REVIEW: A Gripping True Story of Drugs, Race, and Making it in America

Screen Shot 2018-10-17 at 2.01.50 AM.png

Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South by Pam Kelley

The New Press 284 pp.

 By Jack Posner

In Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, Pam Kelley uses the tragic life of a notorious drug dealer, Belton Platt, to tell the larger story of the War on Drugs, systemic racism and mass incarceration in America. Platt was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 to an activist mother and an abusive father. When he was nineteen years old his father taught him how to cut cocaine and encouraged him to deal. Just three years later, he was first arrested at the age of twenty-two. The gripping tale of Platt’s odyssey through the judicial system and his incredible transformation while incarcerated, illustrates just how quickly public policy becomes personal.

Kelley, a former reporter for the Charlotte Observer, weaves a textured narrative of Belton Platt’s life. Using interviews with key players that are skillfully placed in historical context, she shows how the vestiges of Jim Crow and the launch of the War on Drugs transformed three generations of Platt’s family.

Belton, an underachieving student, was a boy scout with big dreams. He wanted to become a lawyer. Instead, he became a father at sixteen and with a child came all the responsibilities of adulthood. He dropped out of high school and started a janitorial business. A hard worker, he was on the path to making a respectable working-class life for himself and his family. But when Belton’s father told him that he could make a million dollars in a single year by selling crack cocaine, the enticement of quick money proved to be too much to resist.

Why was it so easy for an ordinary kid like Belton to fall into a life of crime, danger, and uncertainty? Kelley answers this question by examining the role public policy played in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in the life of Belton Platt.

At the end of the Civil War, Charlotte was an integrated city. But with the rise of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s White Supremacy Campaign at the turn of the twentieth century, things began to change. “By convincing working-class whites to break alliances with black voters… the Campaign sparked a bloody government coup that murdered dozens of blacks in the coastal city of Wilmington [which] inspired similar violence elsewhere and launched the age of Jim Crow in North Carolina.”

By the 1930s, the city of Charlotte was segregated by redlining. Poor blacks were concentrated into redlined districts, and Piedmont Courts, the housing project where Belton Platt grew up, was in one of these districts. Segregation and lack of opportunity instilled a “demonic spirit” in the residents of Piedmont Courts because it was nearly impossible to for a kid like Belton to get ahead. So when Belton’s father suggested dealing, it was no surprise that he saw it as his only opportunity to make good.

Belton was a smart dealer. He lived by the “Crack Commandments:” never use what you sell, keep family and business separate. He built relationships with his neighbors. When they were going through tough times, he would give them money to help them get back on their feet. However, drug dealing was a stressful job. To cope with the stress, Belton had affairs -- he ended up having 11 children. The trappings of his drug kingpin lifestyle, the diamond rings and Rolex watches, would prove to be his undoing. After an altercation with another drug dealer ended in gunfire, Belton was arrested.

He could not have picked a worse time enter the system. It was the late 1980s and cocaine was an epidemic. Sixty-four percent of Americans named drug abuse as the nation’s most pressing problem. Newsweek warned that cocaine was “as pervasive and dangerous in its way as the plagues of medieval times.” In his first prime-time address, President George H.W. Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine that “had been seized… in a park across the street from the White House” and warned that crack was “turning our cities into battle zones and . . . murdering our children.” It was a full-blown hysteria “similar to a Red scare or a witch scare.”

Quoting sociologists Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine, Kelley notes, “Drug scares typically link a scapegoated drug to a troubling subordinate group -- working class immigrants, racial or ethnic minorities, rebellious youth.” In the drug scare of the 1980s the “troubling subordinate group” lived in poor, redlined neighborhoods, in public housing complexes like Piedmont Courts. It didn’t matter that the evil of crack was overblown, that drug use actually fell during the 1980’s, or that D.E.A agents had to lure an African-American high school student into Lafayette Park and give him $2,400 to buy the bag of crack that the President would show the nation. What mattered was the country had found its scapegoat in crack cocaine and the War on Drugs aimed its full force on people like Belton Platt.

Belton entered the system at the age of 22. He wouldn’t come out until he was 47. In prison, religion provided him with structure and sense of community to get his life back on track. Although his daughters fared well, his sons weren’t so lucky. Without a father figure in their lives, they fell into the same traps he did. Belton’s story shows that when a father gets caught in the system, the damage can echo through generations.

It’s often difficult to see how decisions made by legislators in Washington DC and in capitals around the country affect the lives of ordinary individuals. In Pam Kelley’s telling of Belton Platt’s story that connection is too clear to ignore.