Because today is Election Day in Texas, and because I set out to review the movie American Gangster, the title of this essay is “The Ballot or the Bullet”, a slogan made famous by Malcolm X.
First, the Ballot: Why in the world am I voting today? Well, I want the school bond package to pass, so that our children can get the education resources they desperately need. I expected it to be Proposition 1 on the ballot, and so it was. But there were three Proposition-One, and that made voting somewhat confusing. Previously, I had written Vote For Proposition One, but I didn’t mean every Proposition One. Damn! Some people have been misinformed and dis-informed in this election.
Besides being misinformed and dis-informed, a person must be highly educated to read the ballot. There are some things disguised by its language. Where I once wrote Vote Against Proposition 4 because we need no new jails and no new prisons, nowhere in the proposition does it mention jails or prisons, only new construction. How deceiving!
Second, the Bullet: How about in the brain? That’s what Frank Lucas did to his rival in the movie AMERICAN GANGSTER. He also put a bullet in the brain of every drug addict in America today.
If the movie did not have such historical value, I would say that Frank Lucas had done another one of his usual self-promotion sales jobs. Sure, the movie is about as true as it gets. But this is not the first time Frank promoted himself into cinema. Remember Superfly? It was the fictionalized version of Frank's life, made during the time of his reign as drug kingpin of America. Superfly was his alter ego. It was the way he would have liked to walk away from the drug game.
Never have I met a real gangster or outlaw yet who does not fanaticize his life in film. America has a fetish for cops and robbers. But Frank glories in it. In fact, it is rumored that he appeared in one of his own home budget movie. And, his mentor, “Bumpy” Johnson was characterized in blaxploitation movies like Shaft. (Remember, Bumpy’s daughter was kidnapped and Shaft rescued her.)
The contrast with Denzel Washington playing Lucas and the Superfly Lucas is their different taste for fashion. The chinchilla coat and hat was not the extraordinary. The real Lucas appeared in several photos in magazines wearing this fur outfit and other outfits equally as ridiculous as hip hop is today. He’s the grandfather of flash, not Nicky Barnes. Lucas set the fashion seen at the annual "Pimps and Players Convention", an event that attracted black hustlers from all over the country during the 1960s and early 1970s. Nicky Barnes was the more conservative dresser compared to Lucas, as shown on the cover of Time magazine in a custom-made three-piece suit.
I served time with Leroy "Nicky" Barnes (played in the movie by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and the black soldier in Vietnam who shipped Frank the drugs from Indo-China, a man by the name of "Ike" Atkinson. If there is any truth in the movie worth revealing, it is the fact that both Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes were snitches. (Now I hear that there is a movie about Barnes called “Mr. Untouchable”). Some hip hop hero worshippers deny that Frank was a snitch, although the movie documents that he collaborated with federal authorities to bring down over 100 people in the drug game. But it is significant who he brought down, including 52 of the 70 Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the New York area.
Law enforcement worshippers are in denial also about the story of the crooked cop. The movie explains why Frank Lucas was considered the “cash cow” of the heroin drug trade. On his payroll were more than the street hoodlums, but he lined the pockets of police officers who had the power to detain and arrest anybody, and many times they delivered their “suspect” to the underworld hit man, instead taking them to jail. Frank also lined the pocket of judges and lawyers to fix cases and get sentences reduced or dropped, or put away the "wrong suspect" (called "framing"). Frank lined the pockets of politicians to finance their campaigns and gain legislations and immunities on behalf of him, his friends, and associates.
Although the movie never delve into these corollaries, it is significant to know this is why the relationship between blacks and the criminal justice and law enforcement has always been adversarial. The ghettoes in America were once ruled by brutal crooked cops who winked at the drug trade and removed snitches.
Frank Lucas expanded his drug distribution network through the Mafia. That is why it was said the Mafia worked for Lucas. Prior to this, the heroin market were isolated to big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The Mafia had a burgeoning network into black communities through unemployed black youth that formed gangs (later organized as the Crips and the Bloods, supposedly rival gangs). But Frank lost his freedom before the network was complete.
Although Frank received a total of 70 years, he never did hard time (to my knowledge). From day one of his capture, he turned songbird and brought down all his connections. He went to jail in 1975 and came out the first time in 1981, supposedly under a federal witness protection program.
By the time I was being released from prison in 1984, Frank Lucas was on his way back in. He was released again in 1991.
I was at USP Marion when Nicky Barnes arrived. So was former Sgt. Ike Atkinson, Frank Lucas’ intermediary in the Bermuda Triangle drug trade. (Unlike shown in the movie, Ike was black). The prison that replaced Alcatraz was an experimental mind-control lab, partially run by the CIA and FBI. It was here that Nicky Barnes broke and turned snitch.
When Barnes was brought in, they kept him isolated in a cell block by himself, surrounded by 17 empty cells. He was “special”. And when they finally released him to prison population, I played chess with him every day. I watched him change.
Like millionaire drug gangsters, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes thought of himself as smart. But his smartness is based on ego. I learned this from chess movies he made and his reactions.
“Chess move,” he would declare whenever he thought he made a brilliant move. He would clap his hand, jump up, and walk around the table, as if to circle his opponent. But he was an amateur compared to me, and the name Nicky Barnes meant nothing. He, like Frank Lucas, was a “has been” and a “used-to-be”, reduced to a prison number for an identity, like the rest of us “high profile” nobodies. Men at Marion were not hero worshippers. Therefore, Barnes had to fit in where he could.
I remember the rumors of his wife having an affair with one of his lieutenants. I remember rumors of the same lieutenant having sex with Barnes’ teenage daughter. In any case, one day Nicky Barnes just upped and disappeared. The rumor came back that he had turned snitch. The first people he turned over to the Feds were his wife and lieutenant. From there on, he set people up by vouching for undercover agents in drug transactions, unbeknownst to his “marks”.
If Nicky Barnes said a person could be trusted, his army of drug dealers bought it- all the while he was working on getting his double life sentence reduced. It made no difference if they were enticed and entrapped. This was his revenge against those who betrayed and abandoned him. After 21 years, he too was released.
Lastly, the two most celebrated drug kingpin songbirds finally met again after some 30 years, when came the release of AMERICAN GANGSTER. It is no surprise that MR. UNTOUCHABLE is soon to follow. It seems that Nicky Barnes had always had to play second fiddle to Frank Lucas.
But neither movie is about the men. These historical sagas are about the damages they did, because the cycle never stopped. Over the progression of time, the drug kingpins have gotten smaller and smaller, and less wealthy and less lease of freedom. More and more, petty drug dealers turn into informers in exchanged for reduced sentences, following the same pattern set by Nicky Barnes: Set ‘em up and knock ‘em down. And, more and more, young black men are parading their way through prison doors, never knowing how they got caught up in the drug game, or how they got caught. Sadly, they never look behind to see why.