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Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years agothe exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute highcrack arrived in D.C.
The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.
Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.
Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.
No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crackthe most ephemeral of chemical experiencesstill awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.
It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-a-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parksbut wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.
Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingÈnue had a date to every dance.
Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.
The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging aroundnot the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusionand used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.
Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great storiesbut debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grantsbut trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economyand an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.
And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few monthstrial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comebackshowed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.
Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kidseven the bad kidssupposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.
But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.
Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under controlor at least under the carpetdoesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.
Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettespast and present, sober and less sofrom the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack.Michael Schaffer
Who You Callin’ Cheap?
If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.
By David C. Morrison
If you ever want to hear crackheadsa subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilaritylaugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”
Smokable it is; that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.
Whatever criterion you setsatisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stonedcrack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habitwhich, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.
In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to bethe ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap; after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.
You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.
With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensiveand flammableway to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.
Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell itand a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.
As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heatmaking what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smokedfirst surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.
Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of cracka McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)
Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediatelybut lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.
That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustrationand I had manywas the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.
Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s officeindeed, as it turned out, there might have beenthat all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.
Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of timeand crackheads can go for daystakes a lot of $3 rocks.
The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaineonly the first hit of a run is worth a damn; the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rushand crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.
And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP
Paying the Piper
Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.
By Patrick Tracey
Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.
When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.
Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.
And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.
At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.
But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.
But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.
“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.
“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.
“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”
I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.
“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.
He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.
“So what, exactly, is it used for?”
“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”
The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.
So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and purea Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?
I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.
It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.
But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.
Perhaps, I think, they could be musical instruments. The glass cylinders actually look very much like the slide I used to use on the fretboard of the old Fender Stratocaster that’s been collecting dust in the corner for a decade. Trouble is, the glass tubes are too small to fit over my finger. Every attempt to lay down a blues riff comes to naught.
Pursuing other musical uses of my new product, I put a pipe to my lips and try using it as a wind instrument. I blow through one end: A short, shrill sound emerges from my new hornpipe, but there are no holes on the side to sound different notes. So much for that idea.
Maybe they could be chopsticks! The delivery man from my local Chinese restaurant often forgets to include chopsticks with my lo mein. No problem. Since I had the foresight to buy two stems instead of one, I figure I’ve finally hit upon their proper purpose. I rest the stems gently between a thumb and two fingers and take a stab at some slippery noodles I have in the fridge. I manage to grasp the noodles between the ends of the stems, but they keep landing in my lap. I go for a fork.
But now I’ve got my meal in front of mewhich includes not just food, but drink. Perhaps those glass stems are really beer straws! I pop one of the little guys into the opening on top of my Budweiser. For a while, the stem makes a splendid straw, the only design flaw being that it’s too short and can’t suck up that last inch or two of beer. And getting the straw out of the can proves too tedious when it falls all the way in.
That pretty much covers the home front. Convinced that there’s no good use for my stems, I decide to say it with flowers. From a street vendor, I purchase two roses and present them to a lady friend, inserting one stalk into each glass tube. The air hisses out of my romantic gesture, however, when she sees through my ruse. “It’s got a hole in the bottom,” she snorts. “It’s just a damn crack pipe.”
That does it. Pissed off and frustrated, I head back down to B&K intending to demand my money back.
But then, on the bus down 16th Street, I ball up a small, wet wad of paper from my notebook and load the spitball into one of the tubes. I purse my lips, take aim, and fire out the window. Eureka! The projectile rockets from the stem like a speeding bullet and lands on the windshield of a parked car.
Instantly, I am transformed into one satisfied customer. Who needs drugs when you’ve got spitballs? CP
Not Just For Tourists
When crack first hit, the author was guarding the gates to the city.
By Sgt. John Brennan
In ’86 and ’87, the first couple of cases I worked were interdiction cases. We locked people up coming down on the train from New York City. They had the vials. Small $5 and $10 vials. New Yorkers were coming down south to Washington and the Carolinas and Virginia trying to introduce the drug into the neighborhoods.
When I first looked at it, I didn’t know what it was. I had an idea: It looked like rock candy to me. If you laid it on a table, some kid might pick it up and eat it. We never had it herewe never had it on the streets. Then it was everywhere.
I remember one of the first caseswe got a guy with 700 or 800 vials of crack cocaine. The guy was coming down from New York City. He didn’t have a clue as to where he was going. He had 700 vials in his pocket. He was going somewhere in Northwest to set up a little shop and get rid of it. He probably paid maybe $1,000 to $1,400. He would be making a $6,000 to $7,000 profit in a couple of days. Pretty good dude. He seemed like just a kid who wanted to make a lot of money and not work for it. He was sorry he did it, wished he never did it. I think that was the second or third time he had come down here.
Guys will do funny things when they walk off a train or a bus. You know, they try to look at the ground, not look at you. Then, when they realize you are the police, they can’t stop looking at you. They can pick out a cop. They start looking over their shoulders. Then you ID yourself and have a conversation.
We’re not the state troopers pulling up behind youwe are normal people. The fear factorwe try to eliminate that by being polite, by not having all the police insignia. You don’t see guns hanging out. We don’t intimidate people. In other words, we’re not telling you what to do. Everything that we’re doing for an interview, we ask permission: “Can I talk to you?” “Can I search your bag?” Everything is permission.
These couriers, even though they think they’re the smartest people in the world, they got something to lose. They don’t know if somebody called us from New York or Miami. They don’t know if we have been investigating them. Just like anybody else, the normal guy who gets off the train is nervous a little bit because he’s lost. I’m not saying we haven’t talked to a lot of people that looked pretty good. That happens to older people and youth. They at least have a destination. When these guys get off the train, they don’t have a clue. One guy told us he was going to 145th Street.
You ask, “Who you visiting?”
“My mother,” they’ll say.
“Where does your mother live at?”
“I don’t know. I got to call her up. She got to pick me up. She just moved down here a year ago.”
“You been here before?”
“A couple of times.”
“What’s her name?”
You don’t want to get involved in long conversations. This is not a drunk-driving case. Then you pop the big one: “You got drugs in the bag?”
By the end of ’88, the amounts that were coming in became larger. Every case we made was an ounce of crack or more. That’s all we saw. We didn’t see any other drug. We were making a case every day. We locked up two females from a busthey had 6 pounds of cocaine. They didn’t say anything. They came off the bus; they took two separate directions. Each one had 3 pounds of crack cocaine. Down from New York, they were heading for Southeast. They didn’t say a word to us. They went to court and pleaded guilty and took a 10-year sentence. Not a word. They were dedicated to somebody.
The funny thing with the couriers is: all different ages. College kids. Housewives. The majority are 18 to 24. But we saw all ages carrying it. We locked up a guy from Chicago, a 55-year-old white guy. We locked up all ethnic groups: Spanish, white, black. Guys tried to hide the drugs everywherein a pair of socks, in ham sandwiches, underneath fish, in their crotch area.
All I did was watch people. You just pick up things. Like anything. Like any job.
The youngest person we caught was a 13-year-old girl. She was a little girl, a chubby girl. She kinda looked lost. But what attracted us to her was that she was walking about 15 paces in front of this big guy. Every step she took, he would take. If she turned right, he would turn right. If she turned left, he would turn left. What we decided to do was go and talk to her, and we did.
In a shoebox, after we got consent to search her bag, was a bunch of cocaine. The guy just walked on. We then had a couple of other cops approach him. We looked at his feetabout size 14. The box was for Reeboks, size 14. He was wearing Reeboks. Eventually, we were able to link them together.
She was scared. She was only a kid. We eventually got a statement from her. She was coming from New York with the crack. Her mother picked her up. She ended up doing well, I understand. CP
Sgt. John Brennan works in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Major Narcotics Branch. He told this story to Washington City Paper Staff Writer Jason Cherkis.
When he died, Houston Washington III earned just four lines in the daily paper. A look at the anatomy of a drug deal gone bad.
By Jason Cherkis
The Crime Scene It was supposed to be an easy, quick sale. The woman approached Houston Washington III and his friend while they were browsing inside Mart Liquors, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. She wanted a $20 rock, the woman reportedly told Washington, allegedly a sometime crack dealer. If he could just wait, she said, she’d go and get the money.
It was Saturday, March 28, 1998. Washington stepped outside, rounded the corner, and headed down the alley behind the store, munching from a bag of Doritos.
A few moments later, two 40-caliber bullets tore through Washington’s body. One bullet entered through his left temple; the other punctured the left side of his neck. He died quickly, collapsing to the oil-streaked concrete. Apparently, he never saw the shooter’s face, and neither did his friend. On the ground, his body formed a crooked Y shape. By his side rested the trio of Budweiser 7-ounce bottles that he had just purchased. It was just after 3:30 p.m. on a warm, dry spring day.
Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Scout Car No. 7041 was the first to get to the crime scene. The car approached from the 500 block of Newcomb Street SE. “The officer arrived on the scene, finding the victim, Mr. Houston Washington, lying in the alley, unconscious with apparent gun shot wounds,” says the police report. “D.C. Fire Department Medic Unit responded. However, death was apparent.”
“A large pool of blood is located just north of the decedent’s head with blood splattering going out several feet north of this pooling,” the report continues.
Another apparent crack death in a city long inured to such deaths. Every detail about the incident, in fact, seemed so very predictable: Washington’s race (black), his sex (male), his age (31), the location of the murder (Southeast), the murder weapon (a gun), his occupation (crack dealer), the amount of space devoted to him in the Washington Post (a Metro brief), and the reaction from residents (a collective shrug).
Washington’s death didn’t get a mention in the Post until the following Tuesday, when he was lumped in with three other young men slain that weekend. He joined Keith Z. Richardson, 28, Deon Gay, 19, and Eddie Buckner, 47, in the Post’s Crime & Justice column. The three others were shot in a 13-minute span the day after Washington died.
The Post wrote this about Washington: “Houston Washington, 30, of the 4200 block of Fourth Street SE, was found at 3:40 p.m. Saturday in an alley in the rear of the 500 block of Newcomb Street SE, officials said. He was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, police said.”
