“Trapped in a vicious cycle of ignorance, poverty, disease, sickness and death, and there seems no way out. There seems to be no way of escape. And because there seems to be no hope, no way out, no means of escape, we turn to wine, we turn to whiskey, heroin, morphine, cocaine, opium, poison, nothing but poison.” –Malcolm X
A Revolutionary Understanding of Addiction
A Guardian report from Nov. 12, 2015, examines the deadly link between capitalist economics and drug abuse in one of the poorest towns in America—Beattyville, Kentucky. Beattyville’s median household income is a staggering $12,361 a year, ranking the town as the third poorest in the U.S., more than $40,000 below the national median income of $53,915. The sweeping poverty and devastating unemployment have led to a growing sense of demoralization among families who historically earned a living as miners. The reality in Beattyville, a little-known town in the Appalachian Mountains, is a microcosm of the forces at play in every oppressed community across this country.
This article analyzes 1) addiction from a thoroughgoing, critical perspective (as a bio-psycho-social phenomenon), and 2) compares some widely accepted healing approaches with those of the Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition—multinational, revolutionary-minded community groups that the Panthers inspired. The history and evidence presented here shows that the power structure does not have a genuine interest in healing afflicted communities. The argument concludes by showing how oppressed communities —mired in poverty and alienation—must forge their own liberation from the shackles of addiction and the structures that support it.
Drug addiction is a complex phenomenon that has all too often been cast as a moral deficiency or lack of willpower on the part of the addict. It has been managed by capitalist society as a criminal justice problem. Today, the concept that drug addiction is a medical issue that should be addressed with appropriate, coordinated public health measures is gaining ground though still not universally accepted. In part, this may well be because the criminalization of drug users is a way of siphoning off excess portions of the working class into the prison-industrial complex. Capitalism does not work to comprehensively solve the problem of addiction among workers, as addiction itself, as well as its criminalization, serve to divert and tamp down the class struggle.
Though this article is focused on addiction in the working-class and the flooding of oppressed and poor communities with narcotics and alcohol as a strategy of social control, this does not mean that addiction does not affect other social classes. Current research suggests that addiction may in fact be more prevalent among whites and Latinos than among Blacks or Asians. Some research even concludes that problem drug use appears to be more prevalent among people with higher incomes and education levels. Trauma, which often leads to addiction, and addiction itself are universal human problems. Addiction plays out differently in different social milieus—typically with harsher legal consequences for oppressed and working class addicts. While the poor and oppressed drug user goes to jail and prison, financially well-off addicts may be given the freedom to drink or drug themselves to death or have the opportunity to go to costly treatment facilities.
The Black Panther Party
From its inception in 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense led local and national struggles to challenge the oppression that weighed on the Black community and on all disenfranchised people. A key part of their program was an analysis of and resistance to drug and alcohol addiction, which they called “chemical warfare,” or the plague.
The Panthers encouraged their membership to build up an acute awareness of the social world around them. Every leader was encouraged, if not required, to do two hours of reading every morning about world events in order to be able to relate them to what was happening in their own community.
The trailblazing, revolutionary party understood and challenged the source of rampant unemployment, substandard housing and health care, high prison rates and a host of other conditions that affected the Black nation. They redefined America’s African-American “ghettos” as internal colonies within the United States, where a population largely regarded as “surplus” by the capitalist class was deprived of the necessary resources to live economically, culturally and politically empowered lives in capitalist America. Their popularization of Marxism — the study of class struggle — armed a generation of Black, Latino, Asian and white fighters to fight back against the conditions that encaged them.
This foundational understanding of oppression led the Panthers to frame addiction as another inevitable symptom of a dysfunctional system. They adopted the formulation Capitalism + Drugs = Genocide to synthesize their class and national understanding of the question. In reality, the drug epidemic is far worse today than it was 50 years ago when the Panthers confronted it as a major assault on oppressed communities.
