Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (2)

There is nothing like a little police harassment to lend an air of authenticity to producing a TV documentary on the so-called “drug scourge”, and that, appropriately enough, is just what I and a couple other Japanese members of a video production team first experienced upon our landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, 9 February 1997.

The three of us were getting our suitcases together when, suddenly, a big German shepherd dog appeared out of nowhere and was in front of me, aggressively sniffing at my ankles (apparently in search of some drug stash hidden in the socks, the oldest trick in the book).

I love dogs, but the sight of this unfamiliar canine blocking my way visibly startled me. The plainclothes agent holding the dog’s leash said something like, “Don’t worry, he’s just smelling you”, but I was still frozen momentarily in fear. The dog checked our bags and we got a pass from the drug agents, who disappeared as quickly as they had come. Man, I thought, they really are paranoid about drugs in this country. I also wondered at the time if the drug agent, a Caucasian, would have tried to reassure me like he did had my skin color been a darker shade of brown.

Our next big surprise was just outside the terminal doors at JFK Airport. There, we were met by Scott Gorman, a big, bearded bear of a guy who was living and working in Washington state as an independent journalist. I had invited him on to our project as the paid guide, driver and overall Stateside coordinator for the 10-day filming excursion of a planned Japanese TV documentary on the issue of drugs for our five-member Japanese/American team.

Gorman opted for making a big opening splash and, to our surprise, he had reserved a long, white limousine during our two days of filming in New York. So, we headed off on the expressway into Manhattan in style — the first and last time I had the pleasure of riding in a limo.

Through the Camera Eye

Our very first destination for filming the next day: a walk-in drug recovery clinic at 23 St. Marks Place in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. There, we filmed heartbreaking stories of otherwise decent people from all backgrounds who were strung out on one narcotic substance or another and just in off the street, looking for a place to “dry out” before they could move on to a formal drug treatment program. These people’s wrecked lives struck me as the undeniable evidence of the failure of America’s so-called “war on drugs”.

This building with the drug clinic also happened to be a piece of countercultural history: It was once the home, back in the late 1960s to early 1970s, of the “Electric Circus”, a nightclub and multimedia event space where all the big names of American underground music and art hung out and performed. As we trudged up and down the faded psychedelia-colored stairway inside the old building, I had the distinctly eerie feeling of music, people, lights filling the now-deserted rooms. There were some old ghosts still lingering in that building, to be sure. By the time we got there in 1997 to film for our Japanese TV documentary, however, the old Electric Circus building was a near-forgotten relic of the past that was being used in part as a drug recovery clinic.

A few days later on Wednesday, 12 February, we were in downtown San Francisco, California, filming at the Cannabis Cultivator’s Club on Market Street. The issue of medical marijuana was a hot one at the time, and the U.S. government was coming down hard on doctors, patients and anybody else, including in “liberal” California, who went afoul of strict federal U.S. drug laws in daring to use marijuana even for healing purposes. We got a lot of great footage at the smoke-filled Cannabis Club of people legally toking up and buying plastic baggies of weed over the counter, just like you would at a drugstore.

Dark Alliance’

By noon that day, we were set up in a classroom across town at City College of San Francisco, where we were going to film a quite different angle of the so-called drug problem: a special guest lecture by Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter. At long last, I was going to see him in person. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series on the CIA-contra-crack cocaine connections had been out six months by this time, yet the public outrage had still not died down. The Big Three newspapers — the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times — had already trashed the “Dark Alliance” series and run defense for the CIA, taking great pains to try and destroy Webb’s credibility as an investigative journalist in the process.

But as we soon found out for ourselves, half a year after “Dark Alliance” had been published, crowds of people were still gathering to hear Webb speak and were still angry at the prospect of the U.S. government having had a hand in the crack cocaine outbreak of the 1980s. And they were also angry about the way the U.S. corporate media had treated Webb and his big story. The classroom at CCSF that day was filled to capacity with 100 or more students, and even though it was a beautiful, sunny day outside and it was noontime, the students opted to skip lunch and stay indoors to hear what Webb had to say. There was a buzz of excitement in the crowd as the students waited for Webb’s arrival.

We had a camera and sound machine set up in the back row of the classroom by the main doors, and soon in walked Gary Webb with Juan Gonzales, head of the CCSF journalism department. Looking every bit the image of the overworked journalist, with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his necktie loosened at the collar, Webb was introduced to me. He expressed some surprise at my having come all the way from Japan, smiling as we shook hands.

