Broken Homes of the Drug War

David Helps


Gloria Flowers was in the bath when the raid began. It was past midnight, the first night of August 1988, and the 21-year-old mother of two lay soaking her muscles when more than 80 police broke down her apartment door. Officially, the squat, four-family building on Dalton Avenue was a “gang-controlled” crack den—and officially, this was a bust. In each unit, police broke through walls and cabinets with an ax and a homemade battering ram. They smashed stereos and mirrors and a glass table. They wrenched the doors from appliances, emptied food from fridges, and poured bleach on children’s clothes. Outside on the lawn, officers put residents in handcuffs and beat them with police-issue flashlights.

For all this use of force, the LAPD made just one arrest that night, according to initial newspaper accounts. Hildebrandt Flowers was an alleged gang member with a short rap sheet: a young man known to police who didn’t live in the building. When he caught word of the raid, he rushed to the scene to make sure his sister Gloria was safe, and was arrested on the spot.

The Dalton Avenue raid would become the most damaging scandal in the LAPD’s War on Drugs. For a generation of people in South Central, the name “Dalton” is synonymous with casual brutality and racist malice. The clear disparity between the police’s claim that the target was a major gang hideout and the reality—that these were people’s homes—led to a lasting public belief that the raid was a tragic case of mistaken identity. “Course you know it was the wrong house?” the long-time resident and activist Mabie Settlage tells me. In her recollection, the offending officers coolly admitted the mistake. She went on, “To have a family just living their life, and then these cops come in and break their furniture, break their toilet… and then just throw everything in the middle of the room and say, ‘Oh, sorry, wrong house,’ and walk out? It was straight-up terrorism.”

This narrative around Dalton—as a story about a purblind police state—was repeated in the legal system. A court ordered the city to pay $3 million to the victims in a civil suit, while a handful of officers were charged with misdemeanor vandalism. These were rare occurrences, and the charges added to Dalton’s reputation as an exceptional event. In the course of an internal investigation, however, the offending officers did not explain their violence as misplaced or misdirected. They were there for a reason. The LAPD brass, they believed, “wanted the neighborhood taken off the map.”

“Dalton” was less a raid than a rampage. Cops systematically destroyed everything they could while ostensibly searching for contraband. “It was like a bomb went off,” John Burton, the victims’ lawyer, told the media. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black newspaper, likened the damage to a disaster zone and asked its readers to donate to those affected: “Imagine residing in a place with holes in the walls and no cooking or toilet facilities, surrounded by the stench of rotted food and water damage.” When I spoke with Burton, he told me that the raid was intended to send a clear message to the neighborhood: “Don’t fuck with the LAPD.” The spectacle of the destruction was the point.

Why was this neighborhood in the LAPD’s crosshairs? The 3900 block of Dalton Avenue is smack dab in the heart of South Central. It’s just one mile east of the walled campus of the University of Southern California, an institution whose parasitic relationship to its surroundings rivals that of Yale or Columbia, as Piper French has documented. Turn the corner and travel three miles south, and you’ll arrive at Florence and Normandie: the corner where the 1992 L.A. Riots began, sparked by the beating of Rodney King and the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American shopkeeper. The area was also a key site of organizing by the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), an organization founded in the 1970s by former Black Panthers Michael Zinzun and B. Kwaku Duren. The Dalton victims’ lawyer, John Burton, worked closely with Zinzun and appeared on his public-access TV show, Message to the Grassroots, to discuss videotaped footage of the battered apartments.

It was in these neighborhoods, longstanding sites of Black and multiracial organizing against police power, where the LAPD’s drug war dealt the most damage. In February 1985, the department debuted the latest addition to its anti-drug arsenal: a V-100 armored car equipped with a 14-foot steel battering ram. For its maiden voyage, the LAPD took the tank-like vehicle to Pacoima, a multiracial enclave in the majority-white San Fernando Valley. But when the battering ram pierced the window of a purported “rock house,” instead of guard dogs, Uzi-toting gangsters, and a stash, the LAPD found two women and three young children who’d been eating ice cream. Police turned up only a small amount of marijuana and no firearms.

