Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History (2012, Lyons Press, 375 pp., $24.95 HB)
Operation Fly Trap: LA Gangs, Drugs, and the Law, by Susan Phillips (2012, University of Chicago Press, 174 pp., $18.00 PB)
Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus on two groups of people separated by time, race, and culture, but united by a common adversary: the repressive apparatus of the drug war. Cornbread Mafia tells the story of some bad ol' good ol' boys who made Kentucky synonymous with top-grade domestic marijuana production in the '80s and who generated the largest domestic grow op bust ever, while Operation Fly Trap tells the story of a small group of LA cocaine suppliers and crack dealers in the early '00s who were wrapped up and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in a pioneering use of innovative policing and prosecutorial strategems.
While both books critically address the interaction of groups of socially-defined criminals with a law enforcement complex grown up to feed off them, they feel and read quite differently. Cornbread Mafia is written by a journalist with an intimate knowledge of Lebanon, Kentucky and surrounding Marion County, and it reads like a true crime thriller, full of hillbilly noir and great and crazy tales, except that unlike most of the genre, it is sympathetic to and gives voice to the deviant "others." It's the kind of dope tale you pick up and don't put down until you're done.
It centers on a 1987 Minnesota pot cultivation operation that was busted when an early snowfall killed the surrounding corn hiding it. Organized by Marion County grower and trafficker Johnny Boone, the massive Minnesota grow was the largest ever busted, and by the time the feds had unraveled things, some 70 Kentuckians had been indicted. Although not a one of them rolled over on his peers, many of them went away for long stretches, sentenced under new RICO laws designed to bring the pain to the backwoods pot scofflaws. Boone himself did 15 years.
But that bust and the indictments that followed -- much ballyhooed, of course, by back-patting DEA officials, federal prosecutors, and state law enforcement honchos -- were a long way down a road that wound back to those Prohibition era moonshiners -- Lebanon's location as hot spot on the 1950s and 1960s chitlin circuit, where black performers including a skinny guitarist named Jimi Hendrix performed, and the return of reefer-exposed Vietnam War vets in the 1960s and 1970s.
I recall traveling to Washington, DC, to attend the annual 4th of July smoke-in in 1978. Before DC legends Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band played their set, a gangly man in a suit bearing a down home accent took to the stage, introduced himself as Kentucky lawyer and legalization advocate Gatewood Galbraith, and threw large colas of weed into the crowd, yelling, "This is the real Kentucky Bluegrass!" I didn't have a clue then, learned about Galbraith and the Appalachian pot growing scene over the intervening years, but didn't really know the back story about the whole Kentucky scene. Now, thanks to Cornbread Mafia, I feel like I do, and Higdon tells it with grace and empathy.
It's a story that isn't over. Once Johnny Boone got out of federal prison, he couldn't help but return to his old ways. In 2008, he got busted growing 2,400 plants in a neighboring county. Facing life in federal prison as a three-striker, Boone vanished. The feds still haven't found him.
Operation Fly Trap, a project of a multi-agency, state-federal joint task force aimed at gang suppression, drew its name from Tina Fly, the central figure in a crack cocaine operation in two Bloods-controlled South Central neighborhoods. Before it was done, it had wrapped up two dozen people from the tightly knit community, many from the same families, and sent them off to long federal prison sentences under anti-gang sentencing enhancements.
Like military commanders patting themselves on the back over the accuracy of their weapons, law enforcement and prosecutors congratulated themselves on the "precision" of their strike against the Tina Fly operation and the surgical removal of the cancer from the community.
But Phillips calls into question both the success of the operation and the means used to conduct it, and along the way, shines a bright light on the ways in which the impoverishment of communities like South Central and their ravaging by both criminals and those sent to catch them is a matter of public policy -- not merely personal pathology, the narrative offered up by all those men in suits at their press conferences.
Indeed, it is the situation that is pathological when the very criminals being hunted are the community's pillars, its breadwinners, and when their removal does not remove criminality, but enhances it. That pathology is only enhanced by the ongoing struggle between the community's criminals and the police, the use of snitches who sow mistrust and suspicion on the street, and by our refusal as a polity to do anything but keep reproducing those conditions that generate such predictable outcomes.
Phillips also documents how, as criticism of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders grew ever louder, the use of anti-gang policing and prosecutions only intensified. "Operation Fly Trap was an attempt to make [mass incarceration] more palatable by recasting nonviolent drug offenders as intimately related to the lethal violence of gangs," she writes. Along with drug sentencing reform and new gang legislation, the Fly Trap task force "represented a need to re-present the drug war as healthy and justifiable."
It's worth noting that although the Fly Trap defendants were pursued under the banner of the war on gangs, they charges for which they were prosecuted were drug charges. And Operation Fly Trap was by no means unusual. In fact, Phillips notes, more than 5,000 gang investigations were mounted nationally between 2001 and 2010, resulting in 57,000 arrests and 23,000 convictions. With sentencing reforms having taken some of the bite out of the federal crack laws, the gang enhancements allow prosecutors to still hold the threat of decades of prison over the heads of those rounded up.
Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus in on different episodes of our perpetual war against the criminality we create through drug prohibition. Both are exceptionally useful in providing what is too often missing in drug policy discussions: the broader context. Journalist Higdon basically gives us a history of Marion County and situates those back woods pot criminals squarely within it, while ethnographer Higdon lays out the stark landscape of black LA, emphasizes how public policy decisions have created that landscape, and shows how other public policy decisions -- around economic policy, education, access to health and mental health services, incarceration as a response to social problems -- have created a milieu where Operation Fly Trap can be recreated in perpetuity.
Read Cornbread Mafia because it's a rollicking gas, but read Operation Fly Trap, too, because it's an eye-opening, sobering look at the whole penalization industry we're created to deal with the unruly underclasses we've created.