It didn’t matter that the paper had his age and address wrong, that he had just moved back in with his wife in Suitland, or that he had four kids. Washington was one of “those guys.” Guys who hang out all day in parks and on street corners selling rocks. Guys who die in circumstances that are murky but that conceal no great mystery. There were no shocked neighbors, no tempting life-insurance policies; the murder was not the work of some mastermind killer. Washington was just one of those guys who died because of crack.
Washington’s final resting place turned out to be the District of Columbia’s long list of murder statistics. In 1998, his was one of 60 murders that occurred in the MPD’s 7th District. In the decade leading up to his death, there were more than 1,000 murders in that district. Most of those, MPD detectives will tell you, were “crack-related.”
Still, even crack murders have specific archaeologiesthe bloody scene, the brutal killer, the victim, the last words, the heartbreaking ironies, the stubborn clues, and the mourning friends and family.
More than two years after Washington’s murder, his case remains unsolved. In the alley where he was killed, there is no white cross or mural to honor him. He was neither saintly nor notorious enough to warrant posthumous tributes. The rear red-brick wall of Mart Liquors is marked with all sorts of white graffiti tributes to slain brothers and buddies. But nothing about Washington.
Residents who live near the liquor store, along Mellon and Newcomb Streets SE, say they simply don’t remember Washington. Some are too scared to talk about the neighborhood’s business of shootings and killings. Some have just moved here. Others simply confuse him with other murder victims. “He got shot at the bus stop two weeks ago,” one guy offers. “The fire department had to come and wash the blood away.”
And these are the neighbors closest to the murder scene.
“There’s an enormous amount of murders here, especially here on Mellon Street,” explains Charles, a longtime resident who declined to give his last name. “There’s a lot of death here that don’t get explained.”
The Detective It’s Detective Michael Will’s job to explain murders like Washington’s. A homicide detective since 1991, he currently works on cold cases in the 7th District. Will must juggle 15 to 20 cases at one time; pick up each bit of evidence; interview informants, neighbors, and inmates; and slowly piece together forgotten murders. Since the advent of crack, he says, solving cold cases has gotten much, much harder.
Will remembers when homicide investigations changed: when the first automatic weapon was fired in the 7th District, which encompasses many of the impoverished Southeast D.C. neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. It was 1985, he says, at the corner of Southern Avenue and Chesapeake Street SE. A group of guys ambushed a car with a Mac 11 gun, peppering metal and skin with bullets. There was one fatality that day. There would be many more. Soon after, crack arrived and the murder rate soared.
“Before that, you didn’t have the fully automatic bullshit going,” Will says. “[Since then] you have brazen shit. They don’t care if the police are out or not.”
In 1987, there were 69 murders in the 7th District, according to police records. In 1993, there were 137.
In the interim, dealers from Jamaica, New York City, and Miami had come to the District seeking a piece of the action. If you could sell a rock of cocaine for $3 or $4 in New York, that same piece could be sold in the District for $10 or $20. It was a matter of supply and demand. Because D.C. wasn’t a port of entry for cocaine, someone had to bring it here.
One self-described “small-time” local dealer says he could make as much as $3,000 a week selling crack, with a base of 80 loyal customers.
Eventually, dealers started getting into gunfights over the stuffand getting away with it. “We had cases where crack dealers from Miami or New York were selling their wares,” Will says. “They pulled some triggers, and off they went. We had witnesses, but we couldn’t find the guys….All you knew was a nicknameRemington, Nose, Byron, Soldier.”
In 1983, a few years before crack and automatic weapons carved up the 7th District, Will met another kid with a nickname: Houston “Huey” Washington III.
Washington had recently moved back to the District after living with his mother and stepfather in Riverside County, Calif. He had wanted to come back to where most of his extended family lived, says his mother, Carolyn Silva. But by then, his father, Houston Washington II, had already started a battle with a nasty drug addiction.
Silva arranged for her son to live with Charles Logan, a family friend and community activist who had already adopted two boys. Logan was a frequent caller to the police. He always had a tip or two and was willing to share his knowledge when other neighbors were not. That generosity made him a favorite of a lot of officers, including Will.
Whenever Logan called about his suspicions that his own kids were getting into mischief, Will would cruise over to his 800 Alabama Ave. SE home and counsel Huey. “He was like any other kid,” Will remembers of the boy. “Skipping school. Just prankster stuff.”
When the two got together, they talked about Huey’s behavior and anything else on the boy’s mind. Will, a white cop, says the youngster didn’t put on any thug act in front of him. “He was cordial. He was respectful,” Will explains. “I never had any problems with himhe never got out of line. He didn’t show that adverse reaction to authority. I’ve met some young ones10 or 11 years oldyou can’t even hold a conversation with them. They tell you to blow it out your ass. That wasn’t Houston at all.”
Sixteen years later, when Washington’s murder case went cold, Will took over the investigation. “I knew the kid,” he says.
The Victim Washington barely had time to grow up.
In 1985, he had his first child with his teenage sweetheart, Kimberly Cooper, who would become his common-law wife. They named the newborn baby boy Houston Washington IV.
A year later, Washington’s father died in his arms, of a massive heart attack.
Washington dropped out of high school after the 10th grade and never managed to hold on to a steady job for very long. There were stints as a street vendor, clerk jobs at a pet store and Sears, and a gig delivering pizzas. But despite Washington’s lack of financial resources, Cooper says, he always took care of his son. For the first few years, he even opted to stay home and watch over “Little Houston.”
“I remember when we went to the day care to register him. They asked you all these questions about when did he start walking,” Cooper says. “Houston knew it all.”
By 1991, Washington had split with Cooper and had become addicted to crack. “When I saw him for myself, I knew,” Cooper says. “His face was sunken. He just didn’t look like himself. But he was still his charming, loving self. Houston’s just a charmer.”
When the couple had spats, it was usually over other women. “He couldn’t be contained,” Cooper says. “He was always into doing something. He was always moving. When I was younger, it didn’t bother me, but as I got older, I guess I wanted to settle down. He was still going and doing all the things he liked to do.”
Washington continued his crack habit, occasionally dealing the drug as well. Despite numerous attempts to sober up, his addiction brought him more than a half-dozen arrests.
On Jan. 8, 1994, he lost his surrogate father, Logan, to a shooting. Logan was shot eight times by Timothy “Tiny” Williams, the brother of one of his adopted sons.
A year later, Washington had managed to get clean and get back together with Cooper. That year, the two had another boy, Malik. There would be another breakup, another, final stint in rehab, and another baby boy, Kirby. Kirby was 6 weeks old when Washington died. Washington had also fathered a girl with another woman.
“We would always get back together, and we was always friends,” Cooper says. “I was his first love, and he was my first love. He could always charm his way out of any situation, no matter how mad you are. He’d let you cool off, but he would always charm his way back. It wasn’t anything he particularly said. You just couldn’t stay mad at him.”
If his drug habit and dealing were problems, Cooper thought there was little she could do about them. “I wasn’t happy,” Cooper says. “I knew Houston knew better. I didn’t like [his dealing], either. But he was a grown adult. What was I going to do, beat him?”
But enough other people were mad at Washington to want him dead. During the course of his investigation, Will has heard a lot of possible motives: that Washington owed a lot of money, maybe $10,000, to a dealer dubbed “Jamaican Mike.” That Washington was “hot,” a term used for informants. And there were other possibilities floating around, too: He might have been caught selling “demos,” or fake crack. He might have been fooling around with too many women.
“The most glaring thing is, maybe he screwed up with some customer, didn’t pay somebody,” Will adds. “There’s a lot of reasons when somebody goes down that hard.”
But other sources have told Will that Washington was one of the good guys. According to one former crack dealer, Washington didn’t operate like a thug or a guy bent on becoming notorious. The dealer says Washington had a small operation and nothing more. “He wasn’t flamboyant,” the dealer explains. “He was just relaxed.”
A year into the case, Will says he’s interviewed dozens of informants and ruled most of the possible motives out. He says he could be close to solving the case if a witness or two would come forward.
Until then, the police know the final chain of events, but not the shooter. According to people close to the investigation, Washington was playing the role of the gentle dealer until the end. Moments before Washington died, as he and his friend were walking down the alley behind the liquor store, the friend spotted some illegal gambling going on in a resident’s backyard. He wanted to join in. But Washington wouldn’t, chiding his friend that gambling was a waste of time and money.
“Don’t go in there and gamble” were Washington’s last words.
The Shooter According to informant and witness accounts, the shooter wore a bandanna over his face. A female accomplice was said to be a well-known pipehead, light-skinned, with auburn hair. According to Cooper, who received a few tips, the pair may have driven a late-model car, the shooter’s name may have been Mike, and they may have fled to a house on Newcomb Street.
The Wife Cooper remembers her husband’s shoes. They were Asics sneakers, white with gold and blue stripes. Washington loved those Asics, his favorite brand. The last time Cooper saw her husband alivethe morning of the day he diedhe was washing his sneakers in the bathroom sink, scrubbing the laces.
Just before Cooper left for a shopping trip to Old Navy with her sister, Malik, and Kirby, she knocked on the bathroom door and said goodbye to Washington.
“‘I’ll probably just chill in the house,’” Cooper remembers Washington saying.
Driving home from the store, Cooper received several pages. Each had the same code punched in: 911, along with her phone number. They stopped at a McDonald’s and she quickly called the house. It was her son Houston IV. “Daddy’s been shot,” he said.
Cooper first drove to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. The hospital told her that they had no records for Houston Washington or any other shooting victims. She then directed her sister to take her to their old neighborhood, where Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard intersect. A manicured park sits between the two streets. Washington always went there to hang out or see friends. Maybe that’s where he is, she thought.
Cooper was right. As they turned into the old neighborhood, she spotted a few old friends. Her sister pulled over. “‘He’s around in the alleydead,’” Cooper remembers her friends saying. Just like that, they told her the news.
She went to the alley behind Mart Liquors, just off Newcomb, and came upon a crowd. There were cops, crime-lab technicians, and many nosy residents. Cooper worked her way to the edge of the police tape and tried to get a good look. Was this really Houston?
All Cooper could see between the officers was a pair of shoes attached to a limp body. That was enough. They were Washington’s, the freshly scrubbed Asics. “I knew that was him,” she says.