Nevertheless, Chief Daryl Gates considered it a victorious battle. Asked about the “gaping hole” left in a family home, Gates responded with more of a threat than an explanation: “If you don’t want a battering ram breaking down your wall, don’t deal dope.” It was as if to say that the Pacoima home was not wrongly targeted; rather, each and every raid served as a reminder of the police’s indiscriminate power—and of the consequences of resisting that power. Don’t fuck with the LAPD.

With the use of armored vehicles and battering rams, the drug war intensified the property damage inflicted on communities. National and local media saluted the LAPD’s scorched-earth campaign: according to a 1988 story in Time, the department was “winning all the battles,” though “still losing the war.” The equation of raids with progress in the drug war was not unlike the quantified analysis the U.S. employed in Vietnam, in which enemy body counts and the tonnage of bombs dropped became proof of an impending American victory. The drug war, notes historian Max Felker-Kantor, “epitomized a Vietnam-era philosophy of destroying neighborhoods in order to save them.”

If the drug war was an occupation, it was one that some Black politicians welcomed. South L.A. Councilman David Cunningham regularly defended the police’s use of destructive force. “Go right ahead, Chief,” he announced. “You do whatever you can to get rid of these rock houses. They’re going to destroy the black community if you don’t.” To Cunningham and other Black elites, this was war. If it took armored vehicles and battering rams to crack criminal “fortresses,” so be it.

The 1980s saw the American city grow increasingly polarized. Pockets of speculative development were interspersed with broad swaths of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms “organized abandonment:” the removal of the resources—good jobs, permanent homes, healthy environments—that allow communities to thrive. Few Americans were more affected by this abandonment than residents of low-income housing.

In the summer of 1989, Zinzun taped a segment for Message to the Grassroots on tenant activism in Pasadena, a city in metropolitan L.A. 63-year-old Bernice McDaniels had lived in an apartment in Kings Villages since 1973, when it was operated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. McDaniels raised two sons there, and she was proud to call it her home. “When I first moved here, this was a beautiful place,” she recalled in the interview. “Everything was just so beautiful.” But conditions deteriorated rapidly after HUD sold the complex to a private developer in 1982. In a bid to keep operating costs down, the new owners employed only two workers to maintain more than 300 units. Building problems—broken pipes, leaky roofs, and raw sewage backups—made many of the homes unlivable.

Like the Dalton victims, Kings Villagers endured intolerable housing conditions. They knew what it meant to be deprived of the necessities of survival. The difference was whether absentee owners or police were to blame. And, like the Dalton victims, the women of Kings Villages got organized. In December 1988, McDaniels helped form a tenant union to demand the landlord invest in their homes. When the Women’s Union formed, the property manager began to evict people for alleged drug use. To the tenant organizers, this was clear retaliation. As Black women, the racist association of their identity with the drug economy made them vulnerable to displacement perpetrated under the pretense of the drug war. Against charges of illegal discrimination, Kings Villages claimed it was simply doing its part to create drug-free communities.

The War on Drugs brought home the ordinariness of structural violence, of organized abandonment. Evictions and raids robbed families of a safe place to live, at a moment when the federal government was selling off public housing. As historian LaKisha Simmons writes, raids dramatically demonstrate that “Black homes” are not deemed “worthy of sanctity or privacy”—let alone protection. But raids also highlighted just how thin the social safety net had become in the Reagan era. Even before their homes were destroyed, the Dalton families were already living on the edge of dispossession and disaster. Afterwards, the victims moved into a Red Cross shelter. “They came in here and left me homeless,” 61-year-old Johnnie Mae Carter said in disbelief. Others shuffled between the homes of friends and relatives, with some forced to leave the city entirely. It was a familiar story, and one that was becoming more so all the time. For a growing number of Angelenos, a relative with a couch was the only thing between them and the street.

Tenant activist Bernice McDaniels in 1989.

