Furry animals, funny jokes, anthropomorphic cops. And drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Zootopia is the story of “furry” Judy Hopps: a brave, young rabbit trying to make her way as the first of her kind in policing.
Typically rabbits in Zootopia are thought to be harmless, cute little bunnies whose only two purposes in life are farming and breeding. And they’re seen as incredibly dumb. But Judy wants to transcend this stereotype and enters the police academy to become the first ever rabbit cop.
While her job starts out small (Meter Maid! Meter Maid! Meter Maid!), she gradually rises up the ranks by doing what every movie cop does: solving a major mystery. Along the way she encounters Nick Wilde, a sly fox who hustles his way as a con artist. The two team up after Hopps cleverly blackmails him, in order to find out what happened to 14 “missing mammals” who have recently disappeared.
Nick and Judy’s epic search leads them into the underbelly of Zootopia where they meet Mr. Big, a pint-sized crime boss and clear cultural reference to the Godfather (aka Marlon Brando).
And along the way they uncover a conspiracy: involving drugs. One of the victims mentions something called “night howlers” just before going savage. At first Hopps suspects that the “night howlers” are actually wolves when they discover that another mammal was kidnapped by them.
Hopps and Nick sneak into an asylum guarded by wolves where they discover all the other missing predators being kept for investigation. What’s more, the mayor, Lionheart, is found to be behind this operation. He is later arrested and replaced by the seemingly mild-mannered Dawn Bellwether (a sheep).
After a press conference Hopps unwittingly stirs up public agitation by suggesting an underlying biological cause behind the mammals’ savage behavior. Naturally this creates a rift between her and Nick, but later the two make up and join forces once Hopps finds out that the mammals’ “savage” behavior is actually being engineered by forces outside their control.
She realizes that the “night howlers” are actually flowers containing toxins that induce powerful psychological effects. Mammals have been secretly targeted, due to their susceptibility to the toxin: it causes them to become “hyper-aggressive” and go into a violent, feral state.
And it turns out that these illicit drugs are being manufactured in an underground laboratory, extremely similar to Breaking Bad. Basically, he converts the chemical to a liquid toxin and then places it into paintball pellets, which are later fired at predators, driving them into a feral rage.
But there’s more: the real architect of this “conspiracy” is newly-instated Mayor Bellwether. She has instigated this whole thing, with the assistance of Doug, the Walter White-esque chemist, who has been shooting mammals with pellets loaded with the night howler drug.
Her rationale: supremacy. She wants to widen the segregation gap between “biologically prone” mammals and “prey”. If “predator” creatures are seen as inherently violent they will be removed from the city, establishing prey as the dominant species.
What does this have to do with the “crack epidemic” conspiracy?
Well, the story (whether fact or fiction) goes that the Reagan administration, along with the CIA, conspired with the Contras in a covert arms deal that allowed tons of cocaine into the U.S., specifically L.A., where it was converted into crack and distributed, en masse, to lower-income black communities.
The “lawful” response was mass incarceration: in 1986 lawmakers invented the 100-to-1 rule, in which possession of crack can warrant the exact same sentence as having a quantity of cocaine that is ten times larger. According to the Controlled Substances Act, five grams of crack would come with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison; while it would take about 500 grams of powder cocaine to do the same Over 50 grams would warrant a 10-year minimum sentence (US News).
Obviously this law targeted poor minorities. Rich people were the heaviest users of pure, powder cocaine, while crack cocaine was the drug of choice for the urban poor.
Black men, specifically (and other minorities) were disproportionately thrown in jail as a result. Mass incarceration gained its true systematic power under the Reagan administration.
It was only after the publication of a controversial, three-part story by U.S. journalist Gary Webb that the American public gained its exposure to what came to be known as the “Dark Alliance”: a conspiracy between the CIA and the Contras to allow illicit drugs into the country that resulted in the destruction of black communities. This story first appeared in Mercury News on August 18, 1996 (Narconews.com).
