Fed-Up Communities Fight Back

Activists are targeting dealers and potential users in grass-roots crusade against drugs. DRUGS ON THE STREETS

BENNIE MEEKS had had enough. Earlier this year, he and other community activists took a Chicago landlord to court and forced him to close a drug-dealing headquarters just across from a neighborhood school in the Austin community on the city's West Side. When a rape and an assault occurred in a nearby building occupied by drug users, the activists took matters into their own hands. They boarded up the offensive building themselves.

Communities around the country have become so outraged by the drug problem that they have begun to fight back. The movement is spontaneous and broadly based. It represents perhaps the first stirrings of a grass-roots backlash against drugs.

Some groups have focused on the drug dealers; others have tried to help potential users.

Every morning, Jack Eicholtzer sits in a neighborhood restaurant in Hartford, Conn., gathering material about local drug-dealing. A network of more than a dozen local residents writes down names, addresses, descriptions, and license-plate numbers of suspected dealers and then passes it on to Mr. Eicholtzer, who forwards it to the Hartford police.

``People are clamoring, believe it or not, for more contact with the police,'' says police Capt. Larry Jetmore, who is spearheading the department's community outreach. Information from Eicholtzer's group allowed undercover agents to make a drug buy and arrest four people last week on drug-related charges. The group's tipoffs sometimes allow police to wrap up cases in days instead of weeks, Captain Jetmore says.

Signs of success

Perhaps the best sign of the community groups' success, however, is the dealers' response.

A fire of suspicious origin burned Eicholtzer's neighborhood laundry a year ago. ``They torched me and I am still there,'' he says. ``I am determined.''

In Chicago, Mr. Meeks found a bottle-bomb in back of his house that didn't go off. And in Boston, police have posted 24-hour surveillance on community drug-fighter Georgette Watson after receiving tips that gang members had set a price on her life.

Some 500 activists and others gathered last week in Chicago for a three-day conference on how to fight the drug problem at the grass-roots level. The program was sponsored by the National Training and Information Center (NTIC), a Chicago-based housing group that has decided to take on the fight against drugs as well.

``Before coming, some groups were very afraid to do stuff, very afraid of the drug dealers,'' says Jaci Feldman, project director for the center. But interest is so strong that she predicts more and more groups will take stronger steps against dealers. ``I see in the 1990s people taking to the streets and taking over the streets,'' she says.

In an unusual move, the Justice Department in January decided to fund NTIC antidrug projects in eight cities, from Hartford to Des Moines to Oakland, Calif.

Drug-fighting strategies

Specific tactics for fighting drugs at the street level are still evolving, various community groups say. But some overall strategies are becoming clear:

Watching out for drugs. Because residents know a lot about what is going on in their neighborhood, community groups have started to gather this information. One of the more successful methods is prestamped postcards that people fill out anonymously with information about drug activities and then send to the local antidrug group. The postcards work better than phone calls because people are afraid their voices would be recognized, says Brenda LaBlanc, board president of the Des Moines Citizens for Community Improvement.

Close cooperation with police. It is essential, according to activists, because it lets police use potentially valuable information and gives the community more clout in asking for increased police patrols of specific areas.

Public action. Community picnics and marches in drug areas disrupt the dealing and dramatize the problem to local politicians. Two weeks ago 100 concerned citizens on the east side of Waterloo, Iowa, held a rally to celebrate the cleaning up of a local park that had been rife with drug dealing. ``It helps spread the word that people care,'' says Russ Tidwell, who is a board member of the drug task force of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. It was local pressure that convinced police to patrol the park 16 hours a day until the dealers left for good.

While these community groups can claim some success for curbing the supply of drugs in specific neighborhoods, they are ultimately aiming at curbing the demand for drugs.

``We are talking about the user,'' Meeks says. ``We don't have any drug treatment for those kids out there in the Austin area.'' There are programs and private hospitals, but neither of them provide the long-term care that can keep children drug free for 90 to 120 days, Meeks says.

``We have to start looking at this as something other than a law-enforcement problem,'' says Jetmore of the Hartford police.

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