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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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1980s: Flip

1980s: Reagan Era—Public programs are cut, while free-market capitalism expands and corporations’ share of taxes declines. Poverty increases while jobs and industry decreases. The War on Drugs and prison come to the forefront as the answer to domestic social "problems." From 1980-84, FBI anti-drug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million.* Crack and HIV/AIDS epidemics begin.   

Actions for Self-Determination:
  • 1980s: In their neighborhood, Mothers of East Los Angeles (a group of Latina Mothers from East LA) fight off prison construction, an above-ground oil pipeline from offshore rigs in Santa Barbara, the Vernon Incinerator and the Chemclear plant. 
  • 1987: ACT UP forms and begins their campaign of direct action civil disobedience and creative organizing.  Through their work they catapulted AIDS into the national debate, lowered the cost of HIV drugs and challenged conceptions of AIDS as a gay issue. In 1989, ACT UP made global headlines through their actions protesting Cardinal John Joseph O’Connell and his appointment to Reagan’s President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1987.
  • 1988: Public Enemy releases their album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”

Discussion Questions:

  • Discuss this quote from Loïc Wacquant in the context of the Reagan era:
    "The prison and the criminal justice system more broadly contribute to the ongoing reconstruction of the ‘imagined community’ of Americans around the polar opposition between praiseworthy ‘working families’—implicitly white, suburban, and deserving—and the despicable ‘underclass’ of criminals, loafers, and leeches, a two-headed antisocial hydra personified by the dissolute teenage ‘welfare mother’ on the female side and the dangerous street ‘gang banger’ on the male side—by definition dark-skinned, urban and undeserving."
  • Watch the clip of Michelle Alexander explaining the context of Reagan's expansion of the war on drugs. How does this change or add to your understanding of drugs in the '80s?
  • When was the first time you heard the term welfare queen? In what context? How does this change in light of the facts that Reagan invented the character, and that most people who receive welfare are white?
  • What are representations of whiteness during the 1980s?
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