Broken Homes of the Drug WarRoundup
tags: racism, crime, Los Angeles, urban history, LAPD, Drug War, policing, Daryl Gates
David Helps is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan. His writing on policing, cities, and capitalism can be found in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Monthly Review, and more.
Gloria Flowers was in the bath when the raid began. It was past midnight, the first night of August 1988, and the 21-year-old mother of two lay soaking her muscles when more than 80 police broke down her apartment door. Officially, the squat, four-family building on Dalton Avenue was a “gang-controlled” crack den—and officially, this was a bust. In each unit, police broke through walls and cabinets with an ax and a homemade battering ram. They smashed stereos and mirrors and a glass table. They wrenched the doors from appliances, emptied food from fridges, and poured bleach on children’s clothes. Outside on the lawn, officers put residents in handcuffs and beat them with police-issue flashlights.
For all this use of force, the LAPD made just one arrest that night, according to initial newspaper accounts. Hildebrandt Flowers was an alleged gang member with a short rap sheet: a young man known to police who didn’t live in the building. When he caught word of the raid, he rushed to the scene to make sure his sister Gloria was safe, and was arrested on the spot.
The Dalton Avenue raid would become the most damaging scandal in the LAPD’s War on Drugs. For a generation of people in South Central, the name “Dalton” is synonymous with casual brutality and racist malice. The clear disparity between the police’s claim that the target was a major gang hideout and the reality—that these were people’s homes—led to a lasting public belief that the raid was a tragic case of mistaken identity. “Course you know it was the wrong house?” the long-time resident and activist Mabie Settlage tells me. In her recollection, the offending officers coolly admitted the mistake. She went on, “To have a family just living their life, and then these cops come in and break their furniture, break their toilet… and then just throw everything in the middle of the room and say, ‘Oh, sorry, wrong house,’ and walk out? It was straight-up terrorism.”
This narrative around Dalton—as a story about a purblind police state—was repeated in the legal system. A court ordered the city to pay $3 million to the victims in a civil suit, while a handful of officers were charged with misdemeanor vandalism. These were rare occurrences, and the charges added to Dalton’s reputation as an exceptional event. In the course of an internal investigation, however, the offending officers did not explain their violence as misplaced or misdirected. They were there for a reason. The LAPD brass, they believed, “wanted the neighborhood taken off the map.”
“Dalton” was less a raid than a rampage. Cops systematically destroyed everything they could while ostensibly searching for contraband. “It was like a bomb went off,” John Burton, the victims’ lawyer, told the media. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black newspaper, likened the damage to a disaster zone and asked its readers to donate to those affected: “Imagine residing in a place with holes in the walls and no cooking or toilet facilities, surrounded by the stench of rotted food and water damage.” When I spoke with Burton, he told me that the raid was intended to send a clear message to the neighborhood: “Don’t fuck with the LAPD.” The spectacle of the destruction was the point.
Why was this neighborhood in the LAPD’s crosshairs? The 3900 block of Dalton Avenue is smack dab in the heart of South Central. It’s just one mile east of the walled campus of the University of Southern California, an institution whose parasitic relationship to its surroundings rivals that of Yale or Columbia, as Piper French has documented. Turn the corner and travel three miles south, and you’ll arrive at Florence and Normandie: the corner where the 1992 L.A. Riots began, sparked by the beating of Rodney King and the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American shopkeeper. The area was also a key site of organizing by the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), an organization founded in the 1970s by former Black Panthers Michael Zinzun and B. Kwaku Duren. The Dalton victims’ lawyer, John Burton, worked closely with Zinzun and appeared on his public-access TV show, Message to the Grassroots, to discuss videotaped footage of the battered apartments.
It was in these neighborhoods, longstanding sites of Black and multiracial organizing against police power, where the LAPD’s drug war dealt the most damage.
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