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Land of Opportunity


September 1995

Land of Opportunity, by William M. Adler. (A Tale of Crack Cocaine Entrepreneurs). Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995. 415 pages. $22.

Reviewed by Eric E. Sterling, President, The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

Land of Opportunity by William M. Adler (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995) is an excellent book about the Chambers brothers drug gangs in Detroit. The Chambers family lived in the poorest and most backward part of Arkansas. Adler provides exquisite background on the sociology of Mississippi delta sharecroppers' struggle, since before the Civil War, to make a living and establish dignity in the face of intransigent white racism. Adler also provides background on the history of coca and cocaine, and the growth of the marijuana and cocaine trades in Colombia, Peru, the Bahamas, etc.

Four of the Chambers brothers joined the exodus from the hopeless poverty of Arkansas to Detroit looking for work and opportunity in the industrial heartland -- just as the American auto industry began its downsizing. Two of the brothers -- Billy Joe and Larry -- by the mid-1980s identified, created and exploited the crack cocaine wave by building two inter-related, well-organized crack distributing organizations that operated on different principles.

In 1979, teenage Billy Joe moved to Detroit to continue going to high school. He was living with another family from Arkansas, the Colberts. Soon, Billy Joe was working loyally in Terry Colbert's marijuana business. Billy Joe's first son was born when Billy Joe was 17. The baby's mother, Anita (Niece) Coleman was 14.

Willie Chambers, an older brother, was a mail carrier. He saved enough to buy some property in the depressed Lower East Side of Detroit and to open a party store in January 1983. Billy Joe went to work for Willie, running the party store business practically around the clock -- where he also sold marijuana. The marijuana business boomed. But after a police raid, Billy Joe moved his business to some cheap houses that he purchased in the "economic and social wasteland" in Detroit. (Unemployment was so high Mayor Young had declared an economic emergency comparing the crisis to that of the 1930s.)

Billy Joe became famous for his generosity. "All over the east side, it seemed, everyone knew (or claimed to know) 'BJ,' the charismatic, bighearted young dealer. ... Not only was it Billy's financial generosity and business acumen for which he was renowned; it was his popularity with women ... And so Billy attracted a crowd of followers" (p. 58-59). By the summer of 1984, Billy Joe had expanded his house-based marijuana business into the crack business: "The cocaine was selling as fast as he could buy and process it. ... " (p. 83).

Larry Chambers, born in 1950, was a heartlessly vicious career criminal. He had repeatedly escaped from prison by the time he arrived in Detroit. To discipline his branch of the organization, he either beat or killed employees who broke his rules. For example, one employee was selling plaster chips instead of $8 "rocks" in violation of the rules. Larry and two enforcers beat the man with a wooden two-by-four, a lamp, and a television set(!), and then dragged the man to the kitchen and poured hot grease on him. Larry's enforcers were called the "Wrecking Crew" (p. 282).

The job of enforcer was highly sought after. In another instance, one of Larry's money couriers, M.C. Poole, stole $50,000 from Larry, and then ostentatiously purchased a Jeep Cherokee and some gold rope necklaces with the proceeds. Larry's reputation was damaged, and everyone knew that Larry would have to have retribution. Larry bragged, "Guys were begging me to smoke him" (p. 282).

Adler makes a disturbing observation about the Chambers' use of violence "to enforce discipline and gain retribution. ... These tacticsare as necessary to success in their orbit as maintaining sufficient working capital, coining a catchy advertising jingle, and protecting intellectual property are to legitimate businesses. ... Just as Wall Street's inside traders cannot be written off as greedy aberrants, neither can the Chambers brothers be dismissed as aberrant ghetto capitalists -- each took their cue from the wider society" (p. 7).

After the May 1986 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration annual SAC summit highlighted the crack cocaine phenomenon, the Detroit DEA Special Agent in Charge responded. "He did what officials often do when confronted with a problem for which there was no simple solution: he launched a public relations campaign" (p. 221). DEA launched "Operation NO CRACK," which set up a telephone hotline, 1-800-NO-CRACK, to obtain citizens' tips about crack sales. Six rookie agents handled a half-dozen incoming lines around the clock -- 1500 tips in the first month. But there was no effort to organize, analyze, or act on the tips. As one agent described it, "Truthfully, it was bullshit" (p. 221).

The Detroit Police Department had been haphazardly making raids on various obvious crack houses. The author reports that the Detroit police routinely disregarded the law for executing searches -- with or without warrants (e.g., p. 95-96) . Later, operation NO CRACK did get organized. Evidence from the raids and the tips began to be analyzed. The author implies that even after a serious investigation was undertaken and several informants began to regularly feed them information about the Chambers' operation, the detectives never quite figured out who was who or what was actually going on.

