In daylight, the short stack of row houses on Levis Street doesn’t look like much. Back in the 1930s, the modest, single-family units were some of the first homes built in the Northeast neighborhood of Trinidad. And they clearly weren’t meant to last this long, judging by the chipped paint, missing street numbers, and screen doors hanging off their hinges.
But on warm nights, when John Duke Queen pulls his big-screen TV out from his living room and onto the cement in front of the house, the block lights up like a carnival. Blue light splashes across the houses, making them flicker in the darkness like neon signs. It’s one of those mega-boxes, with booming speakers and a screen that splits and splits, so you can watch more than one show at once. It takes a few guys just to haul the monster out of the house. Then Queen and his friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, and uncles all gather around and drink beer and talk trash in the glow of Monday Night Football.
Queen grew up in this same house, where his mother lived until her death a couple of years back. He’s 26 now, but he went to grade school with a lot of the guys watching TV outside of his house. It’s like that herepeople born to Trinidad tend to stay put. Sometimes Queen does some work at Ray’s Auto Sales a few blocks away, across the street from the police station. But most days, he hangs out near his house, by the intersection of 16th and Levis Streets, where everyone knows hima quiet, good-looking young man, surrounded by friends.
That’s one picture of John Duke Queen. The other sits in a drawer at the U.S. Attorney’s office, where he is considered a serious threat to the safety and quality of life in Trinidad. Prosecutor Kathleen O’Connor keeps a scrapbook of Trinidad’s criminal figures, and Queen’s is among the most notorious mugs. O’Connor and the neighborhood cops believe him to be one of the biggest and smartest drug dealers in Trinidada tight-knit neighborhood off of Bladensburg Road near Gallaudet University. His name is bandied about in Vice Unit squad rooms and at community policing meetings. The police say he’s a millionaire who drives flashy cars and has a house in the suburbs, a player who has set up shops all over the east side of Trinidad.
And yet Queen’s done no significant jail time as an adult. Most of the charges on his record have been minor. And they’ve almost all been dismissed, one after the other. Queen, who declined to comment on the record, is a pleasant guy with a small, high voice, and no proven history of violence. Compared with a lot of other young men making their way through Trinidad, Queen appears to be a success story.
But if Queen is a success, it’s only because he deals nothing but marijuana, police say. Queen grew up in the shadow of Rayful Edmond III, a legendary cocaine dealer who used Trinidad as his headquarters before he landed in jail. The ensuing mayhem punished this neighborhood for several years, splashing blood on its sidewalks and its name all over the papers. But Queen doesn’t sell heroin or crack or any of the other drugs that have dominated the streets of Trinidad in years past, according to police. Queen is a savvy businessman, cops say, who appreciates marijuana’s low risks and high rewards.
Pot is simply a better business in every way. The clientele is relatively well-behaved: no swollen hands or tracked-up arms reaching out to rip you off. The profit motive is strong: A 1-pound bag of marijuana that costs $1,000 wholesale can bring in $3,000 on the streets. Police narcotics experts say that most medium-sized marijuana dealers pull in up to $20,000 a month after costs.
And, best of all, although marijuana profits are mighty, the consequences for selling it are trifling. In D.C., marijuana charges ring in at the misdemeanor levelwhether you have it, smoke it, or sell it. In Maryland, Virginia, and most jurisdictions around the country, the punishment for marijuana convictions depends upon the amount you’re caught holding. But in D.C., marijuana possession and distribution are considered petty stuff no matter how much you havewhich means you usually end up with probation or a fine. “Unless you’re really unlucky or you have a huge record, you’re not going to get time,” says one seasoned D.C. defense attorney.
Queen, police say, is no Rayful Edmond. He is more cautious, less powerful, and ultimately harder to lock up for good, in part because D.C. judges and juries don’t take marijuana very seriously.
And why should they? A marijuana high is just a cozy fog, not the kind of fix you’d rob your mother for. That shaking, yellow-eyed stick person, that ain’t no pothead. The pot smoker is the peacemaker, telling everybody to calm down and take a hit. The pot dealer provides flush, relatively stable jobs for scouts and corner boys. He keeps the vicinity safe for white boys cruising in from the suburbs, who are some of his best customers. Indeed, police report very few muggings near 16th and Levis Streets, even though dozens of cash-carrying suburbanites cycle through the corner each week.
