculture, this mural is displayed on the wall of an abandoned building in a field of weeds just outside the San Joaquin Valley town of Sanger. PHOTO BY RAY WINTER.
According to the 2010 Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Market Analysis, Central California is the principal methamphetamine producing region in the United States, controlled predominantly by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs).3 The profits are huge. The US Department of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment cites Mexican DTOs alone as making tens of billions of dollars annually through sales of illicit drugs, largely methamphetamine produced in the rural belt of California. The average street value per gram (the weight of a dollar bill) was $127 in September, 2009. If drug officials are correct that ten times the amount of seized methamphetamine makes it to the streets, then meth manufactured in the Central Valley in 2009 edged out peaches as the twentieth highest-earning cash crop in the state—over $327 million.4 This is a conservative, perhaps wishful, underestimation.
Such industrial-scale manufacture and consumption of a brain-altering drug puts the cultural, environmental, and economic well-being of this region at great risk. Meth’s large-scale manufacture inflicts an immeasurable environmental strain on America’s most fertile farmland and entraps many of its citizens. A multimillion-dollar industry mainly orchestrated by Mexican nationals would seem to have trickle-down benefits for the immigrant farmworker—a dark counter-narrative within the largely class- and race-based traditions of industrial farming exposed by Carey McWilliams in his classic analysis Factories in the Field. But in reality, there is little poetic justice here. The common agricultural laborer is hired to perform the deadly job of cooking and transporting this drug. Lured by the promise of a higher wage, he has changed vocations to little use: he is still indentured in chronic poverty with compounded threats to his health.
Evidence from a methamphetamine bust at a rural home west of Madera. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.
The Valley is the prime location for such a nucleus of toxic harvest. Many circumstances make it favorable besides its remote and, therefore, “hidden” quality: there is the close proximity to the most powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs); the elimination of porous yet risky border transport; the presence of a willing and vulnerable labor force from Mexico in the form of low-paid field workers; close proximity to dense population groups for its sale; easy access to interstate transport along the I-5 and CA-99 corridors; uninhabited spaces; and the opportunity for less conspicuous acquisition of large quantities of various toxic ingredients available from the surrounding agricultural industry.
Increasingly, the presence of meth alters the cultural fabric of a place already strained by a complex socio-economic infrastructure. Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost annually to overburdened justice and healthcare systems, decreased productivity, and environmental destruction.5 Besides threatening the tenuous economic balance of California, meth destroys the lives of its users, a spectrum of ethnicities but primarily the economically vulnerable. On the domestic and civil fronts, methamphetamine holds the title as the single greatest drug threat throughout the region. Most violent and property crimes in the Valley are meth-related, including theft, domestic violence, child abuse, and homicide induced by its side effects.6
The effects of this drug on the human body are horrific, escalating according to the duration of use. In fact, as meth forces the abnormally large release of the body’s pleasure chemical dopamine onto the brain’s neuroreceptors for an extended time, it exhausts this natural chemical and makes it harder to get high. A user’s response, of course, is to use harder and heavier. Made of corrosive and toxic materials such as Freon, paint thinner, battery acid, and anhydrous ammonia, it is no surprise that its effects on the human body are long-lasting and life-altering.7 Brain function is altered at the synaptic level, affecting memory, judgment, and motor coordination. Hallucinations and long-term paranoia commonly occur. Impaired judgment leads to crime, sexual promiscuity and accompanying diseases, and social dysfunction due to a singular desire to stay high. Users risk heart failure and stroke due to the strain on the heart and blood vessels from extended periods of kinetic unrest. They experience skin sores, malnutrition, and horrifying oral decay known as “meth mouth.”8
Wall of graffiti in west Fresno. PHOTO BY RAY WINTER.
Even before meth does its damage to users, this “poor man’s cocaine” first threatens the lives of its makers. Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties are three of the state’s five largest agricultural employers, each averaging over 20,000 employees.9 The laborers in this large pool are far from home and generally without legal rights or social agency as they look for the best available alternative to poverty in the Golden State. These circumstances make them expendable targets for the DTOs that promise big money as “cooks” or “mules.” Once lured into the mechanism of production and distribution, they often find themselves trapped, having told the Mexican DTOs where to send their earnings back in Mexico. Ringleaders then confirm a family connection, which all but enslaves the workers to these drug lords out of fear that a lack of acquiescence or loyalty will lead to the death of a wife, child, or other relative.10 They are enslaved in a system that ends either in arrest or death. DTO recruiters are distinctly aware of the total lack of alternatives for undocumented Mexican nationals in the United States and clearly target this most disempowered sector of the laboring population. Throughout the 1990s, twice as many Federal methamphetamine cases involved Hispanic noncitizens than Hispanic citizens.11
Amelia Turse examines a hole on her property where a methamphetamine lab was uncovered. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.