What was the background: the Nicaraguan civil war. In June 1979, the left-wing Sandinista guerrillas had destroyed the U.S. backed army of dictator Anastasio Somoza. One of the key players in the Somozan government, Oscar Danilo Blandon, fled to California with his family.
Blandon was the head of a multi-million dollar program financed by the U.S. government. During the war Sandinista forces had confiscated his family’s assets. After fleeing Nicaragua Blandon began to meet up with other exiles connected to the Somozan government. By 1981 they started working to rebuild its army: the Nicaraguan national guard.
Among the people Blandon connected with was Enrique Bermudez, a military commander hired by the CIA to salvage the Nicaraguan national guard. Another key player in the operation was Juan Norwin Meneses, another refugee who was already infamous for drug trafficking. He was placed in charge of security intelligence for the FDN in California.
The Contras and their associate organizations needed money for their operations. Weapons would not come easy without something to sell in return. Supposedly Bermudez didn’t know that the Contras’ funding would come from drug profits. But Meneses and Blandon were already at the works.
Blandon was put on delivery runs to L.A., bringing enormous amounts of cocaine to the U.S. The only problem was how to market it: cocaine had gained its reputation as the “rich man’s” drug. Fast profits to fund the Contra war would depend on a much more open market. The result: crack cocaine. If they converted expensive white powder into nuggets that could be smoked rather than snorted, poorer people could afford it. But they would still need a distributor.
They found this in the form of “Freeway Ricky” Ross, a high school dropout who connected with Nicaraguan dealer Henry Corrales. At 19 he started his empire in South Central, building a network of clientele. Blandon would sell him up to 100 kilos of powder a week, which Ross converted to crack rocks. This established a pipeline between Colombian cartels and black neighborhoods.
A lot of the clientele were gangs (Bloods and Crips). But that didn’t stop the “crack epidemic” from permeating every part of the community, from streets to schools and homes.
Much of the money gained was laundered through a Florida bank and then funneled to the Contra rebels. The crack boom allowed them to fund their war against the Sandinista regime.
While crack is no “night howler” (affecting only a specific population with certain effects), the effects are equally destructive to pretty much everyone, even more so due to its addictive qualities. As the lesser brother of cocaine it comes with a faster high and a swifter comedown, leaving the body craving for more. Though it can give you a feeling of bliss or euphoria, the high can quickly spiral into violent psychosis. Ergo, more aggressive behavior. As the comedown hits and withdrawal symptoms set in, the addict becomes more and more desperate to maintain their habit. Which can lead to crime. Other effects on the mind include delusion, vicious mood swings, and hallucinations.
At the height of his business, Ricky Ross was moving about $2 million to $3 million of crack per day. He became known throughout California and beyond as the new kingpin of crack cocaine. And his business extended into many neighborhoods across the country, destroying black communities as it went.
Where does the whole “government conspiracy” idea come in: well there’s the fact that the Reagan administration and CIA actively supported the Contra army. Losing a foothold in Nicaragua meant less U.S. domination, specifically as certain parts of the economy shifted from privatized to nationalized.
By now it’s common knowledge that the Contras were backed and funded by the U.S. government. What the whole “Dark Alliance” conspiracy emphasizes is that, although the U.S. was aware of dangerous drug activity, they did absolutely nothing to stop it, turning a blind eye as tons of cocaine came pouring onto U.S. shores.
Webb’s assertion is that, with such close collusion between the CIA and the Contras, how could they not know about the trafficking? Blandon’s later testimony affirmed that the CIA “covertly” supported the Contras. Another accusation by Webb is that there were shipments of drugs on Salvadoran Air Force planes sent to an air force base in Texas.
According to a History channel documentary, America’s War on Drugs, there were military planes with weapons sent to Nicaragua that later returned to the U.S. with drugs.
The whistleblower in this case was Celerino Castillo, an agent for the DEA who was selected for undercover operations during the U.S. War on Drugs. Initial suspicions drove him to investigate a base in El Salvador, where he began tracking planes by pilot and tail number. He noticed that one pilot in particular was Barry Seal, an American smuggler and DEA informant/operative. After discovering other drug runners he reported this to the U.S. ambassador.
