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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

Beware the Violence Initiative Project — Coming Soon to an Inner City Near You

by Mitchel Cohen, Brooklyn Greens/Green Party of NY & the Red Balloon Collective

It is proper to focus on blacks and other minorities as they are over-represented in the courts and not well studied.
  — Gail Wasserman, Ph.D., from her funding proposal to establish a "behavioral disorders" center at Columbia University's Department of Child Psychiatry.
Unemployment runs in the genes just like bad teeth.
   — Richard Herrnstein, Princeton University, co-author of The Bell Curve.

As late as the 1980s, a number of U.S. and European scientists were still claiming that Black people, Latinos and American Indans are less intelligent than Caucasians. (Asians were left out of the mix.) Intelligence, they said, ran in the genes along racial lines. Some scientists are now proposing that violence is an hereditary characteristic of Black and Latino people and that, unlike the case with genetic intelligence, something can be done about it. Scientists, they say, can control the alleged "genetic predisposition" to committing criminal acts of violence by medicating Black and Latino children before aggressive behavior and violence occur.

Under the aegis of the federally-funded Violence Initiative Project (VIP), Gail Wasserman, a professor in Child Psychology at Columbia University, and Daniel Pine, a medical doctor associated with the same institution, are picking up where the utterly discredited racially-based intelligence theories of Jensen, Herrnstein, Eysenck, Shockley and Murray leave off. The new proponents of genetic racism lead a team of researchers in performing numerous experiments, partly funded by federal dollars, on children as young as six years of age.

The new proponents of genetic racism lead a team of researchers in performing numerous experiments, partly funded by federal dollars, on children as young as six years of age.

In one "study" at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, 34 healthy boys, aged 6 to 10, were administered the drug fenfluramine, the primary ingredient in the diet drug fen-phen which has been banned by the US government. (1) The boys were all from impoverished families; 44% were African-American and 56% were Hispanic. The boys were made to fast for 12 hours prior to beginning, and during the test were allowed only water. An intravenous catheter was inserted and designed to remain in place for 51/2 hours. During that period an oral dose of the drug fenfluramine hydroxide was administered (10mg/kg). Blood was drawn hourly.

Scandal swirled around the sale of fen-phen in the mid 1990s, as Federal Drug Administration studies showed that the drug caused severe heart-valve damage in as many as 30% of the adults who took it. (2) Fenfluramine was also shown to cause a fatal heart condition known as pulmonary hypertension. (3) Effects of a single dose of fenfluramine, writes the Albany-based Disability Advocates, Inc., "frequently included anxiety, fatigue, headache, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, visual impairment, diarrhea, nausea, a feeling of being 'high,' and irritability." (4) Ninety percent of adult subjects experienced side-effects from a single dose of fenfluramine. And studies done on rodents and monkeys have shown that a single dose of fenfluramine caused microscopic damage to brain cells. Despite the fact that the dangers had been well-established, the NY State Psychiatric Institute proceeded with administering fenfluramine to children in doses eight times higher than the amounts causing damage to monkeys' brains, even after the drug had been banned in September, 1997.

In using that drug, the clinicians hypothesized, they could counter the alleged racially inherited genetic predisposition to aggressive behavior and violence by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Some scientists have correlated lower than average serotonin levels with aggressive behavior. By increasing serotonin levels through medication, the researchers are claiming they could prevent the kids from committing future acts of violence, despite the fact that most of the children had not committed any acts of violence at all.

The children were selected because they each had an older sibling who had been ruled a delinquent by Family Court.

The children were selected because they each had an older sibling who had been ruled a delinquent by Family Court. The children's names and addresses, which are supposed to be confidential and sealed, were (and continue to be) culled by government officials at the Department of Probation and the New York City Board of Education and passed along to Wasserman and Pine. The involvement of public officials became known due only to exposes in local newspapers. (5) Forced to reply, the NYC Board of Education denied that students had been referred for the purpose of participating in research, which would have been illegal. But the documents indicate that that is precisely what happened. In fact, writes Newsday, the Board's Committee on Special Education "worked closely with the researchers from the beginning." (6) And, as the Department of Probation itself has written, "We are participating in a Research Project being conducted by Professor Gail Wasserman, of Columbia University, regarding younger brothers of male offenders, in a [sic] effort to identify early predictors of anti-social behavior." (7)

By claiming genetic predisposition, psychiatrists are able to tap into the hundreds of millions of dollars available for genetic research...
...researchers from the New York State Psychiatric Institute have been experimenting on young minority children since 1992...under the rubric of the National Violence Initiative Project...