Stepping into the No Man’s Land of Revolution
A Marxist understanding of alienation outlines how in an exploitative society: individuals are estranged from themselves, from one another (“their species being”), from their labor and from all of nature. Drugs have a similar effect, disconnecting the addict from their own pain/healing, from those who share a common plight and from the immense potential the world around them possesses. Addiction is often all-consuming, a brick wall before human growth. The Panthers’ exposure of the source of “the plague” empowered addicts to contextualize their own plight, relate more to their struggling sisters and brothers and acquire an awareness of the vampire-like nature of the society that they were born into.
The Rainbow Coalition
The Black national liberation struggle inspired other oppressed communities to stand up. Young Puerto Ricans, especially in Chicago and New York City, identified with the Black liberation struggle and connected it to their own struggle. Chairman of the Chicago BPP, Fred Hampton, started the Rainbow Coalition, a diverse alliance of revolutionary organizations dedicated to overthrowing the racist, exploitative capitalist system.
Inspired by Hampton and the Panthers, in 1969 Puerto Rican organizers formed the New York City branch of the Young Lords Party, which sought to organize against police terror and inequality and liberate Puerto Rico from American imperialism.
A concise review of the Young Lords’ model of community organizing demonstrates why it resonated with addicts—who largely came from the oppressed layers of society. The Young Lords provided leadership and direction to those Puerto Ricans, Black people and poor whites looking to confront the underlying source of their pain and addiction.
The Model of the Young Lords
Defying convention, the Young Lords challenged the institutions in their community that turned their backs on the people.
The Young Lords’ first significant action was the “Garbage Offensive.” Local East Harlem activists collected the trash that the Department of Sanitation of New York neglected to pick up in their neighborhood and then lit the trash heaps on fire on Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic. This bold action forced the city bureaucracy to pick up the trash every week.
Churches were another institution that generally turned their backs on the community. The Lords occupied the First Spanish United Methodist church in Harlem to pressure the church administration to provide vital services to the community. Inspired by the ideas of liberation theology, they called upon the local church officials to act in the spirit of “true Christians” and respond to the needs of the poor. The Reverend called in the police, who arrested 105 Young Lords and their supporters, for daring to challenge the conformist role of the church.
The community supported the Young Lords, who defended the interests of the silenced and marginalized. Fifty-year East Harlem community resident and veteran of the Iraq war, Joey Santana remembers how the leadership of the Young Lords—everyday revolutionary hegemony—played out:
“If the Lords caught you hustling, they took your dope, poured it into the gutter in front of the entire block and warned you to never feed poison to the community again. The second time they grabbed you; it was over for you. They took you up to the top of an overlooking tenement building and hung you off by your legs, shaking you until all of your supply splashed down onto the streets. This was their final warning. If it happened again, they promised to drop you.”
The Young Lords secured better services for their communities with their revolutionary action. They did not just talk about; they lived it. By taking over such institutions, they “expropriated the expropriators.” People for the first time felt invested in self-created, self-determining institutions that were previously part of the alienating machinery of their enemies.
Forty-five Years ago the Young Lords took over Lincoln Hospital
On a sweltering summer night in 1970, the leadership of the Young Lords planned a takeover of Lincoln Hospital to send a message to the city that there was a crucial need for increased public funding of health care in the Bronx. At the break of dawn, the young revolutionaries piled into vans and drove to the decrepit and dilapidated buildings of Lincoln Hospital.
Upon arrival, the activists quickly took control of a section of the hospital, careful to avoid disrupting the care of the patients. A large group of militant unionized healthcare employees stood in solidarity with their actions. The result of this struggle was an unprecedented health care gain for the Bronx community; the Young Lords set up a holistic health center to treat heroin and alcohol addiction. What the state would never do for the community, the community did for itself. 
I’m not a junkie. I’m oppressed.
According to the authors of Hillbilly Nationalists, Race Radicals and Black Power, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy, these community-led rehabilitation programs, spearheaded by revolutionary community groups, were the most successful of their kind because of their pioneering approach. The far-reaching analysis did not assign individual blame to an addict but rather contextualized their situation. The recovering men and women came to see that they were not junkies, tecatos, bums or drunks, as they had been labeled by society; they were oppressed.
