Antidrug message for suburban buyers

Hartford, Conn., activists launch crusade to curb drug violence as gang members get out of prison.

The crackle of a bullhorn suddenly cut through the quiet of a summer evening in one of West Hartford's upscale neighborhoods.

"No more drugs in Hartford! No more drugs in Hartford!" the marchers chanted as astounded homeowners and local police looked on.

The protesters were black and white as well as Hispanic, and most had come from the city's impoverished, drug-ridden North End. They were pointing a finger at what one calls "the goose that lays the golden egg" - the white suburbanites who cruise into the heart of the city, make their buys, and then come back to their comfortable towns.

"We have to change the face of drug use in this country," says the Rev. Michael Williams, a protester. "Eighty percent of the drug users in this country are white.... If we can impact the buying of drugs in our community, then we can severely curtail the drug trafficking that occurs there. This is a real war on drugs."

For Mr. Williams and the other 20 protesters, ridding the community of drugs is more than rhetoric. It's a matter of survival. Hartford's North End is currently under siege as gang members, swept up into prison during an intensive crackdown in the mid-'90s, are now being released - and many are looking for payback instead of a paycheck.

The problem is not unique to Hartford. Other cities with large gang populations, from Chicago to Los Angeles, are coping with a similar influx of returnees.

"The prisons are definitely turning people back into the streets, particularly if they're young, who are worse than when they went in," says Jeff Tauber, a former judge and executive director of the Center for Problem Solving Courts outside of Washington. "People aren't cured by jail or prison. If anything, they get better at what they were doing before they went in. They get more hardened."

That has helped wreak havoc and frustration in Hartford. Many of the returning gang members have found new drug dealers on their old turf, and police say that has sparked violence. In the first six months of this year, the number of shootings spiked upward. So far, there have been 18 murders this year, compared with 17 for all of 2000.

The situation peaked on the Fourth of July, when then- 7-year-old Takira Gaston was shot by a stray bullet from a gang turf fight a block from where she was riding her scooter. She survived, but the shooting has galvanized the community.

"It took a little girl to get shot before they want to start looking for murderers. What about the body count before that?" asks one North End man hanging out on the corner about two blocks from where Takira was shot. "You still got adult human beings being shot here every day."

Since the July 4 shooting, the city has intensified police presence in the area. Last week, state troopers and federal marshals started to help round up thousands of known parole violators and crack down on the dealers.

While that is welcome, it's not enough for the Rev. Cornell Lewis and his small band of activists. After the shooting, they started protesting regularly outside of known crack houses and on street corners, demanding to know from the dealers, "Who shot Takira?" Eventually, they want to organize anonymous phone trees and community watch groups to tip off police when a drug deal happens.

They also decided it was time to involve the middle class. Mr. Lewis got a list of 100 people arrested at a recent drug sweep at one of the local housing projects. Seventy-seven were from the suburbs.

"We went directly after the dealers. Now we're going after their customers," he says. "People who come in to buy get a slap on the wrist, then go home to the safety of the suburbs."

An analysis of drug-use and prison-rate data for the magazine Scientific American found that blacks were far more likely to go to prison for drug offenses than whites, "even though use of illicit drugs overall was about the same among both races. Blacks account for 13 percent of those who use illegal drugs but 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for possession," the magazine found.

"A lot of the users may be in the middle-class community, but it's the lower-class communities that take the brunt," says Mr. Tauber. "It's not just as dealers, but the community as a whole that's devastated, and that's really tragic."

Such impact is evident at the corner of Enfield and Capon in Hartford's North End. The neighborhood is filled with boarded-up houses and abandoned stores. Young men in T-shirts and gold chains hang outside of a closed Laundromat. They lean into the open windows of expensive cars that sit double-parked for a while, and then drive away.

When a reporter approaches, they scowl and dissipate. But one young man on a shiny red road bike hangs back. He won't give his name, and he's angry at how much it took for the community to take action. Yet, he also understands that many people here see drug dealing as the only way to survive.

"You try to leave the street life, but if you've been in jail, nobody wants to hire you, so you gotta turn back to the street to survive," he says. "If they put more jobs out here, that would take a lot of drug dealers off the streets, because a lot of drug dealers got kids - half of them out here are just trying to feed their families."

He looks around at the empty street, and goes on. "If you don't feed your family, you still get arrested for being a deadbeat dad, so what do you do? That's the question: What do you do?"

Then he speeds off on his bike.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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