Drug-fighting volunteers 'make streets hot' for pushers in Boston

The living room of the small apartment was furnished with eight folding chairs. The only lamp sat on the floor. A small black-and-white TV flashed a fuzzy picture from a corner of the room.

There were no curtains, and the bare walls seemed to magnify the sound. In the bedroom were four canvas cots and an equal number of sleeping bags. The kitchen was all but empty.

Yet for members of Boston's ''Drop-a-Dime, Report Crime'' coalition, Apartment 312 was home for several recent weeks.

Georgette Watson, one of the coalition's founders, explains that the bare-bones, rent-free apartment in a housing project in Boston's Roxbury section gave coalition members the chance to do something they would like to do all across the city - combat drug abuse.

''We want to make the streets so hot,'' Ms. Watson says, that drug dealers don't have a chance to do any business.

She and other Drop-a-Dime members walked the streets late at night, accompanied by several policemen, gave tours of the neighborhood to reporters, and talked to drug dealers.

The Drop-a-Dime organization was formed 18 months ago. The Rev. Bruce Wall, youth minister of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, says drug traffic was rampant in certain sections of the city, yet the police claimed they had little information on the problem. They needed specifics, Mr. Wall says. ''The community had to break the code of silence and pass the names of drug dealers on'' to the authorities.

But the police require identification. Reporting openly to the police often brought threats to informants, Mr. Wall says. For residents to feel safe in passing along information, they needed a means to do so anonymously. So he and others formed Drop-a-Dime to serve as go-betweens to pass residents' tips along to police.

Mr. Wall, who is also a clerk-magistrate in the juvenile court, says the group receives an average of 130 calls a month. Most concern drugs. He says the police have become much more responsive and effective since they began getting tips from Drop-a-Dime.

Ms. Watson says the group received so many calls about ''massive drug traffic'' in the city's public housing projects that members decided the best way to combat the problem was to move right in.

They took turns spending nights in Apartment 312, making their presence felt in the community.

One member, Robert Woodson, says he was approached on a street corner one night by someone who wanted to buy drugs. The clean-cut young man says he certainly does not look like a drug dealer.

But Ms. Watson says it's not whether Mr. Woodson did or did not look like a drug dealer. Rather, ''it's the spot.'' He was standing on a corner where people know they can buy drugs, she says. ''So we're telling the drug dealers 'to think you own a corner is absurd,' '' she says.

Coalition members made no attempt to ''dress down'' to the neighborhood, Ms. Watson says. Some kids idolize the drug dealer and his wealth, she says. But the message the group sent is: ''We've got resources, too. And you can walk around (dressed) like this without selling drugs.''

Many residents, here and in other neighborhoods, have been under a kind of ''house arrest,'' she says, fearful of the drug trade and the crime it breeds, and concerned for family members. ''We are working to turn the neighborhood over to the residents,'' Ms. Watson asserts.

Drop-a-Dime members have continued to work in the community since moving out of the apartment, seeking long-range solutions. They held a meeting with residents of the housing project to discuss how the residents could form a neighborhood organization to fight drug traffic. Ms. Watson, who has worked extensively to organize neighborhood crime-watch programs throughout Boston, says ''we want to organize (a program here), so that we'll just be fading out.''

The Rev. Mr. Wall says only about 10 residents showed up at the community meeting. He explains that it is hard for residents to stand up openly to drug dealers who operate in the community. To intimidate the residents, a couple of dealers showed up at the meeting, he says.

According to Mr. Wall, there is a need to form an ''underground group,'' of people who will ''feed us information.'' He says that although the coalition group moved out of the apartment on the 19th, it will continue to work openly in the community at least through January and pass information on to the police.

Nathaniel Askia, director of First Incorporated, a drug rehabilitation center , says community involvement has long been the missing link in the fight against drugs. He says the coalition's approach is ''an answer to my prayers.''

Police enforcement and rehabilitation centers help, Mr. Askia says. ''But in order to cut down on the number of people we see, you need another program - an organization in the community.''

The coalition members who camped out in Apartment 312 are both black and white, and come from different parts of the city. One couple, G. Allen Swartz and his wife, Sandy, live in the suburb of Milton. Mr. Swartz says he participated in the project because of his concern for ''my neighbors.''

Ms. Watson notes that drug problems aren't confined to one section of the city. She says Drop-a-Dime gets calls from predominantly white neighborhoods in the city, such as Charlestown, and from Boston suburbs such as Cambridge and Lynn.

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