Ignorant Good Will

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Rick Perlstein reviews Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, in The Nation:

Burrough begins Days of Rage with the story of the New Left’s first convert to armed struggle, an oddball named Sam Melville, who started bombing random Manhattan banks shortly after enjoying the music at Woodstock and later died in the uprising at Attica. But the best history is always about the backstories—the flashback reconstructions explaining how a mentality that may strike us as alien today made perfect sense in the minds of those who shared it at the time.

Consider Mutulu Shakur. Born Jeral Williams in 1950, he became an early proponent of the Republic of New Afrika movement. His career as a militant began in a hospital. In 1970, members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers that started as a street gang, occupied the auditorium of a tumbledown hospital in the South Bronx to protest its inadequacies. They demanded a heroin clinic. Harried hospital administrators were amenable; they needed a heroin clinic. So they let the Young Lords start one. Nourished with nearly $1 million in state and city funds, Lincoln Detox soon grew into the South Bronx’s largest drug-treatment facility.

Its program prescribed a theory popularized by Malcolm X: “that the plague of drugs was a scheme concocted by a white government to oppress blacks,” as Burrough puts it. Shakur started volunteering; his specialty was acupuncture. Another part of the treatment was studying a pamphlet subtitled “Heroin and Imperialism,” which advised that a commitment to armed struggle was a more effective analgesic than methadone. Lincoln Detox soon became what Burrough describes as “a kind of clubhouse for New York’s radical elite”; for instance, medical supplies purchased with government funds—“by the truckload”—were turned over to the Black Liberation Army to assist it in its campaign of murdering cops. Crazy stuff, to be sure. But in the South Bronx of the 1970s—where cops were heavily involved in the heroin trade, and building owners found it more profitable to torch their property for the insurance than to rent it out—it’s easy to understand why taking the fight to the police seemed a more realistic route to social change than voting for Hubert Humphrey had been in 1968.

More here.

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