Drug Protesters March to Reclaim Oakwood Streets
On June 7, Henry Reynolds hoisted a hand-drawn sign--"Cocaine Drives People Insane"--and joined an hourlong procession through the trash- and weed-lined streets of Venice’s Oakwood community.
The protest would become a nightly ritual for about two dozen Oakwood residents hoping to force out the cocaine dealers and drug users they say have overrun their small neighborhood. Street sales of cocaine and heroin have become so widespread in recent months that many residents, particularly women and senior citizens, are afraid to walk the streets, Reynolds said.
Children as young as 12 and 13 are selling and using drugs, he said.
Tale of Destruction
“The kids have no place to go,” the 49-year-old unemployed gardener said. “People are destroying themselves and destroying the place they live.”
Pearl White, who helped organize the marches, said community outrage over late-night noise and crime helped provoke the continuing demonstrations. Users “have to sell it or steal it,” she said of the drugs. “We found out we had one 11-year-old (girl) turned on to prostitution and drugs. That was just too much.”
On the night the marches began, violence seemed to underscore the concerns. Police said 31-year-old Lawrence Moore entered the street to make a cocaine sale. He was robbed and stabbed and left dead on the street.
“It’s just gotten worse and worse,” White said.
On Monday, however, as his Oakwood neighbors prepared for Moore’s funeral, the nightly protests and the drug-related killing drew action from Los Angeles City Council President Pat Russell.
Flanked by police officers, city building inspectors and Los Angeles County health officials, Russell visited the community to launch what she called a coordinated effort by police and city regulatory agencies to eliminate Oakwood’s drug problem, described by police as one of the most concentrated in western Los Angeles.
Variety of Approaches
Her hourlong tour of the neighborhood, including visits to three large apartment buildings described as suspected “rock houses” inhabited by cocaine dealers, would be followed by creation of a task force made up of building inspectors, police, apartment managers and residents, Russell said.
The 12-member task force, expected to hold its first meeting this month, will take several approaches to dealing with the problem, Russell said. It will pressure landlords to fix building-code violations and to clean up run-down buildings that have attracted drug dealers; it will encourage sometimes fearful tenants to notify authorities when drug dealers are operating, and it will encourage building managers to identify and evict known drug dealers.
Under a 2-year-old state law, drug dealers can be evicted with three days notice if apartment owners or managers have evidence they are dealing--a fact that many property owners do not realize, Russell said.
“The police can’t do it alone,” she said. “We need to have the (apartment) owners and tenants working together. The tenants need to know how to get help. It’s time to get (apartment) owners to put pressure on other owners. I don’t think people realize how bad the drugs are.”
The neighborhood tour by Russell and police escorts resulted in no arrests, but police and residents commended her for taking steps toward handling the drug problem. Capt. Ronald Banks, commanding patrol officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Pacific Division, said such efforts could help police to turn the tide against drug dealers.
“It’s not just them against the police--it’s them against the entire city,” Banks said. “I want them to feel isolated and not us. It’s a matter of breaking down their support system.”
Pacific Division patrol officers, responsible for an area that includes Venice, Mar Vista and Westchester, recorded 674 narcotics arrests last year, according to police statistics. The total for the first four months of 1986 was 376 arrests--a rate that would project to more than 1,100 by the year’s end.
Banks blamed much of the increase on the escalating popularity of so-called “crack,” or “rock cocaine"--a distilled and hardened form of the drug used for smoking. Heavy sales of rock cocaine have made Oakwood one of the Westside’s most active drug markets, along with Venice Beach, the airport area and the Mar Vista Housing Project, he said.
Residents described Oakwood, a community made up of small homes and large apartment buildings, as a place where high levels of drug activity have come and gone over the years. Reynolds said residents began their marches to send a message to drug dealers that they are not wanted by the decent families in the neighborhood.
“We are still marching,” he said of the 6 p.m. treks, which begin at 5th and Broadway avenues. “We intend to keep doing it until something is really done about the problem.”
Although drug-arrest statistics for Oakwood were not available, narcotics sales in the neighborhood have risen sharply in the last 18 months, police Capt. Banks said. He said the problem area includes a number of residential blocks roughly bounded by Lincoln and Washington boulevards and Rose and California avenues.
“The activity is very visible,” Banks said. “We’re concerned about people coming to this area because the perception is you can purchase drugs.”
David Nettles, 32, a house cleaner who watched Monday’s tour of a 27-unit building on 5th Avenue, said “taxis, limousines, everybody comes here to buy drugs. This building ain’t no worse than any others,” he said. “If it ain’t here, it’s down the street.”
Rock cocaine sells on the streets for about $125 a gram, as much as the higher grades of traditional powdered cocaine, according to Lt. J. R. Schiller of the Police Department’s Western Narcotics Division. Lesser grades of powdered cocaine sell for as little as $9 a gram, he said.
Nettles estimated that some Oakwood dealers make $500 to $1,000 a day selling drugs.
“I would say they’re making that easy,” Schiller said. “But nobody has any statistics.”
Reynolds, who has seen the neighborhood deteriorate in the 14 years he has lived there, said dealers can be seen day and night walking the streets. “They stop traffic selling their rocks or whatever,” he said. “Anybody who wants to buy can buy.”
Moore’s death apparently stemmed from a popular rip-off tactic used against street dealers, according to Pacific Division Detective Mike Carpenter. Street dealers often reach inside stopped cars to display what they are selling, he said. Drug thieves will slap the dealer’s hand so that the drugs fall free inside the car. The driver then accelerates to get away, Carpenter said.
“In this instance,” he said, “the victim reached in and grabbed hold of one of the individuals inside the car.” In a scuffle that followed, Moore was stabbed and killed.
Three suspects are being held on murder charges, Carpenter said.
Pearl White, who said the demonstration marches grew out of meetings of Oakwood’s Neighborhood Watch Program, said residents initially talked about organizing the protests later this summer. But they began marching sooner, after the June 1 murder of 34-year-old resident Glen Grant, who was shot after a neighborhood argument.
Residents who knew Grant and the murder suspect--who is now in custody--are certain that the incident involved drugs, White said. Police, however, insist that the killing was unrelated to drugs, based on the testimony of several witnesses.
“Oakwood has been such a drug scene . . . that everybody likes to say everything that happens over there is drug related,” the police detective said.
Russell vowed to return to the community in coming months to monitor the progress of the task force. Her hope, she said, was to prevent Oakwood from becoming another “Sherm Alley,” an apartment-filled area in Crenshaw that became a center of drug dealing several years ago.
In that instance, drug dealers set up an alley like a drive-through restaurant, Russell said, until a task force of city and county officials closed it off.
“There are still some drugs there, but we got that place considerably cleaned up,” she said.