The oppressors’ argument that addiction is solely due to “personal weakness,” “defective personalities” or “poor home-life” effectively hides and perpetuates the cycle of oppression. This is not to say that addiction does not have an individualized, physical aspect to it.  Until a person suffering from addiction is ready to alter their lifestyle, there is little that loved ones or professionals can do for them. Although Ernesto “Che” Guevara used this phrase in a different context, it certainly applies here: “There are no liberators. Only the people can liberate themselves.”
Thanks to the mentorship of the Young Lords, many recovering addicts came to see that a particular arrangement of power in society had deprived them of the educational, health and spiritual resources that they needed to cultivate their talents and heal. King Tone — former Inca of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, and in many ways an offspring of the Young Lords’ leadership — said it best:
“Why didn’t you teach me about Don Pedro Albizu Campos and Puerto Rico’s history in high school? All I had was Jordan and Magic. Maybe if I knew I was colonized and had my true history, I wouldn’t have sold crack.”
Inspired and trained by the Panthers — the architects of survival programs — other oppressed people, poor whites and radicalized young people organized themselves into the American Indian Movement, the Patriot’s Party and White Lightening, as well as many multi-national socialist formations across the country. Researchers Sonnie and Tracy examined these programs and their unparalleled success in cultivating self-understanding and a sense of purpose in those who were sick. Conscious self-realization was key to genuine rehabilitation.
Frantz Fanon—the anti-colonial Martinican psychiatrist—wrote on the redemptive value of anti-colonial armed struggle. For Fanon—living through, engaging in and writing on the 1960 Algerian war of liberation—it was only when the colonized fearlessly rose against their colonizer that they could find purposeful action and individual/collective freedom. Fanon cites his fellow countryman Aimee Cesaire’s dramatic play And the Dogs were Silent, capturing the liberating effect of anti-colonial action:
“The master’s room was wide open. The master’s room was brilliantly lighted, and the master was there, very calm … and our people stopped dead … it was the master .. . I went in.
‘It’s you,’ he said, very calm. It was I, even I, and I told him so, the good slave, the faithful slave, the slave of slaves, and suddenly his eyes were like two cockroaches, frightened in the rainy season … I struck, and the blood spurted; that is the only baptism that I remember today.”
Rising up against addiction was the addict’s baptism, a baptism of fire and fury. Gaining awareness of the oppressor and going to war against him served a similar dual purpose: 1) to restore individual self-worth and 2) to harness and channel one’s energies into the empowerment of previously silenced segments of society.
From the perspective of the Rainbow Coalition organizations, the choice was clear; continue to bear witness to a chemical holocaust or build a fight back movement to recapture control over the social forces that lorded over poor people. Revolutionary community leadership is the decisive subjective factor in determining which way the historical pendulum swings.
“It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg.”
“The government is totally incapable of addressing itself to the true causes of drug addiction, for to do so would necessitate effecting a radical transformation of this society. The social consciousness of this society, the values, mores and traditions would have to be altered. And this would be impossible without totally changing the way in which the means of producing social wealth is owned and distributed. Only a revolution can eliminate the plague.”
—Michael Cetewayo Talbert, circa 1968
Though no public official, nor any face of power in America, would ever say it so bluntly, U.S. “democracy” has no interest in collective healing or empowerment for Black, Brown or white working-class people.
Genuine healing encompasses an in-depth comprehension of the structures of oppression and a resulting mass turning on these structures to overthrow them. This is diametrically opposed to the interests of the ruling class which thrives off obfuscating the source of the oppressed classes’ alienation.
By stoking the flames of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bigotry and so on, the ruling elite have led many poor, working-class and oppressed people to internalize that violence and to turn on one another instead of on their common enemy. Malcolm X, in many ways the harbinger of the Black Panther Party, articulated many useful, penetrating metaphors to understand this dynamic:
“It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg — even though they both belong to the same family of fowl. A chicken just doesn’t have within its system to produce a duck egg. It can’t do it. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period. It’s impossible for this system, as it stands, to produce freedom right now for the Black man in this country. And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m certain you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken!”
