By Eddie Griffin
Monday, July 20, 2009
During the revolution, it was our business to know all the ins and outs of the drug trade. We were an intelligence unit known as The Collective, an underground revolutionary think tank that some people comely identify as “The Black Panthers”. We were the first to engage in, what became know as, “The War on Drugs”.
We were the good guys, but we were not perfect. We had serious vulnerabilities, and we were susceptible to the very problem we were trying to eliminate.
Inside the think tank, we developed strategies for breaking the Supply and Demand side of the drug trafficking equation, with the help and blessings of the betrayed kingpins that were sent to prison for life.
The irony of learning the insides of Organized Crime arises from strange bedfellows in prison. To keep from killing each other off behind bars, the Panthers had to establish a peace pact with old nemesis. They had to coexist with their former enemies, such as drug lords and white supremacists, so as not to continually kill each other off in gladiator combat. It was an unholy alliance of dialectical exchanges.
We learned much from them, especially from the big wig masterminds of the trade. The drug lords were peons in the distribution chain. Inside the think tank, we knew that the U.S. government was engaged in drug trafficking in the early stages.
Subversive wars, like the Iran-Contra Affair, were secretly financed by drug money. But this was only one component of a complex situation. There was also the distribution chain comprised of financiers and importers and distributors. In the middle of the food chain was the Organized Syndicate, commonly called the Mafia.
When the CIA is on one end and the Mafia on the other end, the illegal drugs wound up in the black community. CIA concocted LSD drugs wound up in the white radical community, all at a time when the Nixon administration was under siege.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the Attorney General, John N. Mitchell, was preparing a comprehensive new measure to more effectively meet the narcotic and dangerous drug problems at the federal level by combining all existing federal laws into a single new statute.
Also during this time, Nixon commissioned the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse—known as the Shafer Commission after its chairman, Raymond P. Shafer—to study marijuana abuse in the United States. During his presentation of the commission's findings to Congress, Shafer recommended the decriminalization of marijuana in small amounts, saying, "[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only 'with the greatest reluctance." Nixon buried this commission's findings and went on to sign the Controlled Substances Act.
Illegal drugs began showing up in our communities around 1963. In some parts of the country, it broke out earlier. But generally, as late as 1959, drug addiction was an anomaly. One of the old timers told me the story of how he simply walked into a hospital to be treated of his addiction only to find the doctors and nurses dumbfounded by ignorance. Later, they made addiction a crime.
The original peddlers were white, pretending to be part of the black jazz culture. They brought with them painkillers in capsule and tablet form. They introduced the drug as freebees, just to be accepted in the black community; next came the addiction, followed by drug overdoses. The Demand skyrocketed.
We watched how they created the drug kingpins. They gave them drugs on credit, and allowed them to buy protection from the police and the courts. We saw how they fattened the drug lords up like pigs, busting them every now and then to skim off some of the drug proceeds by bail bondsmen, lawyers, and payoffs. They gave them enough liberty to keep selling drugs. And then, when they were fat enough, they would take them down.
I listened to a plot to rob a drug kingpin. The mastermind behind the robbery was the very man who supplied the kingpin his drugs. So, he knew where and when the kingpin would make his next $50,000 purchase of drugs. He provided this secret information to the stickup boy. Sometimes, it was the unwitting Panther gangsters, who were under the illusion that they were fighting drug trafficking.
I also knew a banker who had financed drug buys, laundered money, and organized their own banks to be robbed. He was a hometown banker who went to prison after my downfall, convicted of laundering drug money.
The Black Panthers were anti-capitalist for this very reason. Black people chasing the “almighty dollar” could wound up selling the souls to the devil. In the underworld of drug trafficking, there is one way in and no way out. Some of our children were finding out the hard way that selling drugs was a fatal business. They usually find entry at the bottom of the food chain and found later with a bullet in the back of the head. We all knew what the signature killing signified.
It is a bitter pill to swallow when a man discovers that the mob is taking you on a one-way ride. Sometimes, as in my case, it is made to look like a one-way ride. Their objective was to keep a man guessing, intimidated, and in constant fear of their lives. My white contact to the underworld was forced to watch a hit. The assassins used baseball bats. He was in constant fear of his life, and he put me in constant fear of my life, just by our mere association. I learned never to ride in the same car with a gangster.
They also ran a side business that could be described as rent-a-gun. When peons on the food chain are called upon the make a hit, rob a bank, or retaliate, he is required to use a “clean gun”. They will rent him the gun if it is returned unused. If the gun is used, the peon is forced to purchase it, and told to dispose of it. Most peons keep their killer weapons.
I remember seeing guns sold from the truck of a car at night, under the streetlights. My underworld contact wanted to show us something in the truck of the car. It was a beautiful cache of weapons, still fresh in their original packaging and box, with manufacturers grease still all over it. The smell of new guns for some Black Panthers was enticing. For three times the price, a man could purchase anything.