Considering the alternatives, marijuana dealing in Trinidad is not such a bad thing.
Unless you live there.
On a Sunday late in August, there is a young man lying on Staples Street bleeding from a leg that’s been twisted backward by a bullet. It’s about 4 a.m. A few minutes earlier, he and his friend tried to rob somebody at gunpoint. The police found the man and, when he wouldn’t drop his gun, shot him. Just like in most shooting aftermaths, the corner is quickly surrounded by dozens of residentsmostly other young menwho’ve emerged from their beds to see who got hit. They talk quietly among themselves, and, once the ambulance shows up, shuffle back into their houses.
The suspects will later tell police they came to Trinidad to buy marijuana and, while they were at it, rob a guy they’d figured dealt marijuana. It’s the kind of gunplay you might expect to see where there’s crack or heroin. But in this case the bounty was marijuana, and it’s hard to tell the difference. Where there’s a booming underground market, for anything, there will
Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced the indictment of 10 members of a Southwest D.C. gang known as the K Street Crew, which had occupied a niche selling marijuana since the early 1990s. Citing a decade of homicides, shootings, and kidnappings, U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis labeled the crew a “violent marijuana distribution conspiracy.” At a news conference, Lewis worked hard to convince people that those words can all fall into the same sentence. “This is a clear example of why marijuana use and dealing cannotI repeat, cannotsimply be viewed as a harmless activity or a victimless crime,” she said. The K Street Crew is responsible for 32 shootings, including 13 homicides, prosecutors say. All can be traced back to the leafy, universal herb, if you believe the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“I think that marijuana does lead to violence,” concedes one D.C. defense attorney with extensive experience handling drug cases. “The people who are doing shootings on drug turfs aren’t high when they’re doing it. It’s shootings over money and turf….It’s a battle over monies owed.” But he won’t attach his name to the quote. After all, he gets marijuana charges dismissed by arguing just the opposite in court.
Certainly the horrific impact of crack far surpasses that of marijuana, an infinitely more benign substance. And most people assume that because the drug is mellow, so is the market that controls it. But it isn’t nearly that simple. Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Pings was assigned to Trinidad about six months ago and remembers being surprised by how destructiveand profitablemarijuana appeared to be. Among the Trinidad case files in Pings’ office are four or five open shootings and a litany of drug- and gun-possession cases. Many of them have some link to the marijuana trade, she says, and the subsequent revolving door at the courthouse. “If you live in the neighborhood, you don’t care whether it’s heroin, crack, or marijuana. It’s the same profit motive, the same turf wars, the same shootings,” she says.
Regardless of the occasional outraged press conference, juries and judges see marijuana use as a piddly infraction. Yet they also see an endless stream of pot cases every day in Superior Court. That schizoid attitude toward marijuanalet’s make it a crime but not treat it like onehas crippled Trinidad, leaving it trapped in a half-assed middle ground that makes for the worst of both worlds: enough underground anarchy to cultivate fear and violence, but enough tolerance to make it impossible to stop.
Marijuana charges used to register as felonies, until the D.C. Council changed the law in the late ’60s. Even before then, prosecutors would generally lower the charges to misdemeanors if people pleaded guilty. Today, it’s almost impossible to be put in jail for marijuana alone. “Everybody knows it’s a misdemeanor,” says one D.C. marijuana dealer, explaining why he has always shied away from selling anything else. “I can’t take no felony.”
Every few weeks, the police set up an assembly line down by 16th and Levis, gathering up marijuana buyers and sellers. With the constant traffic flow of clueless traders, it’s a less than challenging assignment. Undercover cops either buy or sell marijuana near the corner,
and then their colleagues in uniform make
the arrests a few feet away. “If we wanted to,
we could arrest 50 peoplewell over 50,” says Officer Raul Figueras. They’re limited only by time and space constraints.
Last Friday night, police filled up their paddy wagon in just half an hour. Twelve people, one after the other, went to buy marijuana from an undercover officer and ended up getting escorted down the alley to a team of cops patiently waiting to take away their shoelaces and belts. The unlucky group included one Asian student, one stripper from Dale City, and one dad, who had his dog and his 6- and 13-year-old sons with him in the car. Even when the police were ready to wrap it up, they couldn’t stop. The buyers kept right on coming, oblivious to the officers in “Vice” vests who had emerged from the darkness.