During the Dalton vandalism trial, officers’ counsel offered an unexpected defense. Attorney Michael Stone argued that the damage had occurred after the officers had left. “Some of these photographs are just outrageous,” he told the court. “You just can’t imagine why a police officer would do such a thing.” Chief Gates, too, cast the victims as the aggressors. During the trial, a reporter asked if his men had crossed a line. “It’s unfortunate bums can get police officers in trouble,” the chief fired back.

These contemptible claims were transparently cynical. The defense did not explain why poor people would drench their children’s clothing in bleach or leave food to rot on the floor. In the end, they didn’t need to. In June 1991, after nearly three weeks of deliberation, the jury acquitted the officers on all charges.

By pinning the damage on residents themselves, the defense played to the public’s appetite for lurid stories about non-white women harming children. In 1986, 15 million Americans tuned in to Geraldo Rivera’s special, American Vice, for an inside look at the drug war. “These tactics might appear excessive,” Rivera voices over footage of a raid. Yet ultimately, he assured viewers that violent raids were proportionate to the problem: drug use is not a “victimless crime,” he warned, and “one way or another, it’s the kids who suffer most.” In the following shot, he’s sitting on a dingy couch, instructing a Latino boy to be brave as his mother is hauled off in handcuffs: “No crying,” Rivera murmurs. Throughout the segment, Rivera presents poor women of color—faces unblurred—as innately irrational and pathologically uncaring. It was the trash-TV equivalent of the character assassination that Dalton victims faced in the courtroom.

The implications of poor parenting and neglect that were attributed to Black women anticipated the racist media figure of the “crack mother.” In 1989, Jennifer Clarice Johnson, a 23-year-old Black mother of two, was convicted of delivering a controlled substance to her baby for having admitted to using crack while pregnant. While Johnson was demonized in the media, the case was hardly straightforward. The baby was born healthy, yet the prosecution argued that some residual amount of cocaine had passed through the placenta in the moments before the umbilical cord was cut. (The Florida Supreme Court overturned Johnson’s conviction in 1992.) The case against Johnson relied on a novel interpretation of the law and some serious scientific illiteracy, but it showed the lengths that the criminal justice system would take to punish Black women who used or sold drugs, regardless of whether any real harm had occurred. For anyone paying attention, drug raids put the lie to culture-war stereotypes about Black women. Police fractured families, put people on the street, and removed children from their parents. It was cops—not Black women—who were creating “broken homes.”

The Justice Department’s 2015 report on Ferguson, Missouri, released a year after the city’s dispossessed took back the streets, uncovered a police force driven by profit, stripped of any pretense of “public safety.” Between 2010 and 2014, Ferguson PD issued 90,000 citations for such violations of law and order as “Manner of Walking in Roadway”—the offense for which Darren Wilson stopped Michael Brown, moments before Wilson shot and killed him. This strategy, which Jodi Rios calls “catch-and-release policing,” generated over $2 million in fines and court fees each year, enabling the city to plug budget holes without raising property taxes or taking on new debt. By 2015, revenue from fines and fees paid for a quarter of the municipal budget. This was legalized extortion, plain and simple—a Black city governed by “gangsters.”

This type of direct exploitation resonates with the left’s most salient story about contemporary capitalism: the relentless upward redistribution of wealth and income since the 1970s. Ferguson’s St. Louis County has become the prime example of profit extraction via policing. Decades of white flight and federal disinvestment have led cities like Ferguson to plunder the Black poor, as Colin Gordon writes for Dissent. When it comes to policing, historian Donna Murch observes in her Jacobin piece, “Ferguson’s Inheritance:” “We are dealing with a system in which racism pays.”

Opposition to police gangsterism has only grown in the years since Ferguson. From cash bail and civil asset forfeiture to predatory traffic enforcement, the mechanics of police plunder have become well known, and wildly unpopular. Some left critiques of policing and inequality have focused on this extraction of cash and other assets from the working poor. Still, direct profiteering is only one way to understand the political economy of policing.

