Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Theater of the Absurd

December 21st, 2010 · 3 Comments


The hooded lady above was not a bandit, but rather a New York City detective who worked the 21 Jump Street beat in the early 1970s. Kathleen Conlon earned her gold shield after surviving a scary incident in the Bronx: While working on an undercover narcotics unit, she was dragged into an alley, assaulted, and robbed. One attacker placed a gun to Conlon’s head and pulled the trigger twice, but the .25 misfired both times. After that, the NYPD reckoned that the young policewoman was ready to explore the drug scene in the New York City school system.

A year later, Conlon made a masked appearance in Congress, testifying before the House Select Committee on Crime. Obviously blessed with a flair for the dramatic, Conlon completed her outfit with a .38 on her hip—not to mention a saucy short-sleeved shirt, still a rarity among those who appear on Capitol Hill. (Even that blunted lifeguard who testified about the Jack Abramoff scandal opted for a classic shirt-and-tie look.) Bewitched by her showmanship, the committee didn’t seem to bother pressing Conlon about the absurd tales she shared:

She told of students buying, selling and using all forms of drugs in the schools and said many teachers actually “condoned” the use of narcotics in school. At some of the schools she was in, Miss Conlon asserted, 90 per cent of the students were on drugs of one form or another

The detective said that late in 1969, when she was working at Springfield Gardens High School, one student would sell $500 worth of drugs before school in the morning, $500 worth at lunchtime, and still more when the second-session students arrived in the afternoon.

At this school, in a middle-income community, students would regularly “nod out” in class and be ignored by the teachers. One teacher, she said, told a troublemaker to “go out and take something to quiet you down.” She said three-quarters of the students there used narcotics and as many as 50 per cent of the students were on heroin.

That last statistic caught the attention of a skeptical New York Times reader, who responded the following week:

As a former faculty member at Springfield Gardens (who was there during the time she served as an undercover agent) I can assure you that this is patent nonsense. “Emphatically, yes!” to the question of whether there are narcotics users at S.G.H.S. and indeed, whether there is a large-scale narcotics problem among New York’s students, but half of the student body?

If this were true, one might expect the daily attendance to reflect this figure, the graduating classes to have shrunk to minuscule size and education to have come to a standstill. Such is not the case.

In some ways, Conlon’s showmanship makes me nostalgic for an era of more exciting Congressional testimony. There used to be more theatricality to the endeavor, particularly from the side of the testifiers’ table. Mark McGwire talking about his allergy to the past doesn’t quite compare to the whole Joseph Valachi affair. But the fact that Colon was permitted to hyperbolize at will hints at a problem that continues to this day: The willingness of politicians to accept half-truths if they’re packaged nicely, and if they appear to be in the service of some greater moral good.

I have no idea what happened to Conlon after her Congressional appearance, as he basically disappears from the public record thereafter. If anyone knows, please advise—I’d be interested to know where her career led her. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if she ended up as a cop-show consultant.

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3 Comments so far ↓

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  • scottstev

    The thing that gets lost when looking at the past, is that people assume what is now, always was. Drug use was becoming socially acceptable and marijuana was on a trajectory towards decriminalization, but some school-mother activists combined with the new “Law and Order” politics, and of course Len Bias’ death lead to the current iteration of the drug war. It was definitely not inevitable.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Great comment. First line neatly summarizes the challenges of writing about the past. It’s so easy to fall into the trap you mention.

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