Most pot customers are from the suburbs. And most of them spend a night in lockup and get released the next day. The police believe the experience deters a few of them, even if they don’t receive any real jail time. But the ritual has hardly slowed down the Trinidad market.
While all wars against drugs rage on in denial of their own futility, eliminating marijuana is a particularly absurd goalespecially in Trinidad. And although they offer up a few stern lectures on marijuana, the cops recognize that the roundup is something of a charade. Some officers even say they’d rather see pot go legal than have to continue the endless spanking machine they’ve got going now.
Even though Trinidad has no major commuter routes, on one weeknight last month around 9:30, five cars with Maryland or Virginia tags passed by the 16th and Levis corner in just five minutes. “You got people from Waldorf, Frederick, and Charlestown, just to buy bags of marijuana,” says Officer Carlton Herndon. One vice officer who’s been involved in undercover drug buys all over the city says that when he asks for marijuana, dealers refer him to 16th and Levis. The word is out that you can get more marijuana for less money in Trinidad than almost anywhere in the city.
Nineteen-year-old Daquan Hooks has been selling pot in Southwest D.C. since he was 13 and was last arrestedand releasedfor dealing last month. Trinidad has been bad for his business. Somehow, he says, they’ve been selling weed for less over there for the last three to five years. “I don’t know why. That’s what I’d like to know,” Hooks says. “Trinidad is known for big bags.”
Trinidad is also knownto the people who live there, anywayas a decent place to live. In a city full of neighborhoods that blur into one another, Trinidad is neatly definedwedged between Florida Avenue, West Virginia Avenue, Bladensburg Road, and Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast. And it’s a neighborhood in the old-fashioned senseno major thoroughfares, just little streets; no stores to speak of, except at the edges; and no big public-housing projects, just orderly strips of old row houses, many of which are owned by the grandmothers sitting on the front porches.
But those same characteristics also make Trinidad a good place to run dope. Right off of several major thoroughfares, Trinidad is convenient for buyers but also secluded enough to provide some cover from the police. It has a defensible perimeter, watched over by dealers’ scouts who shout, “Heads up!” as the cruisers round the corners. And the lack of housing projects makes for the kind of generational consistency where everyone knows everyone and the loyalty runs all the way to the courthouse.
A few years ago, in the midst of the crack vortex, kids used to call Trinidad “Vietnam,” because of all the helicopters hovering over it. Today, people call Trinidad “the Fatties,” after the giant blunts they roll out of bags of Trinidad weed.
Trinidad used to be paradise, people will tell you. “The trees used to meet like this,” says 60-year-old Lavohnee Cade, interlacing her fingers. Back when she was a girl, Cade says, “The grass was green, the houses were painted.”
The lazy shade trees are still there, as are the streaks of manicured homes. And neighbors still sit out on their porches and nod at one another around dusk. “It’s like family around here; everybody’s kin to someone,” says one man who grew up in the neighborhood.
But in truth, Trinidad has not seen the good life for a long time.
In the mid-’80s, the most damaging real estate scandal in D.C.’s history hit Trinidad harder than any other neighborhood in the city. In hopes of riding a wave of gentrification, real estate speculators bought up about 90 rent-controlled properties in the Trinidad area. To lower their risk, the investors sought out Federal Housing Administration loan guaranteesqualifying for the program by submitting phony information about the stability of the buyers and the homes. Once they got the properties, the investors dodged rent-control ceilings and jacked up the rents, driving longtime residents out of the neighborhood. But even then the owners couldn’t make the payments on the government-backed mortgages. By 1989, according to a Washington Post story, almost half of those homes had gone into foreclosure, and under the feds’ management, many of those vacant properties devolved into crack houses.
At the same time, Rayful Edmond was establishing one of the biggest coke operations in the city’s history. And he wisely chose Trinidad as his playing field. The neighborhood’s prime location and slow deterioration provided a comfortable ecosystem for dope dealing. By 1988, the city’s most violent drug gangs were at war in Trinidad, leaving 20 dead in one five-month period. Even after Edmond was convicted, in 1989, Trinidad went on to become one of the biggest crack markets in D.C., bringing all of the drug’s attendant sadness and chaos.
