Hillary Clinton, Heroin, and the Time to be Heard

Three weeks ago, Hillary Clinton’s health-policy advisor called me to discuss the opiate epidemic, its causes and what could be done about it.feed-image-1

The advisor said she was reading my book, Dreamland, and that Mrs. Clinton had read my NY Times op-ed column of April 19 about the issue.

The advisor told me Mrs. Clinton had been hearing a lot of very passionate comments from parents with addicted children as she campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire.

We spent an hour on the phone, talking about policy, about pain pills, pill mills, Mexican heroin trafficking, and about the quiet surrounding this epidemic that had allowed it to spread.

So I’m glad to see that Mrs. Clinton is now coming up with policy proposals to address it, one of which is to begin talking about it and end the stigma and silence surrounding addiction.

This epidemic is neither a red nor a blue issue. Thus I hope candidates from both parties will respond as well. I’ll be happy to chat with them, if they want to call.

I’d hope, moreover, they would focus not only on heroin, but on the broader problem of overprescribing of opiate painkillers, which so often provide the gateway to heroin. (Pain pills have their legitimate role in medicine, but too often are massively and unnecessarily prescribed.)

But there’s another important point in this. I believe parents of addicted children need to use this approaching presidential campaign as a way of magnifying their voices.

As a longtime journalist, I know that the most poignant stories are the ones that can have the most impact. Sadly, many parents up to now have kept silent, ashamed or simply worn out by their children’s addiction.

That is changing. More are stepping forward, as Mrs. Clinton was hearing on the campaign. Some are mentioning heroin overdose as a cause of death in their children’s obituaries – an act of enormous, and necessary, courage.

But these stories are still not being heard the way they need to be.

During past drug scourges, public violence aroused public ire. The crack years, for example, saw drive-by shootings and carjackings. I was a crime reporter during those years and saw this first hand.

None of that public violence has happened during this epidemic. So the job of arousing public attention falls almost entirely to parents.

I believe this presidential campaign offers an opportunity to be heard, to magnify voices. Make opiate abuse (pain pills and heroin) and overprescribing a point of presidential debate.

To do that, parents in particular need to step forward and tell their stories the way no one else can.

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Photo: Hillary For President website

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William Zinsser Dies

William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, has died. He was 92, according to his NY Times obituary.51gR+4G5mJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His book influenced me enormously. We learn to write by writing, but if there’s one book to read on writing in English, it’s his. I read it probably eight times, though I’ve lost count. Some parts of it, more than that.

His approach to writing is the correct one – that writing involves rewriting and more rewriting, each time with an eye to cutting words that don’t need to be there.

That through rewriting we achieve greater clarity, and come to know what we think.

He didn’t mean that all sentences should be short. Rather, that all sentences contain only words that are necessary. Same goes for sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a text.

He also said that if you pare down your prose to only what’s necessary and do this over and over, through a lifetime, you develop your own voice. That idea hit me as strange at first, but I know now that he was right.

His point, too, that writing is not to be done when you have inspiration, but treated as a job, something you get up and do every day – that was a revelation to me, as well. The anecdote with which he opens the book, about speaking on a writing panel with a doctor, is fabulous.

On Writing Well went through many editions, but the core of it – the first six or so chapters – remains always clear and relevant.

His essay on Clutter in language is probably more on point today than ever.

I wrote to him twice – once after my first book came out and the second time after we published the first Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles volume. Each time, he was kind enough to write back.

A good guy who changed English – by making those who write it do it more clearly.

Many thanks, Mr. Zinsser.

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Remembering Dreamland: One woman’s story

 Some people think that my use of Dreamland as the title to my book refers to the euphoria addicts are seeking.Dreamland-HCBig
    In reality, the title refers to an enormous pool that existed years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio, a town mightily afflicted by opiate addiction. Dreamland was the town square, in a sense. Life revolved around it. Kids grew up in public, under the watchful eye of hundreds of parents. It was a place where everyone was equal in bathing suits. The pool embodied the feel of community.
    I’m still awed by the letters I continue to get in response to the book. Here’s another …

