Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Voices From the D.C. Drug War

Interviews with youths who have - and haven't - resisted temptation, and those trying to help. ON THE STREET

A DOZEN blocks north of the White House, outside the Police Boys and Girls Club on 14th Street, nine-year-old Kanetris Butterworth takes a break from turning back flips to issue a commentary on the street. ``People crazy out here,'' the boy declares, glancing scornfully down the block. ``Shooting. People stick you with a needle. It's dangerous!''

Directly across 14th Street, one of Washington's oldest open-air drug markets spills into nearby buildings. ``In my building they be doing that,'' says Kanetris, pointing out a tall, tan-colored apartment building with partially boarded-up windows. ``You can't hardly get past on the stairs. You know that little pipe? They be doing that.''

About these ads

But despite his knowledge of the drug scene, Kanetris draws a line between himself and the craziness around him. ``I don't never do drugs,'' the small boy says firmly. ``The people who do drugs ought to all be locked up.''

`Some You Can Talk To

`YOU try to bring the kids in here and hope they'll be all right,'' says Lawrence Rickard, a schoolteacher who grew up in northeast Washington and now coaches basketball at 14th Street's Police Boys and Girls Club, a recreation center operated by the metropolitan police.

``Some of the kids you can talk to,'' he says, noting that the club is usually crowded, even though it admits no one suspected of being involved with drugs. ``You can appeal to them practically and morally. But it's hard.''

A Rare Success Story

`IT'S all around you, you can't help but seeing it, and they get involved so young these days,'' says Allen Johnson, a high school senior who lives a few blocks away on 12th Street. ``When I was 12 or 11, I didn't know what a joint was or what an Uzi [machine gun] looked like. Now it's all out in the open.''

Allen, 17, is a rare success story in this neighborhood: He will be the first member of his family and one of the few kids from Washington's Cardozo High to go to college. Next fall he is attending West Virginia University on a football scholarship.

About these ads

``I guess I was raised in the right family,'' he says, sitting in the kitchen of his parents' small apartment while they are away at work. A set of encyclopedias is stacked against one wall. All three of his older brothers graduated from high school, he says, and ``our parents gave us a lot of support.''

But overall in the city, 50 percent of families with children under 18 are headed by a single parent, and in some neighborhoods it is higher. Many mothers are doing all they can to try to support their families financially. Others are lost to crack cocaine or heroin addiction.

``Most of the kids that are doing wrong, they come from those single-parent homes,'' says Allen. (The majority of those arrested here on drug-related charges are between the ages of 15 and 29.)``A lot of times their friends come first. If all your friends are involved, you're going to get involved 9 times out of 10.

``That's why if people don't stay on top of them, put the right words in their heads, there's no hope. Because out on the street they hear it every day, tempting them, encouraging them to do something.''

Neighborhood Cop

AT the corner of 14th and R, police officer Andrew Solberg gets out of his patrol car to greet kids hanging out on the sidewalk and sitting in the doorways of apartment buildings.

A former English teacher at Cardozo High, 34 years old and a gangling 6 feet, 8 inches tall, Officer Solberg is a familiar figure in the neighborhood. His daily routine includes talking to the kids, checking on them, listening and encouraging.

``The streets are where they wind up because that's where they've always been,'' says the police officer, who estimates that only 10 percent of the youngsters he arrests know where their fathers are living. ``When I was a teacher, it took me about two weeks to learn that the most important thing I would be was a role model.

``I've arrested former students,'' he continues. ``But that doesn't mean I've stopped thinking of them as people. When I stop a kid or arrest him, I always ask him how he's doing in school.''

From Honest Job To Dealer

BUT the values of the street are a powerful force to counteract. One of the young people Solberg talks with is 19-year-old Michael Walker. Mr. Walker was raised near the corner of 14th and R by his grandmother and an uncle, a dope dealer who has killed a man.

For 18 years Walker lived the straight life - flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, working a series of low-wage jobs. But his friends were flaunting the accouterments of drug dealers - the $75 shirts, $125 pants, and flashy cars that lend the prestige and respect that many young people in this neighborhood feel they will never get any other way.

``When I turned 19, I took a different turn in life,'' says Walker, a bright, personable teen who is lounging in a stairwell this warm Monday evening. ``I decided to take up some freelancing. I decided to become a drug entrepreneur.''

``There're more choices in life than flipping burgers or selling dope,'' Solberg argues. ``There's going back to school, working your way up on the job, apprenticing a trade.''

For a moment Walker seems defensive, and then his posture changes to bravado. ``If you can sell 25 rocks [vials of crack cocaine] in five hours, that's $500,'' he says.

The desire for possessions may be another kind of addiction: ``You know how much I made last summer?'' Walker continues. ``Seven thousand dollars. I got 10 pairs of shoes at home. I got socks I haven't even worn.''

A Dealer Gone Straight

WALKER's cousin Darryl Gordon, also 19, is a drug dealer who has gone straight. The positive influence in his life, he recounts, was a buddy who became a police officer.

``I quit dealing because I saw him doing things right,'' says Mr. Gordon, a slim young man in a Nike jacket. ``I thought, `If he can do it, I can do it.'''

The teen-ager apprenticed himself to an appliance repairman and got a job in a apartment complex for $8 an hour. But hunger for the trappings of the hustlers gnaws him daily. ``I see these young guys got flashy cars and I want what I see,'' he admits.

Trying to maintain his former life style, he never saved enough to move out of the one-room apartment he shares with three family members. Meanwhile his 16-year-old brother, a drug dealer who had his own place, ``used to come up to my mother's house when I was working an honest job and say, `You want a $100 bill?''' the youth recalls with disgust.

``That's why I'm quitting my honest job and joining the service,'' concludes Gordon, who signed up with the Marines in March. ``I'm going to the service because I can't handle society.''

Withering Peer Pressure

IN an office across from the district courthouse, public defender Kenneth Nunn is angry at what the city has become. ``There is an inordinate amount of peer pressure out there,'' he says, adding that adults have largely abandoned their responsibilities.

``If we were able to put social supports in for these kids at an early age, we could cut off the problem in 15 years, because most of the drug sellers are between 15 and 30 years old,'' says Mr. Nunn, whose clients are mostly black males between the ages of 14 and 18, arrested on drug or firearm-related charges. ``To a large extent, it's not a material problem, it's a spiritual problem.''

Longtime Officer

SGT. Kenneth Ford, a D.C. policeman for 20 years, agrees. ``You can sweep the streets all you want, but it isn't going to solve the problem,'' says Ford, whose police district includes upper 14th Street. ``For every one we lock up, two come to replace them.

``You need the family there to instill values. But when the family's not there, it has to be teachers, police officers, whoever will try.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.