Wilhelmina Lawson moved to Trinidad in the midst of the crack boom, in 1990. “It was as if I’d moved into the devil’s bowels,” she says. But she didn’t have a lot of money and wanted to buy a house for herself now that her son was grown. And so she ignored the clucking of her friends and family and dug in. She went to all the community meetings and banged on her councilmember’s door. When she didn’t do it herself, she paid a man named Sweaty to sweep her streetsometimes giving him cigarettes, sometimes giving him food.
On an average day, Lawson says, 75 to 80 people would be drinking, smoking pot, and playing cards on the embankment across from her house. When her family would visit her, they would complain of having to wait in their car for 15 minutes to get down her street while dealers and buyers completed transactions through car windows. “I used to be ashamed to have people come visit me,” she says.
Doris Long couldn’t sleep past 6 a.m. in those days. Around that time every morning, cars would start blowing their horns on Simms Place waiting for the drive-through to open. Then “the guys would come out and service them, just like in a market,” Long says.
Now Trinidad is cleaning itself up, both women say. They credit community policingand police Sgt. Lewis Douglaswith taming the most blatant drug and nuisance problems on their blocks. When Douglas got assigned to Trinidad one year ago, the neighborhood was reporting about 50 crimes a month. Now that number is down to 30.
But if quality of life in Trinidad is on the rise, the drug trade remains the defining characteristic of the place. The other day, Lawson says, she saw two 12- or 13-year-old boys making a blunt in the alley. She says she doesn’t see kids doing crack anymore, but marijuana burns like incense on her block. “I’m getting high just walking around,” she says.
About a third of all 5th District vice arrests come from Trinidad, according to Vice Sgt. Dale Sutherland. Several months ago, it took police officers just 45 minutes to sell $900 worth of marijuana bags on a corner in Trinidad. And compared with other lucrative marijuana markets in D.C., Sutherland says, Trinidad is more violent. Last year, Trinidad racked up seven murders, 77 robberies, and 133 assaults. For a June Post story, reporters interviewed 86 families living on two blocks of Morse Street in Trinidad. They said they and their immediate relatives had experienced 16 homicides over the last decade.
Below the more violent crimes lie several layers of quieter threats, which don’t make it into the stats but do create a lasting impression. Lawson has had two rocks thrown through her windowsboth, she believes, in retaliation for her involvement with police and prosecutors. After the first one, she spent about $3,000 to replace all the windows in her house with a special kind of Plexiglas (“the same glass they use in the Statue of Liberty”). The second rock is still lying in her back yard, where it rebounded after shattering only the outer layer of her new window. Other neighbors report torched cars and broken windshields as warnings to people who cooperate with the police.
The craziness is gradually abating, but Lawson still can’t stare out her window without watching some sort of drama unfold. Last year, as she sat at her kitchen window drinking coffee, she noticed a Virginia cab making daily visits to her block. It would drop off the same sullen-looking, middle-aged white guy and then wait until he returned. For months the scene repeated itself, she says. One day, the cab took off, spooked by a police car roaming the streets. Abandoned, the man started running from corner to corner “like a madman,” Lawson remembers. “I was even scared for what was going to happen to him.”
Finally, this spring, Lawson called up the cab company herself and complained. The cabs stopped coming. Then the man started showing up in a chauffeur-driven sedan. Then, a few weeks ago, the cab reappearedparked behind
That particular man was likely coming to Trinidad for heroinhe came early in the morning and looked like hell. But as far as Lawson is concerned, heroin and crack and marijuana all have the same effect on the neighborhood. One drug leads to another: “It’s like any other business,” she says. “If I open up a business selling peas and corn, and I see there’s a lot of money to be made selling watermelon, I’m gonna start selling peas, corn,
Sometimes, though, in the middle of a harangue against drugs, Lawson suddenly stops herself. While she’s railing on the police for not hauling in enough dealers, she starts to fret about all those boys getting locked away. “I wish they would just get the big-time guys,” she says hopefully. But she knows that in Trinidad, the trade-off for drug-free streets is a militarized zone, where police do not take a nuanced view of crime and
Around midnight on a muggy August night, a police officer and an attorney are on their knees in an alley in Trinidad, scanning for contraband in the beam of the police cruiser’s headlights: stash stuffed into cracks between the bricks of the houses, wedged into the shredded asphalt of the road, cradled in the crabgrass tufts against the fencethe usual places.