The scene quickly turned chaotic. A woman in the crowd claimed she was Washington’s girlfriend and that he lived with her. Another told police that she was his sister. Both claims were not true. Washington’s sister lived far from her brother’s friends. And as far as the woman who said she lived with Washington, he could very well have had another relationship. But he had recently gotten back together with Cooperand she knew he wasn’t living anywhere else. She had told herself the reunion was going to be for good this time.
Cooper grew hysterical. She says she couldn’t get any of the officers to listen to her, to understand that she was his wife and that she had just lost the love of her life. She says, instead, that one officer cuffed her hands behind her back and stuffed her in the back of a squad car. “‘You going to jail,’” she remembers the cop saying. She sat in the car for about five minutes before the police decided to accept her story.
“I felt helplessreally, really helpless,” Cooper says. “They weren’t listening to me. I just saw him two hours ago at home. You couldn’t even possibly understand my state of mind to see him on the ground with all that blood.”
Two years later, Cooper wishes she could get that picture of Washington out of her mind. She says she hasn’t been back to that stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue since the shooting. She can’t face those old friends, friends she thinks know who killed her husband, but aren’t talking.
“All those people claim, ‘Oh, Houston was my man.’ All those girls down therehe was either their boyfriend or their brother. But none of y’all seen nothing, none of y’all know nothing,” Cooper says. “None of y’all can tell the police one little word. But you-all ‘loved’ him. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. He took away my children’s fatherhe took away someone I grew up with.
“My little son, Malik, says, ‘I wish my Daddy would come out the sky. Tell Jesus to let him out the sky and come down to look at TV.’ That’s all he knowshe’s in heaven.”
The Son “Big Houston just got shot. I think he gone.” This is how Houston Washington IVLittle Houstonheard about his father’s death. Washington’s liquor-store companion called the house soon after the shooting and broke the news to the 12-year-old.
Little Houston had lost his best friend, his father, who, despite the revolving-door relationship with Cooper, always seemed to be there for him. Little Houston says that whenever he wanted to talk, had a problem with school, had difficulties with his mother, Big Houston was ready to listen. The two could talk about anythinghow not to get into trouble, how to use common sense in tough situations, how to be the man of the house when Big Houston wasn’t around.
When they weren’t talking, the two were usually enthralled in a game of Sony PlayStation football. That’s what they did the night before Big Houston died. That night, Washington came home at 3 a.m. and woke his son up. “‘Come on, play PlayStation with me,’” Little Houston remembers his father saying. He jumped out of bed, and the two sat in front of the TV, joysticks in hand, for several hours of contentious arcade football.
Little Houston remembers the score of their last game: He beat his father 35-14. “He quit,” he says. “He was like, ‘You got it.’”
The next day, Big Houston told him he was going out to the “Avenue,” and that he’d be right back.
Little Houston, now almost 15 years old, still remembers that day. He’s the only one of Washington’s sons who remembers their father. But now, anger and confusion and soured pride occasionally displace the fond memories. This past spring, the youth spent time in a Maryland youth “boot camp” after assaulting a neighborhood boy. His mother says his grades in school have plummeted, too.
Little Houston tries not to think about his father’s death. But he has an idea of how the shooting went down. Right now, it’s as good as any other. It came to him in a dream:
“I seen him get shot. He was arguing with some dude,” Little Houston recalls. “I couldn’t see him. His face was shining. Last thing you know, it was like Pow! Pow! He just dropped.”
“I couldn’t hear what they were saying,” Little Houston continues. “They were just arguing back and forth. And I woke up. I never dreamed it again.” CP
On the Pipe
One crackhead’s 14-year survival test between highs
Yesterday wasn’t a good day for me. Somebody broke into my house, stole my television, stole my receiver, stole my speakers. The depression of that was a trigger for me. It depressed me, made me want to get high. It should have angered me, made me more determined to refrain from using. But it was the reverse. Depression is my usual trigger; sometimes, money is a trigger. There are some days you just don’t give a damn.
You just get high. Each day is not the same. Some days you have your high days; some days you have your low days.
There are some times I may go a week without smoking. Then there are some times when I have a little money and I might go two or three days nonstop until the money is gone. Once the money is gone, depression sets in because of the money that you don’t have, that’s been wasted. You think about the things you could have done with the money proper: You know, like if you had a bill, pay a bill.
After the crack is gone, then all kinds of voices speak to you: what you could have done with the money that you had. Sometimes it makes you want to get high. But then there are periods when you get mad at yourself, mad at the thought of getting high, and you make an honest attempt to try and start on a path of being clean and sober.
It has been an off-and-on struggle. I’ve been clean for two years, and then I relapse. A year, and then I relapse. Six months, and then I relapse.
If I’m not getting high, I get up every morning at 4:30 to 5:30. I take a bath, lay in bed, look at TV, try to take my mind off the desire. Especially when there’s no money.
Now my high feels like a chase. A chasing sensation. For instance, you have your favorite food that you like. You just want that particular dish. You think of the thing that you want to eat, fix it, and eat it. That’s your dinner until you come down.
I grew up here, been here since I was 4 years old. I grew up with a twin sister and three brothers in the Columbia Heights area, just off Cardozo High School. My life was no different than most. I didn’t want for anything. My parents were not rich, but we had a roof over our heads, and I wasn’t hungry. My father was a master welder and pastor, and my mother was a librarian. I graduated from Dunbar High School and left my moms when I was 18. My family knows I can do better, that I wasn’t raised in the way in which I choose to live.
I went to two cooking schools in Baltimore and Washington back in ’84 through ’86. But I dropped out. That’s why I’m still just a general chef.
I’ve sold insurance. I’ve worked in the Georgetown Law Center library. And I’ve cooked for a living for the last 17 years. I’ve experienced every gamut of the cooking professionbanquet-style, line, saute. I’ve worked at the French Market, the Crystal Ball, Marriott, Ridgewell’s, the convention center. Cooking is the one thing I’ve done that I can do naturally. It’s my gift. Something I can do and not complain about it.
Cooking for me is like a canvas for an artist. I know how it’s going to taste once I form it in my mind.
You got to know what spices and herbs clash. You have certain herbs that you can mix together that would destroy a meal. Say, if you are marinating a salmon, you want to keep the tenderness and the sweet taste of the salmon. You can’t use a vinaigrette. You have to use a cilantro, a thyme.
I still cook all the time. The last dish I made was where I took turkey wingettes and I created a cream-milk sauce. In American soul food, that has never been done. Just experimenting. You roast your turkey, you strain off your pan drippings, add the roux and the cream, and sautÈ that off. You might add a little white pepper and some sea salt.
You can dress it up or keep it basic. I’ve done it with vegetables and used half-and-half whipping cream.
As long as I’m alive, there’s always a chance I might change. Hopefully, in time, I could become a CMC, which is a certified master chef. I could be that right now.
One day I was with a friend, Lisa. She said, “I want to show you something.”
Lisa put some cocaine in a vial with baking soda and some water and put a flame to it. I didn’t know what she was doing. I thought she was messin’ it up. She put a flame to it, twirled the vial around, and a gel-like substance formed into a ball. She poured some cool water on it, took a piece of wire, and swished it around until it formed a rock. She broke off a piece, put it in the pipe, put the lighter to it, and said, “Pull.” And I pulled.
I’ve been shot eight times at once with a Tec-9. This was back in 1989. I was shot all overlegs, stomach, sides, back, hand, shoulder. I was standing up when the ambulance came and got me. I was awake when they took six bullets out of me. I woke up two days later in recovery. It was a result of a liesomeone who I thought was a friend wasn’t a friend.
The atmosphere out here is not kosher. It’s what you make of it. You can put yourself in it so deepit can cause you heartache, headaches, pain, depression, whatever. I’ve been arrested six times. Twelve-and-a-half years in all I’ve done in and out of jail. The arrests were for possession and drug solicitation, to try and sell it.
But this is part of the jungle that you live in. I stopped getting high for a while but eventually started again. It was by choice. It was something that I wanted to do, and I did it, dumb as it may sound.
Later, I got osteomyelitis, a virus that eats at your marrow. With me, I got mine from lack of circulation. My doctor really don’t know how I got it. I was doing fine one day. Then my leg was hurting. It was either take the leg or die. I got a prosthetic below the knee.
I get a little from Supplemental Security Income, and I do odd jobs for friends, borrow money from friends. You do what you got to do within reason. I go out and try to hustle upyou know, bring customers [to crack dealers] and make money like that. In light of what I’m doing, I was still raised with morals and principles. I can’t see myself breaking into somebody’s house or hitting somebody over the head.
You give respect, you get respect. You get your stuff, and you go on about your business. That’s it. That’s the key to surviving out here. You are going to have people that try you, but you are going to have to learn how to humble yourself in the midst of the fire. A dealer may say, “Slim, step off.” Fine. You go on about your way. It’s really that simple.
Dealers are not your friends. If you keep that in mind, you don’t get caught up in your feelings. He’s selling you something you want, that you don’t needbut you need it anyhow. They can’t be my friends. If I don’t get it from that person, I’ll get it from somebody else.
My high starts at night. Sometimes it can go all day, two days straight until there’s no more money. When I’m flowing, I’m flowing. One part of you says, “Stop, stop, stop.” Another part of you says, “Go, go, go.” It’s which part do you lean to tonight?
I just got high. About two hours ago. Five a.m., maybe. Six a.m. I got a rock one block away for $25. Not really enough.
Three-tenths of a gram. The potency level is not as strong as it was 10 or 15 years ago. The quality level has decreased. It takes twice as much to get high, sometimes three times.
It lasted maybe for 20 minutes. Time to chase again. CP
Pee-Wee, who asked that his real name not be used, is 41 years old. He says he has been using crack for 14 years. He told this story, while leaning up against a car in the 4100 block of First Street NE, to Washington City Paper Staff Writer Jason Cherkis.
Yo, Man, I’m Trying to Score Some Baggies
When the city banned the sale of small plastic bags for holding crack, the underground market didn’t die. It just went deeper underground.
By Laura Lang
You can buy many things at Edmond Charles’ shoebox of a store at Georgia Avenue and Park Road NW: sodas and Hershey bars and canned soup and Reynold’s Plastic Wrap. Anything you need to cool off on a hot day or stock your pantry at home. But there’s one thing you definitely can’t buy: smallwe’re talking very tinyplastic bags.