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    I grew up in Portsmouth, born in 1952.  It was a safe blessed time in post war America.  I had 6 cousins in my Catholic school class, picnics with the families on weekends, a perfect childhood of Dreamland every summer day, walking home from school with friends each fall, enduring the brief winter to count the days until Dreamland reopened.
     I left after high school and did college at Ohio Wesleyan where my husband and I met. We moved to PA and I did law school as my husband served the United Methodist churches of Central PA.  We made semi-annual trips to Portsmouth with our three children to see family.  Each time we went, the town was more depressing.  Family members became drug addicts.  We were stolen from at my mothers funeral.  I rescued my dad from a nursing home where the facility clearly had users on staff.  This was in 2013.  He was not safe in his own home due to a family member selling drugs right under my IMG_4147dad’s nose.
     He died in 2014, in PA, after having lived 92 years in Portsmouth.  He knew Branch Rickey, Rocky Nelson, and the great years of Portsmouth.  4 of his six brothers served our country; my dad was deferred due to problems after having polio and rheumatic fever.  I have Ohio River blood in my veins.
    Thank you for making me understand a bit more that the addictions which decimated my family were not totally their fault.  I worked 35 years as an attorney in health care law and  I knew the power of the pharmaceutical companies and the collision of profit in healthcare.
    If you would like to take on another pharmaceutical issue in the future, let me suggest Lyrica. It was presented as the holy grail for nerve pain.  I am no longer practicing law as I had to quit due to seizures after using Lyrica.    Facebook even has a Lyrica survivors page of which I am a member.  It is another sad tail of “big pharma” all over again.
    Thank you again for your wonderful work of Dreamland.
Barbara G. Graybill

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Dreamland: A Mother’s Story

I’ve been getting amazing, intense email letters in the two weeks since Dreamland was released. I hope to be adding some of them to my blog. Here’s one.

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I almost lost my beloved 23-year-old son (he is now 26) to heroin addiction, which had progressed from OxyContin to black tar heroin.  We are a family of hard working professionals in a university town.

Like most families, we cherish our kids and do everything we can to help then live an honest successful life. When this happened, my son was a pre-med college student. I was and am very close to him, and he had always been a very good Dreamland-HCBigstudent and loving son and brother. He was kind, funny, highly gifted, devoted to music and passionate about becoming a doctor.   He was also prone to depression at times.

When I found out, he was in his 4th year of college, and getting As and Bs in hard science courses such as organic chemistry, but could not seem to manage on his college budget. He kept running out of money.  He started having vague physical symptoms, like constipation, malaise and abdominal discomfort. His grades in his last year of college started to slip.  At Christmas, we visited my sister’s family in Midwestern farm country. Later, my sister, bless her heart, confided in me that her Oxy pills that had been prescribed for shingles had disappeared from her medicine cabinet when we were staying with her. She was reluctant to tell me as she did not want to make anyone uncomfortable or blame anyone. I am so very grateful that she told me this.

I immediately put together that my son had stolen the pills and had a life-threatening problem. I knew it in my gut to be true beyond any doubt. Perhaps because I am a child of the 60s and knew too many friends who were lost to drug addiction: classmates who were drafted and came back from Vietnam addicted to heroin, and 2 college roommates who went to federal prison for smuggling cocaine as an airline stewardesses.  We also have a family history of alcohol abuse and addiction, which my mom told me way too many times.

I freaked out! I knew that he had to be addicted to do something so desperate as steal my sister’s pills. This explained everything – his money problems, dropping grades, and vague feelings of being sick.  I could not sleep for fear he would soon be dead. I confronted him in tears and said I knew he had stolen the Oxy. He of course denied it, but finally admitted he had stolen the pills. He admitted he was addicted to Oxy pills, which he had started using after being given a script for narcotic pills after a foot laceration.

I immediately called an addiction doctor I know and, in tears and panicking, offered to pay her anything if she could please help save my son.  She drove in from out of town and (at a high hourly rate) met with him and helped him realize he was an addict. She personally went with him to an NA meeting (she is a former cocaine addict and involved in NA). I would have paid anything for any chance to save him.

He went to the NA meeting and started to see addiction therapists, which we paid for, but he remained in denial. He kept saying it wasn’t a big deal and he could kick the habit. He went to some NA sessions, but over the course of 18 months he relapsed 3 times, each time worse than the last. During one of the relapses, he called his father to say goodbye after injecting what he thought was a fatal suicidal dose of black tar heroin in his arm. He had started getting the heroin from a “friend” – a former college football player who had been selling him Oxy and was now selling him heroin once he could no longer afford the street price of Oxy.