Officer Herndon takes one side of the alley, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Pings takes the other. They’re looking for tiny baggies full of drugssometimes camouflaged in a McDonald’s bag, sitting on the curb; other times part of the landscape, propped up in a tree branch or buried in a shallow grave in a vacant lot.
A minute into their search, a man wearing black fatigues emerges like a specter from the other end of the dark alley. He walks stiffly in his boots and bulletproof vest toward the cruiser. Herndon watches him out of the corner of his eye, still silently conducting his search. Then the man whispers something to Herndon, and Herndon climbs back into his cruiser and reverses out of the alley. When the man turns around to walk back into the darkness, you can make out the unexpected words “Park Police” on the back of his vest.
U.S. Park Police vice officers have set up an observation post in this ragged alley. Obviously, the alley is no park, but it is a key trade route in a neighborhood that has been the subject of elaborate narcotics investigations for decades now. When they get restless in their federal outposts, the Park Police stray into Trinidad to get a piece of the action. And there’s plenty of it. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Metropolitan Police Department have all closed in on the neighborhood.
After stumbling across the Park Police operation, Herndon rolls back onto the streets, where he continues an endless prowl. Life for men on the streets of Trinidad is a state of perpetual motion: slouching from one corner to the next and back again, always keeping one block ahead of the patrol car. Only women and little kids can stand still for
more than 15 minutes.
Stay put and Herndon’s police car inevitably creeps around the corner: “Move along, get out of here, didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to see you around here anymore? And take that cup with you. I’m gonna lock you up if you don’t pick
up that cup.”
The men on the corner slowly stand up to leave, returning the age-old eyefuck as they gostaring back at the cop with hard hatred or with a smile and a squint that says that the time will come for the boys in blue. It’s like that all night in Trinidad. It doesn’t matter that it’s 90 degrees out and there’s no air to breathe. Men in groups of two or more will not be left alone.
The tension between the cops and the corner boys is not unique to Trinidad, but it is ratcheted up by the marijuana battle. Police grow frustrated by their inability to enforce a bad law. So they hassle guys like Queen, who in turn get tired
of being messed with over a drug that no one takes seriously.
Cruising through the streets, Herndon admits that there’s no prima facie crime going down on most of the corners he breaks up. “You don’t know if they are criminals,” he says. But he recognizes a good number of these guys wandering back and forth as the ones he keeps locking up on marijuana and other charges, only to see them back on the streets the next day. And anyway, most of these guys don’t even live around here, he says, so they should go stand in front of their own houses. Whether they are actually up to no good at any given moment is secondary, Herndon says. If you’re hanging out for no apparent purpose, he’s going to tell you to move along. “That is part of young black life in Trinidad,” he says.
One young black man who was raised in Trinidad says it’s a part of life he is plenty tired of. It’s not that he’s unappreciative of the job that police do. It’s just their approach that he resents. “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it,” he says. For example: It’s one thing for the police to slam him up against a fence and search his clothes in front of all his friends and neighborseven when he hasn’t done anything, he says. But it’s too much when his mother walks over to see what is the matter and the police scream at her to go home.
When the police roll up to the corner and disperse a crowd, they’ll use words like “Gimme my corner,” the man says. Herndon, for one, is fond of saying “my hookers,” as in, “Soon my hookers will be out here.” It’s as if everybody else is trespassing on police property.
If you listen to the boys on the corner long enough, it’s clear thatbeneath all the posturing and apathythey feel screwed. Yes, they may stray over the bounds of legal living now and then, but not every time. And their past is past; it shouldn’t make them permanent targets of police looking to simplify and electrify their jobs. “They think they’re superheros,” the man says, impatience leaking into his voice. “The police always got the upper hand. The police is always correct. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But when I’m
not wrongoh, man, shit. I get burned up. And what hurts is that you don’t have any way to correct the situation.”
The man, who went to high school in Trinidad and now has three children living there, did time for a drug charge about a year ago. He says he doesn’t take many risks anymore because “there’s not enough drugs in this city to take me away from my family again.” But he still requests that his name stay out of the newspaper. “I get enough attention from the police,” he says.
