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Banging the drum for CIA-crack conspiracy theories, questioning the sex charges brought against black Army officers by white enlisted women and passionately defending affirmative action, confrontational Rep. Maxine Waters has risen to the top level of black political leadership.

Published April 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

five years ago this month, South Central Los Angeles went up in flames after a mostly white jury found two Los Angeles policemen not guilty in the beating of motorist Rodney King. Amid the punditry, grandstanding and alarm that followed the riot, one of the most outspoken voices was that of Rep. Maxine Waters, whose district includes South Central. Waters insisted that the disturbance was a "rebellion," not a "riot," and blamed joblessness, inadequate economic opportunity and racism.

Waters burst into the national spotlight again recently, citing a controversial San Jose Mercury News series on the alleged CIA-crack cocaine connection as proof that inner-city drug addiction was fomented by outside forces with government assistance. Recently, the three-term Democrat was named to head the Congressional Black Caucus, a position of authority that has done nothing to cool her firebrand style, left-of-center politics and passionate belief in the power -- and the duty -- of the government to heal social and economic divisions.

In an hour-long telephone interview with Salon from her Washington, D.C., office, Waters talked about the CIA, U.S. Army sex scandals, affirmative action, what she's learned about the media and President Clinton's racial legacy.

Last week a three-judge federal panel upheld California's Proposition 209. What hopes are there for the future of affirmative action?

The decision does present a little bit of an obstacle -- but we never thought it would be a bed of roses. We'll go all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to. This is tough work. We're in a period where people have been polarized by Reagan and Bush, and people are losing jobs to cheap Third World labor, and folks have to figure out who the enemy is. They have been made to believe that affirmative action is the enemy. But if you look at the facts, that is not true. We have not "taken" any jobs. We're not the dominant group heading up corporate America, the body politic or anything else. People have been fanning these flames of fear for a long time.

Some blacks, including Prop. 209's author, Ward Connerly, are adamantly opposed to any form of affirmative action. Does that suggest there is a rift in the black community over this issue?

Connerly is a minority in the black community. I don't run into people who defend him. I was up in New York doing a town meeting. I was at Howard University Law School the other night. I was at the Urban League. And I haven't found anybody who is speaking his language. Maybe I don't go to the right places.

Ever since the San Jose Mercury News series last summer linking the CIA to crack cocaine in Los Angeles, you have led the charge, demanding hearings to examine the allegations. But other newspapers have seemed to discredit the reports and not much seems to be happening in Washington.

The work that we have been doing -- getting the investigations going, tracking some of the individuals who were involved with the drug ring -- is not the kind of work that makes for good copy. You don't get called to be on television to speak about the little things. Investigations are under way. The House and Senate intelligence committees, the CIA inspector general and the inspector general of the Justice Department are all involved in extensive investigations. They are interviewing hundreds of people and going through thousands of documents. And sometime this year there are going to be hearings, to unveil the findings.

What have you turned up, besides what was in the Mercury News stories?

We've been getting calls from people with information who want to remain anonymous. I have been to Nicaragua to talk to someone who is in prison there, who is connected with the cartel and who was supplying drugs to the drug trafficking ring. I got the House Banking Committee to start an investigation on money laundering as it relates to this. One of the people who played a prominent role in the money laundering is now the head of a government agency in Nicaragua, responsible for investing foreign aid money that comes in from all over the world to Nicaragua! A lot of stuff is going on. And of course we continue to discuss this in our town hall meetings, to create a platform to discuss not only the CIA and drugs, but how drugs drain our communities.

How do you respond to newspapers, including your hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which poked some major holes in the Mercury News stories?

I've learned a lot about the newspaper business through all of this. A little newspaper up in San Jose was not supposed to clip the New York Times on a story like this. I went back and pulled up some stories that the L.A. Times had earlier reported about Ricky Ross (the Southern California drug dealer linked to alleged suppliers from the U.S.-backed contras), when they described him as a kingpin. Then, after the San Jose Mercury News ran their story. they tried to say Ross wasn't really that big, that there were lots of dope dealers before him.