Pine, Wasserman and other researchers from the New York State Psychiatric Institute have been experimenting on young minority children since 1992. Similar experiments have been going on at Queens College and at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and at facilities throughout the United States, under the rubric of the national Violence Initiative Project, supervised and funded through the National Institute of Mental Health.

And the money is pouring in. By claiming genetic predisposition, psychiatrists are able to tap into the hundreds of millions of dollars available for genetic research-the latest claim for why people do anything-it's in the genes. The money, in turn, has fueled all sorts of similar "projects," including new methods for genetically frisking prisoners for "bad DNA," and for screening workers and denying them insurance. Some companies have fired workers because, they've been told, they suffer from genetic predisposition to certain diseases such as sickle cell anemia or breast cancer.

Far less in public resources are allocated towards researching the effects of toxic byproducts of industrial production and the chemicalization of agriculture in causing cancer, lead-poisoning and other immune-compromising "diseases."

Far less in public resources are allocated towards researching the effects of toxic byproducts of industrial production and the chemicalization of agriculture in causing cancer, lead-poisoning and other immune-compromising "diseases." Instead, funding-and thus, blame-is shifted to an individual's (or ethnic/racial grouping's) biological makeup. In such a framework, the widespread social and environmental causes are ignored and the victim becomes targeted as the culprit. It's their own fault. Or, if not their "fault," the more liberal version goes, it's still "in their genes, poor souls."

The VIP starts where the book The Bell Curve leaves off-the search for the gene that "causes" criminal behavior and the assumption that intelligence, poverty, and criminal behavior is the result of "deficient" genes.

The Project's Defenders

Race-based biological theories of aggression are neither new nor scientific. One champion of the Violence Initiative, Dr. Frederick Goodwin, defended the "theory" before the National Health Advisory Council in February 1992:

If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, Goodwin said, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off and, in fact, there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyper-aggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more and therefore they reproduce more to offset the fact that half of them are dying. Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner city areas, has removed some of the civilizing evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn't just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, then we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our own evolution. (8)

"The initiative specifically rejects any examination of social, economic, or political questions, such as racism, poverty, or unemployment."

Goodwin is part of a long line of white supremacists who have now traded in their white Klan robes for lab coats. In the 1850s, Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright described a mental disease of slaves called "drapetomania," which caused its victims to run away from their masters. A century later, American physicians Vernon Mark, Frank Ervin and William Sweet proposed that urban rebellions were caused by brain damaged individuals who could be cured by psychosurgery (lobotomy). They received grants of almost $1 million in federal funding. (9)

Of course, aggressive, violent or criminal behavior is no more determined by genes than is the desire to study "the inheritance of violence" or the "predisposition" to become a corporate lawyer (which often runs in the family). One could argue that cops, generals, football players and many others have inherited a gene that predisposes them to committing acts of violence-not to mention corporate executives and politicians who murder with their pens or send missiles flying to countries half-a-world away, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the process.

Yet the Violence Initiative Project, along with the biotech industry, is charging ahead full speed, knocking aside all who dare question both the Project's and the industry's apparent willingness to sacrifice our lives and environment in their rush for profits and social control of forces that would oppose them, that they find threatening.

In a brilliant early article scathing the project, Gerald Horne wrote:

"The Initiative specifically rejects any examination of social, economic, or political questions, such as racism, poverty, or unemployment. Instead, this bio-medical approach focuses heavily on the alleged role of the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin, in violence. Not coincidentally, this approach is favored by many in the medical industry." (10)

Dr. Peter Breggin, a leading analyst in the field, has observed,

"This [approach] corresponds with the current financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry, since several drugs affecting serotonin neurotrasmission have been submitted for approval to the Food and Drug Administration. ... The controversial antidepressant, Prozac, is the first of these serotonergic drugs, and it has become the largest moneymaker in the pharmaceutical industry." (11)

Against this backdrop, NIH provided a hefty $100,000 grant for a conference entitled "Genetic Factors in Crime: Findings, Uses and Implications." It was to be sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and slated for October 1992. The promotional brochure promised that "genetic research holds out the prospect of identifying individuals who may be predisposed to certain kinds of criminal conduct, of isolating environmental features which trigger those predispositions, and of treating some predispositions with drugs and unintrusive therapies." (12)

The objections were led by enraged African-Americans concerned that, in these dangerous times, such a project could easily be transformed into directed genocide.