Like a lot of the men on probation in Trinidad, this guy says he hopes to leave one day. “I love this city, but I just can’t stand it no more,” he says. But he’s not going anywhere for now. His probation officer wouldn’t like it. And besides, his whole family is here. “It’s not my fault I live around here,” he says. “Buy me a house out of here,
and I’ll move.”
The real enemy for a lot of Trinidad’s corner boys is not the police at all. It’s the next person in linethe prosecutorwho has the power to change their lives forever. Assistant U.S. Attorney O’Connor came into the neighborhood two years ago as one of the city’s first community prosecutorsmeaning that she was assigned to a place, not a type of crime. Since then, she has gotten to know every Trinidad cop, busybody, and criminal, alleged or otherwise. She goes to community meetings and cruises around with the police. Then she zeros in on individuals she finds most troublesome and, once they get arrested, works to hammer them into jailfinding much more success with the shootings and hard-drug cases than with the marijuana infractions.
“I see marijuana as just as big a problem as crack. And probably even more of a problem, because we’re unable to touch these people,” O’Connor says. If you get caught with marijuana, you’ll probably get probation. The maximum penalty is 180 days in jail. If you get caught selling it, you’ll still probably just get probation. Worst-case scenario is one year in jail, which almost never happens. Says O’Connor: “I
could [get busted with] two huge Hefty bags of marijuana, and I’d have a smile on my face, because I’m not going anywhere. I can do the same thing tomorrow.”
As her job requires, O’Connor surrounds herself with iconography that reduces complex realities into simple good-vs.-evil scenarios. On her wall, pictures of her kids hang next to blown-up mug shots and a dozen aerial views of Trinidad. One evidence picture hanging behind her head shows the life lessons one young man from the neighborhood has spray-painted onto his bedroom wall: “Rules of a pimp, player, thug, or hustler: 1. Fuck Bitches, Get Money!!! 2. Keep it Real, Pack Big Steel!!! 3. Fuck the Fuckin’ Police!!! 4. If you gotta go…Take Two With You!!!” The author is “still out there,” O’Connor notes.
Defense attorneys sometimes tell O’Connor that their clients are scared of her. “They sometimes say, ‘You’re going after my client.’ And yes, I do. But
for good reason.”
O’Connor’s scrapbook is a roll call of Trinidad’s 95 baddest bad guys, as determined by their repeated contacts with police. “Give me 10 and I’d be happy,” she says, smiling. As she flips through the pictures, past Queen’s mug shot, she calls out each man’s status”He’s dead; he’s dead; he’s still out there; he’s still out there; he’s in jail; he just got shot three times in the face.”
Her knowledge of these guys is surprisingly intimate. That’s because, according to O’Connor, what looks like a loosely affiliated bunch of corner men all running the same haphazard trade is more like an entrenched and highly organized business. And as she has learned to appreciate the businessmen, she has also learned to take marijuana very seriously.
About a year and a half ago, police narcotics expert Jehru Brown noticed a surge in the amount of marijuana coming in off the street. “Crack pushed a lot of people to reefer when they realized the danger,” says Brown, who has been a drug analyst for 25 years. It was about that time that what kids on the street call “the Chronic”a higher quality, more powerful strain of marijuanahit the streets and set a new base line for marijuana. “Chronic just sort of set the tone,” Brown says, adding that modern-day pot is twice the strength of the marijuana your parents, or maybe you, smoked. Nowadays, Brown says, marijuana is “the most lucrative drug in the illicit market because it’s the most abused of all your illicit drugsbecause it’s the most socially acceptable.”
O’Connor is convinced that only tougher penalties, not legalization, would help diminish pot’s popularity by forcibly positioning it closer to cocaine than tobacco on the hierarchy of permissible drugs. “[Kids in Trinidad] wouldn’t touch crack cocaine if you paid them. They look down at those people,” she says. Marijuana, on the other hand, is a given.
Napoleon, James, and Kenny come to the Wheatley Recreation Center in Trinidad every day after school. First they rip through some homework (although, following a time-tested tradition, James usually just digs through his book bag looking for the eternally lost assignment). Then they shoot basketballs into the garbage can outside and play a lawless version of pingpong in the gym. Around 5 o’clock they get a snack. They go home around 6.