The direct-extraction imperative is most relevant in revenue-starved cities like Ferguson or Detroit, where the use of poor communities as cash machines first rose to prominence. Similarly, many rural chiefs and sheriffs rely on civil asset forfeiture to fund their departments, especially through highway patrolling. In one former mining town in Alabama, police made more misdemeanor arrests in 2020 than the town had residents.

Yet the most powerful police departments rarely rely on outright banditry. In larger cities with more robust revenues, the use of police as highway robbers and ransom seekers is not the core driver of police repression. Nationally, while public spending on social goods has atrophied, police budgets have ballooned irrespective of crime rates. Departments can count on bipartisan support for their staggering expenditures. The LAPD doesn’t need to shake down the poor: asset forfeiture accounts for less than 1% of the department’s budget. Why play bill collector when you’ve been given a blank check?

Under patriarchal racial capitalism, policing is about assets and inequality, even when it’s not about the direct extraction of wealth from the poor. Police dispossession is more infernal than mere revenue generation, and a story that is only about direct profiteering doesn’t capture the extent of the problem.

Policing works in tandem with other mechanisms of inequality. As the legal theorist Aya Gruber contends, police maintain spatial inequality while making its consequences appear “natural.” In her essay “Policing and ‘Bluelining’,” Gruber makes an analogy to the financial practice of “redlining” before the 1960s: “Police draw blue lines around Black neighborhoods—just as banks drew their red lines—designating them as high-risk, pathological spaces.”

Through drug raids, police also work to remove resources from communities, with or without regard to profit extraction. During the Dalton raid, while purportedly searching for drugs, officers dismantled washing machines and refrigerators. One threw a vacuum cleaner out a window. For these wanton acts of destruction, a few cops were ultimately charged with “vandalism.”

Across the country, raids have resulted in, among other things, the loss of food, clothing, and shelter, which can be devastating to working-class people. Gloria Flowers and her neighbors were robbed of more than just personal property. They were deprived of essential tools of social reproduction: the work of caring and nurturing that makes all social and economic life possible. A washer means not having to send your kids to school in dirty clothes. A vacuum may make the difference between an orderly home and a “dysfunctional” one, in the eyes of Child Protective Services. Raids work in lockstep with CPS, which, as Dorothy Roberts has explained, serves as another structure of control that facilitates the destruction of Black families.

At Dalton, police made sure to destroy family photo albums and other precious keepsakes. It was these personal artifacts that residents often grieved more than any other possession: Onie Palmer lost her only photos of one of her daughters, who had passed. She lost items belonging to her grandmother, and mementos from her life in Mississippi, before she came to California. For Palmer and other victims, even the $3 million they received in damages could not restore such losses.

These are no petty thefts; they are enormously significant. The 1980s was a period of heightened interest among Black Americans in the histories and genealogies severed by slavery, as historian Danielle Wiggins writes. Hundreds of thousands attended “Black Family Reunions” in this decade, inspired by the 1977 television miniseries Roots. For police to destroy family photos, as well as objects handed down through Jim Crow, was to further alienate families from their identities and their pasts. For Black renters without other assets to their name, communities and histories are an inheritance.

On March 13th, 2020, police in Louisville, Kentucky broke down Breonna Taylor’s door to serve a “no-knock” warrant. Her boyfriend, believing the men to be intruders, fired a weapon. Three officers shot back, killing Taylor. Officers were looking for an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s, wanted for drug offenses. Instead, Taylor’s current boyfriend was taken away in handcuffs as she was dying on the floor of her home.

As with the Dalton case, Breonna Taylor’s death brought new levels of scrutiny to police tactical raids. Together with the murder of George Floyd two months later, Taylor’s death inspired Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass to introduce a bill which would eliminate police chokeholds and no-knock raids. Yet the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act adopted the frame that these tragedies were aberrations—cases of warrior cops run amok. This is not to deny the wanton disregard for life exhibited by each department. In the case of Louisville police, the recklessness of serving a warrant surreptitiously, at night, in a home where the suspect did not live, should be obvious. But this is not the only lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s death—just as we should not conclude that the LAPD’s transgression in 1988 was raiding the “wrong” apartment on Dalton Avenue.

