Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Fighting In the Streets

Nate T. sends me a post from the Marginal Revolution blog which quotes the late Black Panther and community organizer Huey Newton from his book Revolutionary Suicide:

As our forces built up, we doubled the patrols, then tripled them; we began to patrol everywhere — Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and San Francisco. Most patrols were a part of our normal movement around the community. We kept them random, however, so that the police could not set a network to anticipate us. They never knew when or where we were going to show up…The chief purpose of the patrols was to teach the community security against the police, and we did not need a regular schedule for that. We knew that no particular area could be totally defended; only the community could effectively defend and eventually liberate itself. Our aim simply was to teach them how to go about it. We passed out our literature and ten-point program to the citizens who gathered, discussed community defense, and educated them about their rights concerning weapons.

This was a billion years ago, of course. Back then the National Rifle Association was all for gun control and gun-grabbing, provided it was directed at disarming the uppity black folks who had dreams of self-governance and economic empowerment.

A million years later, before the internet, cell phones, MP3 players, Youtube, or Amazon, I worked for a small nonprofit, with a staff of four, focused on trying to forge a common language about the nexus between rights and responsibilities.

I was the primary writer, and the only one with even a little street experience. The other two were lawyers who mostly wrote briefs, did fundraising, and talked to city attorneys.

In any case, we got a grant to write a guide to eradicating street drug markets.  Crack had arrived in 1985, and open air drug markers and drive-by shootings were destroying neighborhoods and families.

What could be done?

That little problem got tossed into my lap.

The resulting publication was entitled The Winnable War:  A Community Guide to Eradicating Street Drug Markets, and it became a decent seller, generating  about $500,000 in sales for the organization over the next two years (I had decided we would publish it in house in case it did well; an unheard of idea back in 1991).

One of the first articles about the study was written by Abe Rosenthal at The New York Times. That piece was quickly followed up by a piece by Neal Peirce praising the new report and suggesting that the little booklet we had produced "may be the best manual ever for citizens trying to rid their neighborhoods of increasingly violent open-air drug markets."

A typical "market" will find bands of young men congregating on sidewalks or in the streets, communicating by a complex set of hand movements, marketing to a parade of automobiles (many from the "respectable" suburbs). Conner describes the open-air markets as "the 7-11 of drug marketing - high volume, quick sales, small-unit sales."

Kids get exposed to the drug trade's most alarming values - lawlessness, violence, sex-for-sale, instant gratification, ostentatious displays of gold jewelry and expensive cars. Elderly people become fearful, stop socializing in the parks. Property values plummet; physical degradation spreads.

The alliance surveyed the nation's largest cities and found 1,500 drug markets operating in 15 of them. Two-thirds of the cities reported the problem was either steady or getting worse.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the alliance found that few cities are pursuing the very tactics against drug markets that have proved highly effective in a number of lead communities.

The group places little hope in police "body counts" of arrested drug dealers, or filling up more prisons with small-time offenders. But it reports rich payoffs in a combination of neighborhood-based anti-drug activism and inventive, targeted community policing aimed at harassing drug markets out of business.

In cities across the country, organized citizen groups have shown how to intimidate drug dealers and their customers by shadowing their movements, taking photos, writing down license numbers. They organize neighborhood cleanups, repair playgrounds, sweep litter and drug paraphernalia off the street.

And while there have been isolated reports of drug-dealer attacks on individual crusaders, the alliance reports attacks on citizen patrols are, nationwide, "extremely rare." Stressing a community-based, not individual, anti-drug effort is said to reduce chances of physical confrontation.

Citizen efforts won't go far, though, unless city governments join in the effort, Conner said. Scattered cities are already showing the way. New York, Boston and others have "padlock laws" to close up properties associated with multiple drug arrests and convictions.

In Yakima, Wash., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., owners of cars seen cruising through drug markets receive postcards warning that their vehicles have been seen in areas of high crime, prostitution and drug activity. Washington, Seattle, Alexandria, Va., and Tampa, Fla., have statutes forbidding loitering with the intent to sell drugs.

Tampa reduced its recognized open-air drug markets from 61 to three in two years. Mayor Sandra Freedman created a 41-member special police force to work closely with housing inspectors and citizen groups in boarding up or razing ''crack shacks," organizing massive neighborhood cleanups and seizing drug dealers' cars.

Charleston's police chief, Ruben Greenberg, used police officers and prisoners conscripted from the local jail to pick up trash, clear vacant lots, tow cars and obliterate graffiti defacing buildings in drug-infested neighborhoods.

What of the argument that drug activity driven out of one neighborhood just re-erupts in another? The alliance acknowledges that's often the case. But the first victimized neighborhood is relieved. The drug dealers' customer base is disrupted. And eventually drug selling and buying are driven behind closed doors - "privatized," one might say.

That may not be enough for people on a crusade to lock up drug dealers and users. Police may complain: It's tougher to compile a dazzling arrest record. But as report co-author Patrick Burns argues, once a single open-air drug market is closed down, "the community benefit is immeasurable."

Before long, we had cities ordering a 1,000 copies at a time, and police chiefs saying they were acolytes. The Brookings Institution asked for an article, and I was tapped to speak at a few law enforcement conferences.

Did it change anything? Maybe a little.

Today the core message of The Winnable War is well understood even if it is not always well operationalized. Organizing communities is hard work.  It takes time, talent, and money  That kind of stuff is always in short supply. Police have unions, constituencies, federal budget support, and self-interest. Jump out squads and mass arrests are flashy and emotionally satisfying, get you a lot of overtime, and run up the statistics sheet, which is always a solid win at promotion time.

Just as important, mass arrests are action that a police departments can take unilaterally. Getting cars towed, streets swept, abandoned buildings raised, street lights fixed, median strips mowed, and streets and sidewalks repaired may involve getting coordinated action out of a half dozen or more famously disorganized, intransigent, over-worked maintenance departments where no one is ever fired for not showing up at all. Getting playgrounds built, daycare facilities funded, and bus lines running? Where would you even start with that?

And so like a rat catcher who is paid to catch rats, but is not paid to clean up the trash, sweep the corners, or mow the vegetation, a business is made that is based on busting people.

But just as you cannot trap your way out of a rat problem, so you cannot arrest your way out of a street drug market problem. It takes more than that. You have to understand why the rats are there, what they want, and what they require. Then you have remove their needs and supply the needs of an entirely different kind of animal.

Yes, it's a jungle out there. No disagreement. That's exactly why wildlife biologists are needed.

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