The Coalition Against the Violence Initiative is leading the attack against proponents of such theories who argue that social problems are caused by biologically defective members of oppressed classes, and that society can be improved by identifying and eliminating the propagation of these "defectives." In the case of the Maryland conference discussed above, the ensuing protests caused NIH to freeze conference funding—temporarily. The objections were led by enraged African-Americans concerned that, in these dangerous times, such a project could easily be transformed into directed genocide. Their concern was not assuaged when it was revealed that Reagan appointee Marianne Mele Hall proclaimed that black and brown people are culturally and even genetically inferior. They have been conditioned, she said, "by 10,000 years of selective breeding for personal combat and the anti-work ethic of jungle freedoms" and were therefore unfit for civic life. Great Society programs just "spoiled" them, she argued, encouragng a sense of entitlements that led to laziness, drug use and crime, particularly crimes against whites. (13)

Which brings us back to Goodwin. When we last left him, he was being chastised for making similar reference to jungles, comparing Black people with monkeys. Dr. Horne writes: "By associating African-Americans with monkeys and 'hypersexuality,' Goodwin tapped into a wellspring of racist sentiment." Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan joined many others and criticized Goodwin's remarks. But Goodwin's disfavor lasted, oh, around a week. Shortly thereafter, Sullivan in effect rewarded Goodwin by appointing him head of the influential National Institute of Mental Health-a post not requiring Senate approval or presidential appointment.

As for Goodwin, his first official act as head of the National Institute of Mental Health was-you guessed it!-to approve funding for the National Violence Initiative.

The Results

The long-awaited results of the "studies" on young children are now in. They are exactly the reverse of what researchers had expected! The children, supposedly "predisposed" to aggression and violence, turned out to have normal or elevated serotonin levels. (Remember, the researchers had been claiming that low serotonin levels lead to aggression and violence.)

Case closed? Guess again. Since Wasserman, Pine, et al. had determined in advance what their conclusions were going to be, and since their golden egg-laying goose needed to be coaxed yet again for more eggs—further funding—they invented a most peculiar explanation for these results: Perhaps, they guessed, serotonin had the opposite effect in children than in adults. Perhaps high serotonin in childhood leads to low serotonin in adults.

The reductionist and biodeterminist approach exemplified by the Violence Initiative Project is rampant with such nonsense. But it is dangerous nonsense. In November 1998, researchers distributed a memo to staff at George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan announcing a survey to be done on first year students "at risk for" negative behaviors. By now, we should all have an idea of what "at risk for" means. Youngsters so designated are to be sent to the clinic run by Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and the Columbia School of Public Health, for "assessment."

The Coalition Against the Violence Initiative (CAVI) sent a strongly worded letter to the principal outlining the group's concerns and calling for cancellation of the survey. Members passed out leaflets to students and parents alerting them to the dangers and advised them not to sign consent forms. Members of Lawyers for the Public Interest also called the school, as did a number of individual teachers whom the Coalition had contacted. As we go to press, we learn of the first victory for the Coalition-the principal canceled the survey.

But similar projects are underway throughout the city and, indeed, throughout the country. So is resistance to them. CAVI continues to target the NY Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University, the former Audubon Ballroom (now a main bioengineering center in New York) and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. And in November 1998 a small group from the Coalition decided to take their protests directly to the source. They picketed the "Mood & Anxiety Disorders in Children" conference at the Hotel Pennsylvania (New York City), where Daniel Pine was a featured speaker (topic: "Psychobiology and Pharmacotherapy of Anxiety Disorders in Youth"). The program was supported in part by a grant from Solvay Pharmaceuticals. Two CAVI activists were arrested and dragged out of the proceedings after attempting to hang a banner from the balcony, and now face criminal charges.

The Coalition needs your help. Its members fear that those most affected by the Wasserman/Pine experiments—the parents and children who are being recruited to take part in the studies—remain largely uninformed about the nature and outlook of the experiments being conducted on them. CAVI remains as skeptical as ever about the labeling of a large number of children, disproportionately minority and poor children, as having mental illness. The group contends that the role of those concerned with children's mental health should be to tackle the social and environmental conditions that, in the broader sense, generate young people legitimately at risk for all sorts of pressures to which aggressive behavior is often a self-protecting response, rather than attempting to locate the causes of children's distress within themselves, in their genes and hormones.

If you would like to support the Coalition's work, please contact: The Coalition Against the Violence Initiative, c/o Social Justice Ministries, The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, NYC 10027. Phone: (212) 330-8677 or (212) 927-9053.