Also, I pointed out to the L.A. Times that it is was absolutely outrageous for them to say that the San Jose Mercury News could not be believed because of numerical inconsistencies in the story. The Times said that the drug trafficking ring didn't give as much money to the contras as the Mercury News reported. Well, that shouldn't have been the story. The story is that it happened at all! That they had a drug ring in South Central Los Angeles and that their profits went to support the CIA-supported contras is all that's important to me. I don't care if it's $1 or $10 million! The American public should never have to experience that kind of collusion involving the CIA in any way.

Did the Times back off?

We were able to knock holes in their story, but of course the L.A. Times isn't going to say, "Maxine Waters came to our editorial board meeting and brought her facts." I recognize that they have a barrel of ink and they can write whatever they want to write. They must do what they must do, and I must do what I must do.

What about people who say that even if the CIA did introduce crack, it was already there?

Well, they don't know and I do know. I worked in South Central for many years. [As a social worker for the Head Start program and as a political organizer, before being elected to the California Assembly and then the U.S Congress.] I realized that there was a crack cocaine explosion when I was working in the public housing projects, but I didn't know where it was coming from. I witnessed the explosion. I know that it happened. I could see it better than a lot of people who speculate about it because in my work I was right in the middle of that area. The (Mercury News) story makes good sense to me because I was there.

There are some critics who suggest that the black community is being paranoid -- that instead of blaming the government for the crack epidemic, they should shoulder some of the responsibility for the destruction in their communities.

One of the things that I have found interesting is the number of people coming to me that have a distrust of government. There are more than I care to know about. What you have is an articulation, by me and many others who give a lead to it. But there are many others who sit back and clap and say, "Yeah! get 'em!" These people not only don't like the CIA , they don't like government, period. These are the McVeighs of the world. We've got plenty of conservatives who are suspicious of government, including the intelligence community. Let me tell you, this doesn't break down so cleanly between liberals and conservatives.

What does South Central look like to you, five years after the Rodney King riots?

Not that different from most of inner-city America -- in Harlem, St. Louis, Detroit and Philadelphia. What's happening is this: Inner cities are struggling. They are trying to develop economically. They are trying to keep government involved in some way in the development of schools and jobs and job training -- at the same time as jobs are being exported to Third World countries. Inner cities are in a battle with homelessness, trying to create more housing for low-income people. So, we are struggling with issues that we have had to struggle with traditionally and are falling backwards because of a right-wing approach to public policy, like welfare reform.

The welfare reform bill was signed by a Democratic president.

That's right.

The same president who has said he would like to be remembered as a racial healer. How would you evaluate Bill Clinton's legacy so far?

Obviously the president is a person who cares about racial issues. Before the election, he went around to a lot of black churches and articulated that. Recently I was called by the administration to talk about establishing a commission to deal with civil rights and race. But he has not been in the kind of town hall format where people could tell him about the racism and the discrimination they experience on a daily basis. He needs to convene corporate America and talk about the lack of upward mobility and opportunities for minorities in the workplace. I also think that he has not done some things that would have been tough for him to do because he had an eye towards being reelected. Now that he's been elected, I don't expect him to be confined. I think he could do a lot more.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of judges to give longer sentences to people convicted on crack cocaine charges than on powder cocaine. You have been campaigning for fairer treatment for people in prison on drug charges.

Yes, and we are overwhelmed by the thousands of letters we are getting from people in jail. We are categorizing them by state and want to share them with the House members whose districts they come from. We are going to organize our own reading project, to have young people read the letters so they can understand the pain and agony of folks who have been busted for small crack cocaine sales. We want to use the letters as a lesson so kids can see what could happen to them.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which you chair, has taken issue with the way investigations at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground have been handled.

The Congressional Black Caucus met with (Army Secretary) Togo West (last week) to talk about the investigative process. Our complaints have been numerous, about coercion and about people being made to sign documents that incriminate them. We are asking questions about the investigators -- who are they, what's their training. The problem at Aberdeen is that all of the accused are black males and all of the victims are white women. That raises concerns with any African-American who has a sense of the history of our people, about the accusations of rape by white women who were caught in consensual sex. We have to ask the questions. We cannot afford not to, given the history.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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