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In Hartford, Neighborhood Drug Fighters and Drug Reformers Inhabit Parallel Universes

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The open drug dealing and associated social disarray in Hartford's North End neighborhood, long a gaping tear in the Connecticut city's social fabric, made national news last July 4, when 7-year-old Takira Gaston was shot and killed on a North End street. That killing also sparked a wave of protest by local residents and community activists targeting local drug dealers. Declaring the crime and violence a civil rights issue, the Greater Hartford NAACP initiated a "Peace in the City" campaign, and grassroots neighborhood groups such as Communities Against Drugs (CAD) kicked off the summer season early. Led by the Rev. Cornell Lewis, one of the principal organizers of last year's anti-violence campaign, the group has twice staged weekend campouts on North End corners favored by neighborhood dealers.

Meanwhile, drug reform groups, such as the Hartford-based Efficacy, are becoming audible voices in a growing drug policy debate. These two sets of drug policy activists eye each other warily, but may have more in common than either side believes. And while the state incarcerates, the street protesters agitate, and the reformers educate, the killing continues. Ten people have been killed in homicides so far this year, seven of them related to the black market drug trade.

The Rev. Lewis told DRCNet his campaign to take back the streets was gathering steam after a rocky beginning. "We had a campout two weeks ago and that stirred up resistance from the drug dealers," he said. "One lady came out and ranted and raved at us for 45 minutes. Then the drug dealers sent a messenger saying they understood what we were doing, but they didn't like it because it disrupted their business. We sent them a message back saying we didn't appreciate their bringing a climate of violence to the community," Lewis said. "Later a man came down and rapped a song at us about how he had a gat and an extra clip and was looking for someone to shoot. We asked him to leave," said Lewis. But things got better, he said.

"Last weekend, people in the neighborhood came out and greeted us, they brought us food and drink," Lewis continued. "It was a better reception. We had sent flyers into the neighborhood telling where the drug houses were, and now the traffic is minimal," he told DRCNet.

Cliff Thornton of the Connecticut drug reform group Efficacy ( http://www.efficacy-online.org) doubted that Lewis and his group would accomplish much. "They've been doing these marches and things for the last year-and-a-half," Thornton told DRCNet. "They had a big sweep there last summer, but by November things were back to normal and in some places even worse. And even during the marches, I've seen people making drug deals right across the street," said Thornton.

"The dealers move when the heat comes, but then they come right back. This will not solve the problem," Thornton said. "This may be well-intentioned, but it's ineffective."

The Rev. Lewis, of course, begs to differ. "These criminal elements are destroying our neighborhoods and they need to be dealt with now," he said. Adding that some are "operating on a worldview based on materialism and hedonism, heedless of God's law and man's law," Lewis said the dealers were unamenable to gentle persuasion. "That's where our methods come into play. No drug dealer will stay in business if he can't make money, so we try to make it impossible for them to operate," he said. "We've had some success in some neighborhoods," he added. "I tell you what, come up with something better, then I'll listen, in the meantime we'll do what we think is necessary."

For Lewis, drug reformers like Thornton and their arguments are something to be approached gingerly, but the reverend, who also possesses a graduate degree in substance abuse and counseling, proved both familiar with and even somewhat sympathetic to some drug reform arguments. "I understand the systemic issues [Thornton is] talking about. People need treatment," he said, adding that he could support medication as treatment, as in methadone maintenance. "I have looked at the literature, I've read the reports about other countries that are legalizing. I've been to Europe and seen people huddled up like pigeons chasing the dragon. For me, it wasn't a particularly pleasant sight, but the government said they had things under control."

But Lewis isn't ready to embrace a call to end drug prohibition. "I haven't come to terms with it, there is some validity on both sides," he said. "I continue to look at the issue." And he thinks the idea is dead on arrival in the current political climate. "This country is not intellectually prepared to address the issue," he said. "Legalization is not realistic."

While ardent reformers may view Lewis's position as a cop-out, it is also more progressive than some in the drug reform community may have thought and more progressive than many other voices in the African-American community on drug policy issues. Black America has so far mostly turned a deaf ear to the predominantly white drug reform movement and its eloquent exhortations about how blacks bear the brunt of the drug war, much to the movement's dismay and consternation. While some prominent African-American politicians have become to come around on drug policy, especially sentencing reform, much of the black response to the drug problem is an understandable but limited "let's clean up the neighborhood."

In Connecticut, however, Efficacy and other drug reformers are making a concerted effort to influence the drug policy debate in black circles -- and they are claiming some success. "We've talked to Lewis and CAD, we will try to work with them if there is any common ground," said Thornton. But Efficacy has not limited itself to that. "We've been putting on inner city forums -- about 150 showed up at each," he said, but admitted they were overwhelmingly white.

But through getting themselves a prominent, regular place on the city's radio waves, Efficacy is starting to have an impact, Thornton said. "A lot of black radio announcers are starting to echo our rhetoric about how the drug war has failed. When we start connecting the dots -- education, economics, health care, prison spending, the drug war -- they are picking it up and running with it," he said. "People are starting to come around. We're starting to see black youth espousing the things we say. It's a constant educational process."

For all sides. Lewis, for example, shied away from a moral argument against drug use, telling DRCNet "drugs are not evil," not conforming to a perhaps stereotypical picture of a black anti-drug activist preacher. But the reverend, for all his talk about reintegrating the users and dealers into the community, displayed absolutely no interest in sentencing reform. Maybe he should talk to the families in his congregation. Surely there are more than a few who could educate him about the impact of long prison sentences for drug crimes.