His father found him in his apartment unresponsive, but he survived.  He was so ashamed that he could not defeat the problem that he said he couldn’t live with the shame and did not find life worth living. We did family interventions and told him we would not give up on him and brought him to more therapists.

He almost died three more times. After the first relapse, I demanded to know his dealer’s name as I wanted to kill him.  I traced his phone calls (I was paying for his cell phone) and had repetitive thoughts about killing the demon who sold him the drugs and taught him to inject heroin.  I wasn’t sure how I could go on living if I lost him.

When using, he would not see me as he knew that I would know if he was using. So he moved to LA and declined rapidly.  His father went to see him and told me that I should go visit him, as he would not be alive long.  I did. He looked like a skeleton. He was taking Suboxone, as well as additional narcotics and probably other drugs.   I kept saying that I would pay for any addiction therapy he could find, but would never give up on him and not give a penny to his habit. My life was hell.

Thank God, he found an addiction therapist in LA (a former Vietnam vet heroin addict) who he really connected with. He started seeing this therapist while still using.  I got a “call” (God how we fear those calls!), but it was not that he had died. It was that he had voluntarily decided to go into “long term” drug rehab.  We found an inpatient facility in Utah that the addiction specialist recommended. I knew the enslaving power of heroin addiction and how statistically unlikely it was that he would voluntarily say goodbye to heroin.

I don’t know how he had the strength, but he got on the plane, flew to the University of Utah hospital where he admitted himself into the psych unit for several days of detox. He then voluntarily admitted himself into a Utah inpatient facility for 30 days, then into 90 days sober living, and then underwent 18 more months of therapy and voluntary monitored UAs.

My son is now 35 months completely clean, and is in medical school. He keeps track of every single day he is sober. He says that every day remains hard work. BUT, he has done the work and gotten his life back. He started exercising, working and studying steadily. He took premed courses and passed grueling medical school exams.

My son is now successfully finishing his first year of medical school.  He wants to be an addiction doctor and find a way to help others survive this hell.

I still worry about him every day.  But we cannot talk about this, as most people do not feel comfortable with the topic. I also need to not jeopardize my son’s career. He tells some people and is doing an internship this summer at rehabilitation clinic. He was open with them when he applied for the position.  He answers all questions honestly, but does not bring the topic up with others unless they are very close friends.

I have read every book about addiction that I can get my hands on, and some are excellent, such as “Beautiful Boy.”  But no other book so skillfully and adeptly addresses this huge crisis like yours, nor does any other book touch me in terms of what I have lived with like your book.

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Xalisco Boys – now in northern Ohio

In case anyone thought the Xalisco Boys – the heroin traffickers from Xalisco, Nayarit, which I write about in Dreamland — were an old Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.33.02 PMstory, there’s this recent bust from the Cleveland and northern Ohio areas.

The interesting part of this story is that they have apparently moved into the Cleveland market. I know they’re in Columbus, Nashville and Memphis, Indianapolis and elsewhere.

Until recently, apparently, they hadn’t made a move into northern Ohio, which seemed too close to Detroit, another heroin hotspot.

But things change in the underworld, particularly as the Xalisco Boys (delivering black-tar heroin like pizza with drivers and operators standing by) work like a lot of corporations in that they’re always competing with each other and seeking new sales territories.

Never ceases to amaze me how this system evolved and spread like a fast-food franchise – gaining special momentum after it arrived in 1998 in midwestern and Appalachian areas where pain pills were just then being massively over-prescribed.

That was the first example of a heroin distribution system discovering the market inherent in pain-pill overprescribing.

Here goes some of the above cited newspaper story:

“This group utilized numerous men to act as couriers to deliver the heroin to customers. Many of these couriers were brought illegally to the United States from the Nayarit/Tepic area of Mexico to the Painesville area with the promise of working on a farm or in an automobile garage. Once in Ohio, these individuals became couriers for the drug trafficking group, according to court documents and the FBI.”

Tepic is the capital of the state of Nayarit, which is on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Tepic is a few miles from Xalisco, where this system started and where the guys who started the system are from.

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Another Family Steps Up – D.J. Wolanski RIP

Another family has stepped up to acknowledge in an obituary that a child has died of a heroin overdose.4318752_300x300_1

Daniel Joseph “DJ” Wolanski, of Mahoning County in Ohio, died April 20. Read his obituary.

