L.A. Cracks Back : In a South-Central Neighborhood, Residents Organize to Retake Streets From Drug Dealers
Just west of the Coliseum, along Rolland Curtis Place, in a neighborhood of tidy, wood-sided homes with neat lawns, 30 pickets marched onto the street ruled by the Harlem 30s Rolling Crips on a lazy, warm recent Saturday.
“No more coke! No more crack! We’re taking our community back!” the men, women and children chanted as they paraded before a small home that police said was a rock cocaine house whose front wall had been riddled with bullets.
Wherever the protesters walked during their hourlong demonstration, a tall man with a short haircut followed with a video camera perched on his broad shoulders.
Latif Ali, 45, filmed the street scene with pleasure, for he has organized these weekly marches on Rolland Curtis since mid-May. The peaceful, police-protected protests, he hopes, will rid the street of frequent shootings and five rock houses from which dealers peddle drugs 24 hours a day.
“If you hit (drug dealers) in the pocket where it hurts, they’ve got to move on,” Ali said, offering a view that is being heard more and more.
In communities across the country, increasing numbers of individuals, groups and churches, frustrated by the seeming inability of authorities to halt drug trafficking, have launched small counterattacks against neighborhood dealers.
In Los Angeles, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has said that he welcomes lawful help from citizens, but authorities have reported few open, sustained efforts, such as the 1982 Sherm Alley crusade in the Crenshaw District, to rid neighborhoods of drugs.
“The bottom line is that most citizens don’t demonstrate because they are intimidated by the drug dealers, who are primarily gang members,” said LAPD Detective Frank Goldberg, whose Southwest area juvenile narcotics detail includes Rolland Curtis Place.
“When gangsters know which citizens are calling in,” he said, “they threaten them with death or bodily harm, or they threaten their children. They also warn that they will vandalize cars, break windows or do drive-by shootings.”
The gangsters back up their threats, he said, with arsenals that include Thompson submachine guns, Uzi machine pistols and AK-47 rifles.
Residents of Rolland Curtis Place sometimes end up as victims of the drug-related violence. They say they hear shots at least four times a week and one longtime homeowner recently had his car vandalized twice.
And on June 11, passengers left a car at 1:40 a.m. and shot Glen Martin, 35, once in the chest. He fell in the middle of the street and died at a nearby hospital. LAPD Detective Brent Josephson said Rudolph Herbert Swasey, 23, a citizen of Belize, has been charged with the slaying. Although no motive has been determined, police said Swasey enforced drug deals in the neighborhood.
Because of the threat of retaliation, Goldberg said that residents of most neighborhoods usually help authorities battle drugs anonymously: “We have gotten calls and letters with locations of drug deals. We’ve also gotten license-plate numbers of suspects. One (individual) even drew sketches of suspects.”
Ali, however, said the only way residents can retake their neighborhoods is to stand up to the criminals. He reached that decision slowly.
The Manual Arts High School graduate, former Los Angeles City College student and one-time professional singer had been politically inactive before converting to Islam two years ago. He chose to help cleanse his community of drugs after returning from a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
“I turned on my TV and it was like slaying after slaying,” he said in an interview in his Los Angeles living room. “I got to thinking about what my life was about. While I was thinking, I asked Allah to give my life meaning. It did not seem like my life was making a difference.”
He wrote an article for the national Muslim Journal newspaper outlining his belief that communities had to help beleaguered law enforcement agencies win the fight against drugs. He took the article to LAPD Southwest area Capt. Noel Cunningham, who told him that Rolland Curtis Place was one of the area’s most troublesome streets. At the same time, Ali also began meetings of Public Effort Against Criminal Environment (PEACE) in a Crenshaw District church.
Cunningham went to one of the meetings and promised police protection for the group’s lawful anti-drug activities. “I was impressed because there were no politicians,” he said. “That told me something. They were not trying to attract attention. They were just grass-roots people who indicated they wanted to scare hell out of those dope dealers, particularly on Rolland Curtis Place.”
Ali impressed others as well.
“He’s very dedicated,” said Eubie Peal, a Crenshaw District retiree who has marched regularly with PEACE. “He’s really sincere about drugs being stopped and about kids being able to walk the streets without being shot.”