In Breonna Taylor’s death, there is a disturbing echo of the assault on Gloria Flowers’s apartment. In each drug raid, police acted with a level of force that was wholly disproportionate to their stated aim. And in each case, a Black woman was made to pay for the alleged misbehavior of a loved one: Flowers for her brother Hildebrandt, an alleged gang member; Taylor for her ex-boyfriend, who faced drug charges.

The similarities are not merely suggestive or symbolic, as it turns out. For months after her death, Taylor’s loved ones struggled to make sense of the tragedy. Then, in August 2020, lawyers representing the Taylor family made a disturbing allegation. They alleged that the raid was related to “Vision Russell,” the city’s redevelopment project in Taylor’s neighborhood. In November 2021, the connection was substantiated by researchers at the Root Cause Research Center, in an analysis that affirmed the link between gentrification and the enforcement of low-level offenses in Black Louisville. According to the report, the city’s desire to snap up properties in the Russell neighborhood led to the establishment of the Place-Based Initiative Squad, named for a criminological theory which proposes that certain “place networks” foster street crime. “The PBI Squad,” the researchers contend, “employed a concept they were barely familiar with, to create the false evidence needed for the ‘No-Knock Warrant’ that led to the murder of Breonna Taylor.”

In other words, the raid during which police killed Taylor was not a botch, or a lethal “mistake.” Police did not have the “wrong” house. As with Dalton, understanding the raid requires looking to the surrounding neighborhood and the structural incentives that lead the state to contain, crush, or capitalize on Black communities. Breonna Taylor’s death reflected more than a callous disregard for Black life in one police department, or even within the institution of police more broadly. This is how the drug war has always worked—to strike Black homes, families, and histories from the map.

The history of dispossession reverberates. The stories of Gloria Flowers, Jennifer Johnson, and Bernice McDaniels, among innumerable others, reveal how a prurient culture war furthers an association between poor women, drugs, and dysfunction. It’s an association that justifies the dispossession of families and communities, and the displacement of Black women in particular—by cops, by landlords, and by real estate capital. Black women are today the most likely to be evicted, the most likely to experience poverty. As a group, they have the lowest median wealth in the country. The area surrounding Dalton was hit hard by the 2008 mortgage crisis, and the pandemic has once again pushed renters and mortgagors to the edge of displacement.

A comprehensive left analysis of policing and inequality should extend beyond the subsidiary function of policing for direct profit and take a totalizing view of the role of police. They are the vanguard of gentrification, “redevelopment,” and dispossession, enforcers for real estate, and the agents of social control, which the state exerts to multiple ends. The demonization of Black women—disseminated in the media and inscribed in the law—serves to neutralize Black families, their material resources, and their collective histories. These factors must be understood in full if we are to popularize and implement an agenda for the transformation of the city that accounts for the true scope of injustice.

Justice means a right to housing and protections against gentrification. It means the decriminalization of poverty and the decommodification of land—a society in which Black existence, from photo albums and family histories to the bonds that hold together communities, are not violently sacrificed to state power. Justice means the creation of community-based supports that keep children in their homes, homes within families, and families away from harm.

From L.A. to Ferguson and Louisville, organizers are engaging in the struggle to move us toward this horizon: a just future in which Black communities are allowed to exist free of repression. “Justice,” as the abolitionist and St. Louis native Derecka Purnell defines it, means “removing the capacity for police to kill,” as well as the rejection of a society that prioritizes profit over survival. “Justice is a process where people decide to create the conditions that will help us all thrive.” We seek justice for the living, Purnell reminds us, as much as for those we’ve lost.♦





David Helps is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan. His writing on policing, cities, and capitalism can be found in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Monthly Review, and more.

 

Cover image: Dalton resident Onie Palmer shows the damage to her apartment left by LAPD officers, just days after the raid. On the phone is police misconduct lawyer David Lynn. University of Southern California, Special Collections. 

Image of Bernice Daniels from the public access TV show Message to the Grassroots in 1989. © Nancy Buchanan and Florence Zinzun.

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