Not that some people don’t try. Charles says the previous owner of Kim’s Grocery may have sold the small bags, to judge from the number of people who’ve come in requesting them in the three months since he’s owned the store. He always gives them a curt response. “If they ask for small zip-lock baggies, I tell them to use the ones over there,” says Charles, pointing to a shelf stocked with two kinds of bags: pint-sized storage bags and the larger quart-sized ones, for stowing leftovers in the freezer.
You might think a new owner wouldn’t be so brusque with potential customers, nor care what size plastic bags they’re shopping for. After all, the bags seem harmless enough: Clear, with a tiny, useful plastic zipper at the top, they’re great for holding jewelry. But drop in a small rock of crack cocainewhich police say the small bags are often used to holdand the innocuous item becomes just as illegal as the drug it holds.
Unlike cities such as New York, where glass or plastic vials are the containers of choice for crack, users in D.C. tend to favor the small bags, according to police who work in the narcotics field. For years, users purchased the bags at small mom-and-pop stores just like the one Charles owns. Once police and local officials caught on to the underground market, however, they banned the sale of bags. Certain tradespeople, like jewelers, are exempt from the ban.
But some say the law has only made the secret market a bigger secret.
Charles, for one, isn’t selling. Not just because it’s illegal, he says, but because he doesn’t want to attract the sort of customers who might be shopping for the tiny bags. “I don’t want that type of clientele,” says Charles, a round man with a full beard who hardly fits in the cramped space behind the counter and the bulletproof plastic shield. “We just don’t want to bother with that stuff.”
It used to be that small plastic bags were just small plastic bags, meant for holding legal things, like nails or fishing hooks or beads. That was back before crack hit town, when drugs like heroin and marijuana were sold in brown paper bags or bigger plastic ones.
When crack first showed up on D.C. streets, it was usually packaged in vials that likely came from dealers in New York, says Mark Christopher Stone, a detective in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Major Narcotics Branch. Although locals could buy the empty vials from stores that sold them for perfumes or scented oils, D.C. customers apparently didn’t like the containers used by their Big Apple counterparts.
Stone says police still come across the occasional vial, but they’re mainly used by big-time dealers working in nightclubs. Some pushers use the vials for PCP, says Stone. Almost everyone else, including some heroin and traditional-dope dealers, uses the bags. They’re cheaper, more convenient. And unlike glass vials, they don’t break if you drop them. It’s also simple to hide the bags in a hurry. “[They’re] easier to consume if you’re being caught,” says Stone. “It would certainly be a little rough to swallow that vial you have in your hand.”
Small bags, like vials, were initially available only at larger stores or markets. Soon, however, small neighborhood-store owners realized they could make quick money from selling the bags. So they became a new brand of dealer. Instead of stocking the bags on the shelves next to the Doritos and Pepsi, they usually kept them behind the counter until someone made a special request. To win business from drug dealers with a little flair, they also offered the bags in a variety of colors and decorated with all kinds of symbols, such as Adam and Eve or the Mitsubishi car logo. Crack dealers used the bags to distinguish their products.
In 1995, Eydie Whittington noticed empty bags littering a parking lot near her home at Alabama Avenue and 23rd Street SE. “I thought, There’s a lot of jewelry bags. Who’s selling jewelry?” she recalls.
Whittington, the Ward 8 D.C. councilmember at the time, had gathered a group of neighborhood kids to act as youth advisers during her tenure on the council. They clued her in on the bags. “They were like, ‘Ms. Whittington, you don’t know. Those are for drugs,’” she says.
They also told her that dealers could get them at most neighborhood stores. So Whittington decided to go undercover. She traded in her power suit for jeans, sneakers, and a baseball cap she wore with the bill facing backward. She swaggered a little and went into store after store in search of the bags. Joined by staff, police, and some of the kids, she found stores all across town that were selling. “They just had a market going on here,” she says.
Whittington pitched the idea of banning the bags to her council colleagues in the summer of 1996. Some argued that the bags served legitimate purposes. But in July, they passed an amendment to the existing paraphernalia law that outlawed the sale and possession of plastic bags measuring 1 inch by 1 inch or smaller. According to the law, individuals found guilty of possessing bags, with the intent to use them for drugs, can be jailed for 30 days, fined $100, or both. Store owners can lose their business license and face penalties of six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. There are added penalties for previous convictions and selling to minors.
Stone says police officers appreciate the effort. The law, along with their follow-up police work, has discouraged some store owners from selling the bags. But police and local attorneys are too busy dealing with arrests for actual crack sales to deal with a parasitic market, so the new law has resulted in few charges, says Stone.
“I’ve never seen anyone brought in for that,” says Ed Shacklee, a supervising attorney at the nonprofit legal-defense group D.C. Law Students in Court. “I think unless you can show intent, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere. I don’t think you can walk up to anyone in the street with a zip-lock and arrest them.” To prove intent, cops usually produce a certain type of evidencecrackthat obviates any need to prosecute on plastic-bag charges.
In other words, Whittington’s bill, although well-intentioned, hasn’t brought the crack marketor the bag marketto a screeching halt. “People are always crying out for something, and you do what you can,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who supported the bill. “I’m not sure how effective it was.”
Evans staffer John Ralls is a little more blunt. “I always thought it was kind of a goofy bill,” he says.
Besides, Stone says, crack dealers who can’t get their hands on the bags will still find some way to peddle their product. He and his colleagues have found dealers wrapping rocks of crack in foil or plastic wrap, or hiding them in medicine bottles. Some people even store the rocks in discarded metal caps from beer bottles. They fold the metal around the rock so that it’s protected and hidden in case the crackhouse is raided. “With crack, anything can be used,” says Stone.
When I head out to shop for myself, I don’t have much luck finding small plastic bags at the store just down the street from Charles’ shopright along Georgia Avenue in a part of town police say is usually bustling with drug sales. Keykey Bank, an employee at C&J Grocery & Deli, says they don’t sell the bags at her store and haven’t in the two-and-a-half years she’s worked there.
Down the street, another store owner says he used to sell the small bags about three years ago but quit when a police officer told him he was adding to the decline of the neighborhood. “I live in this area, and I kinda saw that,” says the store owner. “If they thought I was contributing to the sales of drugs by selling bags, I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
The store owner, who asks to remain anonymous, says he used to purchase the bags in bulk from a wholesale company in Pennsylvania. He could buy a bulk bag of 10 packs (each holding 100 small bags) for a couple of dollars, and then sell each smaller pack for $5, making about $48 profit for each bulk bag. “It’s good money,” he says. “I do miss the money.”
I figure maybe I’m picking the wrong stores, so outside, I ask around. A guy who tries to sell me a watch in a red-velvet case says I should just keep my eyes open for someone selling them along the street. I wait and watch, but I don’t see anything. I ask a scruffy-bearded middle-aged man in a plaid shirt, who fumbles with his cigarette, if he has any suggestions. “You mean like for weed?” he asks. I pause. “The small ones,” I say. “Um, like for crack.”
He gives me a sly look before asking: “You’re not out here trying to get anyone in trouble, are you?” Bingo. He must have something. I shake my head.
It turns out he’s a friendly guy, but terrible at giving directions. He leans to ask advice from some friends sitting in a beige four-door car that idles next to us. “Oh, I forgot about that place,” he says as he stands again.
He suggests a store at 13th Street and Otis Place NW but says I’ll have to make a special request to the cashier. “You got to kinda pull him aside,” he says. “Just be cool,” he says as I leave.
A few days later, I walk to the recommended corner. There’s only one store around: the Thirteenth Street Market. It’s clean and tidy inside, shelves stacked with bread and cereal and other groceries. There’s a meat counter in the back. I browse a little, but not too much. I’m trying to portray the right image: somebody who’s in there looking for crack bags. I quietly tell the cashier, a thin, middle-aged Asian man, that I need some small plastic bags.
He pauses. “No, we don’t have that,” he says.
“Are you sure?” I ask, trying to play it cool. He shakes his head again.
“Someone told me I could get some here,” I say, giving him my best conspiratorial look.
He pauses again, then reaches to a shelf above the counter and pulls out a thick pack of bags. They look a little big. “Do you have any smaller ones?” I ask. He shakes his head side to side. I decide I’ll measure later, not wanting to break my act. “How much?” They’re $5. I nod. He rings them up, along with my iced tea, and loads everything into a brown paper bag.
I don’t open the bag until I get back to my office. I’ve committed no crime, because I have no plans to use the bags for crack. But I can’t fight the illicit feeling.
Back in my cubicle, I open the bag and spread the goods out on my desk, a stack of simple, shiny bags. They would be ideal for sandwiches for very tiny people. I use a ruler to measure the bags. They’re small, but still 2 inches by 2 inches, which is, technically, too big to be illegal. Shoot. I count the booty: 49 sets of two, for a total of 98two shy of what I assumed would be a pack’s worth.
On the other hand, that gives me an entirely different reason to call in the fuzz: I got ripped off. CP
Did a single D.C. cocaine overdose launch the war on crack?
By David C. Morrison
George P. Pelecanos, the chronicler of postwar D.C.’s decline and fall, ended his 1998 novel, The Sweet Forever, with Dimitri Karras running into Nick Stefanos, who is standing in front of a Connecticut Avenue appliance shop with his arm over the shoulder of a young black guy:
As he neared them, Karras saw the televisions in the window were all tuned to the same image: Len Bias, wearing that jazzy ice green suit of his, standing out of his chair at the calling of his name.
All right, it was news. But why were they running the draft highlights again, two days after the fact?
“Nick?” said Karras.
Stefanos and the boy turned their heads.
The black kid was crying freely, tears running down his cheeks.
“Dimitri,” said Stefanos, his eyes hollow and red.
Karras felt hot and suddenly nauseous in the sun…
That was a powerful and fitting ending for a noirish tale set against the District’s mid-’80s gun- and drug-fueled devolution into the nation’s most notorious Dodge City. So powerful was the Len Bias legend, in fact, that Pelecanos didn’t even bother, a dozen years after the fact, to tell his readers exactly what had happened to the University of Maryland basketball star.