Napoleon’s nickname is “Man.” Neither name even vaguely fits him. He is 8 years old and easy. He shares his cookie with his snot-nosed little brother and plays whatever game the other boys pick. James, whom people call “Dee,” is the oldest at 10, and also the roundesta fact exaggerated by the puffy jacket he never takes off. And 7-year-old Kenny is the maniac, the kid laughing and pushing and slamming pingpong balls across the field like baseballs.
They are living in one of the city’s deadliest wards, in one of its diciest neighborhoods. Dee heard shots fired this month and last month. “I don’t come outside much,” he says, “because it’s, like, gonna hit me.” But all three kids say they’ve never seen drugsnot at school, not at home, not at the rec center. To hear them talk, Trinidad is one big drug-free zone.
Now, “weed,” on the other hand, they have seen plenty of. But that’s something else altogether. They don’t classify marijuana as a drug. Not really. Kenny knows you roll it up “in a brown thing” and smoke it. They know what it smells like. They’ve seen the bigger boys smoking it on the street. Dee takes me on a tour of places where he’s seen bagsempty and fulllying on the ground near the rec center. They also say marijuana is bad for you. “It kills you,” they all say, without emotion. “It makes you want to break the law,” Dee says. But although it may be bad, it’s not a drug in the nomenclature of Trinidad kids.
“They treat marijuana like you done killed someone,” says Kevin Byrd of the police crackdown. “I don’t think it’s such a big thing….I was told that doctors prescribe it to some people,” he says. Byrd was arrested in Trinidad on the morning of Sept. 10, after police used undercover surveillance to do a routine roundup on 16th and Levis Streets. They made five arrestsfour for buying marijuana and one for distributing. All arrestees were released the next day with court dates scheduled.
Byrd maintains his innocence and claims that the police are just throwing him and his friends in jail because they can. And there’s no better example of their harassment, he says, than their treatment of his friend, John Duke Queen. “[The police] harass him the most,” Byrd says. “When I go over there and watch football games and hang out, they be saying we’re a gang, that we’re all drug dealers.”
It’s true that the morning Byrd got arrested, police were hoping to nab Queen. They make no secret of the role they believe he plays. “[Queen] controls that neighborhood,” says one police officer familiar with the Trinidad area.
A couple of months ago, Officer Bernard Wood says, he saw Queen drop some 50 bags of marijuana when Wood approached him on the 1300 block of Holbrook Street. When Wood’s partners tried to apprehend Queen, he started running, Wood says. While the officers gave chase for three or four blocks, the entire neighborhood cheered for Queen, Wood says. “It was like on TV. They were all, ‘Go John!’ Kids and women and everything,” says Sgt. Douglas. Wood remembers little kids throwing themselves in front of his motorcycle, running blocker for Queen. Someone even handed Queen a getaway bicycle as he ran. He was eventually caught, but there was never any doubt who the bad guys were.
If Queen is a celebrity among his neighbors, he has an almost mythical status among law enforcement types. Several police officers insist Queen is a multimillionaire, with an organized backing rivaling Rayful Edmond’s crew. They say he won big money in the lottery a few years ago. There are even whispered rumors that Queen has sued the city for police harassment and won by using damning videotaped evidence. (He hasn’t.)
Much of the cops’ talk about Queen is bluster, partly because he embarrasses them. They say he drinks champagne on the sidewalk and drives luxury cars. One officer says Queen and his boys sometimes plant fake stashes of marijuana expressly intended for the police to findand take back to the station, where hours of paperwork await them. Once police found $400 worth of lottery tickets on Queen, according to Douglas. Herndon says that when he told Queen to stop hanging out at the lottery counter of a corner store one day, Queen put $100 down on his badge number. “He was one number off, too,” says Herndon, who made sure to check the numbers the next day.
Earlier this month, the police finally got their wish. From an observation post near 16th and Levis, police say, they watched Queen transact two marijuana deals. It was the second time Queen had allegedly violated his probation since he last came before a judge for marijuana charges, in February. This time, the prosecutors and the police figured they had Queen cornered.
On Oct. 16, attorney Pings calls all the king’s men to the courthouse to finally put Queen away. And the troops show up in force. Huddling outside the courtroom that Friday morning are Pings, her colleague O’Connor, Queen’s probation officer, five police officers, and a vice sergeant. It’s tremendous artillery for a simple probation hearing, but for the law enforcement types, saving Trinidad from itself begins with putting Queen away.