The Two Hands of the State: Both Deadly
Community advocate and Panther 21 defendant Michael Cetewayo Talbert articulated the reality of why mainstream rehabilitation programs failed the vast majority of Black, Brown and poor white addicts in the 1960s.
“The basic reason why the plague cannot be stopped by the, drug prevention and rehabilitation programs is that these programs, with their archaic, bourgeois Freudian approach and their unrealistic therapeutic communities, do not deal with the causes of the problem. These programs deliberately negate or at best deal flippantly with the socio-economic origin of drug addiction. These programs sanctimoniously deny the fact that capitalist exploitation and racial oppression are the main contributing factors to drug addiction in regard to Black people. These programs were never intended to cure Black addicts. They can’t even cure the white addicts they were designed for.”
Cetewayo—named after the late 19th century Zulu king who fought the English invasion of Southern Africa—pointed an accusatory finger at individualized, government-sponsored programs, if and when they even existed, because they covered up the broader socio-economic context of oppression.
The state first crushed the liberation movement —dismantling the programs led by revolutionary organizations—and then set up a network of tunnel-vision, pity-the-poor, charity non-profits. Just in 1969, the FBI and COINTELPRO assassinated 26 leaders of the Black Liberation Movement and jailed hundreds of others on trumped up charges, including Cetewayo and 20 other New York City based Panthers. The state took the initiative to behead the movement so that the community would continue to burn. Do-gooder outsiders, usually white, were subsequently paraded in to replace the authentic, grass-roots leadership that had undertaken community healing as part of the social struggle.
Limits of the Social Work Model
The media and educational system intentionally deprive people of their spiritual and political ancestry, laying a basis for disillusionment and pessimism. When none of this is addressed, the survivor/addict “comes up with answers that don’t answer and solutions that don’t solve,” to quote Fred Hampton. 
An underfunded social work agency is the cheap substitute for a self-determining community, the crumbs the system arrogantly tosses the disenfranchised. Instead of fostering a positive, redemptive, collective self-esteem, social work agencies push individualized solutions. This may include therapy and benefit access, and medications like Methadone and Suboxone. These interventions can be effective in some cases, but they are detached from the overarching cause of broad societal healing. When they are detached from genuine resistance, they are band aids that are placed over hemorrhages, often substituting one addiction with another.
This article should not be read as an attack on the individual social service workers, who, most often, are hard-working, compassionate people. This is a challenge to them as well, to begin, or in some cases continue, to question what social class they serve. Can they cease to be cogs in a machine that churns out stagnancy and disempowerment and align themselves with the liberation movement?
The everyday social workers’ test is achieving balance between a job to survive and the revolutionary work that they believe in. Social work agencies (their job) consume their employees nearly entirely, leaving them few hours to step outside of their routine and to do the real, liberation work that needs to be done. By doing so, the non-profit sector benefits from the organizing talent of a particular segment of socially conscious college graduates. The potential freedom fighters are often bogged down and burnt out before they are able to find a revolutionary expression of their desire to help the oppressed.
Narcotics Anonymous is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people. The author has seen the NA model keep his own sister alive and respects the powerful healing NA groups are engaged in, across the world. A powerful question to wrestle with is how can revolutionary organizations relate to individual members of NA groups so that they can move beyond an individualized approach to addiction to a community and national model of healing and consciousness-raising?
The strength of NA is that it is available to everyone. In contrast to the massive “recovery” industry in which people are shuttled off into 30, 60, 90 day or longer “spin dry” programs, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, NA, like a revolutionary organization, does not discriminate against or reject anyone. Many “rehab” programs are inaccessible because of how expensive they are.
The 10th tradition of NA states: “10. Narcotics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the NA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” This tradition was originated by Alcoholics Anonymous, NA’s predecessor. The original AA “long version” of the tradition sheds more light on its intention:
“No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues—particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever.”