It must be so difficult for this family to come forward and say this publicly. But this scourge has spread because so many people before them have kept quiet, allowing the rest of us to imagine that the problem really isn’t as bad as it has become.

So it’s important to acknowledge the courage of those who do step up, speak publicly.

The obituary reads….

“Over the course of DJ’s life, he made many bad decisions including experimenting with drugs. Unfortunately, his five year addiction and battle with heroin took over. His family and friends truly loved him and tried everything from being supportive to tough love as he struggled with his own inner demons and heroin. …

“DJ often talked about the growing number of friends that he had lost to this destructive drug and how it destroyed families. They used to say it takes a community to raise a child. Today, we need to say that it takes a community to battle addiction. Someone you know is battling addiction; if your “gut instinct” says something is wrong, it most likely is. Get involved. Do everything within your power to provide help. Don’t believe the logical sounding reasons of where their money is going or why they act so different. Don’t believe them when they say they’re clean.”

Profound words – the way to attack a drug that turns every addict into a silo, a loner wrapped in a cocoon – is through community.

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Why Pain Pill Addiction? One Nurse’s View

I’m on tour to promote Dreamland, and along the way I’ve have had conversations with parents of addicts, doctors, public health employees, and the public in general.

Often the conversation revolves around why this is a problem, and why it continues to be — if we see that massive Dreamland-HCBigprescribing of pain medication has clearly led to heroin addiction.

This letter from a nurse practitioner at a chronic-pain clinic in a  mid-sized town in the western United States helps explain.

______

The clinic I work at has a reputation for liberal opioid/opiate prescribing and there is a culture of  dependency and codependency that has been instilled by the owner. Prior to coming to this clinic I worked in a psych and drug rehab hospital in a rural part of the United States for five years. I saw all the patients that became addicted first by pain medication or other means. It is a struggle for me everyday to know that I now contribute to this problem.

Every day I try to have the conversation with patients on what it would be like to get off the medication. Most patients tell me no one has ever had that conversation with them. It makes it that more difficult because then I look like the jerk that wants them off their meds when every provider before me told them they would be on pain medication their entire life.

I have developed a reputation as being a terrible provider by many of the clinic’s patients. The front desk asks my medical assistants what it is like working with me since all they hear is terrible things about me.

Many people talk about going after to the doctors to stop this opioid epidemic. The problems I see are patients with terrible insurance that doesn’t cover comprehensive pain management. What I am stuck with is a person with limited resources and a 20-minute appointment and sometimes all I have left is medication. Most of my patients get upset with me, and laugh when I give them breathing exercises to perform.

I don’t start many people on pain medication but I have kept many people on medications that I sometimes don’t feel comfortable prescribing. I go out of my way to try to find alternatives to pain medication for my patients. My hope is that one day pain management is taken out of primary care completely. Pain is too complex to dealt with in a 20-minute appointment.

The other issue is patient satisfaction. That is a huge issue in emergency departments. I have spoken with many ER docs and it seems a lot of the care is driven by customer satisfaction. Doctors fear bad reviews from patients. I think this drives a lot of the pain medication prescriptions in EDs. Because of this, I have seen some of my patients get opioid/opiate prescriptions for relatively minor medical issues.

I have found some positives. Most patients I discharge for multiple violations of their medication agreements never come back. The ones that do often turn out to be my favorite patients. When I don’t worry about prescribing controlled substances with patients then we often get to work on lifestyle changes like better management of their chronic conditions or quitting smoking.

Anyways… I probably have a lot more to say but that seems like enough. Thank you for your time.

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The Normalcy of Addiction

I’m in Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival, a very nice book festival held downtown.Dreamland-HCBig

So here’s what happened yesterday. Flew in, met my fellow panelists, learned that Southwest lost my bag, went to the hotel, took a quick nap, went to a festival reception, met someone with an opiate addict in the family (the family member is a woman in her 60s or so).

Little Rock is no different from every other part of the country I’ve visited recently.

Researching our national addiction to pain pills and heroin to write my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the normalcy of addiction nowadays. Everywhere, strike up a conversation, you find someone with a family member or friend or co-worker addicted to opiates.

It’s far more prevalent than crack use was, I believe, and certainly infinitely more deadly.

