OMAHA'S vast stretch of neat, single-family houses, punctuated by shopping malls and grain elevators, seems an unlikely place for drive-by drug shootings and gangs with names like Bloods, Crips, Hessians, Skinheads, Jamaican Posse, and East Omaha Rats. But they are there. ``We have a drug problem,'' says Mayor J.P. Morgan in a recent interview. ``It's not as serious as Los Angeles, Kansas City, or Phoenix, but it's a vicious, serious one that affects the lives of many people.''
For city employee John Foster, the problem came home one night last June. ``My son was attacked by gang members and viciously beat up,'' he says after a meeting of the board of the MAD DADS fathers' group he founded. ``He had no ties with gangs or drugs. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He came home and got me.''
Mr. Foster, who towers over other directors in the room, took to the streets looking for the car carrying his son's assailants: ``I was literally a mad dad.''
He did not find them. But while cruising North Omaha and questioning gang members on street corners, he found a reality that disturbed him as much as the assault on his son. ``The streets belonged to children,'' he says.
He called a few friends on Omaha's north side and founded MAD DADS, an acronym for Men Against Destruction - Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder.
The purpose of the group, he says, is ``to get strong black men back onto the streets, into the lives of their children.''
Soft-spoken MAD DADS director Robert Tyler, pastor of North Omaha's Church of the Living God, joined the group because the drug problem ``has been a part of my ministry. I came here from Pittsburgh, and all the vices and drug activity that were there are unfolding here. I've seen lives being ruined. I take it very personally.''
Lafayette Nelson managed apartments in North Omaha for 25 years, and in that capacity saw up close how gang and drug activity moved into the city's projects. Now retired, ``the captain'' coordinates MAD DADS' street patrols on Omaha's north and south sides every weekend. But he says he is out himself every night to stay in touch with ``what's happening.''
``Anywhere you can help a child, you've really done something,'' he says. ``These kids have the least contact with grown people. That's what we're trying to provide. They don't need heros like Superman and Dr. J., they need someone to talk to like I had when I was growing up, someone you could talk to and trust.''
MAD DADS launched its activities by painting over gang graffiti in the neighborhood. ``It was a way of notifying gangs and the city that we were fed up,'' says MAD DADS president Eddie Staton, former director of the City of Omaha's Human Relations Department.
``We really think we've hit a formula that will work anywhere in the country,'' says Mr. Staton. ``We've reduced MAD DADS to a common denominator: parents.''
``Whether you graduated from Harvard or the school of hard knocks,'' adds Mr. Nelson.
The group began with 18 members, but quickly grew to more than 400 - 35 percent of whom are white parents. After bullets were fired into the home of one of the group's white members in North Omaha last month (no one was injured), calls from white applicants shot up, said Staton in a phone interview this week. In a survey published by the Omaha World Herald newspaper last week, 86 percent of those polled said they approved of MAD DADS.
An independent MAD DADS chapter has been launched in Denver, and the Omaha group has received inquiries from all over the country.
Directors mince no words over their loathing of drugs or the activities of those who promote them. But what distinguishes the language of Omaha's MAD DADS from the tough talk surrounding the national ``war on drugs'' is a strain of respect, sympathy, and even affection for ``children'' caught up in gang activity.
``We must change our way of thinking about these kids,'' says Nelson. ``The misconception is that these gang members are stupid kids. But these kids are very intelligent, and given the opportunity, the first thing a kid will tell you is `I can't get respect.' He means he wants a job, a place in the system.''
``Gang members are some of the best marketing specialists, accounting specialists, communications specialists,'' says Staton. ``Yet the schools can't do anything with them.''
``Some of these kids tell you to live fast, die young, and have a beautiful corpse,'' says Nelson. ``When they start talking like that, you just keep talking to them. We try to isolate the leaders and then talk to the rest of them. It's beginning to turn around, and I can see the difference.''
City and police officials in Omaha are more guarded in claiming a turnaround in drug and gang activity. They link progress to the city's tougher enforcement and ``pro-active'' policies, including the mayor's new policy of enforcing ``drug-free zones'' around schools and playgrounds, which double the penalty for distributing drugs in those areas.
But MAD DADS insists that ``get tough'' enforcement policies miss the point.
``The national effort is pitiful,'' says Staton. ``They do not understand what the real problem is. The money needs to go on the front-end for prevention and support rather than the back-end for prosecutors, judges, attorneys. All that does is create jobs for prosecutors, judges, and attorneys.''
The difference is that kids know we're thinking of them, says Nelson. ``I say, `What you're doing here is short-lived. You can't draw social security. Can't retire. Can't live. We're going to offer you something better.'''
``We're dealing with some hard cases, the guys supposed to be the ring leaders,'' he adds. ``Even they want to get out of it. The other night I was talking to a [gang] shooter - they don't get any worse. He said, `I'd go back to school today if I could get a job earning $6 to $7 an hour.'''
SEVERAL MAD DADS interviewed for this article said they often apologize to gang members on behalf of black men.
``Whenever we talk to kids, we say `We are sorry. As black men, we haven't been there when you needed us most,''' says Staton, a single father who is raising two children. ``When we talk face-to-face, you can see that street stuff drain out. Men cannot be intimidated by 15-year-old boys - men who are Vietnam veterans or who have been to prison. We say, `We're trying to show you how to make it. Otherwise, reserve a jail cell or plot in a cemetery, because that's where you're going.''
``The bulk of these children want us out there,'' says Foster.
Foster says he recently ran into a young man who was ``frightened and on the run. He owed a drug dealer $150, and the dealer was stalking him. When he was introduced to me, he said `You're my last hope.' I said, `Look, I'm not going to give you money to pay no drug dealer.' But I went home, and about 10 at night I thought, `What if he is killed - over $150.' I called him up and gave him the money. He paid the drug dealer off and said, `This is the first night I can sleep with confidence.' The next thing I hear [from him is], `Can you please help me get a job?'
``If we can just tap into this, give them some incentive,'' Foster says. ``The drug life is nothing more than fantasy and dreams.''