Battling for Customers : Crack Wars Leave D.C. Under Siege

Times Staff Writers

In blighted brick housing projects and row houses just minutes from the grand marble buildings that represent the seat of national government, a city’s obsession with cheap, addictive crack cocaine flares out of control.

Almost every night, street scuffles end with a burst of gunfire, the shriek of sirens and yet another young black man turned corpse.

The blood bath is overwhelming. Drug peddlers kill competitors over a disrespectful stare. Rivals are executed in their car on a dark, heavily wooded street that was once a lovers’ lane. High school boys eager to become “hustlers” are shot to death while hanging out with the dealers they so admire. Shots are fired with chilling accuracy; there is little random spraying of gunfire.


New Murder Capital

An anguished District of Columbia is America’s newly crowned murder capital. Its homicide rate has more than doubled in less than 15 months. By Friday there had been 120 killings already this year in a city of only 650,000. An estimated 60% of the murders were drug related.

Police are so overburdened that evidence investigators lag hundreds of cases behind. Residents calling police to report a burglary sometimes wait hours for a response. A television station devotes a nightly half-hour, called “City Under Siege,” to the body count.

Washington these days is the subject of much the same unwanted national attention for its crack wars that Los Angeles received in 1988 for its street gang wars.

Both crises are rooted in the numbing despair of ghetto life. Both have sparked debates on the relationship between crime and poverty and whether America’s drug crisis can best be attacked by cracking down on users or attacking foreign suppliers.

Problem Explodes

But while Los Angeles’ gang murders are a long-term problem that popped into the nation’s consciousness last year when two South-Central Los Angeles gangs took their violence to fashionable Westwood Village, the crack wars of Washington have exploded with shocking speed.

And while Los Angeles’ biggest homicide problem remains murders that grow out of a deeply embedded street psychosis, in which the murder of innocents is rationalized by gang rivalries, Washington is seized by a raw economic struggle among local and out-of-town drug distributors and independent street dealers.


The battle is over the right to use thousands of vacant lots, apartment courtyards and alleys to sell the small $10 and $20 chunks of crack cocaine to an increasingly frenzied clientele that comes not only from the inner city but from the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland.

“The fighting is over customers,” said E. J. Spurlock, a deputy chief of the district Police Department. “This town is like an infant when it comes to crack. Nobody’s been able to get a hold.”

Adjacent suburban areas are also experiencing record murder rates. On Wednesday, an Alexandria, Va., policeman was shot to death at a public housing complex by a shotgun-wielding man who took five hostages and demanded crack.

Ironically, the fact that Washington does not have an entrenched network of street gangs like Los Angeles is one of the reasons that crack has caused so much bloodshed here, according to law enforcement sources. The lack of any traditional “turf” lines has led to a chaotic marketplace devoid of kingpins, rules or mercy, they say.

Drug trading is brazen. At nearly 100 spots in the district, what police call “open-air markets” flourish, attracting scores or hundreds of buyers and sellers. In these densely crowded markets, betrayals and gunfire are inevitable. On hundreds of other depressed streets, in front of liquor stores and take-out restaurants and sagging chain-link fences that guard apartment complexes, lone dealers, flashing hand signs to indicate the type or price of their drug, flag down drive-up customers.

Weighing the Slaughter

The violence that grows out of this business climate has given Washington a per-capita rate of drug-related killings that is more than five times Los Angeles’ rate of gang killings.

The particularly vicious addiction and aggressive, paranoid behavior that crack produces has contributed significantly to the slaughter, police say.

Street dealers, most of whom are crack addicts, routinely get into fights with customers or suppliers. Lies, rip-offs and retaliation over what one officer calls “wounded manhood” are common.

“Half of the killing is over nothing,” said Sheldon Reese, a 34-year-old, self-confessed small-time criminal who says he does not sell drugs but travels in neighborhoods where crack is king. Last year he saw his 14-year-old son become a street dealer.

“It’s like, a couple weeks ago a guy got killed on a street near me,” said Reese, who spoke on condition his real name not be used. “He was buying a rock (of cocaine) from a guy. The guy put it in his hand. He said, ‘No,’ he didn’t want to buy it after all. The guy shot him.

Confused Debate

“A whole lot is over things like that. The people who sell heroin, they sit here and look at that and say, ‘Lord, these (crack) people are crazy.’ ”

Local and national politics have made the debate over what to do about the bloodshed as confused as the drug environment.

