As the federal government restructured its illicit drug regime in a staggered fashion throughout the 1960s, the cities that lawmakers invoked as the intended beneficiaries of their efforts underwent spectacular change. In large cities across America, the demographics of residential life were altered as the result of Puerto Rican immigration and African American migration – and, just as significant, white middle-class exodus to the suburbs. By the middle of the 1950s, as the housing market stabilized after a tumultuous postwar era, a steady stream of roughly one million people per year moved to suburban homes, leaving city life behind. These massive movements of people reshaped the modern landscape of American life, including its political geography. Whereas the country had once been divided along sectional lines – the south, the west, and the north – now its most durable political boundaries were residential: urban, suburban, and rural.
For the first time, the identity of “city” by that reckoning became linked to a sizeable presence of racial minorities; Washington, DC, registered the most dramatic of all the demographic shifts and was declared majority African American by 1963 (54 percent). That same year, African Americans made up more than a quarter of the population in New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, with Chicago not far behind. During this same time, in these cities and others, urban police departments expanded aggressive drug enforcement from vice squads to general patrol officers, though these were tactics applied primarily to poor, minority neighborhoods most affected by the demographic changes underway. And, although law enforcement embraced a professional ethos, aggressive use of force in these neighborhoods was commonplace – and so too was corruption, especially in narcotics work. Strained relations with police resulted in tense community life defined by racial hostility. In Washington, DC, a young activist named Marion Barry forged his reputation in the community by denouncing police brutality and the autocratic control of the city by its appointed commissioners. In the District and elsewhere, throughout the latter half of the 1960s and especially in 1968, volatile police encounters occasionally escalated into riots. In the worst of these, entire neighborhoods burned.