I remember starting the research, flying to Dallas a couple years ago. On the plane was an elderly couple from rural Oklahoma. We got to talking and before long, they were telling me of their oldest son, addicted to OxyContin.

Not long after that, in a tavern on New Year’s Day in Covington, KY, I met a family, celebrating a young girl’s birthday. Before long, we’re talking about two people in that extended family dead from heroin overdoses.

There are many reasons why this is so.

First: the massive over-prescribing of pain pills nationwide. We often debate whether supply or demand drives drug plagues. This one is supply driven. Pain pills eventually lead to heroin addiction – as the pills are molecularly similar to heroin and much cheaper; in some areas, like those serviced by the Xalisco Boys I write about in Dreamland, heroin is easier and more convenient to obtain the pills.

But this is also driven by silence. There’s no violence to fuel public ire. Meanwhile, though, parents are loathe to talk about their children’s addiction. When they die, they camouflage it in some palatable cause of death. Some parents are going public. But far too few given the huge numbers.

The result is silence, and stories you never hear until you’re sitting next to someone on a plane, or chatting with them at a cocktail party.

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DREAMLAND – At Last!

Been a very long time, and lots of hard work, but finally my third book of narrative nonfiction is out.Dreamland-HCBig

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic was released this week by Bloomsbury Press.

When neck-deep in writing a book, I’m never sure if it’s any good. Too much time spent laboring over every phrase, whether one clause should be separated by a comma or a semicolon, which adjective best describes a person’s mood – on top of all the facts that, like cats, need to be corralled and herded in one direction or another.

And new facts you learn every day that may change everything.

Then there’s the rewriting – which is what writing is all about.

So I’m thrilled to hear reaction to the book – that people couldn’t put it down. Love hearing that, I have to say.

I’ve had great appearances at the LA Times Bookfest and at Vroman’s, with more to come at Powell’s Books in Portland, Elliott Bay Town Hall in Seattle and Bookstore West Portal in San Francisco, not to mention the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, where I’m heading as I write.

Amazon.com chose Dreamland one of its Best Books of the month, alongside books by Toni Morrison, TC Boyle and others. That was nice of them.

The NY Times ran a column of mine on the front page of its Sunday Review opinion page. Nice of them, as well.

Salon.com wrote this terrific review of the book. Kirkus Review ran a long story on it. Willamette Week published a review, and an article on Dreamland. Mother Jones, where I was once an intern (1984), reviewed it as well. Thanks, you guys.

KPCC in LA aired an interview i did on their show, Take Two, and CSPAN did the same with an interview at the Bookfest, then covered the LA Times Bookfest panel I was on with some terrific nonfiction crime authors  – Ruben Castaneda, Barry Siegel, and Deanne Stillman, and Tom Zoellner doing a bang-up job moderating.

All in all, an exhausting but fulfilling first few days to a book’s life.

Thanks to all who’ve bought the book, and especially to those who’ve written me about it with such feeling.

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DREAMLAND … in two weeks

Two weeks from today, my third book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury Press), is officially Dreamland-HCBigreleased.

The story of this epidemic involves shoelaces, rebar, Levi’s 501s, cellphones, football, Walmart, American prosperity, with marketing, with Mexican poverty and social competition, and with the biggest swimming pool in the US and what happened when that was destroyed.

It’s about the marketing of prescription pills as a solution to pain of all kinds, and about a small town in Mexico where young men have devised a system for retailing heroin across America like it was pizza.

The tale took me from Appalachia to suburbs in Southern California, into one of the biggest drug-abuse stories of our time – and one of the quietest, and whitest as well.

Until April 21, you can buy the book presale, at a discount, at Amazon here … or at Barnes & Noble here.

It’s been a long haul, and I thank the many people I met and spoke to along the way as I put together this American saga.

Hope you like it.

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Ariel Camacho, narcocorrido/Movimiento Alterado singer, dies

News out of Mexico is that another narcocorrido singer has died.

Ariel Camacho, lead singer of Los Plebes del Rancho, was killed Wednesday in a car accident in Sinaloa. He was 22.

Camacho was part of the Movimiento Alterado, which first grew out of Burbank, of all places, and drafted young singers, doing gigs at wedding parties and quinceneras in L.A. backyards, and transformed them into menacing narcosingers. d30d6e43f0b0850dc39097f43547e72b

The movement has now spread to Mexico and to other record labels. Camacho’s label was DEL Records.