Inside, Queen stands in an orange Corrections jumpsuit next to his attorney. He keeps his face blank as one by one the officers file through and drop damning testimony about him. Pings piles up their stories to build a case for Judge Robert Morin as to why Queen should be put in jail for one full yearthe maximum possible sentence for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute:
•On Feb. 27 of this year, just four days after Morin sentenced Queen to probation for selling marijuana, police arrested Queen outside a house they’d come to search in Trinidad. Inside the house, police found one magazine of ammunition on a closet shelf, court documents belonging to Queen on the couch in the living room, and about $5,000 in cash on top of a china cabinet, according to Investigator Steven Manley. They also found 42 bags of marijuana on the living-room floor. Police arrested Queen and another man as they ran out the back door of the house. Manley testifies that he does not know if Queen lives in the house, which is about a block from the 16th and Levis Street corner: “He could live there; he could live in a lot of places over there.” Manley goes on to suggest that Queen may have used the place as a stash house. He adds that the police also found three pit bull puppies in the bedroom of the house, which he claims Queen said were his. “He said to see that they were taken care of,” Manley testifies.
•On June 26, Officer Wood testifies, he saw Queen throw something over a fence in an alley. It turned out to be 55 baggies of marijuana wrapped in a white shirt. Queen bolted when officers tried to apprehend him, Wood says. During the chase, Queen ran into a house next to the one where he had been arrested in February. After he was arrested, police found three pounds of marijuana, a sawed-off shotgun, and a revolver in the house. Two of Queen’s fingerprints were found on the bags of marijuana.
•On Oct. 3, police observed Queen engaged in at least two hand-to-hand marijuana buys near 16th and Levis Street, Pings says.
“We believe…[Queen] blew it, and he needs to go to jail for one full year,” Pings says at the end of the testimony. “Otherwise, Your Honor, it’s just going to go on and on and on. It’s the only way to stop him.”
Finally, Queen gets to talk. He stands and in a quiet voice asks the judge for compassion. “I know I’ve been charged with a lot of things here,” Queen says, “but they’ll say anything to lock me up.”
The judge has heard this before. He’s heard hundreds of cases like this. And he’s also familiar with Queen. “I remember trying [a previous] case,” Morin says as he contemplates the sentence. “I’m very disappointed.” With that, Morin sentences Queen to jail for 59 daysless than a sixth of the amount of time prosecutors were hoping for.
Out in the hallway, there are a lot of disgusted cops. When he hears the sentence, Wood laughs and walks away. Pings looks shell-shocked. “I give up!” says Officer Howard Dunlap. “We had a search warrant…. We had his fingerprints on the marijuana!”
O’Connor is the only one who keeps her cool. “I think that he deserves a full year,” she says. “But we’ll take what we can get.”
Back at her office, O’Connor has a police memo detailing the major players in Trinidad’s drug scene. It’s from 1988. But it’s timeless, really. The surnames on the memo would be the same on a 1998 memo. In a tight neighborhood like Trinidad, she says, crime is inherited.
Like a lot of the men featured in O’Connor’s scrapbook, Queen grew up in Trinidad. He still has family all up and down the block. And his family is just as entrenched in the justice system as he is. Within a monthlong period this fall, Queen and three of his siblings appeared in D.C. courts for marijuana-related charges. Queen’s sister Ernestine has been in and out of the court system facing charges that she violated an order to stay away from the nefarious corner. On her pre-trial court form under the employment heading, Ernestine listed her brother, prosecutors say.
In a Trinidad case during the ’80s, prosecutors introduced as evidence a picture of a group of about eight fresh-faced boys, each striking a careful pose. At the time, several of the boys were involved in a drug case in Trinidad. Cut to another picture taken 10 years later of the same group of friends. The faces are familiar, although the expressions are harder. And each one of the men in the picture is still tripping through Trinidad’s underworld, in and out of court, back on the corner, in and out of jail.
“It’s fucked up,” says Officer Herndon, explaining that Trinidad has a lot of good people who are trying hard to make it what it once was. But, he says, “Now that they want to do something about it, the people who are causing the problems have kind of fit in.”CP