1. Daniel S. Pine, et al., Neuroendocrine Response to Fenfluramine Challenge in Boys, 54 Arch. Gen. Psych. 839, 840 (September 1997). Also, see Daniel S. Pine, et al., "Platelet Serotonin 2A (5-HT 2A) Receptor Characteristics and Parenting Factors for Boys at Risk for Delinquency: A Preliminary Report, American Journal of Psychiatry, 1996, 538, 539, which describes a second experiment conducted on the same 34 boys. (Note that the earlier study was published last.)

2. Questions and Answers Concerning the Department of Health and Fenfluramine, Food & Drug Administration, Nov. 13, 1997. http:// www.fda.gov/cder/news/fenqal11397.htm.; also, Gina Kolata, "Two Popular Diet Pills Are Withdrawn from Market," The New York Times, Sept. 16, 1997.

3. Cliff Zucker, Disability Advocates, Inc., & Ruth Lowenkron, Disabiliy Law Center, NY Lawyers for the Public Interest, Inc., December 23, 1997 letter to Clifford C. Sharke, Chief, Assurance Branch, Division of Human Subject Protections, Office of Protection from Research Risks, Rockville, MD.

4. Matthew F. Muldoon et al., D. L-Fenfluramine Challenge Test: Experience in Nonpatient Sample, 39 Biological Psych. 761, 765 (1996).

5. Half-Truths and Consequences: Did Doctors Mislead the Parents of Kids They Experimented On?, Village Voice, May 5, 1998; Kid drug-test foes picket new hosp site, NY Post, May 9, 1998; Thugs in Bassinets: Teen-age violence, studies suggest, begins in the first three years of life, New York Times, May 17, 1998; Drug-test kids may have been forced: Kin hoped other sibs might benefit. NY Post, June 12, 1998; Ed. Board referred kids for drug study, NY Post, July 28, 1998; Students Ended Up In Study: Psych referrals became part of drug research, Newsday, July 28, 1998.

6. Indeed, the original proposal submitted to the National Institute of Mental Health, refers to the special education committee as "one particularly productive referral source," and noted that researchers had made "successful liaisons with a number of schools and agencies throughout the New York metropolitan area."

7. Robert Stone, Branch Chief, Department of Probation, to: Manhattan Family Intake and Investigation probation Officer, August 30, 1991. The memo was leaked by Probation Officer Renee Jackson, who was subjected to harassment, frequently changed job assignments, and constant pressure as a result of her willingness to protest the Probation Department's complicity with the Violence Initiative Project.

8. Warren Leary, "Struggle Continues Over Remarks by Mental Health Official," New York Times, March 8, 1992, p. 34.

9. Mark, Ervin & Sweet, Violence and the Brain, discuss the case of a young white male, Thomas K., who had undergone brain surgery to cure his epilepsy and propensity for violent behavior. They claimed he had been saved by psychosurgery (lobotomy). His mother claimed, on the other hand, that the doctors had turned him into a vegetable. See Mehler, Barry, In Genes We Trust: Where Science Bows to Racism, Reform Judaism, Winter, 1994. In the 1970s, O J Andy, director of Neurosurgery at the University of Mississippi, published revealing reports on invasive surgeries he had performed on children who were said to be developmentally disabled. (All were Black.) Dr. Peter Breggin describes Andy's surgical achievements: JM was a nine-year-old boy said to be "hyperactive, aggressive, combative, explosive, destructive and sadistic"-a prime candidate, in 1966, for O J Andy's psychosurgery. Over a three year period, Andy operated on the child on four different occasions. He implanted electrodes into his brain. Andy concluded, in a 1970 article, that JM was no longer combative or so negative. In actuality, Andy had mashed the child's brain, replacing his intellect and emotions (however "disabled" he might have been) with a truly disabling vegetative state. Peter Breggin, Campaign Against Racist Federal Programs, by the Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, Journal of African American Men, Winter 1995/6.

10. Gerald Horne, Race Backwards: Genes, Violence, Race, and Genocide, CovertAction #29, Winter 1992-3.

11. Peter Breggin, The Violence Initiative-a Racist Biomedical Program for Social Control, The Rights Tenet, Center for the Study of Psychiatry, Summer 1992.

12. Christopher Anderson, "NIH Under Fire," Nature, July 30, 1992, p. 357.

13. Horne, op cit., citing Micaela di leonardo, White Lies: Rape, Race and the Myth of the Black Underclass, Village Voice, September 22, 1992.

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