Given the history of NA and its primary objective —to beat addiction— this is understandable. For a NA group to violate the 10th tradition would be divisive for its membership and would spell doom for the NA fellowship organizationally.
The gut instinct, to distrust politics, makes sense from the perspective of populations hoodwinked every four years by politicians, who make empty promises in exchange for votes. But the vast majority of addicts are members of the working class, facing the same issues of exploitation or unemployment, racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry as the rest of our class. In early recovery, addicts correctly focus on getting clean and staying clean, and this may take all their energy beyond basic survival. But with the help of NA and other recovery groups, many are able to enjoy the gift of long-term abstinence from drugs. At this stage of recovery, it makes sense to take an objective look at the world and try to understand it. Just as in NA addicts learn that “together we can do what we could never do alone,” so in the larger society, recovering addicts can learn that “the people united will never be defeated.”
This process is already beginning, as some people in the recovery community have formed a network called “New Recovery” that brings together community-based organizations made up of people overcoming addiction and their families. New Recovery focuses on community education and political advocacy around issues of importance to the recovery community—for instance, insurance parity for mental health and addiction treatment, restoration of voting rights for felons convicted of drug crimes, alternatives to prison as an approach to the problem of addiction, and so on.
Already, we know revolutionaries, union organizers, union members and conscious workers who are seeking or have achieved long-term recovery in NA and AA. How can revolutionary organizations organically win these survivors and fighters over to the broader fight?
The Mightiest ‘Higher Power’
The theme of the 12-step program is the importance of surrendering to a higher power. NA and AA are correct to leave this higher power vague, so as not to infringe upon an individual’s personal faith. Everyone is entitled to their own spiritual outlook.
Revolutionary socialists also believe in a higher power. And that power is the power of the people, millions of people—conscious, active, united and mobilized—in pursuit of emancipation. There are countless examples of the power of masses of people to directly intervene in and transform history, such as the Haitian Revolution, the Great Depression-era union struggles for Social Security and other benefits, the Chinese Revolution, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnamese defense of their homeland and defeat of U.S. imperialism, from 1962-1975. As is said in NA, “Together we can do what we could never do alone.” This is true for freeing people from the chains of active addiction, and it is true for the processes that liberate people from political and social oppression.
The oppressors do not voluntarily give up anything. The oppressed, out of necessity, must seize what we deserve. It is an individual’s right to believe in divine intervention in the affairs of society, but it is our duty to understand and then challenge that which is unjust in the world in front of us. People who work a strong program of recovery have the potential to become powerful organizers because they are principled people. Tradition 12 states: “always remember to place principles above personalities.” Our work then in the present should be to form working relationships with groups of individuals involved in the 12-step programs and highlight our common interest in overthrowing the social conditions that magnify the incidence of addiction and early death under capitalism.
Cough it up, then Rise Up
Journalist Johann Hari explains that a child who suffered abuse is 4,600 percent more likely to become an addict than a child who never suffered trauma. NA groups can empower and help individuals insofar as they bring oppressed people together to share their pain and vocalize the individual trauma that participants have endured. But they do not engage in a critical assessment of why trauma is so widespread; that is not their purpose.
It is a powerful step for someone to admit they are a survivor of sexual violence but the deeper question is: why is there a trans-generational culture of sexual abuse and rape? Returning veterans, who have lived through war and have PTSD, deserve and need group therapy. The far-reaching question though, is why are hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young men and women sent off thousands of miles away to persecute wars of foreign conquest, sustaining life-debilitating injuries, trauma and death in the process? And in the richest country in the world, why does brutal poverty and a hollow educational order deprive masses of people of a sense of purpose? Four million people in the United States survive on less than $2 a day, and the vast majority of them are children.
There are tens of thousands of NA groups spread across the world in over 100 countries, although the majority are in the United States; there are many more AA groups. These fellowships will continue to grow in response to the profound suffering caused by addiction. These programs will continue to help one addict at a time until revolutionaries address the pivotal questions: how and when will the unhealthy society that we live in—that inevitably produces addiction—be transformed?