The moral authority of Washington’s mayor, Marion Barry, has been undermined by allegations that he uses cocaine and associates with drug dealers. Frustrated U.S. senators have threatened to fill the void by imposing federal control over the city’s police force. And new federal drug czar William J. Bennett has promised to make the district a “test case” in the government’s war on drugs, suggesting that he will deploy federal agents to “secure the perimeter” and allow the city’s residents to reclaim the streets.

While other drugs like heroin, PCP and marijuana have always been sold in depressed neighborhoods like Trinidad and Anacostia in the district’s northeast and southeast quadrants, where the bulk of the crack murders now occur, nothing prepared residents for this level of madness.

Crack Comes to Town

In recent years, in fact, homicides had been decreasing sharply. From 1982 to 1985 they fell 50%, to 148, a per-capita rate about equal to today’s rate in Los Angeles. Only about 17% of the killings were drug-related.

Then in 1986 crack came to town, two years after being introduced in Los Angeles and New York.

In the next two years, murders in the district rose 54%. Half were blamed on disputes among people buying, selling or using drugs.

That was nothing compared to what happened in 1988. Killings leaped from 228 to 372, breaking the district’s record of 287 set in 1969.

In January, statistics showed that last year’s per-capita murder rate--58 per 100,000 citizens--narrowly edged out a grateful Detroit, the previous title-holder. Los Angeles, with a per-capita rate of 24 per 100,000, experienced a 12% drop in homicides last year even though its gang murders were rising by 25%.

Killing Pace

With Washington’s unwanted national notoriety came even more murders. They are now occurring 64% ahead of last year’s pace. If the trend holds, drug-related homicides in the district will claim 370 lives this year. In Los Angeles, which has five times the population, gang deaths are expected to total about 315.

In the same way that Los Angeles police conducted massive sweeps of suspected gang members last year, Washington police have arrested 46,000 people in the last two years in sweeps of drug-selling sites. However, many suspects were quickly released. The sweeps “disrupted us more than it did them,” Spurlock said.

Clergymen have attempted to mobilize law-abiding citizens. The Nation of Islam drove drug dealers out of one housing complex permanently with patrols augmented by police. And local politicians have proposed new laws, such as eviction of suspected drug dealers, new powers for police to disperse loiterers and an 11 p.m. curfew for youths under 18, the latter of which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge just hours before it was to go into effect. Midnight basketball leagues have been started to keep teen-agers off the street.

Sobering Proximity

As was the case 21 years ago, when riots broke out in poor Washington neighborhoods in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, there is a sobering proximity between the Capitol and the crack wars, which are fought only one to three miles away.

Few physical barriers divide the two cultures. In marked contrast to Los Angeles, there is no network of freeways allowing commuters to cut through centers of urban crime and see nothing but the lane markers.

Nevertheless, the distance between power and poverty is enormous. Even as waves of gentrification take over neighborhoods that whites once regarded as off-limits, the district remains largely segregated. At day’s end, the poor, most of them black, migrate to the city’s northeast, southeast and southwest quadrants.

The wealthy head the other way, to the tree-lined streets and $300,000 homes of northwest Washington west of Rock Creek Park.

Urgency Tempered

Any sense of urgency that the rich might have has been tempered by the fact that the crack wars have claimed few non-participants. Mayor Barry frequently claims that 80% of the killings are “assassinations” which cannot be stopped by any additional police effort. In Los Angeles, by comparison, police say at least half the victims of gang violence are not gang members.

Travel agents assure convention planners that Washington is still a nice place to visit. Washingtonian magazine printed its first editorial in 24 years, proclaiming: “This is still a good city.” And a defensive Barry has urged the federal government to spend its time and money wiping out coca crops in South America and to stay out of his city’s business.

“To suggest that the city is under siege is not an accurate reading,” said H. H. Brookins, bishop of the district’s African Methodist Episcopal churches, who came here last year after serving as AME bishop in Los Angeles. “Certain pockets, yes, but not all over.”

But among many blacks, who make up 70% of the district’s population, and particularly among those who live, work or travel through the afflicted neighborhoods, an intense, hopeless kind of hand-wringing is taking place.

Wrenching Reminder

More than anywhere else, Washington is a wrenching reminder that homicide is the nation’s leading cause of death for black males between 15 and 34. Last year 90% of the victims and 80% of the suspects in Washington’s murders were black, and one-fifth of the suspects were 18 or 19.

Last November, after 19-year-old Vondalia Robinson was shot to death by cross fire between rival drug dealers outside a popular nightclub in a dangerous part of town, a local gospel station broadcast her funeral to try to stir citizen outrage.

