Friday, 13 May 2011

Thoughts on Violence 1: Cocaine Cowboys

On my 14th Birthday I received Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a computer game for the Playstation 2. The GTA series has always been popular among teenage boys for the freedom it creates in this virtual world to do as you please. There are missions that you complete to open up new functions, but otherwise you are in charge of gameplay. In such games, you often discover that when given the chance, you like to be anti-social. You can perform drive-bys, beat pedestrians to death and steal cars. The thing that received most media attention at its release was the fact you could pick up prostitutes and have sex with them - you see the car rock and your money slowly disappearing - then kill them afterwards.

For me this was fun (and yes, I am aware of the difference between virtual reality and the real world!), but it wasn't my favourite aspect of the game. With GTA: Vice City, you were set loose on the glamorous, neon-lit world of South Florida in the 1980s. Men with Hawaiian shirts and white slacks roam your estate with pistols; sports cars motor past every few seconds and the sunset is always a mixture of purple and orange shades. This culture fascinated me. Every song on the radio was solid gold, and then on came Crockett's Theme by Jan Hammer. The first time I heard it, I put the game on pause and simply listened. It remains to this day my favourite song, and kick-started my interest in the social and cultural history of the 1980s. Eight years on from that fourteenth birthday gift and my interest is undiminished. I have now seen every episode of Miami Vice, which was a groundbreaking television show in its use of colour, violence and music to tell a story. Jan Hammer's soundtrack became a character in itself.

However, it is only really in the past couple of years that I have begun to look at the history of the South Florida Drug trade in perspective, separating the fact from the fiction. Although life did begin to imitate art in that people began wearing light Armani jackets and Ray Ban sunglasses, the show was of course a work of fiction. The reality was far more violent, as you will discover when you watch the superb documentary Cocaine Cowboys (2006).

In 1981, Time produced a cover feature called "Paradise Lost?", looking at the horrendous homicide levels in Miami at that time. Most people measure homicide in deaths per hundred thousand people. The UK is about 1 death per 100,000, a very low figure. In the United States as a whole, the figure hovers around 4-5 deaths per 100,000. For Miami in 1981, the figure was 70 per 100,000. Given many historians name Medieval Oxford as the most homicidal city in history with 40 deaths per 100,000, this sounds like a city out of control.

A number of factors contributed to this figure. Firstly, the drugs. The cocaine trade was at its peak and Miami was the gateway to the USA for most South American countries. Thousands of kilos, known in the trade as 'pieces' or 'keys', were brought in by boat or dropped along the West Floridian coastline by planes. The city was brimming with the white stuff. Obviously, when so much money is in play, there comes guns and violence. Many of the foot soldiers of this war came over in 1980, when Fidel Castro sent hundreds of thousands of Cubans from Mariel Harbour to Miami. A significant proportion of these were murderers, rapists and thieves (the film Scarface is based on this) but not all of them were. However there were enough to begin the Cocaine Wars between rival factions.

Why do I write all this? Recently I have been once again mulling over the nature of violence. I had a few seminars on violence as part of my degree course, and from that I realised that violence was more often than not either something done when in the heat of the moment or something coded and controlled to prevent deaths. In Dachau, we consider one of the historical deviations from this theory, i.e the cold blooded, systematic execution of violence to control, humiliate and often kill political opponents. The violence of the Nazi persecutions was perpetrated with a particular aim in mind. Mass murder was committed in the most economic way possible.

The situation in Miami in the 1970s and 80s was actually quite old fashioned compared to the Holocaust. Rival groups of Cubans and Columbians had feuds, which escalated until somebody, normally the Police, said 'enough!' and stopped them. There were triple homicides, multiple homicides of six, seven, ten people, but the murder of women and children was always frowned upon. Codes of honour exist and control the 'distribution' of violence. Miami was a city unable to control its violence, and thus thousands of people died. However, it is surprising how so many of those involved seem to have come to terms with the violence. It is often justified either by their refusal to pay, insulting the head of a rival family, or defaulting on a delivery. Those involved accept there is a price to the wealth and glamour that comes with dealing cocaine, and that is often death.

In some ways however, the situation depicted in Miami is also amoral in a modern way. Many involved with the trade at that time blame Hispanic culture and their 'hot-bloodedness' for the number of people dead, yet all acts of violence were more often than not codified. Every death was an execution for getting in someone's way. There was even 'collateral damage', people who were sprayed with bullets for being at the same table as a person with a 'hit' on their heads.

Yet I find this kind of mass murder inconsequential. I watch Miami Vice still, aware of the erroneous image of a neon paradise it portrays, and cannot equate the images I see with the reality. Murder is accepted as a given in the case of Miami c. 1981. Although this was not death for death's sake such as was the case in Europe 1942, there does seem to be a similar attitude towards those who are killed - "Somebody's gotta die!". There is also a justification behind their deaths on both sides of the law. While the Columbian gangs kill for a contravention of an honour code, the FBI, DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and the Miami-Dade Police Department by the end were ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Extremely few episodes of Miami Vice ended in arrest; more often than not there was a shoot out. The Police were prepared to admit that their system of justice was failing and that murder was a justifiable alternative, an attitude best expressed in the 1972 film Dirty Harry for example.

Miami in the 1970s and 1980s is a curious middle ground between the old world of violence as something committed in the heat of the moment and resorted to so that order may be maintained, and the new in which violence is mindless and indiscriminatory. I actually find the violence of Miami quite comforting, or at least thinking about it.

before you close this page and mark me down as a sociopath, let me explain. People deal with violence and their capacity to commit violence by explaining it, by codifying it in order to control its limited use. Watch Cocaine Cowboys and you'll eventually come to the case of Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, who became the chief hitman for Griselda "The Godmother" Blanco. He speaks often of killing people, but only when he talks about the 'accidental' murder of a dealer's three year old son does he see his actions as horrific. He refuses to kill women and children, only those involved in the war. As far as he is concerned, he is justified. When watching the documentary, looking at the history, it is clear that the vast majority of those who died in Miami in those years were involved intimately with the drugs trade. In one sense, they deserved it.

I work daily with the history of a place where violence had a purpose and a function, but is nowhere near as easy to explain. People were systematically murdered and maltrated for their nationality, their ethnicity. The Holocaust challenges every preconception we have about violence there is, particularly our ability to control and justify its implementation for the greater good. The cocaine fuelled violence of the late 1970s and early 1980s in some ways makes sense to me. It scares me that it does, because under the same precepts the Holocaust made perfect sense to millions of people. When we accept that violence is justifiable 'in some cases', we need to accept that we are not the only ones who determine what those 'cases' can be.

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