Like membership in NA, being a Panther or Young Lord was not a one-hour commitment, once or twice a week. It was a lifestyle. This righteous, inspired lifestyle transformed people. The uplifting of communities necessarily touched masses of people.
Oppressed and exploited communities need leadership, organization and centralism. It is only the mighty centralism of the oppressed that can defeat the centralism of the oppressor (the police, the army). It is only through this fight-back movement, that we can forge our liberation.
Another World is Necessary
There can be no genuine, collective healing in a society organized against the interests of the vast majority. Until the addict is transformed into a conscious actor on the historical stage, cognizant of the dehumanization he or she has suffered before white supremacy, sexual violence, systematic neglect and all the other features of class society, they will remain a powerless, atomized object of societal scorn. The breaking away must be both individual and collective.
Beattyville, KY, the Bronx, NY, Brockton, MA, Watts, Los Angeles, and every oppressed community in between writhes under the same system. Only a new system, based on a new set of principles, can begin to alleviate our suffering on a mass level. To embrace this historical challenge, arguably the most daunting any people has ever faced, is to bring into motion our people who have fallen by the wayside by the hundreds and thousands. We all have a role to play —no matter how great or small— in this struggle.
(The author dedicates this article to his cousin Ben (27) and his sister Ellen (46), both of whom died of heroin overdoses. No life was lived in vain if it inspires others to nurture and protect the lives of future generations.)
 Statistics according to that Census Bureau 2008-12 survey, cited in The Guardian’s November 12th report.
 Influenced by the Panthers, Angela Davis published Women, Race and Class in 1981, highlighting how poor Black women are triply oppressed by white supremacy, patriarchy and the class system. This is a good starting point for readers who want to read more on this subject.
 The authorities called in the NYPD to restore business as usual. It was only the outpouring of community support that prevented the NYPD from inflicting abuse and legal reprisals at the hands of the state.
 This clinic remained open until the next mayoral administration of Abraham Beame pulled funding from the project, resulting in a surge in untreated addiction in the area. In recent years, the cost of life saving medications needed to treat hepatitis C, cancer, cholesterol and other illnesses, rose more than 500 percent, creating wider gaps in an already unequal healthcare system. (“Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight.” New York Times. Andrew Pollack. Sept. 20, 2015.) Only a new system, which prioritizes people’s needs over profits, can we make health care available to all poor and working people. It serves us to remember this militant example of resistance today, as heroin and other health care epidemics continue to ravage the very communities where Lincoln Hospital is located in the South Bronx.
 Live Science defines addiction as a brain disorder in which the circuitry of the brain demands “rewards,” in the form of alcohol or drugs. Addiction now Defined as Brain Problem, not Behavioral Problem. Live Science. August 15th, 2011. Socioeconomic Status and Substance Use among Young Adults: A Comparison across Constructs and Drugs. Journal of Studies of Drugs and Alcohol. September 2012. “Among Delinquent Youth, whites more likely to abuse hard drugs vs Black or Hispanics.” Russia Today. March 18, 2016. “Study: Whites more likely to Abuse Drugs than Blacks.” Heathland Time. Nov., 7, 2011.From an interview in “Black and Gold” documentary film. Directed by Richard Rowley and Jacqui Soohen. 1999.
 Aime Cesaire, Les Armes Miraculeuses (And the Dogs were Quiet, Et les chiens se taisaient), pp. 133—37.
 Dead Prez’s song and video “I Believe” brilliantly synthesizes the thesis of this article through hip hop.
 From Malcolm X’s speech “This System can’t Produce Freedom,” March 29, 1964.
 “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide,” by Michael “Cetewayo” Tabor, n.d. 1968.
 This is precisely what happened in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake in 2012. Today “Third World countries” –read Oppressed Nations— have a higher rate of charity workers than ever, yet are further mired in impoverishment. This is by design. NGO’s are the internationalization of non-profit tactic of community dis-empowerment.
 Fred Hampton
 The book The Revolution will not be Funded is a good resource to understand the everyday role of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex in stamping out resistance.
 Cited in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari.
 Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. $2 a day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.