How radical health activists fought the 70s heroin epidemic

How radical health activists fought the 70s heroin epidemic

Dope is Death — A new documentary explores the legacy of a 1970s coalition of New York health activists and revolutionaries, among them Tupac's stepfather and The Black Panthers, and how they founded North America's first acupuncture detox clinic.

At 5.15 am on 14th July 1970, just before sunrise and as residents of the South Bronx NYC slept soundly, 150 people were heading towards Lincoln Hospital in unison. A U-Haul truck was hurtling towards the hospital, but stacked up in the back were not parcels and packages, but instead, rows and rows of Young Lords – a recently formed Puerto Rican activist group. Within minutes, they were to leap out the back doors of the van to storm and seize the hospital. 

“It was an occupation that came straight out of the Normandy invasion,” remembers Felipe Luciano, a then Young Lord and founding member of the Last Poets. “It was like a paratrooper assault.” After storming the building, they took it over within seven minutes and secured it within 15. Soon, as the sun came up and people sipped their morning coffee, they would look up at the nine-story building to see a Puerto Rican flag hung over the hospital gently flapping in the breeze. 

A makeshift cardboard sign was taped up on the doors that read: “Welcome to the people’s hospital.” Activists joined outside in support and held banners declaring: “Seize the hospital and save the people”. Soon, that quiet summer morning was deafened by screeching tyres and a chorus of wailing sirens as a sea of blue descended on 141st St. “There were more cops than I had ever seen in my life,” says Luciano.  

This scene is taken from Dope is Death – a new documentary by Mia Donovan that tells the story of health activists and their attempts to take on the heroin epidemic that raged through their community. At the time there were 100,000 addicts in the city, which accounted for 25 per cent of all addicts in the US. It was three dollars a bag and the streets of the South Bronx were lined with nodded out bodies.  

The occupation of Lincoln hospital was not violent, but political. In the months leading up to that day, flyers had been distributed referring to the hospital – one that treated largely Black and Latino people – as a “butcher shop”. The hospital had been neglected with a renovation being promised for years. 

“That building was condemned 25 years ago,” said Young Lord Iris Morales at the time. “Condemned because it was unsafe for human habitation. Condemned for rich people but opened up for poor people.” 

Members of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, along with hospital workers, formed The Health Revolutionary Unity Movement to collate complaints from local residents about health issues that needed desperately addressing. These included everything from crippling heroin addiction, to babies being bitten by rats, to lead poisoning and tuberculosis. 

2,000 complaints were collected and passed onto the hospital, but nothing was done. Action was taken, Lincoln hospital stormed, and a list of seven demands based on the previously submitted complaints was given to the city. 

After 15 hours, some negotiations, some arrests – but no charges – and an attempt by an undercover officer to gain access, they left peacefully. The hospital occupancy gained widespread coverage and put further pressure on the city. Rather astonishingly, a few months down the line, demands were met. They were allocated the hospital’s addiction services funds and the use of a building to create the People’s Program – a methadone detoxification program run entirely by volunteers. 

The Lincoln Detox collective trying ear acupuncture on a community drug victim in 1973. Photo credit: Carlos Oritz courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

However, The People’s Program was also an education program as well as a drug treatment one, politicising the drug trade and painting a picture that connected heroin, capitalism and genocide. Many in the community believed the methadone program itself was an extended way to keep people – Black people specifically – docile and under control, especially as Nixon was under pressure to reduce “black crime”. Patients were given out a pamphlet called “The Opium Trail: Heroin and Imperialism.” 

After years of research making the film – as well as a subsequent podcast series – Donovan herself drew a similar conclusion. “You have to go every day to get your treatment,” she says. “You’re dependent not on the drug pusher, but the government for your dose. It’s four times more addictive than heroin – there are a lot of problems with it. It’s hard for me not to see it as a form of control and oppression.” 

One day program worker Mulutu Shakur read out a New York Times article on acupuncture being used successfully to treat the withdrawal symptoms of someone with an opium addiction in Hong Kong. (Shakur also happens to be the stepfather of rapper Tupac Shakur). Thinking this was a holistic way to go in opposition to methadone – which acupuncturist and community organizer Walter Bosque calls “liquid handcuffs” – they then hired two acupuncturists to perform auriculotherapy, a form of acupuncture that focuses on needling the ear.

Shakur became a practitioner, as did other workers in the program, and they began to give the treatment daily. However, the combination of what was seen as radical politics along with experimental medicine soon had them picked out as people of interest for the authorities.

In fact, many of them already were without even knowing it. Shakur’s had been the subject of one of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Programs, known as COINTELPRO, since back in 1969. The initiative, issued down by director J. Edgar Hoover, was instructed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralise” various groups, including the Black Panthers, The Young Lords, feminist groups and communists – basically the entire make-up of the People’s Program. 

Dr. Mutulu Shakur in 1995

In her film, Donovan paints a picture of a grassroots community movement coming up against a battle from above. “Chuck Schumer, at the time, was an Assemblyman in New York and in the New York Times accused them of being a rip-off drug treatment program and indoctrinating radicals,” she says. They operated for several years – with great success they claim, with many ex-addicts training to become acupuncture practitioners – but when a change in Mayor came into play it signalled the end. Ed Koch issued a shutdown of the hospital building, padlocking the doors and stating, “hospitals are for sick people, not for thugs.” 

The work in this area continued despite the closure, with Shakur being involved in the setting up of the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America, and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture. However, things went downhill in 1981 when a group of Black Liberation Army members robbed an armoured car, stealing over a million in cash, killing a guard and injuring police. Shakur fled and was soon on the FBI’s Top Ten list before being captured and arrested in 1986. 

Many people, including Skahur, protest his innocence due to his arrest being via a RICO charge (effectively a guilt by association law created to tackle mafia bosses). “The only evidence they have from Mulutu is his fingerprints on some leaflets found in safe houses,” says Donovan. “So the government just had to prove that there was an organization in the house with his political views.” 

She also feels the serious nature of the crime has overshadowed the work that they did for the community. “Mutulu is labelled a cop killer or a bank robber like he’s just a criminal,” she says. “The people involved in this group have been so heavily labelled as criminals but when you actually look at the evidence and look at the history they did so much more than acupuncture. They were fighting for rent strikes, providing free children’s lunches, organising people to understand their rights and doing so much for the community.” 

Prison sentences were heavy for those involved – or those that could be connected to the crime – and Shakur remains in prison today. He’s been there for 34 years, is 70 and has bone marrow cancer but has been repeatedly denied parole and compassionate leave. “He’s clearly not a threat to society,” says Donavon. 

Donovan has visited him regularly for years but even that has been tightly controlled. “They wouldn’t even let us interview him in prison. I could visit him but without a pen or pencil. They will not let him speak – I mean they kept him in solitary confinement for 11 years. Before the film, I didn’t realize just how cruel the American prison system is and the level of racism that’s there.”   

Dope is Death is screening for free online on Nov 19th via The Bright Lights Film Series presented by the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. It comes to VOD platforms in December. 

Follow Daniel Dylan Wray on Twitter.

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