Webb spent the hour or so with CCSF students that day walking through the “Dark Alliance” story, how he chased it down and where things stood at that point, then taking questions from the audience. There was a lively exchange of opinion, and Webb was warmly received by the audience. At the end, we interviewed some of the students as they filed out of the classroom. African American students were particularly incensed over the “Dark Alliance” controversy, as well they should have been, since it was their communities that were hardest hit by all the crack cocaine that had inexplicably flooded into cities across the United States a decade before.

The next day, 13 February, we drove up north to interview Gary Webb face to face at his Mercury News Sacramento bureau office, located in the press building just across the street from the state capitol complex. Webb kept us waiting for a while, and when he finally did show up, he came in casually attired in faded blue jeans, a tieless shirt with rolled-up sleeves and in tennis shoes, as if he had just gotten up (which he probably had). I have to confess: I wondered at that point if we would get a usable interview from him. But any doubts I may have harbored were soon dispelled as the camera rolled and Webb took all our questions in stride. And they were not all softball questions, either. Our coordinator, Scott Gorman, who did the interviewing, occasionally put Webb in defensive mode. But Webb handled all the questions forthrightly and directly, and gave us what I thought was a great interview.

Gorman, in fact, had put it plainly to me at one point during our filming trip in the U.S. that he was “not as enamored” with the whole “Dark Alliance” affair as I was. It was a hard sell, even among our film crew: I wasn’t “enamored” with anything, I had to explain. I just felt strongly that if we were going to be doing a serious documentary on the so-called drug problem, then at some point we would have to include U.S. government complicity in the global drug trade as part of our report. And Gary Webb had documented precisely that kind of complicity in his “Dark Alliance” series. As far as I was concerned, Webb’s story had to be a vital part of our planned documentary — or any documentary on the subject of drugs, for that matter.

We ended the interview with Webb that afternoon by asking him about what was next for “Dark Alliance”. He answered that there was “a lot more information” about the CIA-contra-crack connection to be reported and that his newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, was planning to run two additional follow-up stories that he had already written. Webb would go on to do a total of four follow-up stories to the initial three-day “Dark Alliance” series.

After the formal interview with Webb that day in his cluttered Mercury News office, we invited him out to lunch with us. I was dying for some good homemade Mexican food at this point (having been deprived of such pleasures while living in Japan), but knowing that the Japanese palate was often too tender for such spicy and heavy cuisine as Mexicana, we took the three other Japanese crew members to a nearby Chinese restaurant instead. There, Gorman and I continued to talk with Webb in a more relaxed and open way about the “Dark Alliance” investigation. It was a rare treat for us. On less serious topics, like music, Webb talked about rock musician Frank Zappa, whose music he apparently dug.

After lunch, we all walked across the street to the state capitol complex and filmed some final scenes of Webb conducting his research on a microfiche machine in the state capitol library. We said our goodbyes there, and as the five members of our Japanese/American team headed back toward our rental car through the tree-lined lanes of the state capitol grounds in Sacramento, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the worst was yet to come for Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” investigation. To this day I can’t explain why it all hit me that way, but as events later played out, my gut instinct was proven right.

Straight to the Source

Before we left Sacramento that evening, however, at my request we contacted Webb for one more favor — a big favor that I knew he was likely to turn down: We asked him to let us talk directly to his prime source in the “Dark Alliance” story, Coral Talavera Baca. She was the one who had first tipped Webb off to the U.S. government connections to the Nicaraguan drug dealers who had, in turn, helped fuel the crack cocaine outbreak in inner-city Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Webb said he would run our request past Talavera Baca, and get back to us.

The reply soon came. To my great surprise, they said yes. I guessed that at that point, having endured the American corporate media onslaught against “Dark Alliance” and all the U.S. government denials about the CIA and crack cocaine, Webb and Talavera Baca probably felt they had nothing left to lose by sharing their story with a TV film crew from faraway Japan. Whatever their reasons were for accepting our request, I knew that we were getting access into the inner sanctum of the “Dark Alliance” story that no other press company, certainly not in the USA, was getting at the time. This was indeed an exclusive — the first public interview that Coral Talavera Baca would do in relation to “Dark Alliance”.

I also knew that Webb was also violating the unspoken rule in the news business of never sharing your prime sources with other journalists. It was a universal thing in the news business: When you had a big story, you kept your sources close to you and usually did not go around sharing them with other reporters. I myself had refused to share sources in Japan in the past when I worked for Japanese newspapers. The magnanimity of Webb’s gesture in our case was not lost on me, at least, and my professional respect for him rose a notch higher.

What kind of interview would we get from the woman who had lit the fuse that led to the national and international firestorm that was “Dark Alliance”? We headed early the next morning back down to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we would soon find out.

(continued in part 3)

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