On June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics chose Bias as the NBA’s second overall draft pick. Two days later, D.C.’s hometown hero, age 22, was dead of an apparent cocaine overdose. With an unctuous Dan Rather whiling away “48 Hours on Crack Street” and the rest of the media pack in a froth over a purported nationwide epidemic of cocaine smoking, it was immediately assumed and promptly reported that Bias had been killed by crack.
Amid the torrent of overheated coverage of the Bias tragedy, ABC News even featured the late Bias in a moralizing “Person of the Week” feature. The cocaine-related death just a month later of yet another black athlete, the Cleveland Browns’ Don Rogers, only fueled the media feeding frenzy.
“In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player,” Dan Baum wrote in his 1996 study, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. “In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs…. Within weeks, the country would be marching, bayonets fixed.”
As sad as Bias’ death was for family and friends and hometown fansand as much excitement as the media wrung from the tragedythe strongest impact of that random 1986 overdose in suburban Maryland came on Capitol Hill. With the Ronald Reagan administration reaping political hay from its escalating jihad against drugs and drug users, Democrats, then still in control of the House of Representatives, were damned if they would be cast as slackers in the struggle. Returning home from a July recess in his Boston district, home of the Celtics, House Speaker Tip O’Neill vowed to pass some sort of tough omnibus anti-drug bill before the midterm elections in November.
In the months following Bias’ untimely demise, both parties strove mightily to outdo each other in their rhetorical and legislative zeal to annihilate once and for all the menace of crack and other drugs. Declaring drugs “a threat worse than any nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare waged on any battlefield,” Rep. Thomas Hartnett (R-S.C.) even pressed a bill directing the White House to end all drug smuggling within 45 days. In the climate of the day, that quixotic, if not downright mindless, measure passed easily.
Indeed, many of the most constitutionally dubious of the anti-drug measures now in force date back to the Summer That Len Bias Died. The workplace urine testing that is so routine today that few seem even to question it, for instance, is largely the artifact of an executive order signed by Reagan in September 1986.
Of the anti-drug measures introduced in the wake of Bias’ death, the most notorious is mandatory minimum sentencing, which ties the hands of judges when they weigh the fates of convicted drug felons. Eric E. Sterling, then an assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crimenow president of the reform-oriented Criminal Justice Policy Foundationstill recalls with rueful amazement the arbitrary process whereby committee staffers simply plucked numbers out of thin air in setting sentencing guidelines for possession or distribution of different quantities of different drugs.
So eager was Congress to rush the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act onto Reagan’s desk before the electionwhich it did, by wide bipartisan majorities and with a week to sparethe bill largely evaded the gantlet of public hearings through which such major legislation, affecting the lives of millions, must usually pass.
With the specter of Bias haunting them, the vampire-slayers of Capitol Hill decided that possession of crack cocainethe Demon Drug of the dayshould be punished 100 times more severely than possession of powder cocaine. In practical terms, the distinction between crack and powder cocaine is no greater than that between instant oatmeal and old-fashioned rolled oats. But given the realities of drug markets, the crack/powder sentencing discrepancy served only to further skew the already appallingly unbalanced racial impact of the war on drugs.
In other words, thanks in large part to the death on June 19, 1986, of a young black athlete, hundreds of thousands of other young black men are serving disproportionately long sentences in overcrowded prisons for possession and sale of a form of a drug thathold on for a final ironyit turns out Len Bias never even used. Yes, by the time the Anti-Drug Abuse Act became law, in late October 1986, it had long since been officially determined that, initial reports to the contrary, Bias had actually been using plain old powdered cocaine when his heart stopped. CP
Running Low on Rayful
Has D.C.’s most famous crack dealer become just another has-been?
By Annys Shin
The 11-year-old has no idea what I’m talking about. Straddling his beat-up freestyle bike near the corner of 4th and L Streets NE on an overcast July afternoon, the kid just shakes his head. So do his five pint-sized buddies, who stand in a circle, each one parked over a set of wheels. “What he look like?” the boy says.
It doesn’t take an anthropologist to know that the tall tales of 11-year-olds are the true barometers of society’s myths. I expected to hear this batch of Near Northeast youngsters tell me that Rayful Edmond III was 8 feet tall, had a limousine that stretched whole city blocks in length, and wore enough gold to crush an ordinary man. Instead, when I ask them about the District’s most infamous crack dealer, a man who made his headquarters just blocks from here, they just look confused.
For these kids, Edmond is ancient history. They were still in diapers in April 1989, when police hauled him off, along with 16 others, on charges of running the city’s largest cocaine-distribution organization. Older residents, of course, remember the days when Edmond would pull up to the corner store in a white stretch limo. Some of them even clam up, reflexively, when his name is mentioned. But far more of them talk about Edmond in the same matter-of-fact tone they’d use to talk about the local florist, or the local florist’s cat.
There are, of course, occasional echoes of Edmond, who is serving multiple life sentences on drug charges and is being held at a secret location within the federal prison system. When prosecutors indicted Kevin Gray and Rodney L. Moore earlier this year on charges of running one of the city’s most violent heroin- and crack-dealing operations, they noted that Moore had paid Edmond a prison visit in 1992 to arrange a drug deal. When Antoine Jones, 16, opened fire on a group of teenagers at the National Zoo last May, the old kingpin was in the background again. Jones, newspapers soon reported, was the son of James Antonio Jones, one of Edmond’s enforcers.
But then, Edmond was granted only a simple moniker, one that bundled him in with every other two-bit hustler: “notorious drug dealer.”
Just a few years ago, it seemed impossible to imagine that Edmond could pass from public consciousness. He was to D.C. what Al Capone was to Chicago: part real-life terror, part legend. During his 1990 trial on drug conspiracy charges, prosecutors dubbed him “the Babe Ruth of crack.”
The Washington Post called him a “drug tycoon” and said his organization was the “biggest” and “deadliest” in the city. Back when Edmond was the subject, every other word was a superlative. Even his name had an epic ring to it, which suited the multigenerational production of which he was the undisputed star.
Before their son got famous, the Edmond family was like many in Washington. Rayful Edmond’s mother, Constance “Bootsie” Perry, worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. His grandmother, Bernice Perry, owned a town house at 407 M St. NE, on a tree-lined block just south of Gallaudet University.
Little Rayful played his first game of basketball nearby, at the J.O. Wilson Recreation Center at 7th and K Streets NE. His jump shots later drew crowds to the No. 9 Boys and Girls Club, where he played tournaments with his team, Men at Work. Off the court, he hung around with Georgetown University basketball stars John Turner and future Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning.
Indeed, Edmond might have landed a college scholarship of his own, but he wasn’t interested in higher education. He had already found a vocation.
As a teenager, Edmond started in the business by collecting drug money for his father, who had worked in a government office and sold drugs on the side. But then, according to a tape recording the FBI made of Edmond’s mom during its investigation of Edmond, he “got too big” and “just up and went out on his own.” By the time Edmond was arrested, at age 24, he controlled between 30 percent and 60 percent of the city’s market for crack and cocaine. From his grandmother’s home, he built an organization that employed about a dozen enforcers toting Uzi submachine guns and 150 sellers who made as much as $5,000 a week each . With their help, Edmond and his familyincluding his mom, his siblings, and various other relativesdistributed up to 1,700 pounds of cocaine a month.
Edmond’s operation had so many customers that buyers would cause traffic jams around “the Strip,” the open-air drug market that Edmond operated on Orleans and Morton Places NE, right around the corner from his grandmother’s home. Edmond later estimated that his organization grossed more than $30 million over four years.
Edmond may have perfected the role of chief municipal outlaw, but he didn’t invent it. A long line of bootleggers, numbers-runners, and pre-crack dope dealers came before him. In the 1950s, for instance, James “Yellow Jim” Johnson ran D.C.’s biggest dope ring, peddling heroin in capsules for $2 a pop. Johnson created a furor when he testified before a Senate subcommittee that he had paid the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Narcotics Squad up to $20,000 in protection money.
But Edmond’s notoriety, unlike Yellow Jim’s, extended well beyond D.C.’s borders. In 1994, Ed Vulliamy, a writer for London’s Observer, gave the Brits a quick lesson in D.C. vernacular: “If someone who was once a hoodlum on the streets is now driving a flashy car and has a good-looking girl on his arm at a classy club, he is ‘rayfulling,’ has ‘rayfulled’ his way to the top through the only business likely to have got him there.”
When Edmond rayfulled his way into police custody, prosecutors managed to make his legend grow still bigger. William H. Murphy Jr., the Baltimore attorney who represented Edmond in 1990, argues that District Judge Charles R. Richey’s decision to try Edmond before D.C.’s first anonymous juryeven the judge, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys didn’t know the jurors’ namesin a courtroom protected by bulletproof glass ensured that the trial would be a spectacle. “Except for the quantities involved, it was a regular drug-conspiracy case that could have been tried under calmer circumstances,” Murphy says in a recent interview. “I tried a case in Baltimore with a defendant who allegedly was involved in more than 20 killings, and we didn’t have any of that.”
Of course, the details of Edmond’s posh lifestylefrom $12,000 in cash that littered the floor of partner Tony Lewis’ Crystal City apartment to Edmond’s own diamond-studded Rolexdidn’t hurt his celebrity status. Over the past decade, the Washington Post has run more than 300 stories about Edmond.
But if Edmond was a ruthless drug lord linked to 30 murders, he wasn’t a stingy one. At trial, witnesses talked about the $200 worth of flowers he bought for the family of neighbor Stacie Lanier when Lanier’s brother died, the cars he lavished on girlfriends, the free trip to the Super Bowl in San Diego on a chartered plane that Edmond gave to his employees.
Prosecutors and the press turned Edmond into Robin Hood, Al Capone, and Horatio Alger rolled into one. His well-spoken, even-tempered demeanorthe way he winked at reporters in court and showed up promptly to meet investigatorsmade it hard for anyone to buy into the notion that he was some badass motherfucker.
Instead, Edmond fell into another category: a case of great potential gone wrong. “But for the way he was raised and permitted to grow in our society, [he] could be running a major American corporation,” Murphy said shortly after his client was convicted.