“What can we do?” asked the station’s commentator, broadcasting live from the funeral home. “What can we do?”

Life now has disintegrated into “total chaos, a hopelessness that pervades every aspect of life,” said Cathy Hughes, owner of another local radio station. “It means living in hell. The killings are taking place in the ghetto now. But the way the drugs were able to escape from ghettoes, so will the killing.”

L.A. Experience

When crack was introduced into Los Angeles’ poor black neighborhoods in 1984, it created a fierce demand among thousands of people who became quickly addicted to smoking the “rocks” of cocaine. And, as happened in Washington, residents complained bitterly to police about dealers on the streets.

But gradually, as many of Los Angeles’ black gang members became involved in the highly profitable drug trade, either as middlemen or as street dealers, they tended to restrict themselves to their own gang territories, which had evolved since the early 1970s. These 250 or so small chunks of turf claimed by individual “sets” of Bloods and Crips gang members throughout Los Angeles County indirectly brought some rationality and order to the marketing of drugs.

Although gang murders do take place over drug disputes in Los Angeles, the strong majority are not drug-related. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says only seven of the 96 gang murders it handled last year were drug-related.

New York Connection

Because crack can be sold in Washington for twice the price it brings in New York, cocaine suppliers and free-lance dealers from New York, many of them Jamaicans with notorious reputations for violence, have swarmed to the district, frequently clashing with local dealers.

“We had one street in southeast where we had New Yorkers (selling) at the top of the hill, Jamaicans on the bottom and locals trying to keep a foothold. It was war,” one policeman said.

The rings in Washington filter the drug down through a network of lieutenants, who are normally in charge of breaking a kilo or two of cocaine a week into smokable “rock” form and cutting deals with hundreds of street dealers.

Police say a street dealer typically pays $300 to $600 for a half-ounce of cocaine. He can sell about 50 small rocks at $20 apiece--$10 apiece in very poor neighborhoods--nearly doubling his money within a few hours.

Fatal Mistakes

Mistakes are not forgiven.

In northeast Washington, police said, a street dealer named JoJo was “fronted” 10 small packs of crack by another dealer named Angie, who worked for a lieutenant named Earl. Rather than selling the crack and returning the bulk of the profits to Angie, JoJo used the crack himself. The word went up to Earl. An enforcer came to JoJo’s home, clubbed him with a baseball bat and shot him twice through the head.

The New York rings routinely pay welfare families for the use of their apartments, police say, and leave underlings there to handle business. A detective who recently raided an apartment found that the suspects in charge were five children from the Bronx, ages 12 to 15, who had been there two days selling crack.

Robert Headen, who teaches health and physical education at a high school near a drug-infested neighborhood in the northeast quadrant, hears these stories. He has already had one drug-dealing student in his school killed and has heard that several former students have been murdered, including 21-year-old John Stokes Jr. A star high school football player, Stokes came home last year after being suspended from college and was arrested on suspicion of selling PCP. He subsequently became one of at least 20 victims of a war between several crack rings in his neighborhood.

Boy on the Brink

Last weekend Headen sat in his living room in a pleasant neighborhood in northwest Washington, where there are no street dealers, and thought about another boy who could go either way. Like Stokes, this one is a football player, a promising one. But he hasn’t been able to keep up with the school district’s C-average requirement and is ineligible to play. He spends his time selling drugs.

“Right now (when) I talk to some coaches, they say, ‘Well, look, Coach, if he graduates maybe we can get him in junior college,’ ” Headen said. “That would be the best thing that could happen to him.

“I wish I could get him out in Kansas, Nebraska--somewhere where he just can’t come home on the weekends.”

A TALE OF TWO CITIES, 1988 Washington’s most troublesome crime problem is drug-related murders. Los Angeles’ is killings by gang members, many of them growing out of drug disputes but the majority attributed by police to festering gang rivalries. Here is a comparison of the bloodshed.


Total homicides: 372

Change from 1987: +63.1%

Drug-related homicides: 222

Change from 1987: +94.7%

Homicides per 100,000: 58

Police force: 3,900

Police per 100,000: 600

Street value of cocaine seized: $12 million


Total homicides: 734

Change from 1987: -11.7%

Gang-related homicides: 257

Change from 1987: +25.3%

Homicides per 100,000: 24

Police force: 7,400

Police per 100,000: 246

Street value of cocaine seized: $1.78 billion

S ource: District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department