What he found out was that one of them was working for Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban exile and ardent anti-Communist, who fought in the Bay of Pigs, as well as Vietnam. Being an operative for the CIA, he claimed to have close ties with the Vice President at the time, George H.W. Bush.
In spite of Castillo’s allegations his superiors refused to follow up on them, according to his story. Fate had a hard way of dealing “justice” to Barry Seal: assassination by the Colombian cartel. This happened after a seizure of cocaine shipments by the DEA implicated him in the crimes. Though he was supposed to be a “protected witness”, Seal was easily gunned down in public.
With pictures showing drugs being loaded onto planes as well as stories that he was personally working under the CIA to fly weapons to Contra forces, Seal had made himself an open target.
Not too soon after his death, Sandinistas shot down a U.S. military cargo plane. The pilot, Eugene Hasenfus, was known to be a covert U.S. operative as far back as Vietnam. Inside his crashed plane was found an arsenal of weapons. And another fun fact (according to the History channel documentary): it was the same plane that previously belonged to Barry Seal.
Then came congressional proceedings on Iran-Contra. To put something complex into short terms: U.S. sells missiles to Iran; profits go to purchasing weapons/funding war in Nicaragua. Many of these operations were supposedly directly by Lieutenant Colonel Olive North, who was serving on the National Security Council.
In his testimony he denied working with drug smugglers but admitted to disposing of classified documents aka. “shredding” pretty much every day. Though indicted and convicted, he was let go.
Earlier, in 1987, there had been another investigation was started by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under then-Senator John Kerry. The two-year investigation resulted in a report in 1989 that detailed the involvement of Contra groups in drug activities, as well as supposed U.S. collusion.
The whole great power/great responsibility argument came into play as Kerry’s report noted “considerable evidence” that the U.S. was aware of the Contras’ drug trafficking but did not hold them accountable, or even try to prevent it (Grim et. all, Huffington Post).
According to the CIA’s inspector general at the time, the CIA did not inform Congress of ALL allegations it received linking the Contras to the drug trade. Rather, they had told them ABOUT allegations but did not go into specifics regarding individuals.
Some sources say that investigations into Blandon’s drug operations were dropped by the DEA, or else prematurely dismissed. The rumor goes that he and Meneses were shielded from prosecution. According to a later review of the Justice Department, U.S. prosecutors invoked the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) to prevent Blandon’s testimony from being presented to a jury during a federal trial (CIA-Contra, Justice.gov).
While Meneses denied trafficking for the Contra cause, Blandon admitted it. This testimony came in 1990 and 1991, just a few years after Rick Ross was caught for trafficking in 1988.
Blandon was originally going to be sentenced for life, with a $4 million fine, but the U.S. decided he was an asset to the DEA. While Ross was in prison they recruited Blandon for a reverse-sting operation in which Blandon organized a drug transaction with Ross. As a result Blandon walked a free man. Ross stayed in prison until 2009.
What was the result of this “undercover” drug operation? For one thing, the militarization of local law enforcement. Mandatory minimums spiked, along with a “tough on crime” attitude under the Reagan administration.
And mass incarceration. Black men were disproportionately thrown in jail. Though only 25% of crack users are black, they make up 82% of convictions for crack possession (Crack Epidemic, The Stranger). By 2000, black people made up 62.7% of offenders in state prison while only 6.4% of them were using illegal drugs, compared to 6.4% of white people (Kendi).
Why the disparity: it has something to do with biological perceptions. The idea of black people as predators, drug addicts, and violent offenders rested behind this “tough on crime” approach. Black neighborhoods became seen as breeding grounds for crime.