“Edmond is one of the first to be that notorious at a young age. What’s unusual about his case is that people at his level in Los Angeles or Chicago were usually not very publicly visible, but Washington is much smaller,” notes William Chambliss, a sociology professor and criminology expert at George Washington University, who used Edmond as a case study in his classes up through the early ’90s. “Part of it was his personal style. He liked to be known, and he paid a price for it.”
Chambliss doubts whether the hero worship was ever as widespread as the Post made it out to be. “To say Edmond was a hero in his neighborhood is like saying the Gottis or the Gambinis are heroes to Italian-Americans,” Chambliss says.
“He isn’t as well-regarded as when he was running around,” notes Sgt. John Brennan, an MPD narcotics officer who helped bust Edmond. “Too much attention was paid to him by everybody. People think he ran an airtight operation, but he didn’t. It was a loose-knit, poorly run organization that our department was able to infiltrate. To us, Ray’s a criminal. All he did was hurt people.”
When Edmond’s empire went down, his family went up the river with him. Constance Perry’s tape-recorded words helped send her son away. But during her own trial on drug-conspiracy charges, Perry denied that $70,000 worth of improvements to her house came from her son’s drug profits. She even claimed ignorance of a $4,000 whirlpool in her basementtelling prosecutors that she was usually too tired from her government job to “go all around the house.”
Perryalong with a total of 33 other peoplewas convicted for being part of Edmond’s operation.
Edmond, meanwhile, occupied himself in prison by brokering $200 million worth of drug deals from a cell in Lewisburg, Pa. With phrases such as “You should meet my new girlfriend. She’s 6 feet tall,” Edmond would hawk 6 kilos of cocaine over prison phones as clueless guards stood by. He later explained his prison drug dealing, saying, “At the time, my mind-set was, I had to still have people look up to me and prove that I was still capable of making things happen.”
By 1995, though, law enforcement officials had caught on. Edmond agreed to become a government witness to win early release for his mother, who was serving a 14-year sentence. In 1998, after Edmond’s testimony helped convict 11 people, Perry walked out a free woman. And Edmond was put in witness protection. He’s in the slammer for life, but no one will say which slammer.
Edmond’s street credentials, though, tanked. “Some people want to kill him now. He put a lot of guys away,” says Sgt. Diane Groomes, who patrols Edmond’s old neighborhood.
Rayful Edmond III, the Babe Ruth of crack, had become just another snitch.
You can still buy crack a couple of blocks from 407 M St. NE. And if you look for some of the drug’s old users, you can also find folks who remember Edmond. In front of Blair House, a residential drug-treatment center on the 600 block of I Street NE, a group of men waiting to wash cars share their Rayful lore.
“In one minute, he and all his workers could sell 10, 20 kilos. One minute!” says James, 38, a lifelong neighborhood resident who says he used to buy drugs on the Strip. “I was in line one time, on Orleans, in line in the alley. You can’t have no short money, no $49. You got to have $50.”
“[Edmond] had a lot of parties, a lot of cabarets,” says Leon, 24, a hefty fellow in a sleeveless undershirt and camouflage shorts. What Leon knows about Edmond, he learned growing up around 21st Street and Maryland Avenue NE. “He got young guys who wouldn’t normally be hustling,” he says.
James holds his hand out about 4 feet high. “Little kids like this,” he says.
“I looked up to him,” chimes in a smaller guy sitting next to Leon, who gives only his nickname, Bam Bam. “Hell yeah. I like the fact that he made money. He started small. Even if it wasn’t an honest job, he worked hard. I see why people looked up to him. He’s like Tupac or Biggie.”
“I think he was an all-around good dude who made some bad choices in life. We all make bad choices,” Leon muses.
James, though, paints a more sinister picture of Edmond. When Edmond picked up a bill here and there for neighbors who were short of cash, “there was always a catch,” he says. “If he paid your bills, that meant he wanted to hustle from your house. If he bought your kid sneakers, he wanted your kid to hustle for him.”
If there’s one thing that the three agree on, it’s that Edmond was popular with the ladies. “He had a lot of kids,” says Leon.
James elicits a couple shouts of “For real?” from his fellow car-washers when he adds, “I heard he was bisexual.”
“The government took all his money,” says Leon, succumbing to a wave of sympathy. “He had to pay all those people, lawyers”
“What bills did he have?” James interrupts. “He lived with his grandmother!”
Today, Bernice Perry’s former home sits abandoned. So many steps have been removed from the rusting iron staircase at the three-story home’s main entrance that anyone attempting to climb them would simply fall through. There’s a gash through the front door, and the windows on the top floor are shattered. A stained-glass window on the second floor is the only remaining indication of any opulence.
Bernice Perrywho as far as anyone knows is alive and well somewheretold police she never lived in the house while her grandson was using it to distribute cocaine. She was never charged with any crime. Residents around the Strip say they’ve seen a son of Edmond’s, about 15 years old, come around his dad’s old turf. “I got nothing to say about [Edmond]. He’s my man’s father,” says Tony, 19, a skinny kid with a black-and-white bandanna wrapped around his head who sits on the corner of 4th and L Streets NE. “He’ll always be known,” he says of his friend’s father.
Just as he says that, Antoine, 20, who is perched next to him, brags, “I never looked up to him.”
Only the older residents still fear Edmond. A retired cop, who has lived on the corner of 4th and M Streets NE most of her life and goes by the nickname Smiley, refuses to comment on Edmond. “I have to live here,” she explains.
“I can’t say something bad about someone who has such long arms,” says a teacher who had Edmond’s nephew as a student at J.O. Wilson Elementary a few years ago. The teacher, who refuses to give his name, now teaches in Maryland. But he remembers when grown-ups and kids alike worshiped Edmond as a heroas long as he was doling out gifts. “People didn’t perceive him as a drug dealer. But people’s memories are short. It’s a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ kinda thing.” CP
Snap, Crackle, & Pop
How heat, water, and baking soda turn 5 grams of cocaine into a five-year prison sentence.
By Kevin Diaz
The trap was set for Duane Edwards in the parking lot of a laundromat at Pennsylvania Avenue and Carpenter Street SE, on the east side of the Anacostia River. Federal undercover agents watched as he drove in with his friend Vonda Dortch, whom they had seen there before. She got out while Edwards, a decorated veteran of the Persian Gulf War, waited in his mother’s charcoal-gray Geo.
It was the middle of the afternoon on a warm day in June 1995. Dortch got into a waiting caran undercover police car, as it turned out. Unaware of the danger, she handed over about 125 grams of crack cocaine for $3,400, and then she got back in the car with Edwards.
The next thing the pair knew, they were surrounded by marked and unmarked police cruisers. Edwards made a run for it, peeling away at high speed. But he got only a few blocks before he ditched the car and the money. Police caught him after a foot chase. In the center console of the Geo, they found another 62 grams of crack.
So went another routine drug bust in the District: A total of 187 grams of crack off the street, and a 25-year-old black man with no prior criminal record and no particular stake in any big drug cartel sentenced to the 10-year federal minimum sentence in Beckley, W.Va. (Dortch, charged with a lesser crime, drew a shorter sentence.)
“They classified him as a carrier,” says his mother, Burndell McNeal, a retired government worker who lives in Fort Washington, Md. “It’s just made him harder and bitter, feeling like there’s no justice in the system.”
Not that Edwards didn’t have a shot at justice. Caught up in the federal courts, where sentences for selling crack are 100 times harsher than they are for the same amounts of powder cocaine, Edwards’ case attracted the attention of National Bar Association Criminal Law Section Chair John Floyd, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, and criminal-law superstar Johnnie Cochran, of O.J. Simpson fame. Arguing that the crack/powder sentencing disparity skews overwhelmingly against African-Americans, who make up the vast majority of the nation’s crack users, the trio took on Edwards’ case in 1996 and appealed it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court, however, refused to hear the case.
The implication was that the fate of Edwards, and legions of drug defendants like him, must rest with the legislature. The problem, as Edwards’ mother is quick to point out, is that Congress started the sentencing disparities and has shown no sign of willingness to change them any time soon. “I’ve written to Congress. I’ve written to everybody,” says McNeal. “They won’t do anything.”
Eric E. Sterling was working as a staff attorney for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime in June 1986, when University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias overdosed on cocaine and died. It was a slow news week, and the political reaction was massive. With backing from a broad political coalition that stretched from archconservative Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich to archliberal New York Democrat Charles B. Rangel, an election-year drug bill gave congressional crack warriors just about everything they wantedexcept a proposed death penalty for drug kingpins.
Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank, recalls that the 1986 congressional debate on crack “had a certain auction-at-Sotheby’s quality to it, with all the competing bidders.” The upshot was a new sentencing ratio that supercriminalized as little as 5 grams of crack, putting that amount on a par with 500 grams of powder cocaine for the mandatory five-year minimum sentence. The same 100-to-1 ratio made selling 50 grams of crack a 10-year felony, the equivalent of selling 5,000 grams (that’s 5 kilos) of powder cocaine. The imbalance was obvious, but it addressed a public outcry.
And it had a potent political side effect: The 5-gram threshold was something even a small-town member of Congress could take home and put to use.
In practice, however, only about 5 percent of crack dealers convicted in federal courts nationwide can be considered “high-level dealers,” according to a 1995 U.S. Sentencing Commission report. More than half of the other defendants are street-level dealers, go-betweens, and carrierspeople like Edwards.
That, according to Sterling and others, is where the huge racial disparity comes into play. Black people, the commission found, accounted for 85 percent of those convicted in federal courts for selling crack. When the crime was selling powder cocaine, blacks dropped to only 31 percent of the prison-bound multitudes.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office doesn’t keep race statistics for crack convictions in D.C. Superior Court. The city’s own laws contain no sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, but D.C.’s prosecutors have discretion to bring federal charges against people caught with enough contraband to draw the five- or 10-year federal minimum sentence. And the vast majority of D.C. defendants in that position are black.
Recognizing how the sentencing disparity played out in racial terms, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended in 1995the year Edwards was arrestedthat sentencing for crack- and powder-cocaine crimes be equalized. Edwards’ lawyers even cited the commission’s findings in their appeal. But Congress was no more moved than the Supreme Court would be; it voted down the change. Prison disturbances erupted across the country.