Besides weekly Saturday marches, PEACE has added protests on the two nights each month when government checks are issued and drug sales are heavy. Protected by police, marchers carry video cameras and signs saying “Buy drugs, go to jail.” Many potential buyers, seeing the demonstrators, turn their cars around and go home empty-handed to avoid arrest.
Although encouraged by such sights, the protesters worry about their surroundings and know the risks they face.
“I have to get out there wearing my bullet-proof vest,” Ali said. “I’d be a fool not to. I don’t underestimate these cowards. They’ll drive by and shoot you down in a minute.
“But what keeps me out there is the fear of God. I feel that my spiritual responsibility to take back the community is the right thing to do in the eyes of God. . . . We’re having a ball. I like seeing the dealers upset.”
Peal observed: “The first time I marched I was leery. . . . But our young people are getting murdered (because of) drugs and dope and it breaks our heart. . . . I have a great grandson 11 months old. If dope keeps going like it is, he will not have a future in Los Angeles.”
The present, however, has offered some promising moments for the protesters.
During one recent march, police protected the marchers as residents of one rock house stood on the porch and watched silently. But many other neighbors came to their porches or to their front gates to talk to the protesters.
At one point, a middle-aged demonstrator in a tailored pant suit put down her sign in the middle of the street to talk to a burly 18-year-old wearing a white T-shirt and shorts.
“Will you join us?” she said.
“If somebody asks us, my friends and I will all join next time,” the teen-ager replied. “But nobody ever asks.”
“I’ll call next week and invite you personally,” she said.
Later, another conversation with PEACE members prompted two young men, who had been visiting friends in the area, to take up signs to march with the pickets.
They also are not the only area residents who have stood up to the drug dealing.
Ola Hogan, 73, who lives a block away, has painted an anti-cocaine poem on a dismantled cardboard box and hung it in front of her house. The poem says in part:
I am the King of crime and the prince of destruction.
I’ll cause the organs of your body to malfunction.
I’ll cause babies to be born hooked.
I’ll turn honest men to crooks.
I’ll make you rob, steal and kill
When you’re under my power, you have no will. ...
“People stop and read it,” the small, white-haired woman said of the verse. “Even firemen. Police. It might not stop guys from getting high, but they’ll double take. They’ll get halfway down the block and come back and read it.”
As police see it, the neighborhood actions against drugs are working.
“We have street intelligence, that two dope dealers have moved out since the marches started,” Cunningham said. “It is having an effect.”
Added LAPD Sgt. Edgar Payne of the Southwest area: “When citizens went out there the first several times, drug dealers ran from them. They were more fearful of citizens than they were of police.”
Despite that response, some observers wonder if the protests can stem the flow of drugs into the community.
“It’s one thing to get people organized and concerned and get community groups involved,” said Malcolm Klein, director of the Center for Research on Crime and Social Control at USC. “But once you get over that period, you have got to implement monitoring, immediate response potential and some kind of permanent organizing capacity.
“The issue always in community organizations is finding some way of maintaining both the structure and people’s interest, and that is very hard, especially in disorganized communities where gangs tend to emerge.”
And though many residents supported the PEACE march, a tall, heavy-set woman was less sanguine as she watched the pickets from an apartment building where police said drugs are dealt.
“A lot of black people,” she said, “are selling dope because they can’t find jobs. I’m 35 and trying to raise four kids by myself. Ain’t none of them (the marchers) going to give me a ride to the laundry or pay my gas bill.”
The marchers, she asserted, “all belong to churches. The first thing they do is look down on you and say you’re poor. Me, put my life on the line and walk the street at 2 a.m. to get shot by an AK-47? To hell with them.”
Ali hopes to silence skeptics by establishing PEACE permanently. He wants space for offices and meetings and money for computers, telephones, attack dogs to sniff out drugs and vans to carry marchers to demonstrations.
“Our goal is to get a budget and donations coming in to where we can shut the dope dealers down,” he said. “We can employ enough security to develop a Mike Tyson type of fight against that drug-infested area.”
And pounding his fist on his dining table, he added, “We will win this fight!”