The situation is particularly perilous for cooks, who render the toxic ingredients into the end product. Even if they escape arrest by authorities or murder by their employer—a depressingly frequent occurrence—they face serious health risks from the chemical ingredients and volatile reactions inherent in the manufacturing process. The acidic compounds, deadly if breathed or touched are much more caustic than the muriatic acid used in swimming pools, able to burn flesh off the bone in seconds and cause chemical pneumonia leading to a quick and painful death.
Methamphetamine’s destructive appetite devours more than human lives. Drug-fighting agencies estimate that for every pound of methamphetamine manufactured, five to seven pounds of liquid toxic waste are produced.12 Untold amounts are regularly dumped into canals, streams, irrigation ditches, top soil, shallow pits, sewage lines, and eventually leak into the Central Valley water table.13 This unregulated and criminally irresponsible dumping of toxic by-products directly into the water systems of the Central Valley may stand alongside the long-term damages from widespread pesticide spraying, once all the facts are known. A fifty-pound batch of meth produces as much as 350 pounds of concentrated toxic by-product, which in the case of one superlab was dumped directly into nearby soil or waterways. The EPA has identified sixty-five by-products from its production as hazardous waste materials (classified as cyanides, corrosives, solvents, irritants, and metals/salts).14 The specific effects and toxicity of these chemical cocktails are uncertain, but present a threat of ecological devastation. When considering that the Central California landscape and waterways are integrally connected and engineered to maximize food growth for the nation, tracking these chemicals and their effects leads directly to dinner tables across America.
This epidemic is one of the most devastating and ironic contemporary counter-narratives of the idealized California landscape. The deadly effects of methamphetamine on its low-income users and labor force and its post-manufacture strain on the environment and economy represent the new lows to which idealized prosperity has fallen in the name of private-party profit. Why do people use the drug? Is it to escape the disappointment of a once promising but ever unfulfilling life in the West?15 “Big Rock Candy Mountain” isn’t just a folksong but a very real social and environmental toxin. A short-lived, hyper-euphoric high is hardly a legitimate substitute for the California Dream.
The new drug factories in California fields have added another layer to the many ways in which the American farm has caused as much pain and poverty as it has enjoyed prosperity. Drugs are as mainstream a commodity as the food that makes its way to every store shelf in America, yet they are invisible in the commercial depictions of the wholesome California farm. Tourism and agricultural boards spend millions of dollars maintaining the concept of pastoral perfection through images of happy cows, healthy chickens, and bumper crops from family farms. It seems the state and private-party profits accrued in part by the maintenance of this pristine image continue to take priority over curbing the very real human and ecological costs of meth. The unmediated dumping of toxic by-products directly into waterways endangers the economic livelihood of the farms and families that feed America, surely a significant enough threat to this multibillion-dollar industry to warrant significant governmental and private response. In the meantime, meth dealers are effectively urging a grotesque “Buy California” slogan to pedal “Californian ice” to the farthest reaches of the nation.
The magnitude and momentum of this problem deserve immediate and uncompromising attention. Attempted solutions to this epidemic reveal an infrastructure committed to a reactive approach that engenders exorbitant economic, social, and environmental costs. However, potential improvements can be seen in the actions of entities such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and interagency collaborations. One recent example is Save Our Sierra (SOS), an interagency law enforcement effort in Fresno County seeking to eradicate ecologically devastating clandestine marijuana farms in the Sierras.16 In 2009 they reported the seizure of over $1.1 billion of marijuana plants and made eighty-eight arrests, some of which were tied to DTOs.