The sentencing commission came back in 1997 with a more modest proposal, to narrow the sentencing disparity for crack from 100 to 1, to 5 to 1. It would do so by increasing the amount of crack and reducing the amount of powder cocaine needed to trigger a five-year sentence. In response, President Clinton, backed by Attorney General Janet Reno and Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, endorsed a plan that would reduce the disparity to 10 to 1. That reduced ratio, the president said, would “continue to reflect that crack is a more harmful form of cocaine.”
Once again, though, Congress was unmoved.
The latest salvo in the ongoing debate came last year, when congressional Republicans proposed reducing the disparity by merely lowering the amount of powder cocaine required for a five-year sentence from 500 grams to 50 grams. They argued that this change would balance the scales of justice without softening the penalties for crack. Liberal Democrats countered that it would do nothing except send even more black offenders to prison. The proposal was dropped by the Senate last November.
The legal distinction certainly isn’t borne out in the chemistry: Powder cocaine and crack cocaine are pharmacologically indistinct. It’s only the medium that changes, with the introduction of baking soda and water.
But the change is significant. There’s nothing inherently insidious about baking soda and water, but mixing them with powder cocaine produces smokable rocks, which deliver cocaine directly to the oxygen-rich blood of the lungs. No dollar bills and messy mucous membranes to fuss with. The stuff goes straight into the bloodstream and takes the A Train to the brain, where it packs a hefty, immediate, and gratifying wallop.
If the distance between coke and crack is shortthe transformation can be done with a plate and a kitchen microwavethe sociological journey is longer: from suburbs to city and from yuppie rec room to gangsta street corner. As in cities elsewhere, crack in D.C. has developed into an elixir with a fairly narrow marketing demographic: generally poor, young, and black.
“It’s hard to document, but crack is perceived as a black drug,” says Marc Mauer, of the Sentencing Project, a Washington criminal-justice-reform group. “If it had been whites doing it, I think there would be a lot more deliberation about the sentences.”
While the sentencing disparities have sometimes been justified in the name of protecting the black community, manysuch as Georgia Dickens, director of the STEPUP Foundation of Greater Washington, D.C.worry about their effect on black youth. “Going to jail isn’t going to do them any good,” she says.
But going to jail, it seems, is the price black men in the city pay for using a poor man’s drug with a poor man’s dynamic. Mauer notes that, as addictive as crack has proved to be, the most pernicious social aspects of the drugthe shootings, the turf wars, and so oncan be attributed as much to the limited resources of the people who use it as to the drug itself: “If you’re a corporate lawyer doing coke and you need money for your supply, you’ve got the means to get [the money] legally and above board.”
To add to the misery, the 100-to-1 sentencing lingers on. “It’s gone too far,” says McNeal. “People who made one mistake go to prison for a long, long time. It’s just absolutely unnecessary.” CP
Suffer the Little Children What has become of the District’s crack babies?
By Stephanie Mencimer
The headlines were dire, the predictions bleak: In 1989, experts were estimating that 1,500 babies a year in the District were being born to crack-addicted mothers. And countless numbers of the infants were being abandoned at birth, right in the hospital. Images of fragile, premature babies shaking off the effects of in utero exposure to cocaine dominated the nightly news. And the strung-out mom replaced the welfare mother as the public stereotype of inner-city Washington.
At the time, social-service workers said they had never seen anything like it. Even when heroin became an epidemic in the ’70s, addicts weren’t dropping six or seven children at the door of the city’s foster-care agency. But during the first five years of crack, demand for foster care jumped 80 percent. The babies were messed up, too: colicky, jittery, unable to bond, freaked out from too many stimuli. Psychologists made hysterical predictions that these coke-addled babies would never recover.
By 1991, as the first crack babies became preschoolers, doctors were reporting signs of neurological impairment, language delays, and problems with motor skills, spatial relationships, memory, and behavior. Initially, researchers blamed the drug itself for the children’s problems. Later, it became clear that separating the effects of crack from the effects of parental neglect or crack addicts’ lifestyles and attendant health problems was virtually impossible.
And as the story of crack babies spread, the exact causes really didn’t matter much: The addicts’ kids had problems, and the city was going to end up paying for them in myriad ways. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that each crack-addicted baby would cost the state and federal governments more than $11,000 per year just to get from hospital delivery to foster care, up to age 5.
More than a decade after the first crack babies hit TV, the interest in those children has diminished, along with their numbers. The follow-up studies promising to confirm the earlier suspicions about the long-term effects of fetal drug exposure have dried up for lack of fundingand lack of results. After the hysteria over the crack-baby phenomenon died down, sober-minded researchers concluded that cocaine wasn’t the lifetime debilitator they had once thought it was. As a result, doctors are no longer so quick to write off addicted babies as lost causes.
But regardless of questions about the physical effects of prenatal crack exposure, the early predictions about the social impact of the crack baby turned out to be not so far off the mark. Today, even as the economy has improved and the crack epidemic has ebbed, D.C. grapples with an increasing number of kids coming into the foster-care system. There’s no way of knowing just how many of those kids are children of crack, but social workers suspect that the drug epidemic is one reason that today, some 3,300 kids are in foster care. In 1985, the number was half that.
And although there are no concrete data, anecdotal evidence suggests that large numbers of kids born to addicts are now flooding into the special-education system in D.C. public schools as they get older. “It’s amazing how many kids are coming into special ed,” says one attorney who represents children in need of special education. “It’s scary.”
The attorney, who, in order to protect her clients, doesn’t want to be identified, says that these children suffer a host of problemsattention-deficit disorder, allergies, asthma, and a significant amount of mental retardationmany of which she knows are related to their parents’ crack use. “I have a client who is 12, who stayed in the hospital in detox for a while [at birth],” she says. “His mom said he was born a ‘healthy crack baby.’” The child has average intelligence but huge neurological problems. He also can’t read.
Others among her clients have set fire to other children. One family got kicked out of a shelter because of the kids’ behavior problems. “Nobody in the public schools is prepared for this,” the attorney says.
Part of the enduring problem is that the troubled children far outnumber the addicts and other family members who might be able to care for them. Children’s advocates wryly refer to crack as a “fertility drug,” because addicts tend to have so many children.
It makes sense, really. The crack whore, one of the enduring caricatures of the crack era, is not merely a creature of legend. For whatever reason, crack seems to be largely a woman’s drug. And women addicted to crack frequently trade sex for a high that makes them forget about food, forget about hungry children at home, forget about the risk of AIDS. Why on earth would they stop to remember birth control? And although Medicaid pays for births, it does not cover abortions.
One lawyer says she routinely represents families with six, seven, nine, 13 childrenall born to crack-addicted mothers. Tom Wells, executive director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, adds that although there are no firm figures yet, lingering effects of crack may be the reason that the foster-care system now sees huge sibling groupsfive or six kidscoming in to the system neglected or abused.
Walk into Annice Smith’s living room and you can see firsthand what’s happened to the crack babies. Every time her drug-addicted daughter had a baby, Smith says, she would make the trip down to D.C. General Hospital to bring the child home to her two-bedroom subsidized apartment. Today, Smith shares the place with her daughter’s seven children. (All the names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children.)
Smith’s daughter died of AIDS a few years ago. By that point, Smith had already given up her D.C. Housing Authority job to make time for the kids. Smith says sometimes she has to hide in the bathroom just to get a few minutes of peace. But she knows her grandchildren are better off because of her. “If my daughter had raised these children, half these kids would be abused,” she says.
The children range in age from 6 to 17. The last five children came in rapid succession when their mother switched from heroin and PCP to crack. Smith has no idea who some of the fathers are. But she knows that her grandchildren are everything the experts predicted.
Born in 1983 when his mother was barely 19, Tyrone, 17, the oldest child, is in special education at a private school. He seems to be doing fairly well compared with the rest of the kids.
Lucinda, 15, born while her mother was living in a homeless shelter but before her mother’s addiction became chronic, is bulimic and in therapy. Darryl, 12, is mentally retardedthe product, Smith says, of his mother’s PCP use. He is also psychotic and on increasingly large doses of three different psychotropic drugs.
Rudy, 10, can be the most trouble, despite his curious smile and boyish mannerisms. Prone to outbreaks of violence, Rudy breaks legs on tables and chairswhich explains why his grandmother is sitting in an aluminum-frame lawn chair. He’ll throw things off the dresser onto the floor and break mops and brooms. He is on three different kinds of medications to calm him down, including Risperdal, a potent adult drug usually prescribed to treat schizophrenia. Rudy sometimes grabs his penis and hurts himself and is so unpredictable that he can’t go outside alone. His father has 10 other children and once, Smith says, tried to kill the father of Smith’s youngest granddaughterin front of the children.
David, 9, is withdrawn and depressed, and doctors suspect he may be psychotic. He won’t shut the bathroom door anymore because he has started seeing things that aren’t there. Because he often vomits after eating, it took nearly two years for teachers at a special-education school to get him to eat an apple. Anxious and occasionally violent, David recently took a knife to school and said he was going to kill his teacher.
Samantha, 8, is withdrawn and cries frequently. Smith says Samantha doesn’t want to go to school and picks her lips all the timea common tic among kids born crack-addicted. She also has health problems that include eczema, bronchial problems, allergies, and asthma.
Minnie, 6, was born in jail, HIV-infected. The HIV doesn’t show up in tests anymore, but Minnie is withdrawn and has a learning disability. She’s also prone to outbreaks of violence, says Smith, who notes that when Minnie’s brothers start harassing her, “she’ll bust them upside the head.”
On one wall of her living room, a large wipe-off calendar is filled from top to bottom with all the various therapy and doctors’ appointments to which Smith ferries the children every weekwithout a car. Because the children are all hypersensitive to noise and food, Smith has to make three different meals three times a day. With so many mouths to feed, she runs up grocery bills of almost $900 a month.
The kids aren’t allowed to operate anything because they tend to become a danger to themselves. Rudy once put cookies in the microwave and burned them because he didn’t want any of the other kids to have any. When he took the package out of the oven, he burned his fingers.
Cooped up in a two-bedroom apartment with so many behavioral problems, the kids also tend to beat on each other fairly regularly, as kids will do. Now that the boys have gotten so big, “I don’t interfere when they start fighting, because I don’t want them to hurt me,” Smith says.