The Altered Movement is known for especially graphic lyrics depicting drug violence, and for the praising the powerful, particularly well-known Sinaloa Cartel figures, in very noncorrido form. The corrido has typically exalted the lone, heroic figure – a man going up against power and probably doomed, but worthy of a song nevertheless.

MA, however, has made a fetish of praising powerful cartel leaders, among them Manuel Torres Felix, El Ondeado (the Unhinged), the late head of security for the Sinaloa Cartel.

All in all, narcocorrido singer has to be one of the region’s most dangerous profession. Beginning with Chalino Sanchez, whose life I wrote about in my first book and who was murdered in Sinaloa in 1992, numerous singers who followed in his footsteps have been killed. Sanchez’s son, Adan, also died in a car crash.

Saul Viera, El Gavilancillo, was shot to death outside a Denny’s in Bellflower in 1998. Among others to die are Valentin Elizalde, shot to death in Reynosa in 2006, and El Halcon de la Sierra, Fabian Ortega, in 2010.

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Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside

Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.

This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A.FullSizeRender are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.

That is the analysis of  my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.

I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.

Here’s some of what she writes:

“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”

Reading on. Can’t wait for more.

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LAT Op-Ed: Parks, Gang Free, Returned to Owners

An opinion piece of mine is out in the LA Times — this one about the radical changes at Southern California parks.

Parks, by and large, are now free of gang presence. They are, generally speaking, places where families can play and relax without the fear that not so many years ago kept them away.

As I say in the piece, this mostly benefits working-class families who couldn’t use gang-infested parks near where they lived years ago.

This marks a real revolution, I think. Dominating parks was part of how gangs emerged and grew strong in Southern California.

Hope you like the piece.

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Kevin Costner Cutting Cabbage

It’s been a long time since Kevin Costner showed up in a worthwhile movie. Not nearly as long, though, as it’s been since a real Central Valley farming town appeared in one.

They both star in a movie that I saw recently at Walt Disney Studios called McFarland USA, which portrays a kind of unvarnished rural America that amounts to risk-taking I don’t associate with either Costner or Disney.McFARLAND

McFarland USA (in theaters later this month) is based on the true story of Jim White, a football coach who moves to the tiny Central Valley farming town in the 1980s and, instead, creates the McFarland High School cross country team with kids who work the field before coming to school, the children of longtime farmworkers.

The team becomes state champions – a feat the school has achieved nine times. McFarland USA is great tear-jerking sports filmmaking.

For Costner, this comes after a series of movies that seemed to me (though I’m no Hollywood insider) the last gasp of a major career (Draft Day), and may help resuscitate it.

He’s played this part many times. This time, though, he allows himself to be here in all his wrinkles, befuddled a good part of the movie in this foreign land with a U.S. zip code; he’s no longer quite the stud in control that he was during his heyday that began in rural America with Bull Durham in 1988.

Costner deals in fantasy, like every movie star. His has always been a certain kind of American (usually male) fantasy, and often about the nobility of white rural and/or small town America, in particular. Bull Durham, which launched him, had it in spades.

Problem is that part of America has been taking a pounding since at least Bull Durham (farm crisis, depopulation, Walmart). (The latest scourge, about which I’ve been writing, is a locust cloud of prescription pills and heroin.)

It’s the unblinking (within the genre’s limits) look at this rural America into which Costner is thrown that makes this flick worth the time. One place is a cabbage field, in which Costner stoops under the brutal Central Valley sun along with Mexican farmworkers. This is an unfamiliar country for the guy whose last appearance in modern rural America was in the far less complicated Field of Dreams Iowa in 1989.

The movie’s backdrop is its richest attribute: the orchards and streets of the Central Valley, home to some of our poorest towns – McFarland among them. “Are we in Mexico?” his daughter asks as the White family first drives through town.

Embracing this milieu allows the movie, and the star, a few other surreal scenes.

There’s Costner as a proud but stumbling father giving his daughter an impromptu quinceanera, a word he cannot pronounce. Another shows the kids training by running around the local prison – doesn’t every Valley town have one?

McFarland USA is Disney through and through. You’ll whiff Stand and Deliver, as well as Rudy and Hoosiers. It’s still effective filmmaking – I counted five tearing-ups – with a poor, stunningly photogenic, Central Valley town at its center.