While these measures are a necessary part of the holistic response to such an invasive problem, they don’t address systemic causes of rampant domestic drug manufacture and use such as insufficient border controls, inconsistent farm laborer rights, the accessibility of key drug ingredients, and the depletion of funding for drug-awareness efforts. Such issues are being addressed on the legal and educational fronts by political representatives and engaged citizen groups, but federal funding and corporate support heavily favor a reactive response to the epidemic as seen in the extreme juxtaposition of spending between prisons and rehabilitation as compared to preventative educational programs, special agency funding, and community awareness.17
As long as this pattern continues, meth will always have a safe place to hide while the land and the people of the Central Valley pay a dear price. The solution to this epidemic may include reimagining the Valley as something more dubious, and less profitable, than the “land of milk and honey.” This may be too high a price to pay for those who profit greatly from this idyllic perception. Either way, the bountiful land of the Central Valley and the lucrative profits that are the source of the region’s livelihood are compromised by a parasitic parallel system of manufacture, labor, and distribution that is more than willing to supplant industrial agriculture as the new factory in the fields.
Chemical stained sheets and packaging card found at methamphetamine chemical dump. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.
2. These percentages are according to California Department of Justice’s “Clandestine Meth Labs” report. A “superlab” is a production facility that manufactures ten pounds or more of meth per batch, as compared to a typical one pound “stove top” batch; many superlabs have been found that produce fifty or more pounds per batch. From 2005–2009, an average of 207 laboratories and abandonments were found by authorities in San Joaquin Valley counties, led by Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, and Fresno (US Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, Central Valley California HIDTA Drug Market Analysis 2010, June 2010, Table 2). According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH, 2010) published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, first time users of meth from 2002 through 2009 average over 216,000 per year (Figure 5.6). The total number of users nation-wide is not estimated, but is considered a significant percentage of the nearly twenty-two million illicit drug users.
3. According to US Dept. of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, “Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis 2010.”
4. According to Central Valley California HIDTA Drug Market Analysis 2010 (June 2010), 258 kilograms of meth were seized in 2009 in the Central Valley, which calculates to $327.66 million once multiplied by street value and increased by ten to calculate for unseized meth. Statewide income from peaches in 2009 was $326,331,000 (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2010 Agricultural Statistical Review). Ed Synicky, a state agent fighting the drug war, is quoted in Arax and Gorman’s article in the Los Angeles Times titled, “California’s Illicit Farm Belt Export” as saying that for every meth lab seized, it is assumed there are ten more that go undiscovered (13 March 1995).
5. According to the US Dept. of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment (February), economic costs are estimated at $215 billion a year.
6. In the Pacific Region (dominated statistically by the Central Valley), 87.3% of state and local law enforcement agencies characterize methamphetamine as the greatest drug threat in their jurisdictions, compared with 29.4% of agencies nationwide (US Dept. of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment 2009, December 2008, Pacific Region). The crime patterns, as well as the environmental data that follows, are recorded in a number of reports (2001–2010) posted on the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center website. Gang-related violence is also a result of meth manufacture, but more a product of gang culture than the use of meth.
8. Effects of meth are collected from Kci.org, anti-meth.org, and pbs.org’s article, “The Meth Epidemic: How Meth Destroys the Body.” For information and images of meth mouth, go to http://www.mappsd.org/Meth%20Mouth.htm.
10. As described in Mark Arax and Tom Gorman’s Los Angeles Times article, “California’s Illicit Farm Belt Export,” 13 March 1995.
11. As cited in “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned” by Hunt, Kuck, and Truitt. Abt Associates, Inc. February 2006, 27. This information derived from the US Sentencing Commission, 1999.
12. According to the 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment compiled by the US Dept. of Justice.
13. National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, “Impact on the Environment” discusses the patterns of dumping and the amount of by-product waste created. The EPA document from September of 2008 titled “RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products” further explains the typical domestic disposal of toxic by-product into city sewage lines, septic systems, and nearby soil.
14. Taken from the EPA document from September, 2008 titled “RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products,” Appendix B.
15. According to the 2010 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings, the western region of the United States has the highest percentage of drug dependence at 9.5% of its population.
17. Examples of legislation seeking to curb meth production are highlighted by the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 (MCA), which regulates the distribution, import, and export of key ingredients (US Dept. of Justice, Office of Diversion Control; Federal Register: 28 March 2002 (Volume 67, Number 60). The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 placed restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of key ingredients pseudophedrine and ephedrine (National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010). Also, the Mexican government banned the import and use of key ingredients pseudoephedrine and ephedrine in 2009 (National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010).