In an egregious disregard of the media's responsibility to be independent from its sources and subjects, the NO CRACK team was being covered by an ambitious TV reporter, Chris Hansen of WXYZ-TV, the ABC affiliate, who almost lived with the team so that he could go along on their raids. Assembling a lot of videotape of raids and police surveillance, during one ratings-hungry sweeps week he broadcast nightly the details about the government's investigation of the Chambers' organizations -- which coincided with the secret deliberations of the Federal grand jury. Upon seeing themselves featured nightly on the evening news, several of the targets of the investigation immediately fled. One of the most dramatic aspects of the broadcast was a portion of a home video made by Larry Chambers and seized in a raid. A Larry Chambers' lieutenant, William (Jack) Jackson, is seen shaking a laundry basket filled with cash, saying, "Money, money, money! We rich, goddammit! Fifty thousand here, ain't no telling how much up there. I'm going to buy me three cars tomorrow -- and a Jeep!" Jackson asks Larry, who is off camera, "Should we give these ones away, man, since we've got five hundred thousand dollars?" (p. 238-239).

The indictments of the Chambers gang were accompanied by great hype. The Chambers "operated some two hundred crack houses, supplied another 500 crack houses, employed 500 workers, and grossed up to three million dollars a day, according to the federal authorities. It seemed that Billy and Larry would have been able to bail out Chrysler by themselves" (p. 302). The exaggeration was later conceded. Adler provides a detailed description of the defendants' trial (and the incompetence of some defense attorneys). The unreliability of various informants and the exaggerated nature of parts of the government's case resulted in a number of dismissals. The rest of the gang went to prison for very long terms, even some minor participants.

Adler observes in his introduction that most reporting about America's crack epidemic "generates more heat than light ... voyeuristic accounts of a day in the life of an addict or lurid, sensationalized stories of crack-related crime and violence" (p. 4). Adler does provide the "numbing statistics"  -- 100 patients admitted for cocaine treatment in 1983 (before crack) and 4,500 in 1987. Emergency room admissions "linked to cocaine" rose from 450 in 1983 to 3,811 in 1987. Cocaine related deaths in Detroit rose from 10 in 1983 to 45 in 1987.

Adler laments that most crack cocaine stories lack context,

it is as if crack fell from the sky. ... Short shrift is given to the devastating consequences for inner-city residents of the Reagan-Bush era's domestic spending policies, and to the collapse of opportunity during the 1980s for those at the bottom of the economic heap -- especially poor blacks. ... There is a reasonable explanation for the crack whirlwind: the head-on collision during the 1980s of the cultures of greed and need. The decade's cult of money, its tone of rising expectations, insisted that the dispossessed aspire to the goals of the dominant culture yet denied them the means to obtain those goals legally (p. 5).

The Chambers brothers had no future in Arkansas. Neither did their friends and neighbors, many of whom they recruited for the drug trafficking work up north. The slums of Detroit were the land of opportunity. The gang members were immoral and vicious outlaws. They knew that they were risking long prisons terms. But the ride -- with girls, with furniture, clothes, with status, with stretch limos and luxury cars -- was great, even if foreseeably short. The Chambers were all jailed by 1988. In fact, the ride was both so alluring and so short, the Chambers were quickly replaced. Their successors are at work right now supplying crack in the same neighborhoods.

Incidentally, the Detroit chief of police, William L. Hart, present at the press conference announcing the raids, was convicted in the spring of 1992 of embezzling more than $2 million in police department funds for undercover drug operations. Hart was sentenced to 10 years in Federal prison in August 1992. (p. 302).

Nothing about this narrative gives one hope that law enforcement will succeed in cleaning up the crack cocaine problem, or the violence and wealth associated with it. The author does not express any drug policy reform views or criticize the fundamentals of our law enforcement-based anti-drug strategy.

This book, in my judgment, is a very valuable description of the development of a large inner-city crack distributing organization free of the typical bias found in other books about investiagtions of drug traffickers that are vehicles for police aggrandizement. (Its bias is about our economic and social systems.) I suspect that many organizations have similar rules, structures and functions, but I am at a loss to judge how typical the size and scope of this organization was. Law enforcement and the news media have described the Bloods and the Crips, and various Jamaican posses, for example, as having developed major nationwide dimensions. A different view of teenage cocaine and crack sellers is described in The Cocaine Kids, The Inside Story of a Teenage Drug Ring by Terry Williams (Addison-Wesley, 1989), who operated on a much smaller scale than the Chambers did. That book describes crack sales on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with the different ethnic backgrounds found there.

Land of Opportunity is very well written, insightful, and a comprehensive overview of the contemporary inner-city crack trade, the efforts of local police, DEA, and Federal prosecutors to combat it, and the local news media willingness to hype and exploit it. But I found most enlightening the history of the race-based poverty, oppression, and violence in the delta country of Arkansas (and I suspect much of the rural South), and how it has lasted up to the present. That history helps put the inner city crack trade in a larger social context than American cities, circa 1990. If read, it will broaden the horizons of largely white, largely middle class drug policy analysts and reformers.