Black people were seen as naturally disposed towards crime and drug use. After all, didn’t high numbers of homicides in black neighborhoods point to a violent disposition? If you doubt the racial implications, look no farther than the opioid epidemic. White “victims” are publicized constantly in the media as helpless parents, teenagers, and families afflicted by a drug crisis. The drug is to blame, not the person. The epidemic has been shown as a human health criss, not a crime crisis. We are now reconsidering how we treat addiction: a crisis that has ravaged many other “non-white” communities for almost 40 years.
What could change the approach: a difference of perception. If a violent drug affects someone seen as innately “violent”, then their “treatment” becomes a matter of prison time. Drugs equaled criminalization when they affected black and minority communities; now that they affect white communities, they equal victimization.
The racial comparisons in Zootopia are pretty much obvious. What do we do with “predators” or people we feel unsafe from? We show them as prone to violence. Just like the U.S. government, the mayor of Zootopia made criminal activity a matter of “us versus THOSE people”. This justified removing undesirable people from the mainstream of society, based on biological assumptions.
What made those assumptions possible: drugs. Through some clever, covert operation involving the legal/political apparatus.
Am I saying Zootopia was for certain about the crack epidemic: no. But, interestingly, there are similar elements. I kept thinking that after the first time I watched the movie. In a funny way I was asking myself, “Was that movie about the crack epidemic?” I looked it up and eventually found other articles/blogs saying the same thing.
Obviously Disney did not and would not make a movie directly about the crack conspiracy. Even if certain elements look like they were inspired. The similarities are just weird. And oddly fascinating, at the same time. But for humor’s sake, I’ll still say to people that Zootopia was really about the crack epidemic, just to see their reaction.
As to how “involved” the U.S. was with the Contra trade, nobody knows to what extent. “Dark Alliance” has been discredited, in part, by several major news sources. Some of Webb’s sources have been called “unreliable”.
But the story has continued to be investigated, by reporters and scholars alike. Something obviously happened undercover. The Iran-Contra proceedings show that.
The U.S. obviously did not CREATE the epidemic in the same, direct way that was shown in Zootopia (shooting mammals with pellets). Our sin was mainly complacency. And greed. And irresponsibility. The CIA colluded with a dangerous army, in spite of its reputation. They did not hold them accountable for drug offenses that have effectively “criminalized” an entire segment of the population. It was bad negligence. And that does point to responsibility.
The result was mass incarceration. And the perception of black minorities as prone to crime, not because of a drug crisis, but an inherent nature of violence. Addicted black youths thus became “predators”, rather than sufferers of a crisis.
Regardless, I’ll still say that Zootopia was about the crack epidemic. Not completely.
But, let’s face it, it kinda was.
Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? I know.
Webb, Gary “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion”, Mercury News. Mercury Center. Narconews.com. Aug. 18-Aug. 20, 1996. https://www.narconews.com/darkalliance/drugs/start.htm
Kurtzleben, Danielle “Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing”, US News. Aug. 3, 2010. https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2010/08/03/data-show-racial-disparity-in-crack-sentencing
The Cia-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy: A Review of the Justice Department’s Investigations and Prosecutions. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 1997. Internet resource. https://oig.justice.gov/special/9712/ch01p1.htm
Grim, Ryan; Sledge, Matt; Ferner, Matt “Key Figures in CIA-Crack Cocaine Scandal Begin To Come Forward” Huffington Post.com. Oct. 10, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/10/gary-webb-dark-alliance_n_5961748.html
Kendi, Ibram X. (2012) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York, NY: Nation Books.
Abe, Daudi “The Crack Epidemic That Once Ravaged Black Communities Didn’t Get the Same Sympathy as Today’s Opioid Epidemic” The Stranger.com. May 2, 2017. http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/05/02/25118961/the-crack-epidemic-that-once-ravaged-black-neighborhoods-didnt-get-the-same-sympathy-as-todays-opioid-epidemic
Moore, Solomon “Justice Dept. Seeks Equity in Sentences for Cocaine” The New York Times. April 29, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/us/30cocaine.html
“America’s War on Drugs” History channel documentary. http://www.history.com/shows/americas-war-on-drugs/season-1/episode-2