Caring for all these troubled kids is a Herculean joband an expensive one. Five of the kids are in private special-education schools. Their combined tuition costs the District government $141,000 a year, plus nearly $30,000 in transportation to get all the kids to Springfield, Va., Rockville, Md., Northeast D.C., and elsewhere. That doesn’t include the $441 in monthly disability payments Smith receives for five of the seven children. Or the Medicaid that covers the therapy sessions for all seven children and their extensive medical care. Or the benefits Smith receives for staying home to take care of all the kids.
Thus, one woman’s drug habit now easily costs the government more than $200,000 a year. By the time Minnie graduates from high schoolif she makes itthis single family will have cost the city close to $2 million. And that’s if Smith can hold them all together and keep them out of institutions or foster carea daunting task for one 54-year-old woman.
Even with all the additional services the kids are getting, Smith doesn’t see a very bright future for any of them. “They’re going to always be behind in school,” she says. “I see Rudy in jail or a psych jail like St. E’s. David will be dealing drugs. I’m hoping Minnie will survive, but she will probably follow in her mom’s footsteps. Sammy might make it.”
Smith says that in her weakest moments, she gets angry at her late daughter. “Sometime I look at her picture and I get mad and wonder what she’s done to me,” she says. “I used to be against abortion. Now I’m not so sure.”
But Smith also says her situation isn’t really that unusual: “I got a girlfriend, she’s raising her daughter’s babies. Four children are all drug babies. She just had to pick up one from the hospital last week.”
Not all the children of crack are doomed to a future of prison and mental institutions, of course. The luckiest ones were those babies adopted right out of the hospital and spared the trauma of their mothers’ lifestyles. Geraldine White (not her real name) adopted a little girl she brought home at three weeks from D.C. General Hospital.
Keisha was born exposed to cocaine and also HIV-positive. Her birth father died of AIDS, and her mother is homeless and still using drugs. Keisha has four siblings, two living with an aunt and two with a grandmother. When Keisha was born HIV-infected, family members decided they just couldn’t take on the additional emotional burden of a child who might not live to be a teenager.
So White took her inone of many foster children she’d cared for over the years. The little girl was in foster care with her for five years before the adoption was finalized. The stable, two-parent home has been a godsend for her. White suspects that the difference between her daughter and other children born to crack-addicted mothers is that her daughter was never neglected. “I think that makes a big difference,” she says.
As a baby, Keisha suffered from many of the same problems as other crack-exposed kids. She screamed constantly and had dry skin. As she got older, she had trouble with motor skills, like picking up small objects. But today, White says, her daughter is bright and does well in school. Keisha, who will be 8 in October, no longer tests positive for HIV. The only lingering effect of the drug exposure, White thinks, is hyperactivity: “She just can’t sit still. She’s picking her nails, picking her sores, picking everything.”
So far, though, Keisha has been able to stay off medication, and doctors think she can do so as long as she continues to do well in school. And White has found places for Keisha to channel her energy into something positive. She spent the summer at camp, where she joined the cheerleading group. And cheerleading, White says, is one realm where hyperactivity is a plus. “She did real good with the cheers,” she says. CP
In the Game
An incarcerated crack dealer looks back on his playing days.
By Thomas Durham
I first started the drug trade at the age of 15, selling powder cocaine and heroin. I later was introduced to selling crack cocaine in 1990. I started selling with a classmate of mine. We both came up with an idea: We wanted to make a nice bankroll for our ninth-grade class trip to Disney World.
We started out dealing at 14th and W Streets NW. This was a very large open-air market. We could get up on the strip Saturday night around 11 p.m.this was one of the peak shiftswith plenty of sales from all the nearby pimps and prostitutes. Throw in your junkies and occasional users and you have a profitable night.
The dealing didn’t end until 4 to 6 a.m. It was like a block party. Plenty of Dom P. and Moët being passed around. We were the youngest out there, dealing for a New Yorker named Charlie. We enjoyed every minute of itgetting nervous when the po-po [police] came around, roaring with laughter when they left without an arrest or finding a stash.
But we didn’t know Charlie was robbing us blind. Those things happen when you’re new to the game. Later, I would sell only for myself, to ensure that any money lost or unearned could only be blamed on me and me only. Trial by error, I guess.
Looking at me, you would not assume that I was a drug dealer. I am handsome, in good physical shape, and intelligent. Yes, we come in all shapes, disguises, and ages. I was an honor-roll student in high school, but I ended up dropping out of school in the 11th grade in order to spend more time selling drugs.
The next few years of my life were like a roller coaster. It wasn’t long before I got arrestedfor stealing a car. I was arrested a few times for distribution of cocaine as well. I received probation a number of times, but continued dealing and living a carefree life.
In April of 1996, I got a wake-up call. Ten hot balls [bullets] were dumped into my body over a simple fight. The people that shot me were so-called friends of mine who were selling drugs for me. Still, it didn’t stop me from dealing.
In this lifestyle, you come into contact with all kinds of people. You can have someone you consider a friend end up becoming your worst enemy. There were people who followed me around admiring me to my face, yet behind my back they were plotting to take away my life. I also found myself constantly looking over my shoulder for the po-po or looking out for stick-up boys. I have seen many guys on top of the world one day, and then the next, I’ve seen them suddenly fall. This is how the game is played.
People will hang around you while the getting is good, and as soon as you make a certain amount of money they will plot to take away everything that you have hustled for, including your life.
I found myself having to pack heat and carry it everywhere that I went. It was kind of scary, because I did not want the police to catch me with it. I also did not want the thugs to catch me without it.
I eventually began to sell “weight,” or quantity. Selling weight meant that I had a certain clientele that would come to me and buy a large quantity of drugs at a time. This kept me off of the street corners. Selling by quantity really made me feel like one of the big boys. I did not make truckloads of money, but the money that I did make was pretty damn good.
The truth of the matter is that most people who sell drugs do not make a lot of money. Even with the money that I did make, I wasn’t able to go on spending sprees every day. I made good money, but as soon as I made it, I ended up spending it. The money came fast, and it left fast.
I had responsibilities. I had to pay rent and car notes, and support my family. I also spent the money fast trying to uphold my lavish lifestyle. The more money I made, the more money I spent. This caused me to get deeper and deeper into selling drugs.
I’ve had a lot of time to think and re-evaluate my life since being in prison. I am currently incarcerated in the D.C. Jail. I’m here for distribution of cocaine. I have survived 10 bullets, and by the grace of God, I will survive this period of incarceration.
I sit in here and I see so many inmates walking around in this place like zombies. They become like this because of the medication they are taking, called Thorazine. They are on this medication because it helps to ease the pain of having been sentenced to life. Some are walking around with war marks [stab wounds] and bullets still lodged in their bodies. Some are paralyzed and are being pushed around in wheelchairs. These are the lucky ones: Most of the drug dealers that I’ve known ended up in their respective homesheaven or hell. Their bodies lie in an air-proof bed 6 feet deep under the earth.
Even though I loved the game, I knew I always wanted more out of life. I knew that I couldn’t and wouldn’t do this for the rest of my life. I always had a good head on my shoulders. I knew eventually I had to get a job and start pursuing a career. I just should have gotten out of the game earlier.
Durham has served two years and three months of his sentence as a result of a distribution-of-cocaine conviction. He is 27 years old.
These days, you just can’t hook up with President George Bush’s hookup.
By Elissa Silverman
The single silliest prisoner of President George Bush’s War on Drugs now lives the American Dreamor so it seems, anywayin a pea-soup-colored two-story house with white shutters, a foreign car in the driveway, and a picketwell, chain-linkfence in a close-in Washington suburb.
The house is home to Keith Timothy Jackson.
Jackson hasn’t received any visits from former Bush drug czar William Bennett. But he does get quite a few unsolicited calls from reporters like myself. And he and members of his family give the Fourth Estate the same treatment most homeowners give Jehovah’s Witnesses selling the Watchtower: They politely but swiftly shut the door.
The cold shoulder comes thanks to a chapter of Jackson’s life that just won’t close. On Sept.1, 1989, Jackson, then 18, got entangled in D.C.’s second most notorious drug bust. Lured to Lafayette Park, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, Jackson unwittingly sold $2,400 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover federal agent.
Four days later, 3 ounces of that crack cocaine ended up in Bush’s hands for a national television audience: “This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement Administration agents across the street from the White House,” Bush lectured, holding up a plastic bag containing crack for the cameras.
The Sept. 5, 1989, speech was Bush’s most high-profile volley in the ongoing spectacle known as the War on Drugs. Before that week, according to the Washington Post, not one drug-related arrest had taken place in Lafayette Park. Indeed, when the undercover federal agents called Jackson to persuade him to move the sale to Bush’s ‘hood, Jackson didn’t even know where or even what the White House was, according to newspaper reports.
Needless to say, the staged arrest did little to address the underlying causes of drug use: poor education, unemployment, and despair. But the farce had serious implications for both the Spingarn High School senior and the city. In the eyes of the American public, the nation’s capitalarguably the most powerful city in the worldhad turned into a lawless, drug-infested cesspool.
Three weeks after the president’s address, police arrested Jackson for the Lafayette Park sale as well as drug sales to federal agents on three prior occasions. In total, Jackson faced five indictments. After his first trial ended in a mistrial, he appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin again. The media were camped outside the courthouse, but not for Jackson: At the same time, D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. was also facing a jury of his peers for an even more infamous crack-cocaine arrest.
Jackson was convicted on three countshe was acquitted on the White House countand received a 121-month sentence. “I still get a couple calls a year [about Jackson],” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark J. Carroll, who served as the government prosecutor in U.S. vs. Jackson. “They just want to know what happened to him.”
Like many District inmates in the federal system, Jackson bounced around from Petersburg, Va., to Ashland, Ky., to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and finally to Lewisburg, Pa. He was released from Lewisburg on Aug. 5, 1998. Today, no one’s saying what he’s up to. But it’s a pretty safe bet that he now knows where the White House is.
“If it wasn’t for the White House sale, who would have cared?” says Carroll. “It’s just a mid-level dealer, after all.” CP