We learn that all White’s runners go on to better lives, many, it seems, working for one level of government or another.

That’s not surprising any more.

The Central Valley has inspired thunderous works of art and activism on the plight of the oppressed – Grapes of Wrath, of course, the main example. But none ever stuck with the story long enough, I always thought. For, by and large, people don’t take it lying down for long. They struggle. They move on, they move up; in time, they’re allowed the luxury of forgetting where they came from.

Had Steinbeck followed the Joads, he’d have watched their kids become the next generation of cops and city councilmen along the 99 – and forget their manners when it came to the Mexican-Americans who moved up the highway to take their places in the fields.

I lived in Stockton from 1989 to 1992 – about the time McFarland USA is set. By then, the kids of those Mexican-Americans that Cesar Chavez organized in the 1960s had become cops, restaurant owners, and farmers themselves – and didn’t seem to care too much for the illegal northern Mexicans who worked the fields.

Those northern Mexicans who came to pick in the 1970s and 1980s were amnestied into America. Their kids are today the labor contractors and farmers (and cops). They’re trying to figure out the newest pickers – Mixtec and Triqui Indians from southern Mexico – who seem as foreign to them as his students seemed to Jim White when he showed up in McFarland fresh from a failed Idaho coaching job.

But all that is backstory to a movie that combines some classic sports melodrama with a look at a rural, small-town USA, and, with it, an icon of square white American manhood cutting cabbage in the sun.

Photo: McFarland USA

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Boxer Enriquez, the Mexican Mafia, LAPD – What’s the problem?

There’s been a dust-up recently over a meeting that LAPD investigators held with Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, a former influential member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, in which he explained to them the inner workings of his former crime pals.

The mayor is criticizing the meeting, questioning why it was held. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has called for a review of the decision to hold it.9780061257308_p0_v1_s260x420 LA Police Commission President Steve Soboroff has called for an investigation into the meeting. Soboroff called the meeting a “giant waste of resources” and “very very misconceived.”

I don’t know what happened at that meeting, but if it was anything like the kind of law-enforcement seminar Enriquez has given dozens of times in the past, then Soboroff need to reassess that opinion.

What is the problem here?

Why would you not want a former Mexican Mafia member to be educating police brass on the workings of one of the most influential, and little-known, institutions in Southern California life today?

Boxer has made a second career (behind bars – he’s serving life in prison) of teaching law enforcement about how his old mates work. I’ve interviewed him extensively. That’s what he does, and, an articulate fellow, he does it pretty well.  (He’s co-author, with local TV reporter Chris Blatchford, of the book, The Black Hand, released in 2009.)

Far from being a “giant waste,” this seems to me to be essential work. The Mexican Mafia is one of the most important institutions in Southern California, particularly in communities with large Latino populations and gang problems.

The Eme used to be just a prison gang. But two decades ago, it marshaled the forces of street gang members to tax drug dealers in their areas, and sometimes also fruit vendors, bars, prostitutes and others – and funnel the proceeds to Eme members, their families and associates.

With that, it became Southern California’s first regional organized crime syndicate.

It’s probably less than that description implies, as it’s run by drug addicts locked away in maximum security prisons, who use drug addicts and criminals as their go-betweens. The miscommunication can be monumental. Still, the mafia has changed life in many parts of this region.

In some SoCal towns, its members are more important than the mayor, with enormous impact on town budgets. Its members can create – have created – crime waves with simple orders to associates who pass them along to gangsters on the street. The Eme has been shown to have alliances with Mexican cartels.

Sounds to me like anyone willing shed light on an organization like that ought to be welcome.

By the way, I contend that Enriquez’s decision to drop out while he was in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay in 2001 was a crucial moment in state prison history, as it helped pave the way for the mass defection of gang members in prison.

It wasn’t the only factor pushing that along, but it was important because it showed the Eme’s soldiers and lieutenants that their higher-ups weren’t going stick with the program. Also, two other mafia members – Angel “Stump” Valencia and David “Chino” Delgadillo – quickly followed him into PC, with several others after that, including Boxer’s old Eme buddy, Jacko Padilla, who controlled the Azusa area.

Protective custody in state prison went from a few hundred to, today, tens of thousands of inmates on what are known euphemistically as Sensitive Needs Yards. Many of them are Southern California Latino gang members. All that picked up enormous momentum after Enriquez dropped out.

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