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Groups Wage Antidrug Campaign

Scott Armstrong
The Christian Science Monitor
August 14, 1989

Mounting neighborhood crime is spurring many minorities to lead grass-roots efforts and use bold tactics in fight against drugs

Jacqueline Massee lives in a stucco house with bars on the windows and three locks on the front door in south central Los Angeles, this city's equivalent of the south Bronx.

She doesn't go out after dark. If she has to go to the store, less than a block away, she drives a car to avoid being assaulted. ''Crack'' dealers operate across the street. Gangs conduct their rifle rivalry down the block.

But this is home to Ms. Massee, the place where she wants to raise her daughter. So instead of surrendering to urban anarchy, she joined a neighborhood campaign to rid the streets of drugs and violence.

''It's where I live,'' she says. ''Maybe I can make a difference.''

Outrage over drugs and urban crime is spurring one of the largest grass-roots rebellions in the US since the civil rights era.

Church groups, neighborhood associations, individual parents - all are banding together to try to reclaim their streets.

While similar groups sprang up in the marijuana scare days of the 1970s, the movement this time is different. Unlike the first wave of antidrug drives, which were often spearheaded by white middle-class parents, many of the drives now are led by minorities, particularly inner-city blacks.

They are fed up with the toll that drugs - especially crack, the potent cocaine distillate - are taking on their neighborhoods and children. The tactics they are using - some controversial - are bolder than in the past and at times even dangerous.

*In Trenton, N.J., about 30 people camp out in drug-infested neighborhoods every weekend. While some doze on cots or in tents, others patrol the streets and report illicit activity to police.

*In Kansas City, Mo., the ''ad hoc group against crime'' tracks down the owners of buildings rife with drugs and pressures them into evicting troublesome tenants. Eighty suspected drug dens have been closed since February.

*In Shreveport, La., comedian-social activist Dick Gregory leads nightly marches through one of the city's toughest sections. Since June he has been living in a tent-trailer in a local park, normally a depot for dealers.

*In Baltimore, churches organize boycotts of shops that legally stock glass pipes and rolling papers next to candy and gum.

''We are in a new era in which neighborhoods are rising up in mass,'' says Frankie Coates, chief of the demand reduction section of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. ''I have been in this business 17 years. I have never seen anything like it.''

But do the groups do any good?

Those involved, as well as many who are not, say yes. They consider the grass-roots efforts one of the only positive developments in the war on drugs. They see it tackling the problem at its source, in families and neighborhoods.

''The groups serve as a catalyst for the community,'' says Sue Rusche, head of a drug information center for Families in Action, an Atlanta-based group that tracks grass-roots efforts nationwide.

Even in areas where neighborhood patrols and prevention efforts don't stop dealers, organizers contend the efforts boost community morale - send a signal that residents don't have to cower behind locked doors.

Yet, in their zeal, some of the groups adopt tactics that critics complain border on vigilantism. In Oklahoma City, two residents burned down an alleged crack house about a year ago. They were given suspended sentences after being found guilty of arson charges. In New York, Black Muslim patrols, while lauded by many officials, have also been criticized for confrontations with drug dealers.

''There is always a danger when people take the law into their own hands,'' says Colleen O'Connor of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. ''In many communities the situation has gotten out of hand.''

Unfortunately these people sometimes become victims. In New York City, Carlos and Maria Hernandez for four years had waged a lonely campaign to rid their block of drugs. But on Aug. 9, Mrs. Hernandez was killed in her home by bullets from a passing car. Many believe the shooting was a warning from drug dealers.

Yet grass-roots efforts are likely to proliferate. As part of his national antidrug strategy, narcotics control director William Bennett is weighing setting up a national drug prevention corps that would enlist adult volunteers to organize grass-roots efforts.

The attempt to reclaim the streets of south central Los Angeles will be difficult for the group recently formed here. Sprawling over 32 square miles that include Watts and some of the city's toughest housing projects, the area is a nest of urban woes.

Cocaine is as prevalent as talcum powder. Some 15,000 gang members inhabit the area. This one section of the city, an amalgam of squat stucco houses and small businesses, many of which second as an easel for graffiti, produces nearly as many murders each year as Washington, D.C. and more rapes and robberies.

''The people are prisoners in their own homes,'' says William Rathburn, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department's south bureau.
Yet the area also has stable neighborhoods, and residents are rising up to restore tranquillity to the streets. The latest effort - ''Take Our Community Back,'' is probably the most ambitious.

It has the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, black churches in the area, and other groups. The plan is to set up a network of hundreds of volunteers who will form patrol teams and cleanup crews. Their goal: to keep a 110-block area clean and crime free for 30 to 45 days.

''We can't expect white police officers to do this for us,'' says Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade, who conceived of the campaign. ''We have to be responsible ourselves.''

Organizers intend to set up 24-hour patrols. Armed with walkie-talkies and training in nonviolence, they will defuse what situations they can and report others to police. Others will pick up trash, repair fences, and scrub graffiti. ''We're not here as gang busters but as healers,'' one organizer says.

Although residents remain dubious South Central can be tamed, they welcome the initiative.

''You don't know what the future holds for these kids,'' says Toya Caldwell, who was at the recent kickoff of the campaign with her daughter in an inner-city park. ''Some of them will come out of it, some won't. But the more we try to help them, the less we have to worry about.''

Jacqueline Massee's assessment is simple but street smart. Sitting cross-legged on the grass while her daughter plays on a nearby swing, she says: ''It has gone too far. The drugs and violence are always going to be here. But we can change individuals. If just one person is changed, that's great.''


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