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Sep. 24 2009 - 5:06 pm | 22 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Was Census worker Bill Sparkman a victim of the war on drugs?

So the national media’s attention is turning to Clay County, Kentucky, which is mostly contiguous with the Daniel Boone National Forest. The Associated Press broke the news nationally that Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old part-time US Census Bureau worker, was found hanged with the word ‘fed’ scrawled on him in some way. Details remain scant, and no one should be jumping to conclusions about how he died, or why.

Clay County is one of those places that is far away from the coastal America where the media churns. But actually, it’s really close to our national imagination of what Kentucky is like: Clay is right next to Perry County, which is home to the city of Hazard. Which you know better as Hazzard, i.e. Dukes of Hazzard, the wild, good-old-boy moonshine smugglers flying around country roads in a souped up Dodge Charger fighting corrupt politician Boss Hogg. Something the TV-watching public celebrated back in the early 80s (although they may have just been celebrating Daisy Dukes and her Daisy Dukes).

National media, especially of the liberal persuasion have seized on this (although let’s be fair – Matt Drudge had this in red on the Drudge Report last night in his top left rail). Another example perhaps of the scary environment that has been created by an anti-Obama reaction that’s mixed itself with up with a conspiracy-theory-feeding conservative news media. And especially after right-wing media trumped up the recent student-on-student assault on a St. Louis-area school bus as an example of reverse racism in Obama’s America, many on the left are certainly looking to even the score and show where the real dangers come from these days in America.

But what if they’re all wrong? What if Bill Sparkman just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and got in the middle of the kind of thing that Bo and Luke Duke were often up to? Here’s another cut of the AP story that was published at WKYT’s website (HT to Claylive.com which is aggregating all this stuff):

Police said the area has a history of drug trouble including methamphetamine trafficking and marijuana growing in its forested valleys between steep hills and ridges.

“That part of the county, it has its ups and downs. We’ll get a lot of complaints of drug activity,” said Manchester Police Chief Jeff Culver. He said officers last month rounded up 40 drug suspects, mostly dealers, and made several more arrests in subsequent days.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg in southeastern Kentucky, said Clay County is impoverished and has a “pretty wild history of a black market economy, a drug economy.”

“I don’t think there is any deep-seated hatred of government there,” he said. “Government is not seen as the enemy, except for people who might fear getting caught for what they’re doing.”

Davis said it was a dangerous time of year for someone to go knocking on doors because marijuana producers are typically harvesting their crop. “It would be reckless.”

“Things can go bad really quickly,” Davis said. “There are places that you would not send a Census worker this time of year.”

via Feds probe US Census worker hanging in Kentucky.

A backgrounder from the DEA on Kentucky offers up some more relevant details about the region of Clay County:

Marijuana, methamphetamine, diverted pharmaceutical drugs, and cocaine are the primary drug threats in the commonwealth of Kentucky. Kentucky is a primary source of domestically grown marijuana, the majority of which is produced in southeastern Kentucky. The commonwealth consistently ranks as one of the top marijuana producing states. Marijuana produced in Kentucky either remains in the commonwealth or is exported to metropolitan areas in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and the eastern United States. Methamphetamine manufacturing activity in Kentucky has decreased, but the trafficking of methamphetamine in Kentucky remains because Caucasians are distributing “Ice” methamphetamine supplied from Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). The abuse and diversion of prescription drugs, particularly hydrocodone and oxycodone, remain one of, if not the, largest drug problem in southeastern Kentucky. The availability of diverted pharmaceuticals in central and northern Kentucky remains at a high level. Cocaine is readily available in central and southeastern Kentucky. Mexican DTOs are the primary source of cocaine from the Southwest Border via regional distribution networks in the Midwest and the southeast.

So just because your average pothead or street dealer isn’t a violent thug, it doesn’t mean the people who grow it aren’t quick to shoot first and never get around to asking questions about people who trespass onto their property. Property where illegal narcotics are being grown (pot) or manufactured (meth). I had a friend who worked in Appalachia for years, and even taught in parts of rural Kentucky, and my friend certainly told me about a lot of the no-go zones that folks were warned away from because it was a place where marijuana plants were being grown.

Discourse in our nation may be getting scary in some situations – I certainly don’t like hearing about ‘watering the tree of liberty’ with our fairly elected president’s blood. But our drug war has had a lot of collateral damage for people at points all over the socioeconomic ladder, and regardless of their political orientations. A lot of folks on the left are eager to find a case to hold up against the overblown depiction of the Belleville bus fight last week. I fear that the interpretation of Mr. Sparkman’s likely murder may be shaded by those events, instead of seeing this for the drug war consequence that it probably is.

Consider for instance that Rachel Maddow in her broadcast last night failed to even discuss the drug possibility. And over at Talking Points Memo, Zachary Roth argued today that, “it may be hard to separate those two motivations,” of drugs versus anti-government sentiment. But anti-government sentiment by illegal drug producers is not the same thing as anti-Census and anti-Obama sentiment. Failing to hold up this possibility is a failing on the part of media that cover this story.

For more information about Sparkman, who sounds like he was really a lovely man who didn’t deserve anything terrible to happen to him, read this coverage of his murder back on September 17 from the Sentinel-Echo, which offers wonderful background on his life and his service to the people around him.


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    I'm waiting for the day when I can get the news directly into my brain. Until then, I'll be lit up by the electric glow of screens, chasing the latest breaking like the hopeless news junkie I am. Ever since the Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to launch a web portal ten years ago, I've seen many ends of the online news spectrum, from my time as a political news reporter for both RawStory.com and the Huffington Post to the better part of a year I spent running the late New York Sun's website. There have been a lot of other stops in between. Now I am your homepage editorial overlord. But I haven't let it go to my head. Yet.

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