LOS ANGELES — The street scene plays like a morality tale of a city in crisis.
At the corner of LaSalle and Adams, a procession of elementary school kids warily crosses paths with customers exiting a well-known "crack" cocaine house. Behind the tattered curtains and graffiti-covered walls huddle members of a young generation ravaged by addiction and the lure of fast money.
In the past two decades, drug dealing has become so much a part of this neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles that "rock," or crack cocaine, is openly advertised on sidewalk sandwich boards. Market share is often won or lost in a hail of automatic-weapon fire. For those who live here, hope is a commodity in short supply.
But in recent weeks, Los Angeles's inner-city communities have been galvanized by allegations that drug dealers who first introduced crack to these neighborhoods were part of a CIA plan to fund a covert war in Nicaragua. While the largely African-American neighborhoods are united in anger, they are also stirred by a nascent hope that the current spotlight can help show the way out for the coming generation.
"There is relief and hope about this now," says Michael Wynn, vice president of MADD DADS, which stands for Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder. For several years the group has tried to bring men of all ages back from the obscurity of street life into households, schools, and churches.
Black leaders in the area have been united by revelations from a year-long investigation by the San Jose Mercury News into alleged links between the CIA and drug trafficking.
"We're onto it now," says US Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D). "We're not going to be duped, tricked. We're not going to follow someone else's phony leadership. We're going to wage our own war."
The CIA has denied involvement with the cocaine sales, and the stories have been criticized for failing to pin down specific evidence of the drug traffickers' efforts.
But the articles have become a catalyst for black leaders who have sought not only justice but healing. They are turning their attention to finding and prosecuting perpetrators, as well as calling for new interdiction and eradication efforts.
Civic and church leaders are joining hands to seek new solutions. They are also demanding government funding for reparation efforts such as drug-rehab programs and job training.
Leaders say a new burst of activism is already apparent. The Richard Allen Men's Society, for instance, says the series has given it a nudge forward.
The group has had plenty of success in the past: In 1992, hundreds of its members patrolled local neighborhoods, surrounding known crack houses while singing and praying. With the aid of the Los Angeles Police Department, the group helped shut 14 crack houses within blocks of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME). The success of the group spawned patrol groups at three neighboring churches.
"We feel the community has come a long way in dealing with its own problem," says the Rev. Leonard Jackson of FAME. "Now there is the feeling we can close the door further on this scourge."
The Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment - which has been fighting the high concentration of liquor stores in the inner city, many known to be fronts for drug dealers - feels recent rallies and appeals to the White House in response to the crisis will help them address funding concerns.
"Now we feel secure we will retain at least 75 percent" of the $11 million in congressional dollars the organization relies on, says director Karen Bass.
Cocaine remains a stubborn problem for urban America. A recent RAND Corp. study says regular users of cocaine number about 7 million, with heavy users totaling some 1.7 million. Further, a recent federal survey found that cocaine use among teenagers rose 166 percent from 1994 to 1995 alone.
The Mercury News series recounts how the cocaine epidemic started and charts the development of highly addictive crack, made by concentrating powdered cocaine and cutting it with other drugs. Crack delivers an intense high for about $20 a hit.
The report details how dealers here, once they made millions in South Central neighborhoods, took the cheaper and more potent cocaine to inner cities from Detroit to New York to Miami.
Nationally, sociologists and drug officials agree that perhaps no drug has taken hold faster in communities or caused more devastation than crack. Besides the dangers of using the drug itself - 500,000 emergency cases are reported in the nation's top 21 cities each year - crack sales spawn crime networks, gang activity, and gun use.
"I never thought I would see a drug that could addict people so quickly or make them do such crazy things to get it," says Jarret Fellows, editor of the Los Angeles Watts Times, who notes that his neighbors have been sprayed with assault-gun fire three times in the past year by gang members trying to ward off outside buyers moving into their markets. "There is so much money to be made that gangs have to define their turf."
"Cocaine is problematic because it is so highly addictive," says William Guerrero of the Los Angeles Police Department. "It generates an atmosphere of crimes committed in order to support the habit."
The drug - and tough laws to stamp it out - have also contributed to filling the nation's prisons. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that researches criminal-justice issues, says that in 1983, 1 in 11 federal prisoners was incarcerated for drug crimes. By 1993, the figure was 1 in 4.
"Drug policies constitute the single most significant factor contributing to the rise in criminal-justice populations in recent years," says Mark Mauer, assistant director at the Sentencing Project.
Crack's impact on blacks
The resulting incarceration and felony rates have disproportionately socked the black community, which is one reason the allegations of CIA links to drug sales have become so sensitive. While some 13 percent of the country is black, 73 percent of the nation's prison inmates are African-American. With so many young black men in prison, thousands of minority families have been left fatherless.
Observers note that cocaine has not been the only factor playing a role in creating these prison populations. Unemployment and cutbacks in federal funding have also hurt inner cities. That is why any sustained turnaround here must include economic regeneration, some say. "The exodus of industry here left a significant portion of young men turning to anything they could find to make it," says Ms. Bass of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment.
"When you see your 16-year-old friend drive up in an $80,000 car he got by peddling drugs, it's hard to stay interested in other things," adds Fellows.
Still, some community activists note that simply pointing fingers at the CIA is not going to revive inner-city life. "Nobody came up to South Central Los Angeles and forced crack down the throats of black people," says Ted Hayes, a black homeless activist and a former mayoral candidate. "Blacks here need to stand up and take personal responsibility for what they did."