With him was a list of black snitches, directly from the police department and FBI. He was “connected”, as they say.
He was the same man who sold guns to the drug kingpins, along with their drugs. Guns, for kingpins, were used for protection. Gun sales to the Panthers were the Robbing Hoods who would relieve them of their cash; one capitalist, the other anti-capitalist. We lost the culture war. After our downfall, everybody bought into the pimp and hustler and drug dealer image, of conspicuous wealth and lavish lifestyles.
The Nicky Barnes type drug lords, who averaged millions of dollar per month on the street level, purchase police protection by paying “shakedown”. Every crooked cop accepted shakedown money. But sometimes the bounty on the old drug kingpin is worth more than the shakedown. They fall, and they fall hard. They are given life sentences, and they will gladly share they life story with anyone that will listen.
I knew Leroy “Nicky” Barnes as well as any man in prison. I remembered his story from Times magazine before I met him face to face.
On June 5, 1977 The New York Times magazine released an article titled, Mr Untouchable with Barnes posing on the front cover. They say he averaged $5 million per month in the drug trade, and every Thanksgiving and Christmas that he would give out turkeys in the community. His swagger infuriated the Jimmy Carter administration. So, they took him down with a life sentence in 1978.
They sent Nicky Barnes to Marion shortly thereafter. Immediately, the government started playing mind games on him. First, they put him on a tier in a cellblock all by himself. We could hear his screams through the brick wall between us.
When they released him to the prison compound, I found him to be a very competent chess player, and he loved the challenge. He was a smart man, very intelligent, and cocky. He would move a chess piece, jump up from the table, shout “Chess move”, and then walk a circle around the table. I never understood what that ritual was all about, but I never let him win a game.
I pulled up Nicky Barnes on the internet several times since the 2007 release of the movie “American Ganger”. He was portrayed in the movie by Cuba Gooding Jr.
Leroy Barnes was sent to prison in 1965 for low level drug dealing. While in prison he met Colombo crime family member Joe "Crazy Joe" Gallo and Lucchese crime family heroin dealer Matthew Madonna. Gallo wanted to have more of a stake in the Harlem Heroin market but didn't have any personnel to deal in the mostly black Harlem. It is believed Gallo passed on his knowledge of how to run a drug trafficking organization to Barnes and asked Barnes to assemble the necessary personnel. When Gallo got out of jail he provided a lawyer for Barnes. The lawyer got Barnes' conviction overturned on a technicality and he returned to New York City.
Nicky Barnes started out as one of the first black hit men used by the Mafia. He whacked a Mafia don for Crazy Joe, and rose up in the ranks.
Barnes' operation in 1976 consisted of seven lieutenants, who each controlled a dozen mid level distributors, who supplied upwards of forty street level dealers each. During this time Barnes was given the name Mr. Untouchable, after successfully beating numerous charges and arrests.
Barnes was convicted in 1978 of multiple counts of RICO violations, including drug trafficking and murder, for which he was sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole.
When I met him at Marion, he was still obsessed with the legalities of his case. He had accumulated law books. But something in his demeanor began to change. The Feds were whispering to him that his wife was having an affair with his lieutenant. As I recall, the lieutenant was also having an affair with Barnes underage daughter.
According to Barnes, while in prison, he discovered that his assets were not being taken care of, The Council stopped paying his attorneys' fees, and one of his fellow council members, Guy Fisher, was having an affair with his mistress/girlfriend.The Council had a rule that no council member would sleep with another council member's wife/mistress. In response, Barnes became an informant. He forwarded a list of 109 names, five of which were council members, along with his wife's name, implicating them all in illegal activities related to the heroin trade. Barnes helped to indict 44 other traffickers, 16 of whom were ultimately convicted. In this testimony, he implicated himself in eight murders.
In prison, Barnes turned state's evidence against his former associates in “The Council”. In exchange for his testimony, Barnes was released into the Federal Witness Protection Program in August, 1998.
While in prison, he won a national poetry contest for federal inmates, earned a college diploma with honors and taught fellow inmates math.
Sometimes it is the company that an inmate keeps. Both Nicky Barnes and I were lovers of math and chess. I also taught math to my fellow inmates. I remember that he was among the writers and poets in prison. But he must have earned his college degree in Protective Custody.
The last I remember of Nicky Barnes at Marion was that he disappeared suddenly from the prison compound. I was not surprised that he double-crossed his friends. They had double-crossed him.
I remember how he set each one up. He would call outside of the prison to his wife or one of his lieutenants. He acted as if he was still in charge, still setting up drug dealers, but all the while following an FBI script.
Over a chessboard, I watched him agonize over turning into a snitch. But he wanted another life, a second chance, which was not possible with a life sentence with no parole.